Earth Shifter: Chapts 1-5
Read first 5 chapters free!
The Earth Shifter is a prophetic mystical thriller – Amazon top-rated! It is filled with impressive cast of characters, punctuated with mind-bending twists, and wrapped in a fabric of profound revelations. It is written for the wide audience; most readers are adults, but it is suitable for teens as well.
THE EARTH SHIFTER
Books by Lada Ray
CATHARSIS, Legend of the Lemurians (Earth Keepers 1)
GOLD TRAIN, Accidental Spy Russia Adventure, Book 2
STEPFORD USA, Accidental Spy US Adventure, Book 1
GREEN DESERT, Accidental Spy Prequel
RAY HOUSE, New York, NY
Copyright © 2012-2013 Lada Ray
PRAISE FOR THE EARTH SHIFTER
“WOW! Lada Ray’s blend of history, current events, mythology and fantasy left me in awe. Originally, it was the cover that made me notice the book. It was not only beautiful, but made me wonder what the book was about. Combining history, science-fiction and the paranormal makes this a unique read. I was lost, as I dove into Sasha’s story, only coming up for a breath of air as I raced through the final pages. I was crushed when I reached the end, wanting so badly to continue reading.”—Sherry Fundin, FundinMental.com Reviews (USA)
“Lada Ray’s The Earth Shifter is the easiest five star review I’ve done in a long time, I loved and was captivated by the story right from the beginning. The parallels with so much of what is happening in the world today, and so many other detailed aspects give believability to this well crafted, wonderful story. My only complaint is that it is a trilogy and I have to wait till the end of 2013 to find out what happens next.”—Paulette Mahurin, Author – The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap (California)
“The best book I’ve read in two years! Warning: Lada Ray knows more about human nature than Gandhi himself! Read The Earth Shifter and you’ll see a new definition to YA fantasy.” —M.C. O’Neill, Author – The Ancients and the Angels (Chicago, USA)
“Fantastic new young adult fiction! I finished The Earth Shifter 3 nights ago and it has been on my mind since. The characters and plot have stuck with me and I eagerly await the next installment. As I was reading a book set primarily in Russia about comets striking the Earth, what should happen but a comet should strike Russia! That was crazy and gave the book a whole new level of intrigue!” —Rohan Healy, Author, Blogger (Dublin, Ireland)
“If you could read just one book this year, seriously consider The Earth Shifter! This metaphysical fantasy/thriller is simply one of the most compelling stories you’ll find. Author Lada Ray expertly weaves a tale about the consequences that mankind’s insanity has upon the world. The adventure is all-encompassing and epic in scope, and the author mindfully balances multiple story lines where the characters play a very crucial role in the outcome. It’s a real eye-opening, earth-shifting experience for sure!”—Madeline Walsh, Blogger (New York)
“A cosmic adventure thriller that will take the reader through history and across continents. The plot moves along quickly, introducing each key character and sub-plot with precision timing. An awesome, fast-paced, original storyline with exceptional twists that will leave you breathless and wanting more. The book is outstandingly researched and a marvel of creativity. It contains the perfect mix of history, fact, fiction and creative imagination at its best.”—J.J. Collins, Author – James Madison, The Father of the Constitution (London, UK)
“A hypnotizing novel which moves with deeply ingrained subplots. It serves up juicy portions of a storyline you will be begging to finish reading. A book that is hard to put down…because it is more complex than you can imagine…the next page must be turned… MUST BE… And just when you think you know all the essentials, Lada interrupts your story with an added element, perfectly knitted into the world of Sasha and the Key. I wouldn’t hold this novel to being just a YA because it is perfectly suited for the adults as well. Most all of characters were easy to grab onto and hold close. Final Verdict: 10/10.”—Bite My Book Reviews (USA)
“Tolkien, move over, another Russian has hit the deck running. Must read!”—Nanakulikane Reviews (Hawaii)
“The Earth Shifter is a rich cocktail of amazing ingredients with the two core, and most delicious components being, the mystical realm of Lake Baikal in Siberia, as well as the Prophecy of the Key. The author covers a wide range of interests from history and legends, to mysticism, prophecy and origins of humanity. There are elements of a spy thriller set against the glamorous backdrop of modern Moscow and New York.
My family is originally from Siberia, and I was mesmerized by the beautiful descriptions of indigenous Siberia, including shamanism, ancient history, Tunguska Meteorite explosion, local village life. The author Lada Ray is a unique mysterious encyclopedia in herself! Her writing style is inimitable and her esoteric knowledge is impressive. While reading the book, I just couldn’t help but wonder how one person can possibly know all that!
The unexpected twists and turns, amazing flashbacks, stand-out characters and unforgettable settings all fold into an astonishing kaleidoscope of events and a mystically-integrated message. Every new chapter is an escalating suspense, and every new piece of information is an introduction to another, even more gripping revelation.
The Earth Shifter will keep you thrilled, intrigued and glued to the next page. The book brings modern present and ancient past into a fantastic unity, being prophetic, revealing, casting lights on the shadowy preliminaries and the shifting destinies of humankind. The Earth Shifter will literally “shift” your consciousness, for, after reading it, the world as you see it will never be the same again!”—Sofia Siberia, Blogger, Spiritual Practitioner (Russia/ Ukraine/ Lebanon)
“World-enriching spiritual journey filled with drama and excitement! Another impressive thriller. Ms. Ray artfully puts the pieces in place, building the suspense steadily until the reader is fully encompassed. The Earth Shifter has incredible scope. It combines geopolitics, spirituality, cultural depth and, perhaps most of all, the idea that it is the relationships we form, how we treat each other, that is so important to the healing of the planet.” —Jason Sullivan, Author – Rahala, An Ascension Odyssey (USA)
To my international family and friends
who inspired some of my characters,
and to all those, who boldly go toward their destiny…
On the sunny morning of June 30, 1908 residents of remote villages near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Eastern Siberia observed how the sky split in two and a fiery column of burning light descended to Earth. The villagers distinctly heard loud pops, like cannon fire, sounding high in the cloudless heavens, which made them think the end of the world had come. A giant shock-wave knocked many off their feet, as houses trembled and window glass shattered. But the tremors were over shortly, and the day went on as if nothing happened.
However, for months afterwards, Aurora Borealis was observed even in southern Europe and Asia, and as far as England, people could read at night without turning on the lights.
The epicenter of the mysterious explosion, located deep into the uninhabited taiga, was so remote that first research expedition was organized only in 1929. The Russian scientists found millions of fallen trees, pointing concentrically from the epicenter, which turned into a large radioactive lake.
The strange 1908 phenomenon became universally known as the Tunguska Meteorite explosion. For years after, speculation about the nature of the explosion abounded in press, literature, and film. Possible explanations included alien ship crash, nuclear explosion, a meteorite collision with the Earth, and secret experiments by Nikola Tesla gone wrong. But in all those years, no one had guessed what really happened back then in the Siberian taiga…
Mankind would never know
how close it came to annihilation on June 30, 1908.
Somewhere in the murky depths of the Cosmos,
the Comet of Karma is born.
When all hope fades, it is sent to Planet Earth,
its sole mission to wipe out a failing civilization.
It has happened before, and it can happen again.
Except this time, the Earth Keepers would not interfere.
On the sunny morning of June 29, His Holiness, Il Papa Pius X, abruptly announced cancellation of his audiences for the day, all except this one—the very last on the list…
A small, hunchbacked man in an overly long monk’s robe with fraying sleeves, complete with a pair of battered fisherman’s sandals wrapped around his bare feet, shuffled meekly after a tall Swiss Guard resplendent in his uniform. The pair passed the Vatican Apostolic Palace’s rich furnishings and priceless Renaissance masterpieces, whose contrast with the old man’s shabby exterior and shy smile was especially striking.
The young Swiss Guard simply couldn’t help but shoot occasional curious glances at the guest. The coveted audience was bestowed upon a simple Franciscan monk named Brother Ignatius, who was apparently in such awe about this amazing opportunity that he kept stroking his unkempt beard with a slightly trembling hand. He must be really nervous, thought the Swiss Guard patronizingly, and probably can’t believe his luck. Just imagine: a private audience with the Holy Father—what an honor for a humble monk like him!
The guard ceremoniously opened the door into the sancta sanctorum, the Pope’s private study, and said, smiling reassuringly, “Please come in, Brother Ignatius!”
“Grazie, mi figlio,” the monk replied quietly, proceeding inside.
The young guard was about to shut the heavy door before assuming his duty in front of it, when he noticed something highly unusual.
“Father Ignatius, thank God! I’m so relieved you could make it! It is such an honor to receive you!”
This inappropriately excited voice belongs to the Holy Father, registered the guard’s brain with great surprise.
“Buon giorno, mi figlio!” The humble monk’s voice, on the other hand, was no longer meek or quiet, but sonorous and powerful.
The young Swiss Guard was so shocked by this unexpected change that his curiosity got the best of him. While shutting the door, he stopped short, managing to leave a tiny crack through which he could hear bits and pieces of the conversation and even glean some action inside.
“Any news?” He heard the Holy Father’s respectfully worried voice.
“The Comet is heading to Earth,” came a quiet response.
“So, it is happening… Did the Keepers… reach… their decision…?” The Pope’s voice now sounded strangled.
“We will reconvene shortly for a final meeting. But as of now…,” Brother Ignatius shook his head, “most are for letting the Comet do its job.”
“So all this will perish… the beauty… art… architecture… libraries… science… people…” With every word, it seemed the Pope’s voice was deflating, as if someone was slowly letting the air out of a balloon. “Father Ignatius, I know there are many sinners, far too many, but…there are good people, too. Don’t they deserve a chance?”
“Everyone deserves a chance. That’s why everything is being weighed thoroughly. Dark times are coming to Earth, Pius. Global wars…weapons of mass destruction that will turn to ruin whole cities, countries. Countless millions will die. The risk of the Earth’s annihilation is more real than ever. And with it, the planet’s souls—all of them—will be lost forever.”
“But what if it’s a mistake? What if there is hope?” whispered the Pope, clutching at his heart.
“Yes, there is hope,” Ignatius said significantly. “The original consensus may still change.”
“Some of us saw the new Key being born,” replied Ignatius enigmatically. The young guard couldn’t understand what this meant, but for some strange reason, the mysterious phrase made him listen even more intently than before.
“It is remote, almost a century from now. Still, there is a good chance.”
“But that means the disaster can still be averted!” exclaimed the Pope.
“It all depends on whether those of us who believe can convince the rest.”
“What can I do?” Pius’s voice was hardly audible.
“Pray and hope…”
“How much time?”
“Bless me, Father!” To the Swiss Guard’s shock, the Pope dropped to his knees in front of a simple monk!
“Peace be with you, my son…peace be with all of the Earth’s children,” pronounced Brother Ignatius, laying his shriveled, slightly trembling hands on top of Pius’s lionesque head. After that, leaving the overwhelmed Pope in the kneeling position, he directed his steps toward the door, on the other side of which the young man hastily resumed the position expected of a dignified member of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard.
The door opened and Ignatius stepped outside, and as he did, his huge brown eyes looked up. The unusual guest peered straight into the guard’s soul and the monk knew: the young man had heard the conversation. For a moment, Ignatius hesitated, but then, apparently deciding that no harm was done, he proceeded along the corridor toward the guest quarters. They moved in silence, and the guard no longer led the monk; now the monk walked purposefully up front, with the guard following meekly in his footsteps.
“Grazie, mi figlio,” Ignatius murmured distractedly, and with surprising strength tightly shut the heavy door into his room. The guard knew he was dismissed, but something inexplicably rooted him to the spot. Despite his best judgment, he quickly looked around to make sure that the corridor was deserted, then crouched down in front of the door and peered into the keyhole.
Inside a modest guest room, Brother Ignatius disregarded the ascetic-looking bed and the wooden chair in the corner, and sat with his legs folded straight on the carpet. He placed his—no longer trembling—hands on his knees palms up and closed his eyes. Then, to the young man’s astonishment, a golden glow started emanating out of the monk’s body in expanding waves that enveloped him whole, and he floated upwards off the floor just as he sat, without opening his eyes or moving a finger.
The guard tried to silence an involuntary gasp by covering his mouth, but it was too late. Without changing position, Ignatius opened one eye. The next thing the young guard knew, that eye was staring from the other side of the keyhole straight into his. Another moment later, some kind of invisible force pushed him away from the door and he landed on the floor, hitting his head on the opposite wall. Mad with pain, shame, and confusion, he jumped to his feet and sprinted away from the guest room door as quickly as his feet would carry him, bump on the back of his head throbbing, ears burning, and a pledge forming in his head to never, ever again succumb to a terrible sin of frivolous curiosity!
Brother Ignatius shook his head with a small smile and re-closed his eye. The glow around him intensified, and as the boundaries of the guest room dissolved into nothingness, eight vibrating golden rays extended in different directions from his body. At the end of each ray, wrapped in the same golden glow, appeared eight different figures, each sitting in the same lotus pose, and each emanating eight golden rays of their own, connecting all nine figures together in one intricate network. The rays kept expanding until all nine floating figures were completely covered in a shimmering golden cocoon.
“Good day to all,” said a deep voice belonging to a tall, wise-eyed man dressed in a roomy Russian peasant shirt.
“Good day, Lev,” responded several voices.
“The final emergency session of the Earth’s Council is open. All nine Earth Keepers are present,” continued Lev. “Nikola… Deva… Isabella… Usaama… Ignatius…Tengis… John… Ling… and Lev. It is our duty to make the ultimate decision about the fate of this human civilization.” Lev gazed at each member of the Council. “I remind everyone what’s at stake and trust that all of you were able to carefully weigh your decision. The last vote stands thus: three—for letting this civilization continue despite all the horrors we foresee ahead, six—for letting the Comet of Karma do its job. The new vote and final debate start now. Pro or con?”
“I also saw the Key,” announced Ling, the Keeper of China and East Asia. “However, I disagree with Lev and Ignatius. The Key to be born is male, not female, and he will be Chinese, not Russian. Yet I do agree, there is hope. I have changed my vote to pro.”
“But the evidence is conflicting and inconclusive,” chimed in Nikola, the Keeper of North America. “We all saw the same thing: world wars, cruelty, and destruction brought on by new technology and man’s arrogance. Yet only a few saw a sign of hope. My vote remains con.”
“I agree with Nikola,” said John, the Keeper of Australia, Oceania and Antarctic. “It is too dangerous to let it go on. This civilization has failed to demonstrate good judgment in situations of conflict. I still vote con.”
“If we let this civilization go on,” said Deva, the Keeper of India and the Middle East, “I fear we’ll lose all of the human souls on Planet Earth.”
“True,” agreed Usaama, the Keeper of Africa. “We have to let the Comet do its job. Besides, the Key may be too late. After all, one hundred years is a long time. I am against protecting this civilization.”
“But you are forgetting,” interjected Ignatius, the Keeper of Europe, “that the Key can only be born if there is enough goodness left in mankind! My vote remains pro.”
“Why wouldn’t it appear now, then,” objected Deva, “why in a hundred years? Remember Buddha? Remember Jesus? They appeared and unlocked human potential during the time of great need. This is different. My vote is con.”
“Some of us think,” said Lev, the Supreme Keeper of the Earth, “that what is to happen in the Twentieth Century is only the prelude to the disasters and possibilities of the twenty-first. That’s when the Key will be truly needed. My vote is pro!”
“All of you are correct,” said Tengis, a small Asian-looking man with white beard, the Keeper of Russia and the Arctic. “Humanity’s record speaks loudly against it. And if it is bad now, what will happen after they’ve perfected the existing relatively crude weapons, and figured out how to make nuclear ones? We are running an extremely high risk of the ultimate self-destruction of all Earth’s souls—that’s true, too. But the prophecy is clear: the Key will be born, and that can only happen when all is not lost. And as to whether it will be a male or a female, Russian or Chinese…” Tengis’s eyes acquired a far away look, “it will be both.”
“What do you mean—both? How can it be both?” exclaimed several voices at once.
“This particular Key is unlike any before it. It’s dual—both male and female, yin and yang, receptive and assertive. And it’s bound to unlock a new and most exciting era for humanity, more important than any prior…if the Council,” Tengis’s thoughtful eyes probed each Keeper in turn, “allows it to be born. I vote pro.”
“So far we have a tie—four pro and four con. Dona Isabella…your final word?” Lev’s wise voice addressed the olive-skinned shamaness wrapped in a warm poncho. The ancient woman, who was the Keeper of South America, puffed her pipe, silently absorbing the exchange.
“Yes, I also see the dual Key being born,” she started slowly. “And I too foresee this Key being able to open a new era for humans. Yet…great horrors lie ahead, born of mankind’s greed and aggression. And our final responsibility is to carefully weigh all the risks.”
“It all comes down to your vote, Dona Isabella,” said Ignatius quietly, while the rest of the Keepers held their breath.
“My final decision,” pronounced Dona Isabella with great reluctance, as if the weight of the entire world made it hard for her to move her tongue, “…is against protecting this civilization.”
No one moved a muscle, absorbing the finality of the moment, and only the golden cocoon around the Keepers kept pulsating and shimmering in the absolute silence.
“So be it,” said Lev’s voice sadly. “Four—pro, five—con. I, Lev Tolstoy, the Earth’s Supreme Keeper, hereby declare that the Council of the Earth Keepers agrees not to interfere when the Comet of Karma collides with the Earth, so this civilization would reap the consequences of its past, present and future actions.”
As Lev finished speaking, all Keepers inclined their heads in agreement—some solemnly, some reluctantly, some sadly—and closed their eyes in a deep, silent meditation. As they did, the golden cocoon around them started expanding upwards, higher and higher, until a column of brilliant light broke through the Earth’s atmosphere and reached straight into Outer Space.
There it was, a rugged rectangular piece of icy rock, about twelve kilometers across, a little smaller than the size of the island of Manhattan. The haloed comet resolutely cut through space, looking quite meager next to the major planets it passed one by one: Neptune…Uranus…Saturn…Jupiter… It didn’t look impressive even next to a relatively small planet of this solar system called Earth, the only one with fully developed flora and fauna, the only one populated by a thriving human civilization.
Although the icy rock appeared insignificant and completely innocuous, the Keepers knew: if it crashed into the Earth at its current speed, it would end all life on this little planet. For a moment, the rock hesitated, as if feeling an irresistible pull to the Sun, as if unsure that it should continue to its original destination. But then, something else caught its attention, and it became clear just where the comet was really heading. It was heading toward the Earth, aiming into the very heart of Europe, somewhere between southern Germany and Austria…
2011, Lake Baikal, Russia
Sasha Elfimova could hardly be called a normal teenager. She always preferred the serene majesty of Lake Baikal in southeastern Siberia to the hustle and bustle of Moscow. What’s more, she had powers—incomprehensible and scary powers. She was a Time and Mind Shifter, yet even her mentor, the famous Siberian shaman Tengis, didn’t know how far her powers would develop when the time came…
Sasha dipped her hand in the crystal-clear waters of Lake Baikal, now gleaming seductively in the light of the full moon, and smiled at her companions: the old shaman Tengis and her father, the Moscow University professor of linguistics, Maxim Elfimov. They were camping out near the lake’s shore, in their secret spot, just an eight-kilometer hike from Polyanka, Tengis’s native village.
Earlier today, after some hiking in the taiga, they performed a shamanic ritual at Tengis’s sacred site, called the Shaman Rock. After that, as golden rays of the warm summer sun started giving way to the coolness of the silvery moon, they decided to camp out in the Bay of the Seals on Baikal’s majestic shore. The seals enjoyed sunning on the gleaming rocks that wrapped the hidden bay. Sasha had just finished having a chat with her favorite local inhabitant, Filya the Seal.
“Good catch today,” Filya informed her telepathically, languorously exposing his shiny wet body to the sun’s fading rays. “You’ve got to dive very deep into the sea to get the best fish. If you want, Sasha, I can bring you some next time,” he offered, looking at her adoringly with that cute, cat-like face of his. As the last ray of the waning sun pierced the water, Filya dove back into the lake, undoubtedly to find a nice, cozy spot in which to slumber.
The sea… Just like local humans, Filya regarded Lake Baikal as the sea. Perhaps it was part of his genetic memory. The endemic population of seals in the land-locked Baikal was an enigma, one of the many mysteries of this place. The scientists postulated that seals probably swam from the ocean during the Ice Age and stayed here. Kind of like American Indians, indigenous Siberians, who in the long by-gone era had walked across the narrow sleeve of frozen water between the two continents, the one we now call the Bering Strait and subsequently made their home in the vast lands now called the Americas.
It was getting chilly. This was Siberia; you could get a terrific summer tan in these parts during the day, but the chill of the night reminded you forcefully where you really were. Shivering, Sasha pulled a warm sweater out of her favorite backpack and put it on. The supple black leather backpack was a sixteenth birthday gift from her father, which he brought from his Italian trip, and the sweater was of her very own design and execution, artfully knitted with chunky yarns of the sunniest shades of sky blue—to match her eyes.
Finally, wrapped in cozy softness, she leaned her head on her father’s well-worn, Soviet-era rucksack, which still preserved the warmth of his body, and stretched her long, pleasantly tired legs. She squinted into the slithering flames of the campfire, her eyes following the escaping sparks straight into the sky, all the while inhaling deeply. The aroma was intoxicating—a mixture of pine, fresh water, and an elusive ingredient this place alone possessed in abundance, a scent the Mother Nature herself must have brewed in her secret labs for the few lucky souls to enjoy.
Sasha half-listened as her father and the old Shaman Tengis talked. Maxim wore his usual Soviet-made hiking gear and boots, insisting they didn’t make them like that anymore. He pensively stroked his short, dense beard (he always let it grow out in Siberia—warmer, and a break from shaving, according to him). Tengis, sitting in his usual lotus pose, gazed into the fire with those penetrating Asian eyes that seemed to be able to see into other dimensions. His beard was rare, as Asian beards tend to be, and all white. As Tengis talked, small clouds of puffy smoke issued from his mouth. It was one of his funny habits—he was a virtuoso when it came to talking without taking his pipe out of his mouth.
Sasha let the smell of the taiga and the breeze from Baikal wash over her. The sacred lake of Siberia, Baikal, contained more than one fifth of the planet’s fresh water reserves. An average lake on Earth had rarely survived past the age of ten thousand years. There was nothing average about Baikal. Over a million years old, rather than contracting with age, it kept expanding. Scientists believed that Baikal was an ocean in the making, while the locals swore that its pristine blue depths possessed incredible healing and spiritual powers. At the moment, the sacred lake was a gleaming, rippled sheet of silver in the light of the full moon.
The dark taiga—Siberia’s giant untouched forest—loomed silent just behind them. The kettle bubbled merrily on top of the makeshift fire, as Tengis took out three travel mugs and got busy brewing his famous green tea.
“Sasha, tea?” He offered her a steamy cup, which she accepted gratefully. There was nothing better than Dedushka Tengis’s green tea after a day of hiking in the taiga. She stretched her legs in front of the fire and savored it slowly.
She called him Dedushka, meaning “Grandpa,” ever since she could remember, because it seemed he was always there, and she had the feeling that he always silently and unobtrusively watched over her. Tengis wasn’t related to Sasha, of course not. He was a small, bowlegged Asian man with squinty dark eyes that pierced directly into your soul, as if it stood wide-open for everyone to see. And Sasha, who took after her father, was tall, with huge blue eyes and flowing hair that was the sunny color of ripe Russian wheat. She inherited the color of her hair from her mother, Olga.
Too bad Mama couldn’t make it, thought Sasha. Olga Elfimova had a very important job in Moscow and couldn’t join them for the summer vacation. She worked for Russia’s richest man, multibillionaire Boris Konukovsky, who was the CEO of NORUS, the country’s largest oil company. He was a very demanding man and Olga often kept long hours, because no one argued with Mr. Konukovsky if they wanted to keep their job and a head on their shoulders.
Maxim and Sasha both wanted Olga to leave this job, but she argued that they could use the money and that she actually loved what she did. Sasha always had a distinct feeling that her mother wasn’t telling them everything, but out of respect for her parents, she never raised the issue. Still, something about her mother’s job bothered Sasha, and she almost made up her mind to ask Tengis for advice. Something seemed wrong, however despite all her attempts to get into her mother’s mind, she was unable to break through some kind of inner barrier. That was disturbing, because there were very few mind barriers she couldn’t break through. Still, it was too early to alarm her father.
It was sort of an unspoken tradition in the Elfimov family; all three of them were very mindful and protective of each other, and if one knew something that could upset another, they would think long and hard before sharing the bad news. Their friends often joked that the Elfimovs’ remarkable ability to keep a secret made the three of them perfect spy material.
In this situation, Sasha judged that she needed to get to the bottom of this first, before worrying her father, who already seemed stressed enough. The wise shaman Tengis seemed like the right person with whom to have a discrete conversation.
Maxim, being a professor, had summers off. School had ended on June 22 and they just gave themselves enough time to pack. Both Maxim and Sasha couldn’t wait to get out of Moscow and submerge into Siberia’s untouched wilderness. While packing, Sasha had a persistent feeling that something very important was awaiting her there. Today was June 29, their sixth day on Lake Baikal.
“So quiet,” Maxim said, breaking the silence. “Beats the city every time.”
“It’s another world,” Sasha echoed. “Peaceful.”
Just as she finished her sentence, she noticed two gleaming yellow eyes staring straight at her from the darkness of the trees.
“Dedushka Tengis,” she whispered. “Look!”
Tengis slowly turned his head in the direction of the gleaming eyes, as Sasha gave a slight gasp. More and more eyes were appearing in the surrounding darkness, and now at least ten pairs stared at them from various corners.
“Wolves,” mouthed Maxim. “Sasha, get behind me.” Maxim started getting slowly to his feet, while at the same time reaching for his hiking stick. “Sasha, behind me—now!”
“No, Papa!” Sasha shook her head. “You won’t achieve anything with your stick against ten wolves. Let me talk to them.” She started getting to her feet, too.
“No, Sasha, no! These are wolves, not seals!” Maxim made a quick move in her direction, as if trying to shield her, and that caused the wolves to growl.
“Papa, don’t,” Sasha whispered. “You are provoking them!”
“Oh, sit down and be quiet, you two!” said Tengis finally in an uncharacteristically sharp voice, carefully setting down his smoking pipe on the nearby rock. “I will handle this.”
Tengis rarely, if ever, got this way, which meant that he was serious. Sasha obediently sat back on the ground, and as she did, her nostrils were suddenly overpowered by the foul stench of a large, sweaty animal that appeared out of nowhere next to her. She turned her head to the right and saw a huge brown bear right where Tengis sat just a moment ago. The bear’s fur was shaggy, and as he got up to his hind feet, his towering form blocked the moon.
“Oh, my God!” yelled Maxim, jumping back to his feet. He threw himself on top of Sasha, attempting to protect her with his own body.
Sasha struggled to free herself. “Papa, it’s okay! It’s not what you think. Let me go, please!”
“Sasha, be quiet,” whispered Maxim frantically. “I will protect you!”
“You don’t need to, Papa. Just watch!”
Meanwhile, the bear didn’t even look at the two struggling humans next to him and made a deliberate beeline for the wolf pack. After taking several steps in the direction of the taiga, he again got up on his hind paws, his menacing claws shining in the light of the moon. Then, the bear opened his mouth, his growl rocking the forest. One of the wolves issued a squeal and started backing up. The others reluctantly followed.
The bear took a few more steps in the wolves’ direction and opened his mouth again. A growl, even louder than the first one, broke the stillness of the taiga. Two of the wolves deserted the field in a hurry; the rest backed up some more. Then, the bear stood all the way up on his hind paws, his giant front paws outstretched, and the third growl rocked the land. It sounded like the final warning. The wolves decided not to argue. The rest of the pack turned around and ran for their lives from this strange and dangerous beast that appeared out of nowhere and for some reason wanted to protect the humans.
The giant bear issued one more growl, evidently to reaffirm his victory. After that, he turned to face Sasha and Maxim…and smiled. His huge body started shrinking, until it was the same height as the tiny Tengis. A moment later, the bear was gone and the shaman was standing next to them, brushing the dust and animal hairs off his clothes.
“Still smell a little like the bear,” Tengis noted, chuckling. “Can’t be helped—residual effect. But no matter, it’ll air out by the time we reach the village.”
There are four types of Shifters.
Mind Shifters can access any thoughts, even the hidden ones;
Matter Shifters can turn into anything, as well as turn objects into something else;
Time Shifters can bend and jump time;
And Space Shifters can compress space, appearing at different places at once.
This is how Buddha was able to stop the charging elephant (mind shifting).
This is how Jesus was able to multiply bread to feed the hungry (matter shifting).
People swore that they saw the famous Time and Space Shifter, Count Saint-Germain, disappear and re-appear at different historic times and places.
The power of the true Shifters is such
that they can manipulate events on Earth.
To prevent that from happening,
the true Shifters are carefully watched from birth
and they are never told about the real extent of their powers until they are deemed ready.
The misuse of even one of these powers can be a huge problem.
If more than one Shifter power is abused,
the consequences can be catastrophic.
Of course, despite all precautions,
sometimes the Shifters discover who they are on their own,
and sometimes they abuse their powers.
This is what happened to Hitler, who was a powerful Mind and Matter Shifter,
and who misused his powers for evil.
Ever since, the Keepers have been determined never to let this happen again.
Sasha first discovered her mind shifting ability at the age of twelve. During her spring break, Maxim brought her along on a lecture tour of Poland, Germany, and Italy. Maxim was a polyglot, and fluent in ten languages. He was popular with the international linguistic community not only for his academic credentials, but also because he routinely lectured in a host country’s native language. During the trip, Sasha completely shocked her father when she started speaking Polish on their second day, Italian on the third, and German on their fourth day in each country. Maxim, an accomplished linguist himself, watched in amazement how his daughter assimilated languages that took him years to master. Soon she could carry on fluent conversations in Polish and German and correct her father’s mistakes in Italian—easily his weakest language.
That summer, Maxim called a parent-shaman conference with Tengis and Olga. Tengis explained that Sasha was an Intellect Shifter. The gift of intellect shifting wasn’t that uncommon, he said. As a matter of fact, many well-known actors and writers possessed it. This usually misunderstood ability was a prerequisite for world-class detectives, interpreters, and spies. It was a secret that allowed them to tap into other people’s lives, characters, crimes, and ways of thinking. But not all Intellect Shifters were born equal. According to Tengis, Sasha’s ability was unique on the earthly plane. She wasn’t just any old Intellect Shifter—she was the true Mind Shifter.
Tengis was a very close friend of the family since Sasha was a child. For some reason, her parents trusted him completely when it came to their daughter and always consulted him about anything to do with her development, especially when it came to her powers. Of course, her parents discussed all that with Tengis behind closed doors, in hushed tones. Sasha wasn’t invited so she wouldn’t get a big head and somehow misuse her newfound power. But she overheard it anyway. She wasn’t sure whether it was because the walls in Tengis’s house were so thin, or because she tapped into their thoughts. Bottom line, she knew.
She decided against a big head – it wasn’t her style. Besides, she wasn’t really interested in the nuanced differences between intellect and mind shifting. Most importantly, it was a cool ability that no one else had, and she was really looking forward to using her newly found talent as a secret entertainment tool whenever she’d get bored at school. That, unfortunately, happened too often. So, when the rest of the class still struggled with a composition or an equation, instead of unprofitable boredom, she now entertained herself by tapping into the minds of her classmates and even teachers. However, that stopped being amusing after a while, as their thoughts turned out to be much too predictable.
But one day, a new student appeared in class. His name was Misha Ziuzin, and his last name immediately made him a target among school bullies. The word ziuzia was Russian slang for a coward or a lousy drunk. So, Ziuzin literally meant a son of a coward or a drunk. No one would wish his or her worst enemy to get stuck with a name like that. But Misha didn’t seem to mind in the least, and he certainly looked the part: his hair always disheveled, shirt sticking out of pants, scratches all over his body. Sasha didn’t think much of him at first.
During a class, when her classmates still struggled with their math problem, which Sasha had solved ten minutes ago, Misha turned out to be another person to finish early. Curious, she tapped into his mind, where she found flashes of thoughts she had trouble identifying. That had never happened before. Excited about the newly found challenge, she focused. After a while, it dawned on her that she was dealing with a kindred spirit. Misha had his own way of entertaining himself when he got bored in class—he mentally played chess. With a photographic memory, he visualized the entire chessboard, simultaneously remembering all the moves on it. The board kept turning in his mind, clockwise, depending on whether it was his or his imaginary opponent’s move. He even visualized a clock in order to time those moves.Wow, thought Sasha enviously,why haven’t I thought of that!
She soon learned that Misha was the second place winner of the All-Russian Junior Chess competition and the winner of last year’s National High School Math Competition. His father turned out to be a career test pilot who just transferred to Moscow to work at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Relations. It also turned out that Misha’s family was originally from Siberia, but before Moscow, his father had worked as Russian Military attaché in China. That’s where Misha was born.
She was impressed with him, while he was smitten with her. As a result, they became really good friends. Soon after, Zeena came along, and Sasha finally had friends not only among adults but among her peers, too. From then on, her school life was much more fun.
Sasha’s discovery of her time shifting ability was another story altogether.
Once, when she was thirteen, she had an interesting dream as if she was traveling back in time. She woke up in an old Russian village. She gazed at the surroundings, trying to figure out how she got there. The izbas, traditional peasant houses lining up the dirt road, were made of large, darkened trunks of wood, many with whimsical wooden carvings and colorful painted decorations. There were children playing hide-and-seek in the street.
In the distance, she saw a tall wooden church with intricate wooden onion domes marking the central square of the village, and in the opposite direction, at the end of the street, there were fields full of ripe wheat. To her right, behind the row of izbas, was the gleaming lake surrounded by vegetation and a number of boats. Beyond the village, atop the hill stood what seemed like a formidable white-stoned kremlin with a beautiful onion-domed church inside its walls. The kremlin seemed vaguely familiar.
“Nastya, Nastya, are you playing with us?” yelled one of the kids. With surprise, Sasha realized that he was talking to her. She glanced at her feet and noticed that she was wearing a pair of lapti, traditional Russian peasant footwear woven out of fresh straw. She ran her fingers down her body and discovered that she was no longer in her blue pajamas. Instead, she wore a long, colorful sarafan, the typical attire of girls in an old Russian village. She pinched herself, hoping to wake up. But no, she was fully awake. Just to be sure, she touched her hair, which was the same color as her usual hair—just like the ripe Russian wheat gleaming in the light of the warm summer sun—except it was longer and braided artfully into one thick braid.
“Nastya, are you coming?” The boy came running toward her. “Come on, let’s go! Oh, but you are not Nastya.” He stopped abruptly next to her, confused. “Who are you?”
“Hello, my name is Sasha,” she said tentatively. “I am new here and…”
“Ah, you must have moved to the old Selantiev’s house over there.” He pointed in the direction of the ornate izba across the street. “So, do you want to play?”
“Sure,” said Sasha, to buy time.
“Let’s go then!”
They joined the rest of the children and the boy said, “This is Sasha; she is new and she wants to play with us.”
As another boy started counting, the children scattered in different directions. Sasha ran toward the lake. She wasn’t that interested in playing hide-and-seek, but she could use a moment of privacy in order to figure out what was going on. Besides, she noticed something curious by the lake that she wanted to explore. To the right of the village, in the distance, she saw a number of boats sitting ashore, to which she was drawn for some unknown reason.
She reached the shore and hid between two large wooden boats with tall masts. Then it occurred to her that she should look inside for a better hiding spot, just in case. She climbed into the larger of the boats and opened a hatch leading into its bowels. Carefully holding up her sarafan so it wouldn’t snag on something, she nimbly descended down the screechy wooden steps.
Finally, she was all the way down. In the darkness, she looked around, noticing a large variety of barrels, ropes, and unknown tools scattered around the hull.
All of a sudden, she heard a rustle, but before she could react, someone invisible attacked her, pinning her arms behind her back.
“Are you spying on me?” said a voice, which clearly belonged to a boy who was trying very hard to appear a man.
“No, why would I want to do that?” replied Sasha in a conciliatory tone, attempting to wiggle out of the boy’s grasp in order to take a look at his face. But the boy was surprisingly strong. “I don’t even know you.”
“Don’t know me? Likely story!” said the boy, without letting her go. “Everyone knows me.”
“I don’t,” repeated Sasha calmly. “Now, I would greatly appreciate it if you kindly let me go.”
The boy let her go and stared at her in surprise. “You are dressed as a peasant, yet you talk like royalty. Who are you?”
“I am Sasha,” she said, massaging her numb arms—the boy’s grip was iron-like. She looked him up and down. He was about her age, tall and gangly, with a very high forehead, large, red lips and eyes that were at the same time piercingly intelligent and cautiously suspicious. The boy had a straight, regal posture and wore a pair of pants made out of quality summer wool, a white shirt of fine cotton with wide sleeves and ruffled front, and tall, leather boots. Around his neck, he had a gold medallion attached to a thick gold chain. “Who are you?”
“I am Piotr,” the boy said. “How come you don’t know me, and even more importantly, how come I don’t know you? You must be a princess in disguise the way you talk and hold yourself. They keep trying to find me a match, but all of them are so ugly. I wouldn’t mind you, though.”
“I am not from around here. I am…from far away,” replied Sasha.
“That’s even better. I wouldn’t mind running away from here, the way they always follow me,” the boy remarked gloomily, sitting down on the nearby barrel. “Tell me you are from London or Amsterdam—I really need to go there, you know, but they won’t let me! I have so much to learn; still, they won’t hear of it!”
Sasha hardly believed her ears. The boy sounded more and more familiar. But it couldn’t be, could it?
“I built this ‘fun fleet’,” continued the boy, staring afar in response to his own thoughts, “but Russia needs a real fleet, not this toy thing. No one would listen to me because to them, I am just a boy. They think I am not sound of mind, and I fear they want to lock me up. But I am completely sane, and I have big plans! If only I could go to Amsterdam to learn engineering and seamanship! But that’s all in my dreams. In reality, I don’t know what will happen to me tomorrow. What if they decide to lock me up, like they have so many before me?” The boy finished and stared ahead dejectedly.
Sasha pinched herself again, hoping to wake up. But the vision of the gangly boy didn’t go away.
She recalled her family’s trip to the Golden Ring of Russia—a series of spectacular medieval towns located just northeast of Moscow, complete with beautiful ancient kremlins, churches, and museums. It was a common misconception that there was only one Kremlin, the one in Moscow. True, the Moscow Kremlin was the most formidable and famous of its brethren, but hardly the only… In fact, every self-respecting Russian medieval town boasted one. Correctly spelled kreml’, the word meant “a fortress” as well as “a castle” in the ancient Russian.
Now she knew why the kremlin on the hill looked so familiar. Much newer, with somewhat different colors and landscape, it was still the same place. She was in the ancient town of Pereslavl-Zalessky. Here, on the lake, the historic Fun Fleet was built in 1693 by this same boy.
She stared at him, still unable to figure out how this could have happened, but one thing was for certain—she was indeed talking to the young Peter the Great…
“Listen to me, Piotr,” she said. “They won’t lock you up if you just be careful who you trust. There are some boyars around you that would certainly like to get rid of you, but what you need now is to surround yourself with loyal, smart, and strong friends who will share your vision of the new Russia. Hurry and find such people before it’s too late, and when looking for friends, don’t mind their origin. Not all nobles are that noble, and not all commoners are that common. Don’t talk too much about your plans yet—keep them secret until the right time comes.”
“I’ve got to remember this,” said Peter, glancing at Sasha with great surprise. “Not all nobles are that noble, and not all commoners are that common. So true… And you are right: I do have a vision of a new Russia, and I am determined to drag it into the new era, kicking and screaming, if I have to. But how do you know all this?”
“How I know is of no importance,” said Sasha, shrugging her shoulders. “The important thing is that you can trust me. And don’t worry about wasting your time on the Fun Fleet; this practice will come in handy when you build the new Russian capital on the Neva River and the real Russian fleet. Oh, and by the way, you will spend quite a bit of time in both London and Amsterdam. For now, just be patient.”
The boy listened to all this attentively. “You speak strangely. And how could you know all these things? Are you a witch? Because you know, the church says witches have to be burned because they are from the devil.” He paused with a mischievous smile. “I, on the other hand, don’t mind witches, especially the pretty ones and the ones who make so much sense. This is for you.”
He took off the gold medallion from his neck and hung it around Sasha’s.
“Thank you, but I really can’t accept it…” started Sasha.
“You don’t refuse a gift bestowed on you personally by the Tsar of All Russia!” thundered the boy, banging his fist on the barrel.
“My apologies, Your Majesty,” said Sasha with a light curtsy, deciding not to argue with a banging fist. “This is a lovely gift and I will treasure it. But I should be going, as it is getting late.”
“Ladno,” agreed the young Tsar. “I should be getting back, too, or they’ll start looking for me again. I was of half a mind to run away, to tell you the truth. But after talking to you, I have decided to stay. I will build the first Russian fleet and I will create the new Russian capital of unheard beauty! After I am done, Russia will no longer be lingering in its landlocked prison. I will build a seaport, which will be Russia’s window to the world, and where I will welcome all foreign flags as guests. Believe me, Russia will become a great sea-faring nation, just like the nations of Europe!”
They climbed out of the ship and Peter stood on the bank, surveying his little fun fleet with shining eyes. It occurred to Sasha that she recognized these eyes from the many portraits of Peter I, later dubbed the Great. He would always charge ahead, to his vision of the future, and would stop at nothing until it was accomplished. Among the dreary swamps of the north, he would build St. Petersburg, the city of unrivaled beauty and grandeur; he would create Russia’s first long-range sea fleet and its first seaport, putting an end to the country’s landlocked handicap. He would build Moscow University, starting the proud Russian scientific tradition. He would drag Russia into the new reality, kicking and screaming, despite the resistance of powerful boyars and princes, and interventions of rival foreign states, thus accomplishing during his short life the world’s most successful peaceful revolution and creating the modern Russian State.
Sasha was yanked out of her thoughts by the sound of the horse hooves and the horsemen cries. “He is here! He is here!”
”Run, Sasha, run—or they’ll lock you up in the dungeon!” whispered Peter frantically. But it was too late. The horsemen were upon them.
“Your Majesty,” said one of the horsemen who seemed in charge, as he dismounted his steed and bowed to Peter carelessly. “You are needed back at the castle.”
Then, his glance fell on Sasha. “And who is this?” he said, frowning. “Your Majesty, fraternizing with a peasant girl—again? Wait until your sister hears this!”
“I don’t need you to tell me what to do, Zhdanov,” retorted Peter coldly. “Since you and your butchers have found me, give me a good horse and we shall return to the castle. But leave this girl alone.”
“But, Your Majesty,” replied Zhdanov, completely unfazed, contemptuous smile playing on his thin lips. “I must take this girl in for questioning. She may be a spy.”
“I said, leave her alone,” said Peter through clenched teeth, staring Zhdanov down, which was hard, because despite Peter’s height, he was still a boy, while Zhdanov was a grown man.
“Look, Your Majesty,” continued Zhdanov, as if he hadn’t heard a word Peter just said, “she is a thief! She stole Your Majesty’s precious medallion.” He extended his hand, as if attempting to grab the gold medallion from Sasha’s neck.
Peter looked furious. “Leave her alone,” he screamed, trying to block Sasha from Zhdanov.
“Seize her,” commanded Zhdanov, ignoring the young Tsar.
Sasha had just a second to react to all this. In this impossibly compressed moment of time, a lot went through her mind. First, it occurred to her that tsar or not, the young Peter had no power whatsoever. It also appeared that Zhdanov loved taunting him. She felt sorry for the budding reformer of Russia—he certainly had his work cut out for him. Next, she knew these people were serious. If she let them, they would lock her up in some rat-infested dungeon (brrr!). She had no intention of going there. It promptly occurred to her that if she was able to get here, then she also had the power to get out. Until this point, the adventure was far too interesting, and too many fascinating things were happening to think about the exit, but just about now would be the time!
She willed herself to be back at her apartment in the present-day Moscow. At the same time, she managed to whisper, “Good luck, Piotr, and be strong!” She felt herself shifting through time, and as she did, she saw the shock on Peter and Zhdanov’s faces as she literally disappeared before their eyes.
“Hold the witch, hold the witch!” yelled Zhdanov.
A moment later, Sasha woke up in her bed.
She stretched with gusto and promptly jumped out of bed, hurriedly getting out of her blue pajamas (weird, where did her sarafan go?) and putting on her day clothes. The adventure she just had was unbelievable and she couldn’t wait to tell her parents.
There was some kind of commotion outside her room. The door opened and a very worried Olga walked in, her eyes red and puffy. “Sasha, darling, you are here! But how did you get in? We didn’t know what to think. Your father came in to kiss you good night, and you weren’t here. We’ve been looking all night! He’s at the police right now. Where have you been all this time, Sashenka?”
“Mama, you won’t believe what happened,” said Sasha. “Turns out, when I am asleep, I can travel through time! I just went back in time and met the young Peter the Great.”
“Wh…what?” said Olga incredulously.
The front door opened as Maxim returned. “Sasha, thank God, you are home,” were his first words. He hugged his daughter tight. “Ti v poriadke?”
“I will have a serious conversation with you in a moment, young lady, right after I call off the search.” He dialed the police and after a brief conversation, turned to Sasha.
“It better be good.”
“Believe me, Papa, it is!”
“I am all ears.”
“Your daughter thinks she can time travel, Maxim!” piped in Olga.
“Time travel? That’s new.”
“Yes, I can, Papa. I just went back in time and met Peter the Great, when he was about my age!” And Sasha described everything she experienced.
Her parents exchanged a glance that clearly said that they wanted to believe their only daughter, they really did, but…
“Ladno,” said Sasha, “I see you don’t believe me. I’ll prove it to you.”
“First, I can give you the details of what I saw there, what I was wearing, where I was. Then, we can go to a museum and verify my details for accuracy.”
“Darling,” said Olga, “haven’t you been studying the Peter the Great era in school this semester? Haven’t you picked up enough details for your story to be convincing enough?”
“True,” said Sasha. The longer she stayed in the present, the faster the memory of her journey in time was becoming fuzzy. It was harder and harder to recall the details. Olga’s remark made her doubt her adventure was real. Perhaps, she just dreamed it up? Still, how would anyone explain her absence in her room throughout the night? She wasn’t known for sleepwalking. Even if she was, it was highly unlikely that no one would have noticed her walking in and out of the apartment. She did wake up in her bed—in her pajamas, no less. Olga would have heard her come in, if she was returning from outside. Besides, if she walked around the city in her pajamas, someone was bound to notice her!
The only explanation was that she was indeed time traveling. But how could she prove it? She pensively ran her fingers down her throat. And that’s when she felt it—Peter’s medallion! She still wore it around her neck! She reached for the clasp and took off the medallion.
The soft 24-carat gold shone brightly in the light of the living room chandelier. On the obverse side of the medallion was an ornate engraving of the Russian royal crown. The inscription underneath read: Tsar and Great Prince of All Russia. The reverse side had the young Peter’s portrait on it; the portrait was encircled with the filigree words Piotr I, Romanov, repeated several times.
“Here,” said Sasha triumphantly, handing the medallion to her parents. “How do you explain this? Peter gave me this medallion. I didn’t want to take it, but he insisted, even banged his fist on the barrel, so I decided not to argue. And by the way, the boy on the medallion—that’s him.” For several minutes, both Olga and Maxim diligently and incredulously examined the object. Maxim brought out his magnifying glass and Olga even bit into the medallion to make sure it was real gold.
Later, they all took a day off—because in their opinion this kind of discovery warranted one—and went to the Kremlin Armory Museum. On display, they found an almost identical medallion. The description read:
This gold medallion was issued especially for the young Piotr I, Romanov,
during his adolescent years due to the fact that he tended to wander off.
In fact, on several occasions, he tried to run away from home.
The medallion was made to help identify him in case of such an occurrence.
Only two such medallions were ever minted.
The first one was lost when Piotr was thirteen,
and unfortunately, never recovered.
This is medallion number II.
This was serious. Sasha could time travel and her parents didn’t really know what to do with their daughter’s new gift. They needed advice badly, so they all took some time off and went to Baikal as soon as Sasha’s school ended. Tengis convinced Olga and Maxim that this kind of power required formal training and supervision, and, ever since, Sasha spent every summer with Tengis. Once in a while, Olga and Maxim had private talks with Tengis. What they talked about remained a mystery, because for some reason their thoughts about anything to do with these private discussions were now blocked.
Before the time travel discovery, Sasha could access her parents’ thoughts quite easily, if she so desired, although out of respect for her parents she had rarely done so. However, when it came to things that affected her directly, she felt justified in knowing. A year prior, when she found out about her mind-shifting ability, she could easily listen in on their thoughts, but now the access was denied. It was almost as if someone just put an unbreakable firewall there. No matter how she tried, she was unable to break through—this time, it was under lock and key.
But one thing was certain: after the conversation with Tengis, Maxim became overly protective of her, as if she were as fragile as a precious piece of Bohemian crystal. Sure, many devoted fathers tended to become protective once their beloved daughters reached their teens, especially when it came to boys, and that would have been normal. Except in this case, Maxim’s protectiveness started right after the time travel incident.
As to Olga, she abruptly left her old job and started at NORUS. Sasha wasn’t sure how this was related to anything that happened, but she was confident there was a connection.
For the time being, Sasha left the whole thing alone, hoping that one day she’d learn all she needed to know. As Tengis liked to say: “Patience, all will be revealed in due course.” Too bad, patience was hardly her favorite word.
Meanwhile, her time traveling ability grew, and in the following three years, she traveled back to different times and different places. These were all fascinating and diverse journeys, however after a while she started feeling as if there was a pattern, and as if all these seemingly unrelated pieces of the puzzle would eventually fall into place to form the whole picture.
The Elfimovs lived in a stately old building on a quiet Moscow street, just a block from the noisy principal street of Moscow, Tverskaya. The super-wide Tverskaya Street, with its posh shops and hotels, as well as offices of major companies located in its historic buildings, ran from Red Square to the very outskirts of the city, where it turned into the highway to St. Petersburg. In the olden days, it was used by the Russian tsars and foreign dignitaries as an official entry route into Moscow.
After the 1917 Revolution, many of Tverskaya Street’s richly decorated apartments, formerly occupied by the wealthy and the nobility, were subdivided into communal apartments according to the communist conviction that all working families, who lived in terrible conditions compared to the wealthy, were entitled to a decent roof over their heads. A family, or an individual, would receive a room or two while sharing the kitchen, bathroom, and the phone with several other families. At first, it seemed a godsend for all these poor families until everyone started to become better off and until the differences between neighbors started to emerge. Eventually, sharing the same space with people you never knew or cared about could become a drag, lack of privacy being the primary issue.
In the 1970s-80s, most people moved out of communal apartments as more and more housing was built in the suburbs in order to alleviate congestion in the center.
Maxim’s family lucked out. His father was a well-known professor at Moscow University, and when this particular apartment became available, he was allowed to keep it in its entirety, without any communal neighbors.
The spacious apartment with tall, ornate ceilings and pre-revolutionary crystal chandeliers included a dramatic foyer, a spacious living-dining room combo with a separate TV lounge, two nice bedrooms, a large, tiled bathroom, a huge, eat-in kitchen, and Maxim’s study. The walls of the study were covered by the built-in shelves, which were brimming with books—his father’s library. Maxim loved the place, and when he inherited it after his father’s death, together with Olga, they decided to preserve it in its original form. The three of them were very comfortable in this apartment, conveniently located in the very heart of Moscow, in walking distance to Red Square and the Kremlin, not far from the Bolshoi and other theatres, and full of wonderful memories.
At one point, when Maxim’s salary wasn’t enough because of hyperinflation that hit the country in the horrible 1990s, and Olga’s job paid even less, they almost lost this apartment. They couldn’t maintain it properly on their measly salaries, plus it required a massive renovation, which they could not afford. Today, the Tverskaya Street/ Tverskoy Boulevard area was again en vogue, and everyone wanted to live there. They were getting offers almost daily from the so-called New Russians, nouveau riche, who were now in abundance in Moscow.
During the past decade, most of the original neighbors had sold their apartments for top price and moved to the outskirts, where they could get something on the cheap while putting a nice nest egg away, or set all this windfall aside for their children’s education. But for Maxim, parting with his beloved apartment—his father’s heritage—was unthinkable. Besides, they’d have to move Sasha from the prestigious School #1. Their daughter would have to adjust to a totally new environment, plus their own jobs would be too far for a comfortable commute.
They struggled with the decision, and that’s when Olga was approached about a new job, the job that paid not just twice, or even three, but five times as much as her present employment! This was a huge promotion. Olga would be working for the billionaire Boris Konukovsky himself, the famous CEO of NORUS and the richest man in Russia, who was on the Forbes 500 list and on the covers of every glossy magazine imaginable. The man was a legend, literally conjuring an enormous fortune out of thin air during the crazy nineteen nineties, when hyperinflation wiped out most savings and misplaced millions. He was a money magnet, but in addition, he was now dabbling into politics, starting to become quite notorious that way too.
Naturally, Olga jumped at the opportunity to work at NORUS, and the situation with money was resolved. Interestingly enough, shortly after that, Maxim also started getting plum lecture assignments to various foreign universities. All of a sudden, the Elfimovs were rolling in the dough, well, compared to how it had been. It seemed their life’s happy equilibrium was finally restored.
It was already past twenty-two o’clock, and Olga Elfimova was about to turn in. She brushed her teeth and hair, picked up a book to read from Maxim’s extensive library, and was about to crawl into bed when the phone rang. She almost didn’t answer because the hour was late and she was rather tired. But then it occurred to her that it might be Maxim or Sasha. After all, it was very early morning in southeastern Siberia. What if they needed something? Besides, she already missed them and wanted to hear their voices.
She picked up the phone. “Allo?”
“Good evening, Olga Vasilyevna,” said the voice she recognized as Konukovsky’s executive assistant, Mikhail Bunin. “I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“Not yet, but I was just preparing to turn in…”
“Good, I’d hate to wake you up,” said Bunin, who apparently only heard the first half of what she said. “Could you please get dressed and come to the new headquarters promptly?”
“What’s the rush? I was about to go to bed,” objected Olga.
“Well, in short: Mr. Konukovsky wants to see you. And this is the only time he has. Tomorrow morning, he is flying to Switzerland for merger talks. The long version—when you get here.”
Olga issued a sigh. Once in a while, her job required that she stay late. But even for her, this was unusually so. However, at NORUS, if you were asked for a tête-à-tête with its CEO, Boris Konukovsky, you didn’t have the luxury of arguing—it was simply not done.
She quickly got dressed, feeling a bit shivery. She’d never been called to a meeting this late before. What if something had happened? What if they had found out? She made a mental note to talk with her contact tomorrow. Then, she threw a final glance around the room, her eyes pausing on a framed photo from which Sasha and Maxim grinned happily back at her. Her hand brushed their faces and a momentary smile touched her lips.
Next, her glance fell on another photo, on which she was pictured with her old Remote Viewing teacher, Semyon Isayev. A legend in the Remote Viewing circles, he was Sasha’s godfather and practically family. Semyon was hugging Olga, who was his favorite protégé, around the shoulders. Looking into the faces of the three dearest people in the entire world, Olga felt her confidence returning. She took a deep breath, grabbed her purse, and rushed out.
As she jumped into her 2010 Hybrid Toyota Prius—Maxim’s anniversary present—the clock showed twenty past ten and the busy Tverskaya Street was finally quieting down. Olga really loved her small silver-toned car. It didn’t look like much next to the high-powered Mercedes, Range Rovers and BMW’s of many of her coworkers, but it was great for the city: compact, easy to park, less of a chance that someone might steal it, and she saved a ton on gas.
When Olga first got this job, Maxim wasn’t making as much money as a professor would during Soviet days, and her own old government job didn’t pay much either, considering Russia’s inflation. It appeared both of their professions, highly coveted during the 1980s, had become either obsolete or less desirable. But then she received a call from NORUS. Granted, it was a job with lots of strings attached, still, she said “yes” right away. The official version was that it offered five times the money. But there was another reason she didn’t admit to her family: she missed the real action, which she hadn’t seen for years, and this job promised plenty of that. She never revealed to Maxim everything that was involved with her new job. What he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him… or so she thought.
Olga drove her car past the lit-up Tverskaya, past Red Square and the Kremlin Wall, along the Moskva River Embankment, and later, past some dark residential buildings along the river leading toward the yet-to-be-finished NORUS headquarters at the capital’s new financial and business center, Moscow City. It occurred to her that it was strange that the meeting was taking place at the unfinished headquarters, when a perfectly fine NORUS office was located so close to her, on Tverskaya. But there was nothing to do, except to comply. If Konukovsky wanted to meet at the new office, he obviously had a good reason for doing just that.
She drove into the unfinished parking lot, parking her car as close to the building entrance as possible. The area was quiet and deserted, as only construction equipment and piles of various materials were still scattered everywhere. The place didn’t look too inviting, giving out an eerie feel, and Olga hurried to the illuminated building entrance. She opened the door with a sense of relief, admonishing herself mentally for being such a scaredy-cat. The elevator, located at the end of the gleaming glass and marble foyer, was thankfully in good working order. She showed her pass to the guard, pushed number 10, and waited. A minute later, having stifled a yawn, she walked into the grand reception of NORUS CEO, Boris Konukovsky, which was still under construction.
“Thank you for making it at this hour,” said Mikhail Bunin, opening the door into Konukovsky’s new office, which was practically done. The room just required a few finishing touches here and there.
Konukovsky stood by the window, contemplating the views of the night Moscow, while another man, athletic with impenetrable gray eyes and wearing a black suit, sat casually in a leather chair by the wall.
“Come in, come in.” Konukovsky waved his hand invitingly. “Please, sit down.”
“Thank you,” said Olga.
“I wanted to personally thank you for your good work, ehh…”
“Olga Vasilyevna,” quickly interjected Mikhail Bunin.
“Yes, Olga Vasilyevna,” continued Konukovsky with a charming smile. “You’ve been with us, what, three years?”
“That’s right.” Olga nodded.
“Fabulous three years,” went on Konukovsky with the same charming smile. “Just imagine how time flies! Three years ago, we weren’t nearly as successful as we are today. And our influence will only continue growing. Every employee who works hard and shows us loyalty will be handsomely rewarded. The question is, are you with me on this, Olga Vasilyevna?”
“Of course,” responded Olga enthusiastically. “You can count on me!”
“Very good!” said Konukovsky, nodding with satisfaction. “In that case, Mikhail will explain to you your new assignment tomorrow. I will be flying to Switzerland, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to personally thank you for a job well done.”
He extended his hand and shook Olga’s. It occurred to her that the man by the wall just sat silently through the entire meeting and he didn’t even introduce himself, nor did he shake her hand. But the audience was over, so she set that thought aside. Olga headed back to the reception, where Mikhail told her that he would discuss everything with her tomorrow morning at ten sharp. She said good-bye and headed back to the elevator. A minute later, she was back in the parking lot, heading to her car. Safely in the car, she started back home, stifling another yawn.
Meanwhile, back in his office, Konukovsky turned to face the silent man in the leather chair.
“So?” he said.
“It’s her,” said the man, nodding. “What do you want to do?”
For a moment, Konukovsky stood, frowning. Then, he made up his mind. “I can’t have loose ends, especially before my Geneva trip. Do it, and quickly!”
Immediately, the silent man sprang into action. He jumped to his feet with the ease of a trained athlete and whipped out a slick iPhone. Pushing the speed dial button, he said in a low voice, “It’s a go. Make it look like an accident.”
It was well past midnight as Olga drove her silver Prius, feeling that any moment she might fall asleep. She pinched herself to stay awake and willed her tired brain to focus. The quiet waters of the Moskva River were to her right as she drove past silent residential buildings neatly arranged along the embankment and divided into blocks by a battery of side alleys and narrow streets. She had to stay awake just a bit longer—it wasn’t very far from here. With no traffic, she’d be home in no time.
The thought of Maxim and Sasha made her lips stretch into a happy smile. They would be home in about three weeks, and then, they’d go on vacation together, perhaps to Italy, or Greece. She kept smiling, imagining how great of a time they’d all have near the warm sea, but that nagging feeling in the back of her mind wiped away the happy thought, making her frown instead. It took her a moment to understand what it was that bothered her. And then she knew: the silent man in Konukovsky’s office. There was something about him. And this late audience… Tomorrow, she should get in touch with her contact to discuss the situation and her upcoming assignment.
She contemplated everything that happened a bit longer while driving past the dark Moskva River. The wide embankment to her right was finished with a polished, low granite wall, solidly built in the nineteenth century (nothing like the flimsy modern creations), which separated the river underneath from the sidewalk and the road. At equal intervals, the granite wall parted to give way to granite steps finished with cast iron guards and railings, which ran all the way down to the quietly splashing river, allowing romantic couples and sightseers access to the water.
“Stay awake, stay awake,” Olga intoned, yawning. “Just a little longer.” But because she was too tired and too preoccupied with her thoughts, she failed to notice a monstrosity of a truck following her. Another large truck passed her on the left, abruptly switching to her lane and blocking her front view. The small silver Prius was now sandwiched between the two trucks. Other than that, the road was completely deserted.
Olga frowned, thinking that perhaps she should switch to the left lane in order to pass the truck up front. At that very moment, the truck stopped abruptly, making her apply brakes to avoid the collision. She stopped just barely half a meter short. The truck behind her started breaking, but it was still moving too fast. It seemed that it would plow straight into her at full speed. If that happened, she knew her tiny Prius had no chance against these two monstrosities. The car, with her inside, would be squashed into a piece of junk metal.
Olga started turning her wheel quickly, hoping to swerve into the left lane to avoid the collision, but it was almost impossible, since she was way too close to the front truck. Everything was happening very quickly. As she almost succeeded in turning the wheel and was about to press on the gas pedal, she noticed out of a corner of her eye that the back truck apparently got the same idea. It swerved sharply to the left and stopped with a screech parallel to her. Another truck was still sitting in front of her, and now the back truck was blocking her exit on the left. Olga liked this less and less.
She turned her head, trying to assess the situation: truck upfront; truck to her left; to the right was the embankment with the granite stairs towards the water starting less than two meters away, complete with cast iron guards separating the stairs from the sidewalk. There wasn’t enough room on the right to drive around these trucks. Of course, she could back up and drive around them on her left, although there seemed to be even less room between the buildings and the trucks on that side. Another option was to back up, do a U-turn, and take a different road home. But that would add another hour to her trip, and she was too tired for that.
The cabin window of the truck on the left rolled down. “Are you okay?” asked the man in the truck driver’s seat, flashing a friendly smile.
“Yes, I am,” responded Olga with a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” said the truck driver. “Drive carefully.” With these words, the truck on the left started slowly moving.
“Silly paranoia,” she murmured to herself. “That truck up front probably got engine trouble.”
She backed up a bit, preparing to drive around the stalled truck as soon as the truck on the left moved out of the way. She couldn’t understand what was taking it so long, but since her vision was completely obscured by the two trucks, all she could do was be patient and wait. As the truck with the friendly driver slowly moved forward and she was about to steer her wheel into the freed up space, suddenly she became cognizant of a strange movement. She turned her head to the left to look at the spot that was blocked from her view before. From a dark alley across the way, charging straight at her was another truck, even larger than the first two.
Olga had a millisecond to react. She started opening her door to jump out of the car, but it was too late. The truck rammed straight into the driver side of her Prius, and as she instinctively raised her arms to protect herself, it squashed the door in, trapping her inside. The impact was staggering, and she felt the metal of her little car crumbling, like a thin sheet of paper. Another sound reverberated in her ears even louder—that of her bones crushing as the truck pushed what was left of her car against the cast iron guards, towards the granite stairs. As the truck kept pushing, the solid cast iron gave way, and her wreck of a car tumbled down the stairs into the water.
She tried to move, but her broken body wasn’t listening. Gathering what little strength she had left, she made one last desperate attempt to open the door, but it was jammed. As she was sinking, her eyes saw the men from the trucks, watching from above.
“Help!” Her lips opened, but no sound came out as water rushed inside the car. The men on the embankment watched silently, without moving a muscle.
Her last thought was that Sasha and Maxim would never know how she died.
At the same time, New York
Traffic on Canal Street was murder, as usual. Kei and Win dismounted their new Bianchi bikes and walked into one of the many Chinese stores of New York Chinatown’s main street. The sign above them read both in Mandarin and English:
DRAGON PEARL FENG SHUI
Renowned Feng Shui Master and Astrologist
Readings – Consultations – Remedies – Cures
“Hello, Auntie Yuun!” Win respectfully greeted a plump woman who was attired in a traditional Chinese dress. The woman’s face was round as a moon, which was regarded as an unmistakable sign of prosperity in Chinese culture. But her face bore signs of aging, and her skin—once all peaches-and-cream—was now blotchy. She had heavy dark bags under her eyes, a sure sign of many sleepless nights.
“Hello, my sons,” responded the woman, flashing them a tender motherly smile. “I see you are riding the bikes I gave you. Very nice!”
“Yes, thank you again, Auntie Yuun. We love them,” said Kei, caressing the sleek leather saddle.
“Mom says you should come for dinner tonight,” continued Win. “She is preparing a special dim sum just for you.”
“Oh, dim sum! My favorite!” The woman smacked her lips regretfully. “What a pity to miss it. Thank her for her gracious invitation, but it’ll have to be some other time. I have an appointment tonight with an old client. I hope the good food won’t be wasted!”
“Not to worry, Auntie Yuun,” remarked Kei, chuckling. “No food ever gets wasted in our house.”
“Of course, with two such strong and handsome boys growing up!”
“Okay, Auntie Yuun, we’ll be going,” said Win. “We’ll see you soon.”
“Be well, my dears. Ride carefully.” Yuun watched the two brothers with a kindly smile as they led their bikes out of the store and disappeared into Canal Street’s never-ending crowd of shoppers and tourists.
But as soon as she was alone, her expression changed to the one of despair.
“What have I done!” she whispered, dropping to her knees in the darkest corner of the store and covering her face with her hands. “What have I done! Will they ever forgive me?”
The plump Chinese woman sat straight on the dusty floor, looking ahead with unseeing eyes. She sat like this for several minutes, and then she shook her head, as if to wake up from a bad dream. She got up and looked at the clock. Five p.m. The appointment was scheduled for seven. She would close the store early today, clean up and change, then wait for the unwelcome guest.
Meanwhile, Win and Kei walked out of Yuun’s store and headed home. They lived in a high rise a few blocks from Canal Street, near a small park.
“Too bad she can’t make it after Mom worked so hard,” said Kei. “Still, more food for us. I’m getting hungry just thinking about the feast Mom’s preparing tonight. Her dim sum’s the best in New York!”
“Yeah, but I still feel terribly sorry for Auntie Yuun,” replied Win. “Did you see her face? Did you see all those brown spots and circles under her eyes? All that worry about her son…”
“What do you think will happen to him?” asked Kei.
“The latest I’ve heard, he is charged with espionage for China,” said Win, shaking his head. “They’ll probably try him and put him away for years. I never really liked Hao Lin, but I feel sorry for Yuun. She deserves better.”
“Agreed. She’s like family to us. That’s why Mom tries to invite her to dinner as often as possible, so she wouldn’t feel as lonely.”
“I’ll make it a point to visit her more often,” said Win. “So should you. She’d always been there for us, ever since we were born. She helped to nurse Mom back to health after she delivered us, and she practically raised us. Come to think of it, that’s probably why Hao always felt like he was neglected. Perhaps that’s why he went astray.”
“Possibly,” murmured Kei, shrugging his shoulders, his attention already focused on other things. Kei was never one to stay on a single topic for long. He scanned the length and breadth of Canal Street, where the rush hour traffic was at its worst and cars were moving almost bumper to bumper.
Kei ran his hand along the aerodynamic sloping top tube of his bike—time to try out his new machine in action. In a completely different tone, he said, “A challenge! We race from here to Manhattan Bridge. Whoever wins gets to eat Yuun’s share of dim sum. What do you say?”
“Are you crazy?” exclaimed Win. “In this traffic? This is too dangerous! I really don’t want to end up in a hospital.”
“Chicken!” taunted Kei.
“Don’t call me ‘chicken’!” said Win, frowning.
“You are! Are you chickening out? Better tell me now, because I am doing it.” Without further ado, Kei jumped on his bike.
“Kei, Kei! Wait!” yelled Win. “Don’t do it! It’s too dangerous.” But Kei wasn’t listening, directing his bike straight into the traffic.
“Come on, catch me if you can,” challenged Kei.
“Devil,” murmured Win under his breath and followed Kei into the sea of cars.
He could see Kei’s head bobbing ahead as he smoothly merged with traffic, fluidly maneuvering between cars, and squeezing into the smallest possible crevices between them. Win was very good with his bike, but Kei was unsurpassed. He was very physical and lived for all kinds of sports and games. He loved risk, seeking out danger and adventure wherever he went.
Win wasn’t like that. He was a brilliant mathematician and inventor. At sixteen, he had already won the National Science Competition and he was ranked No. 1 at Stuyvesant High School for talented kids, to their parents’ supreme delight. Dad liked to say that Kei also had a good head on his shoulders, if only he cared to use it once in a while.
They were more than brothers—they were twins, and the mutual bond between them was strong. They weren’t identical and were born over an hour apart; Win first, Kei second. The doctors almost gave up on Kei, but Mom never lost faith. And sure enough, Kei announced his appearance in this world with a loud cry shortly after. It was as if he wanted to assert his independence from his mother’s womb by telling everyone that he wouldn’t be a mere follower in his brother’s footsteps. Mom was exhausted from such difficult childbirth and spent two months recuperating.
That’s when Yuun’s help proved invaluable. Someone had to provide for the family. So, while Dad was at work, Yuun would drop by every hour to check up on Mom. She cooked and helped her nurse the boys; later, she took walks with them and they became frequent guests at her store. No wonder Hao became jealous. Between working full-time and helping out with the Lee children, Yuun hardly had any time left for her own son.
Win set aside these thoughts and concentrated on catching Kei. “Chicken? I’ll show you chicken,” he murmured. His competitive drive, which he used primarily to win scholarships and science competitions, went into an overdrive. A sea of honking cars surrounded them, frustrated drivers yelling and swearing at each other. Win took a deep breath and imagined himself in the midst of a real sea. He was maneuvering between cars, as if they were waves, blending organically with traffic. He started gaining on Kei.
Kei threw a quick glance back at his brother. Not bad, he was only a couple of cars behind. “Dim sum is mine!” he teased his brother to get him going even faster. He really didn’t mind sharing the dim sum with his brother—as a matter of fact, they always ended up sharing all their treats anyway, but he loved competition. The more of it, the merrier.
Win was pedaling silently, an expression of stern determination on his face. Kei was about to joke that it was just a game, no need to be so serious, when he heard a desperate cry for help. He looked left, then right, but everything appeared fine. And again, his brain was pierced with the same desperate cry. It seemed to be coming from somewhere far ahead. In fact, there was no way he could have heard it. Yet, he did. The surreal thing was that the voice sounded straight in his head. What’s more, he could see the whole thing happening, as if it was occurring right before his very eyes.
“Please, please,” pleaded a woman’s voice. “Help my husband!”
A crowd of on-lookers was gathering around a man who was having a severe heart attack. Someone dug out their cell phone and dialed for an ambulance. After a quick exchange, the man hung up and said that the ambulance was on its way, but it was doubtful that it would be able to get through this kind of traffic.
Meanwhile, the sick man on the ground was unable to breathe. “Please, someone, help my husband,” cried the woman.
The siren of an ambulance could be heard in the beginning of Canal Street and the cars made an effort to get out of its way, but it was no use. Most cars hardly had any room for maneuvering. The man on the ground convulsed, his lips turning purple from lack of oxygen.
As if to aggravate the situation further, traffic around them ground to a complete halt. Kei seemed to see everything in slow motion. He stopped his bike and peered ahead. He could already see the crowd gathered around the sick man. He glanced back and noticed the ambulance stuck on the other side of the street. There was no way it would get there on time. The man was doomed. No car could get through… But a bicycle could!
“Ha, caught you!” Win came to a stop next to him. “What’s the matter? Why did you stop?”
“Follow me,” said Kei in an uncharacteristically sharp voice.
“Wha… What are you doing?” started Win, but Kei wasn’t listening. He was already back on his bike, pedaling toward the sick man. Win followed, wondering what was his brother up to now. All Win could think about was that he needed to keep up with his brother, no matter what. He willed himself to move faster, much faster. All of a sudden, he felt a very strange sensation, as if he was carried forward on invisible wings. He could see Kei pedaling straight ahead and it felt as if both of them were carried by a very large bird that no one could see. The bird swiftly moved the brothers over the congestion and safely deposited them ahead.
Win attempted to shake off the strange sensation. He was a scientist, and he believed in what he could see, touch, and measure. There had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation—perhaps they both were getting so good at this that it felt almost supernatural. Yeah, this must be it!
Meanwhile, Kei hastily dismounted his bike, dropping it carelessly on the ground, and ran to the crowd on the sidewalk as fast as he could. Win left his bike neatly by the nearby post and hurriedly joined Kei.
“Excuse me, excuse me!” yelled Kei, parting the crowd. “The ambulance can’t get through, it’s stuck in traffic. But we can help!”
The crowd parted, letting them through and Win saw the man, whose face was a deathly puce color. Now he finally understood why his brother acted the way he did. But he still couldn’t see what they could do to help the poor man. Kei dropped to his knees in front of the sick man, and Win followed.
Win took the man’s pulse, placing his left hand on top of his forehead, while Kei placed both of his hands on top of the man’s heart and closed his eyes. The crowd around them was silent, and in this silence, only the woman’s sobs could still be heard. Everyone held their breath, expecting a miracle, yet nothing changed. It was clear the man didn’t have much time left.
“I can’t feel his pulse any more,” whispered Win.
The man’s wife cried louder.
“Don’t give up,” murmured Kei through clenched teeth. “Not yet.”
And at that moment, the man on the ground started coughing. Win helped him up, holding him by his left hand, as Kei ran his hand through his back. “Here it is,” he murmured. “Cough it out. You don’t need it.”
The man kept coughing, while someone in the crowd handed him a water bottle. He drank thirstily, and the normal color slowly returned to his face.
“Welcome back,” said Kei, smiling.
“Who are you?” asked the man.
“That’s not important.”
“How can I thank you?”
“Just do me a favor and get off Canal Street as soon as possible. It’s too much noise and fumes. Your heart can’t cope. You have too much stress in your life. What you need is peace and nature. Oh yeah, and eat more vegetables.”
“That’s what your doctor told you, Bob,” said the woman through grateful sobs.
“But how did you know all this?” exclaimed the man incredulously.
“A lucky guess,” replied Kei with a wink.
The crowd hovered around them with their mouths open. But one face in that crowd caught Kei’s eye. It belonged to a young and stunningly beautiful brunette in the first row. The brunette, wearing a red dress that accentuated her sexy curves, watched the whole spectacle with a smile. And the smile wasn’t only on her cherry red lips; it was also in her cat-like black eyes. The woman gave him a wink and disappeared without a word.
As Kei got back to his feet, shaking the dust off his jeans, he threw one longing glance at the spot where the brunette just stood a moment ago. Pity, the divine apparition in red was gone.
As the traffic started moving, they heard a loud crunching noise.
“Your new bike!” exclaimed Win.
They ran to the curb and pulled it out of the way of the passing cars, but it was too late. The bike was crushed.
Someone in the crowd asked the brothers to pose for a picture, together with the cured man. But Kei’s thoughts were occupied with something else. His new bike, the one he loved so much, was gone. He abandoned what was left of his beautiful machine on the ground and they both made the rest of the way home on foot, Win walking his bike, Kei by his side.