The late July sun reflected off Lydia Sea like a million shards of glass. The expanse of glittering water stretched to the horizon, broken by the wakes of freighters and fishing boats. From above, the docks at Omsk looked like a boiling ant mound—cargo and crew, passengers and vehicles swinging, scurrying, criss-crossing in never-ending motion.
Among the busy figures in denim and canvas swirled other figures in black. Each entrance to the dockyard, each gangplank, each warehouse, each transit office sported a cluster of special black worker ants. They stalled passenger lines and opened cargo holds. They turned away vehicles at the gates. They swarmed and broke apart with the mindless instinct that make ants so efficient—and deadly.
A panel truck perched on the bluffs above the harbor. Old, but well-kept, it idled quietly at the picturesque look-out. The occupants of the truck sat just as quietly, squeezed shoulder to shoulder. They didn’t notice the tight fit. They had gotten used to it.
Finally, the driver killed the engine. Boris Petrovich sucked on his teeth thoughtfully. Francisco sighed, which squeezed Marapura tighter between the two men. With a sinking dread, she stopped trying to count the number of Home Guard troops below and closed her eyes against the piercing glare of the water.
“Well,” Boris started, then stopped for lack of words.
“This just gets better and better,” Francisco muttered. “They followed us from Song Hau, tried to take me out to get to the Queen, and now they’re here waiting for us.”
“We don’t know those Guards are about me,” Mara said meekly.
“This conspiracy? It’s everywhere!” Francisco’s voice sailed up an octave. “It’s infected everything like pillowbugs!”
“All’s Balls, boy. Give that tired rant a rest.”
“You don’t believe me?” The Queen’s First of Security rocked forward. “I recognized one of those gunmen that came for us in Collier. He was on President Kelly’s Guard detail! He was a good man, a loyal man.”
“So you’ve said.”
Francisco gestured angrily at the harbor. “So, you think all this is just coincidence?”
“No, I think yer right. I’m just sick’a yer squawkin’.”
“Please.” Mara laid her hand on Francisco’s knee, but looked at Boris. “We’re all tired and hungry. Biting at each other won’t move us along.”
She squinted at the dockyard. “If we can’t get across to Tao here, maybe there’s someplace farther up the coast. But, we have to find out.”
She pointed to a deserted-looking warehouse at the far eastern edge of the yard. It seemed clear of black ants. “Take the truck down there, Boris. I’ll find us something to eat while you two get whatever information you can.”
As the engine roared back into life, she glanced up at Francisco’s stony face. His jaw muscles bunched as his teeth ground together.
“Do you think we should try to contact Washington Brown again?” she asked him. “Or Lillette in Tao?”
“Wash said to use that emergency number once, no more.” He shook his head in frustration. “Communications in Peking may be compromised, too, by now. There’s no way to know.”
Mara grabbed the dashboard as they bumped down the steep road. “I know you thought we had an informant in the Palace. Was that how they found the safe house in Song Hau?” More quietly, she added, “Was it Jasper?”
“Maybe. As Communication First, he had the access.” Francisco looked at her, his face softening. “But, Jasper? After Robby, he’s the staffer I trusted most.”
“I can’t believe it of any of them.” Mara shook her head. “No.”
“If I know Marissa, she’s checking everyone’s family and friends, every person they ever passed on the street. She’ll figure it out.”
“Just like we’ll figure this out.” She gripped his arm, then glanced at Boris. The trucker sucked a tooth meaningfully.
Across the street from the deserted warehouse, a run-down kiosk sold kabobs and pirogue. The Queen stood in a queue of dock workers. She slouched forward, Boris’ big chambray shirt hanging loose around her shift, hiding her growing belly. She pushed at the little round sunglasses on her nose.
“Thought you shipped yesterday,” a gruff voice behind her said.
The man in front of her turned, glanced over her head, then spat into the gravel at his feet. “‘Sposed to.”
“They take yer manifest again?”
The man stared toward the docks, his weathered face seamed like an old map. “Da.”
They all took a few steps forward as a skinny deckhand left the front of the line chewing from a paper-wrapped bundle. The smell of onions and roasted lamb drifted from the kiosk.
“Chyort,” the man behind Mara swore. “I hear they stopped runs to Yangtze altogether.”
The gristled man nodded. “They been rerouted to either Houma or Shao Lin.”
“Svolochi! Them’s 200 klicks either side’a Yangtze! Who’s payin’ the overland cost?”
“Not me.” The other man spat again and moved up in line.
“Svolochi oslayobi,” the man behind Mara muttered.
A tall, blond man moved away from the kiosk with a skewer of kabob. Mara frowned and watched him saunter toward the docks, his bulk somehow misplaced in jeans and tee-shirt.
He belongs in a suit, she thought, puzzled.
Suddenly, she remembered the smell of ink and rusty plumbing. She remembered the blond man walking in front of her in the dark gray suit of a security guard. Her memory expanded and she saw President Kelly walking beside her. She saw the old store front where Jakaya Brown made his office.
“William,” she whispered, leaving the queue. “His name is William. He was Kerner’s Second of Security.”
The big man swung a bag over his shoulder, cut across the street and moved into the bustle of the docks. Mara trotted to catch up, watching for Home Guard. William wove through the crowd, his pale hair high above most others. He cut between transit offices and approached a small building with no signage. Mara paused behind the corner of one office and watched him speak to the two Home Guard at the entrance, then duck to fit through the short door.
Determined, Marapura skirted the building as she rounded to the other side. She squeezed between a loading lift and a big flat of cargo boxes to a narrow path alongside the back of the building. Dusty windows ran along the wall.
She peered in each one—an office, a storage closet, another office. Finally, she spied the blond man in a grimy kitchenette. A young woman stood next to him, crying and glancing toward the door. William gripped her arm and shook her once, a rough snap that immediately quieted her. She wiped at her face, and Mara saw her more clearly.
I know her, too, she thought, struggling to place the pretty, dark-haired girl. Oddly, she thought of Marissa and how nervous she had been about becoming her First Aide. The look on her face—the embarrassed, pained look on her face—when she followed Briank and Kerner’s man, Basil, through Jakaya Brown’s office. When Marissa followed this young woman.
Idayama. The name came to her.
She cupped her hand to the glass to shade her eyes. William shrugged the bag off his shoulder and handed it to Idayama. She shook her head. He unzipped it, talking to her, and pulled out a handful of files. His finger stabbed the folders, then stabbed her shoulder. Idayama covered her face with her hands.
Ice water trickled down Mara’s back. Jakaya’s campaign headquarters… where I saw her… where Briank met her.
She watched Idayama shove the folders back into the bag and clutch it to her chest as she hurried out of the kitchen. William waited, hands on his slim hips. He started to turn toward the window, and Mara flattened herself against the outside wall. Her heart hammered in her chest.
In a moment, she dared to peek into the room, but it was empty. She ran back along the narrow path to the cargo flat and loader. Pausing to peek around the corner of the building, she saw William’s blond head weaving through the crowd once again. Carefully, she picked her way through the traffic, ducking around Home Guard, cutting through jumbles of trucks and passenger lines. She lost William for a brief, panicked moment, then spotted him again, jumping onto a fishing boat. As he made his way up the deck, the hand threw off the line. The little steamer eased away from the dock immediately.
Mara watched the boat drift out into Lydia’s azure blue, her hands clenched around the tails of Boris’ shirt. Then, she spun and ran to the transit office behind her.
“Say,” she said to the sour-faced woman at the window. “Where’s that fisher headed?”
The woman looked up, grunted, and turned back to her books. “That there’s the last boat this harbor’s spittin’ out to Yangtze.”
Mara continued to pace around Boris’ truck even though her thoughts had stopped spinning. It gave her something to do until the men returned. And she needed something to do. Eventually, she spotted them far down the street—one tall and bare-headed, one wide with a wider hat. She met them half-way.
“What’s wrong?” Francisco demanded.
She shoved grease-stained paper bundles into their hands. “Eat and talk,” she commanded, turning back toward the truck. “You first.”
Eying her Francisco unwrapped the sandwich and took a huge bite. “All this security?” he said around his food. “It’s not about you—at least not all of it.”
“It’s about Yangtze,” Boris finished. He wiped at a smear of sauce on his chin. “All Lydia routes to Yangtze’re closed. ‘Til further notice. Some kinda algae outbreak.”
“Algae,” Mara muttered.
“Guards’re out to enforce the ban—this bein’ the first day ‘n’ no notice give. Lotta folks mad as All.”
“There was a riot this morning when the Dock Master announced the ban,” Francisco said. “Some scuffles after that, but the people I talked to are steady with it now. Although, one Transit Foreman said Home Guard showed up last week and searched every ship bound North. That part could be about you.”
“So, you gotta stay out’a sight,” Boris mumbled around his food. “Not sure we should even try to cross here.”
“We’re crossing to Houma today,” Mara said.
“But, if we cross at Shao Lin, that would bring us in closer to Empress,” Francisco said, but sounded unsure.
“We’re not going to Empress.” She could feel them exchange a look over her head. “We’re going to Yangtze.”
Francisco crumpled his empty wrapper. “I think it’s your turn to talk now, Ma’am.”
She told them about William and Idayama. She told them about the fishing boat William took to Yangtze. In silence, they reached the truck and squeezed into the cab. It smelled of fried onions and peppers.
Finally, Francisco said, “Briank.”
Mara could hear his teeth grinding together. “His girlfriend works for Jakaya Brown. After President Kelly was killed, I heard that William went to work for him, too.”
Boris picked lettuce out of his teeth. “That the milk-faced eel we been watchin’ on the vids?”
Mara smiled stiffly. “It is.”
“Figures.” He looked out the window at the line still trailing from the food kiosk. “We’ll need a ferry to get the truck across. There’s one leavin’ ‘s’afternoon.”
“The fare will take most of the money we have left,” Francisco added.
Mara looked at him. “I thought you would argue with me.”
“I should. I should run us in the opposite direction as fast as I can.”
Francisco watched hands from the kiosk wander back toward the yard. “Jakaya Brown is the lead investigator. He’s practically Callinda’s hero. If he’s involved, we have to get proof, or no-one will believe it. There’s no way to know if anyone suspects him, no safe way to contact help, no-one else who can follow William—just us.”
“General Jones suspected,” Mara said. “I’m sure of it now.”
“I sure wish you’d followed Idayama instead,” Francisco sighed. “William’s trained and he’s mean. Maybe you should go on to Empress with Boris and let me… ”
Boris shifted so he could reach his back pocket. “Always liked Horatio Jones,” he said, pulling out an old leather wallet. “Saw him swear-down a factory foreman during a labor dust-up. Hoo! He turned the air all shades of blue. Foreman deserved every word.”
He sorted out a couple of paper bills. “Since we’re sittin’ here ‘til the ferry, I’m gettin’ me a couple of kabobs. ‘Fraid that little snack of yours won’t last me if we’re set to make mischief. What about you, boy?” He looked at Francisco.
Mara’s First of Security stared at Petrovich, then a slow smile spread across his face. Boris grinned back.
Men, the Queen mused.
Mara watched the truck disappear into the dock traffic. She shifted the grocery bag to her hip and started through the crowd. Francisco insisted on the bag—something to help hide her face. But, the Home Guard paid no attention to her when she followed William through the docks, and she doubted they would notice her now. Still, Francisco watched from several paces behind, and she wanted him to see her being careful. It might be his last opportunity in a while.
She found the ferry with Boris’ truck parked first in line at the bow. Two guards flanked the gangplank. Mara ducked her head as if watching her footing when she tromped up the damp boards. She heard Francisco back on the dock, shouting a friendly string of curses, and knew the young guards would be more interested in his creativity than the mousey woman brushing past them. She smiled at Francisco’s deft and colorful New Minsk patois. Boris had been a good teacher.
Squeezing between the parked vehicles, she found Boris paying the transit Mate.
“Two hours to cross,” the Mate said, tearing a receipt from his book. He glanced at Mara, who bent over to inspect the items in her bag, then jutted his chin at Francisco weaving through the cars. “This yer party, then?”
Boris nodded. “I got a shipment t’pick up in Yangtze. We gonna have any trouble gettin’ in?”
“Nyet,” the Mate made a face. “Not unless yer pickin’ up at the cannery.”
“Couple’a canneries in Yangtze.”
“Sea O’Gold opened up again this spring. Big plant. Lots of security, I hear.”
Boris tucked the receipt in his shirt pocket and started toward the truck. Mara and Francisco followed close behind.
“At least we know where we’re going now,” Francisco muttered.
“Yep,” Boris returned.
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Click here to read Chapter 19.