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Authors: David Lee Marriner

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Laptin, the Tsar, and the few still-standing hussars only
just had time to unsheathe their sabres before the first attackers reached
them.

Suddenly, behind the attackers, another gang of men
appeared, chopping and shooting their way through the melee. Their attack was
silent and fierce. Within a couple of minutes, the Tsar’s ambushers had been
slaughtered. For a few moments, the newcomers and the Tsar’s party stood with
their weapons pointing at each other. Only the bodies of the common enemy and
the pools of blood that had been accumulating in the snow separated them.

There was stillness, disturbed only by the wheezing of a few
dying horses.

During these moments, Batka felt an unshakable certainty
building up inside him. The decision to save the Tsar was the right one. He and
his people had arrived only a few minutes before the assault on the cortege,
and he had to decide what to do on the run. Nobody had spotted them. Batka
could have ordered a retreat and left events to follow their natural course. It
was then that he recognised the Tsar thanks to the photos he had seen in the
newspapers. In that very instant, Batka decided to fight on his side. Now,
because of that, he was standing face to face with the Tsar-Emperor of Russia,
intoxicated with the thought that he, the bandit, held the fate of this vast
country in his hands. With a single blow of his sabre, he could eliminate the
Tsar of the biggest state in the world and change the course of history. It was
during his moment of revelation that he realised why he had been put on the
earth and what his life mission was. In that very instant his mind forged the
supreme plan to which he was going to dedicate the rest of his life, and he
formulated the legacy he was going to leave to his descendants.

Batka Ivan sheathed his sabre and waved to his people,
indicating to them to follow his example. He bowed together with them and said,
“My name is Ivan. I lead these people. It’s an honour for me to meet with your
Emperor’s Majesty.

“Rise. I thank you, Ivan. And all of you... We meet in
strange circumstances,” the Tsar said. “Do you know who the bastards that
attacked us were?”

Before Batka could answer, Semeon Laptin spoke. “I think I
know who they might be, Your Majesty.” He approached a dead body and rolled it
over with his foot. “This villain I recognise from the police ‘most wanted’
list. He's from Moscow - an anarchist. Most probably all of them are of that
kind.”

“I didn’t believe that this trash would dare do something
like that.” The Tsar shook his head and turned to Batka. “Tell me your whole
name.”

 “I do not have a family name, Your Majesty. I don’t
remember it. I was orphaned at a very young age.”

The Tsar took out a white lace handkerchief from his sleeve,
wiped his sword and sheathed it into the scabbard that was hanging on his hip.
“Lower weapons. It is only friends here,” he ordered the hussars. He threw away
the stained handkerchief and offered his hand to Batka, who stepped over a few
bodies and took it with a bow.

“I serve Your Majesty,” Batka said in a ceremonial tone.

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Brighton, UK

The present day

 

In the mid-afternoon, inside Restaurant 07 at the hotel
Altor in Brighton, a modest number of customers were eating and drinking; most
had decided to sit outside on the large balcony overlooking the sea. A man in
his fifties sat alone at the restaurant’s bar drinking a glass of whisky. He
wore a badge clipped to his coat pocket that identified him as Stefan Costov.
As well as being a scientist in molecular genetics, Stefan Costov was head of
the laboratory at A. A. Farma, a Bulgarian firm which operated as the European
branch of a large American pharmaceuticals company called Techno Genetics.
Costov was visiting Brighton for a three-day conference on developments in
genetics. He had just finished a presentation and the busy question-and-answer
session that followed it and had come straight to the bar. Actually, for the
two days he had been there, Costov had spent much more time in the bar than in
the Regency Suite where the conference was taking place.

“One more. Double, please,” he said to the bartender.

Costov gulped down his second double whisky and, using a
combination of nodding and finger pointing, he signalled to the bartender for
another refill. He had never drunk so much in his life. But he needed it
because otherwise the bad thoughts and feelings wouldn’t go away. He found
drink to be the best way of blurring the painful memories of the assault on him
in his apartment. Stefan Costov had arrived at the conference hoping that a
change of scenery would help him deal with his post-traumatic experience. That
didn’t happen.

The faint odour of an expensive perfume drew him out of his
reflections. The scent originated from a pretty young lady with short black
hair and blue eyes who sat in the chair next to him.

“A cosmopolitan, please,” she said to the bartender.

 As she waited for her cocktail, she turned her gaze
towards Stefan Costov until their eyes locked. “Sometimes one needs something
stronger than a cup of tea at this time of the day,” she said with a smile.

“That’s so true.” Stefan Costov lifted his glass to her.
“Cheers.”

 “They almost crucified you today with all those
questions,” she said, and swivelled around her chair. Costov spotted the badge
on the side pocket of her jacket.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you among the delegates. I’m Stefan
Costov, but I’m sure you already know that.”

“I’m Ulrike Maier. It’s nice to meet you. I only arrived
today, which is probably why you haven’t noticed me before.”

“Where are you from?”

“Vienna University Hospital, Department of Microbiology and
Immunology.”

“Well, you missed a few colourful lectures on the first
day.”

“I’m going to buy recordings of everything I missed.”

“Of course, but it’s not the same.”

“I’ve been preparing for this conference for quite some
time. Unfortunately, right at the last minute something happened which forced
me to postpone my flight,” Ulrike explained.

Suddenly, in the background, raised voices could be heard. A
young couple had started an argument in the middle of the bar. Instinctively,
Costov turned his head in their direction, and, at that very moment, Ulrike
dropped a small brownish pill into his glass, which he had placed on the bar.
It dissolved instantly in a burst of tiny bubbles which swiftly disappeared.

“I must admit, I would have been very disappointed if I’d
missed your report,” said Ulrike.

As she spoke, Costov turned to give his full attention to
her. “I’m glad you hold me in such high esteem.” He smiled.

The bartender brought over Ulrike’s cosmopolitan, and she
lifted her glass. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.” Costov gulped down the rest of his whisky. “It’s
time for me to go back to the conference hall now. It’s been a pleasure talking
with you,” he said.

“You’re nice company, Mr Costov. Would you allow me to buy
you another drink before going?”

He looked at her cheerfully. “That should have been my line.
I must be getting old… Nevertheless, I must…” He began to slur his words.

“What were you saying, Mr Costov?”

“Erm, I was leaving … I think.” He began to stutter
helplessly and his shoulders drooped. “I don’t remember…” Suddenly, the
intelligent persona of Stefan Costov vanished, and he seemed disorientated and
bewildered. Onlookers would have probably described him as drunk.

“Do you want to go to your room now?” Ulrike’s tone was
suddenly harsh.

“Yes, I want to go to my room,” he repeated apathetically
and rose from his chair.

Ulrike guided him across the bar. His steps were sluggish
and his eyes were glazed. She held his arm, and her closeness seemed to make no
difference to him. The couple who had started the argument discreetly followed
them.

* * *

Costov and his new female companion walked towards the lift
followed by the young couple who had been sitting in the bar. On arriving at
the right floor, they walked along the corridor towards Costov’s room, outside
of which two men dressed in expensive suits were standing, chatting casually.
The older one, a thickly built man with red hair and freckled skin, carried an
elongated black suitcase. The other was taller and carried a travel bag slung
over his shoulder.

As soon as the four approached, Ulrike bowed slightly to the
man carrying the suitcase. “It all went well, sir. Behind us is clear,” she
reported.

The man acknowledged her with an almost imperceptible nod.
“Unlock the door!” he commanded, addressing Costov.

Stefan Costov complied easily and they entered the room.

The luxurious apartment was rather small. It consisted of a
lounge, a bedroom and a bathroom. Ulrike guided Costov towards one of the
chairs in the lounge and pushed him down into the seat.

The man with the red hair stepped close to him and said, “We
have given you the slave drug,
rick-sal-la
, as it was called in the last
kingdom of our ancestors. A small dose of it will partially block your memory
and will fragmentize your thinking. It will make you a good and compliant
servant. You’ll feel happy if somebody fills up the black holes in your head by
telling you what to do. I believe you already know that. However, a larger dose
will make you lose total control of your body. You need a larger dose.” The
red-haired man paused and then added, “I want you to take off your top.”

Costov carried out the instructions with a docile obedience.
The red-haired man pointed to the bag and the suitcase that his companion had
placed on the central coffee table. “Let’s begin,” he ordered.

The younger man opened the bag. It contained a set of
clothes, which had been carefully folded, and a hatbox. He took out the entire
contents of the bag and placed them neatly on the table. At the same time,
Ulrike opened the suitcase and placed it on the floor. Inside were a number of
unusual objects: a twisted jagged horn, a metal bar decorated with a blade like
the claw of a bird of prey, a dagger with an ornate inlaid handle, several fine
brushes, a bowl, some small bottles filled with a mud-coloured liquid and a
transparent box containing syringes. Ulrike filled a syringe with liquid from
one of the bottles, knelt next to Costov and injected it into a vein in his left
hand. She pulled the needle out roughly and blood ran along Costov’s arm,
dripping to the floor.

The red-haired man started to put on the clothes that were
arranged on the table.First, a red silk robe with black and blue horizontal
stripes, which he fastened around his waist with a wide gold-coloured belt.
Then, he put on an elongated black hat taken from the hatbox. It had a square
rim to which a yellowish veil was attached. He looked like a priest who was
about to perform some kind of ceremony, but his clothing did not match the gown
of any known religious denomination.

The man leaned his veiled head towards the drowsy face of
Stefan Costov, whispering, “You have been here for too long. It’s time for you
to go. Forever.” He took the metal bar with the claw-like blade out of the
suitcase and gave a short order. “Prepare him!”

The others moved the furniture against the walls to clear
some floor space. The two men laid Costov’s languid body on the carpet. Ulrike
took the dagger and the bowl and positioned Costov’s left forearm just over the
bowl. With one quick and proficient movement, she cut deep into the veins above
his wrist. Thick blood began flowing steadily into the vessel. When the base of
the bowl was covered, the four younger members of the group moved away from
Costov to stand an equal distance from each other, facing outwards.
Simultaneously, they knelt down on one knee; their positions forming the shape
of a symmetrical cross. The veiled man started to chant in an unknown language,
and without stopping his chant he carved a large swastika on Costov’s chest
with the eagle-claw blade. When he finished, he picked up one of the fine
brushes and began to draw strange symbols on the carpet using the blood from
the bowl as paint. When he had drawn the last symbol, he put the bowl aside,
grabbed the horn with both hands and held it over Costov’s chest. For what
seemed like several long moments, the man stood motionless, his eyes staring
from behind the yellow veil into the face of his victim.

The drug Costov had been given began to loosen its hold and
his mind started to clear. Tears streamed from the corners of his eyes and he
began to cry inwardly in silent agony. He knew what was happening now. It was
the resumption of the assault that had taken place in his apartment in
Bulgaria. He had never truly believed that the assault was a robbery, even
though that was the main hypothesis the police investigation was pursuing. The
fact that the attacker had taken two of his precious paintings and his wallet
had not convinced him, because he had looked into his eyes. They were the cold
and inhuman eyes of a merciless killer. Costov now realized why he had been
left alive in his apartment despite the intruder having had the chance to do
with him whatever he wanted.

They want to perform a ritualistic killing. Lord!

With a deep intake of breath, the veiled man raised the horn
and, with the power of a woodcutter chopping a log, he plunged it deep into
Stefan Costov’s heart.

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

The Whiteway Estate, Hampshire, UK

 

Having finished his morning tea ritual, James donned his
tracksuit and trainers ready to go for a run in the forest. While he was
warming up in the porch, he spotted his estate manager, Lao Boonliang, coming
out of the stables. Lao was a short, slim man with a muscular body who looked
about fifty but was in fact sixty years old. Lao was from Thailand, and,
together with his wife Pema, who was of Tibetan origin, he lived in a bungalow
in the woods about forty metres away from the main house. James’ parents had
hired both Lao and his wife not long after James had been born. Pema had been
James’ nanny and had taken care of the household. The couple had lived and
worked there ever since. James had grown up as close to Lao, Pema and their
only daughter, Malee, who now lived in London, as to his parents.

BOOK: The Gods' Gambit
3.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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