DEATH MARKED (121 reviews on Amazon.com! Now in Audio)
They ran down the steep mountain slopes that had taken them several days to climb. More than once they had to hide in crevices in the rocks, cramped against each other, waiting with paused breath in the darkness as snowmobiles zoomed past, headlights casting long shadows across the face of the mountain.
“They’re relentless,” Rohan said, after they climbed out a crevice for the fifth time.
Altemus joined him, then patted the velvet bag around his waist. “Let ‘em try to take it from me.”
It was grueling and nerve-racking, but they made their way down the slopes without being caught. After a day’s travel, the snowmobile patrols let up as the snow gave way to rocky ground. The trio had the advantage on foot, and now that they were in the clear, they picked up their speed and descended twice as fast as they had climbed.
The sky changed from gray to bright blue with wispy clouds. The sharp, snowy peaks of the Urals rose into the air behind them. The air grew fuller, too, and Rohan loosened his jacket collar as the temperature rose and he found it easier to breathe. Every once in a while, he looked over his shoulders at the peaks, glad the temple was far away.
There was no way the guards would have given up so easily. He expected to see a helicopter whir down on them, but remembered what Lev had said about the temple men rejecting most technologies, apart from the snowmobiles they used for supplies. It should have made Rohan feel better, but his heart still beat quickly every time he heard a sound that wasn’t his own footsteps.
At last, they found their getaway car, guarded by a man named Mahkmuhd, both hidden in an abandoned lookout post on a dirt road speckled with snow. The fair-skinned Uzbek man wore a thick winter coat and a furry tam-o’-shanter. He leaned against the taxi and looked up with relief when he saw them.
“It’s about time. I was running out of tea and was considering leaving you.”
“Thank God you didn’t,” Altemus said, patting the man on the back. He let out a jolly laugh that reverberated off the rocks. “You are the man, Mahkmuhd. I’ll buy you tea for a year.”
Mahkmuhd smiled and pointed at Altemus, winking. “You have a deal.” He turned to Rohan and said, “And you, my friend—you look like you’ve lost a thousand and one pounds.”
Rohan rubbed the back of his head. Instead of friendly banter, he preferred they get out of there as quickly as possible.
“If you’ve gotten what you came for, then we best go,” Mahkmuhd said, seemingly reading his thoughts. “Maybe now I’ll be able to defrost the icicles hanging from my balls.”
Silence. Then Altemus broke into laughter.
Lev said something in Russian and gestured for the keys. Mahkmuhd tossed them to him, and hopped into the back seat with Rohan.
Mahkmuhd had come to Russia from Uzbekistan as a taxi driver trying to make money to send back home to his family. He had done a driving job for Lev, which led to more high-paying clientele. Quickly, he found himself doing fewer taxi jobs and more chauffeuring for international clients of the Russian and American variety.
Rohan glanced out the back window, but their pursuers were long gone. The car bumped along the choppy road in silence, leaving the mountain peaks far behind.
Mahkmuhd looked to each of them as if trying to figure out who would start the story.
“The job was a success?” he asked.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Good. I have your travel papers ready.”
“Let’s have them,” Lev said.
“Not here with me,” Mahkmuhd said with a grin. “At the usual spot. Don’t worry.”
Lev’s face brightened. “The spot with the best vodka, I hope.”
“We’re getting transportation papers at a bar?” Rohan asked.
“It’s a fine establishment,” Mahkmuhd said. “It just happens to serve alcohol.”
“As long as we get them,” Rohan said, nestling his head in a crook between the window and the seat. He closed his eyes and fell asleep almost immediately.
His dreams were flashes of men in robes, blood darkening the snow, the brushed steel of a gun. A face, opening in the flurries of snow with eyes that burned with red flames. He woke with a start. The scent of leather reminded him of his old recliner, and for a moment he thought he was home, that it was all over.
But it wasn’t.
Mahkmuhd was staring at him with a grin.
“Bad dreams?” the man asked.
“You could say that.”
Rohan turned back to the window. They sped past a snowy cluster of houses, mountains looming behind them. Flakes of snow drifted past, seeming to slow as the car came to a stop. He rubbed his hands as a strong breeze blew through the cracks in the cab.
Hunger pains gripped his stomach as he looked out at the bar where they had parked. An old fridge leaned against the log cabin building. One wall leaned in slightly, as if it would fall down any minute. The windows were filled with neon signs advertising different beers, and the lights flickered.
Sleepily, Rohan stumbled out of the cab, following Mahkmuhd, Altemus, and Lev into the building.
The inside of the tavern was mostly empty, except for a few men in the shadows talking over glasses of vodka. Taxidermy lined the walls—bears, boars, walruses, and seals.
“Where the hell are we?” Rohan asked with skepticism.
“Come,” Altemus replied. His voice said there’d be no arguing. “You’ll fit right in.”
Perhaps he would have, once. In Rohan’s younger days, he would have loved the dark atmosphere, the animal eyes looking down on him, the thick smoke in the air, the bright lights shining from the rows and rows of colored alcohol bottles behind the bar. But the days of his youth were far away, and he didn’t want to waste time in a bar.
They ordered a round of drinks while Mahkmuhd sat at the bar whispering to the bartender. The bartender slipped him an envelope, which the Uzbek quickly tucked into his jacket pocket.
After the first round, Lev ordered shots. Altemus took his time with a beer, scribbling in a notebook and ignoring the others. The old man’s demeanor had changed again; when they had met, he couldn’t be described as happy, but at least he’d been cordial. Now, he was absorbed in his notes and snapped at anyone who interrupted him.
“You, Rohan,” Lev shouted from across the table. “Tell us about your first time.”
“First time for what?” Rohan asked.
“Stop, Lev,” Altemus said, not taking his eyes off the notebook.
Lev stared at the old man, stone-faced, then broke into laughter. “You didn’t think I meant…. No, you dirty old man!” He laughed again. “I was talking about your first, you know.” The Russian held a finger to his head like a gun and pulled the imaginary trigger with his thumb. “Was this your first?”
For a moment, Lev looked skeptical. Then he clapped Rohan on the shoulder, his sandpaper hands striking hard enough to sting. “Guess that means you’re ready for Russia’s best vodka, then.”
Rohan couldn’t think of any reason to say no to that, and he was glad for it when he sipped from the glass. The vodka was smooth and flavorless. He rolled it around in his mouth like he would a fine wine, and the smooth aftertaste tingled across his tongue.
“Better than wine, yes?” Lev held his glass for a clink, and Rohan obliged.
“One hundred times better.”
They clinked glasses and then downed them.
“She must have meant a lot to you,” Lev said quietly.
“She must have been one amazing woman,” Lev said. “Your… fiancée.”
Odd that Lev was asking about Senna now, after all the opportunities he’d had. He must have had too many drinks already, enough to reach the point where a man starts speaking his mind.
“You have no idea.”
“Well, tomorrow your luck returns,” Lev said.
Rohan downed another shot. “As long as there’s no more violence, I’ll drink to that.”
Lev puffed. “No promises there, my friend. You should drink anyway.”
Mahkmuhd returned to the table, patting his jacket.
“Ever dream of visiting Turkmenistan?” the Uzbek asked. “Because if you have, I’m making your dreams come true.” He handed the envelope to Altemus, and for the first time since sitting at the table, Altemus looked up.
“We’d better call it a night, then,” Altemus said.
“What? Now?” Lev looked at him like he was crazy. “We just started celebrating.”
“Finish your drink and let’s go. You’ll be able to celebrate and drink yourself stupid in two days when we’re finished. I’m not the only one who’s eager to be done with this affair, am I?” Altemus looked to Rohan.
“Old man’s right,” Rohan said.
“I guess this is farewell then, my friends,” Mahkmuhd said. “Until next time.”
Rohan stood, gave the man a handshake, and then headed for the car. He refused to put off his reunion with Senna any longer than he had to. He’d already waited long enough.
FROM JUSTIN >>> Chapter 2 for you! They’re journey’s about to take them from mountains in Russia to an interesting (and believe it or not, real) place in Turkmenistan. Just wait, or don’t! You can go google ‘The Door to Hello,’ right now, and see what it’s all about. Pretty awesome right?
Let me know! I think this will be the last snippet from book 1, so stay tuned for book 2.
If you’ve already read book 1 and 2, don’t miss out on book 3, available for preorder now!