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The Boy Who Glowed in the Dark

Excerpt: Prologue


The Boy Who Glowed in the Dark

If a man lived long enough, he risked becoming what he once hated.

Luo stood at the edge of Park Slavi in Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, watching people rush to work. They looked miserable. City folks spent their lives chasing treasure in hopes of escaping that same city. Luo had never understood the obsession with treasure. Until now.

A slender man with a dark complexion appeared. He looked like the man in the picture Luo had bought from the guard at Chornobyl. They called him the scavenger because of his ability to extract value from the most unlikely places. He was a loner with a reputation for elusiveness and toughness.

Luo turned his knapsack to make the yellow peace sign visible. The scavenger's eyes went to the sticker and stopped. He studied Luo, glanced in each direction and approached. The scavenger's fence had arranged a code for the two men to use to confirm their identities.

"Two friends go hunting bear," the scavenger said in Russian. "One gets a rifle, the other a pair of skis. Which would you choose?"

"The skis," Luo said.

"You won't outrun the bear on your skis."

"I don't need to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun my friend."

The scavenger thrust his hand forward. "Hayder," he said.

Luo shook it. "Luoravetian."

Hayder frowned.

Luo knew his Russian sounded coarse to people outside Siberia. That made his unusual first name incomprehensible to some. "Luo," he said.

Hayder nodded. Better.

Luo started down one of two paths that wound into the forest.

Hayder took three steps and stopped. "Why are you leading me this way?" He craned his neck around the bend but trees obscured his view.

"I'm not leading you anywhere." Luo motioned toward the people strolling around the park. "Just getting us some privacy."

"Is something going to happen to me if I follow you down that path?"

"Yeah. You're going to realize just how paranoid you are."

"Paranoia keeps the scavenger alive." Hayder pointed toward the second path, the one that followed an access road into the woods. "We go this way instead. And we stop at the edge where the people can still see us."

Luo slung his knapsack over his shoulder. It contained his weapons of choice. "Sounds good. How about you lead on, and I'll follow you."

They walked down the second path.

"What's the job?" Hayder said.

"Diamonds," Luo said.

"Diamonds?"

Luo noted the inflection in Hayder's voice. Speak of gold and you got a thief's attention. But promise him diamonds and he forgot his own name.

"Magadan diamonds," Luo said.

"Magadan." Hayder frowned. "Siberia? You're from Siberia?"

Luo nodded. "In the 1970s, an asteroid hit Russia between Krasnoyarsk and Yakutia. It left a meteorite crater about one hundred kilometers wide. Filled with diamonds."

"Asteroid? You're kidding me."

"It's called the Popigai Astroblem, and it's supposed to contain trillions of carats of diamonds. Enough to satisfy worldwide demand for the next three thousand years."

"Is this common knowledge?"

Luo ambled further down the path out of sight of the other visitors. Hayder was so focused on the diamonds he shuffled along to keep pace, seemingly oblivious to his own movement.

"It was a secret until the Russians declassified the documents in 2012," Luo said. "The mine is a start-up. They've taken some samples. I have a man on the inside." Luo stopped. He turned to face Hayder, positioning himself at the proper angle to ensure the scavenger kept his back to the access road. "But I need someone with special skills."

A light flickered in Hayder's eyes. "Why me?"

"I need a man who's comfortable negotiating an industrial site in the dead of night. Someone experienced in slipping in and out of tight places. Someone like the finest scavenger ever to prowl Chornobyl and its Zone of Exclusion." The Zone of Exclusion was the thirty-kilometer radius around Chornobyl's nuclear power plants. "The man who stripped more engines from radioactive vehicles, more steel from abandoned buildings, and more spare parts from shuttered nuclear facilities than anyone else."

Hayder remained expressionless for a moment. Then he nodded. "That would be me."

Luo sighed with relief. "Good. I needed you to confirm I had the right man."

Three men burst from behind a thicket of trees. They grabbed Hayder's arms and legs. One sealed the scavenger's mouth with tape. Another took the gun from his pocket.

A white van screamed down the access road. The rear doors opened. The men lifted Hayder and threw him in the back. Then they climbed inside after him. Luo followed and slammed the doors shut behind him. The driver took off.

The men tied Hayder's arms and legs to a chair.

Fifteen minutes later, the van pulled over in an empty field. The three men and the driver got out.

Luo sat on a bench opposite Hayder. Anger shone in the scavenger's eyes. He wasn't afraid. Luo was impressed.

"The fence said you were a prudent man," Luo said. "So I figured you'd insist on taking the other path. The one near the access road. Now, I'm going to remove the gag from your mouth so you can answer my questions. If you scream for help you'll only end up hurting yourself. Do we understand each other?"

Hayder nodded. Luo removed the tape from his mouth.

Hayder swore and worked his jaw loose. Then he glared at Luo. "Do we know each other? Have I done something to you?"

"No."

"Then what do you want?"

"The truth," Luo said.

"The truth about what?"

"Nadia Tesla."

"Who?"

"The woman you escorted into the Zone last year with your friend, the professor. The one who moonlights as a taxi driver."

Hayder's eyes widened. Recognition gave way to disgust. "The entitled American bitch? What about her? I don't even know her. It was in one day, out the next."

"What was her business in the Zone?"

"What about the diamonds?"

"Diamonds? What diamonds?"

Luo dropped a thick roll of hryvnia, the Ukrainian currency, on the table in front of Hayder. The scavenger stared at it. Still a chance for him to make a profit.

"What was Nadia Tesla's business in the Zone?" Luo said.

Hayder picked up the pace of his delivery. "She was meeting a relative. An uncle."

"How could she be meeting an uncle when no one lives in Chornobyl?"

"People live in Chornobyl. Not many, but they're there. Squatters. People who love their land and their homes. They return even though it's illegal."

"And her uncle was one of them?"

Hayder shrugged. "Maybe. There was some gossip in the Zone a week later."

"Gossip?"

"There's a cafe. The workers from the reactors go there. People hear things. They talk."

"And what did they say?"

"That an American woman had met with an old man. And that the old man is dead."

"Did Nadia say anything about a boy during the trip?"

"A boy?" Hayder frowned.

"Yes. A boy from Chornobyl."

"A boy from the Zone? No."

"Is it possible she was meeting a boy in the Zone that night? At her uncle's house?"

"I don't know. You should ask the babushka."

Luo's ears perked up. "What babushka?"

"The gossip was the American woman had met with a squatter. A sick old man who lived with a babushka that took care of him."

"Do you have a name?"

"No." Hayder eyed the money. "I wish I did." He frowned at Luo. "You know, if all you wanted was information, we could have done this over coffee."

"We both know that's a lie," Luo said. "You needed to know I'm serious."

Hayder paused, then nodded. "What now?"

"My men will release you. You're free to go. The money is yours. It's payment for your silence. But if I hear you asking questions about anything we discussed today, you won't be asking many more questions after that. Do we understand each other?"

"Yeah. We understand each other."

Luo summoned the men he'd hired and told them to release their prisoner. They were old army buddies. A military career had left him with friends all over the former Soviet Union. Most of them were more than willing to moonlight for a few extra bucks.

Luo's next lead was in Chornobyl. He actually had to go to the radioactive wasteland himself. Only idiot tourists went there. He dreaded the notion but his pursuit of the treasure left him no choice. He was obsessed with it.

He had lived long enough to become what he once hated, but that wasn't what shocked him. The big surprise was that he couldn't have been happier about it. No other endeavor had ever fulfilled him so much. Nothing he had ever done had given him such joy.


© Orest Stelmach


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