When an ancient gold bear is found entombed in a dilapidated St. Petersburg bathhouse owned by her uncle, Rosa Kovalenka knows in her heart that this is no random twist of fate. Her former lover, researcher Daniel St. Clair, reluctantly agrees to go to the university in Arkhangelsk to identify the relic.
Along the way he is mysteriously set adrift. Maps are suddenly useless. Automobiles break down and cell phones inexplicably stop working. Lost and exhausted, Daniel stumbles even deeper into the secrets and terrors of the Russian landscape.
Rosa fears the worst when Daniel goes missing and, full of shame and sudden longing, resolves to find him. But to do so means confronting her past and secrets that she has fought to suppress.
In the unknowable, impenetrable Russian forest, Rosa meets an enigmatic wanderer who is full of tales and riddles of times past. He knows tales of a very old bear and the fate of lovers old and new. And he might hold the key to Rosa and Daniel’s future—or the destruction of their world.
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Kim Wilkins is an Australian bestseller who has won an Aurealis Award for both Best Horror Novel and Best Novel. She resides in Brisbane with her husband, son, assorted cats, and far too many books.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Rosa Kovalenka was beautiful and clever, but nobody knew the truth about her.
Not Daniel, not Uncle Vasily, and certainly not the American foreman who caught his breath from the run up the stairs before speaking.
â€œThereâ€™s been an accident,â€ he said.
Rosa leapt up from her desk. â€œIs anybody hurt?â€
â€œNot that kind of an accident.â€ He removed his hard hat, revealing sandy curling hair. â€œIâ€™m sorry, Miss Kovalenka, but weâ€™ve mistakenly knocked a hole in one of the walls.â€ His eyes flicked around nervously. â€œIs Vasily here?â€
â€œNo, Jamie, Uncle Vasily is at lunch.â€ She offered a reassuring smile. â€œShow me. Maybe itâ€™s not so bad.â€
Rosa followed Jamie from the office and down the worn stone steps to the street. She had been working in Uncle Vasilyâ€™s business for the past six months, and she knew his temper was legendary, which accounted for Jamieâ€™s anxious body language as he strode ahead of her. Two doors up stood the bathhouse. A nineteenth-century structure that had been boarded up for forty years, it was the current object of Vasilyâ€™s unstoppable desire to transform every old building in St. Petersburg into luxury apartments.
â€œItâ€™s the sub-contractors,â€ Jamie was saying in embarrassed tones. Rosa knew that Jamie nursed a crush on her and revealing this lapse of judgment clearly pained him. â€œWe speak English, they speak Russian. Something got lost in translation and they started pulling out a wall.â€
â€œWell, theyâ€™ll have to put it back,â€ she said gently.
â€œTheyâ€™ve destroyed the plaster work, cracked all the tiles.â€
â€œUncle Vasily wonâ€™t be pleased.â€
â€œThe men were hoping youâ€™d tell him.â€ Jamie pushed open the door to the bathhouse; inside was dim and cold. One wall remained uncleaned, the mold of centuries gathered in its antique crevices. The tiles imparted a glassy echo to every sound.
â€œThereâ€™s something else,â€ Jamie said, leaning close, his clear green eyes holding her gaze. â€œInside the wall.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s inside the wall?â€
â€œWe didnâ€™t want to move it. But it looks like gold.â€
Rosa brushed Jamie aside and hurried to where the assembled crew stood scratching their heads, arguing in Russian and English. A bright spotlight had been angled directly into the gaping hole. She snapped at the crew to stand back, and leaned in.
Rainbow colors, golden mist, swirls of starlight patterns. An old song, half out of tune. A falling sensation beneath her ribs, an extra breath pressed into her lungs.
Rosa blinked. She had always seen things others didnâ€™t see: the magical world was laid bare to her, where it remained cloaked to most. This hollow in the wall was brimming over with magic. She peered closer and saw why. Shoved upside-down between two bricks was a bear made of gold.
Rosa gasped. â€œItâ€™s beautiful,â€ she said, reaching into the cavity. Dust and mold blackened the lower three inches of the bear, but the top half was clean. Rosaâ€™s fingers brushed against it and electricity snapped up her hand and forearm. She snatched her hand away.
The workmen exchanged nervous glances.
â€œItâ€™s enchanted,â€ she said, then repeated herself in Russian for the benefit of the locals. One or two of the crew snickered, probably the Americans.
The door to the bathhouse flew open and Vasily stood there, outlined by the sunlight from the street.
â€œWhat has happened!â€ he shrieked in Russian.
â€œUncle Vasily, calm down,â€ Rosa said, hurrying over and taking his fleshy arm. â€œI think the damage is not so bad, and they will be able to fix it easily. Come, you must see. A wonderful object has been found.â€
Vasily shook his head. â€œAy, Roshka. Can I not go to lunch without a disaster befalling me?â€
â€œItâ€™s not a disaster, Uncle Vasily. Itâ€™s a blessing. Youâ€™ll see.â€
She led him to the cavity and reached in for the bear. This time there was no electricity. The bear had already marked her. She drew it from its hiding place and Vasily hushed.
â€œDo you see?â€ Rosa said. â€œA hole in a wall is easy to repair. The bear wanted us to find her.â€
â€œIs it gold, Rosa?â€
â€œI think so.â€
Vasily touched it and Rosa noted that no electrical charge passed between the bear and her uncle.
â€œIs it very old and precious?â€ he said.
Jamie, obviously made curious by their hushed Russian, broke in. â€œYou should take that to a museum.â€
â€œWhat did he say?â€ Vasily snapped, though Rosa suspected he knew what was being said. He was too proud for misunderstandings, instead relying on Rosa for precise translations.
â€œJamie suggests a museum.â€
â€œIt is mine!â€
â€œI know, Uncle Vasily.â€
Vasily turned on Jamie and roared in darkly inflected English, â€œI am developer. I am not historian.â€
â€œItâ€™s all right, Jamie,â€ Rosa said to the foreman. â€œWe know what to do. Get your men to fix this wall. Uncle Vasily thanks you for your honesty.â€ She slipped off her jacket and wrapped the bear, then put out her hand to Vasily. He took it firmly.
â€œI wonâ€™t take it to a museum, Roshka,â€ he said as the door to the bathhouse thudded shut behind them.
â€œI know,â€ she said, then tried to cheer him out of his temper by teasing him. â€œUncle Vasily, how is that dark cold place ever going to be made into luxury apartments?â€
â€œYou sound like your mother,â€ he muttered, and Rosaâ€™s heart tumbled.
â€œSkylights?â€ she said, mock-brightly.
â€œSkylights. And heaters. And thick carpet. Somebody will buy them. Somebody always does.â€
She pushed open the heavy wooden door to their offices, and followed Vasily up the bare stone stairs. The first floor was an unfinished demolition site. The second floor was carpeted in green and wallpapered in cream and gold. Behind a partition, draftsmen and secretaries and engineers and accountants worked quietly. Vasily ushered Rosa into his private office and closed the door.
â€œShow me again,â€ he said.
Rosa carefully unwrapped the bear and stood it on the desk between the piles of plans and the streaming in-trays. â€œI think itâ€™s very old, Uncle Vasily,â€ she said.
â€œWhy do you think it, Rosa?â€
Rosa wouldnâ€™t say that she just felt it, because her mother had felt things and Vasily already spoke too much about El-lena Kovalenka. Her sad shade seemed always in mind.
â€œThe face on the bear looks odd, almost like a human face,â€ she said.
Vasily ran his fingers over his chin, pulling his bottom lip. His black hair, heavy with hair oil, flopped over his left eye. â€œYes, yes,â€ he said. â€œShe could be worth a fortune.â€
â€œWe should find out how much. We could ask a museumâ€”â€
â€œItâ€™s mine, Rosa. I wonâ€™t hand it over.â€
â€œI donâ€™t want you to hand it over. I want you only to authenticate it. They wonâ€™t take it from you. It was on your property.â€
â€œI donâ€™t trust historians!â€ he exclaimed, shooting out of his chair and adopting his customary brooding frown. â€œI donâ€™t trust museums! They are thieves of the dead.â€
Rosa scratched some of the black muck from the bear with her thumbnail. â€œI know somebody,â€ she said quietly. â€œSomebody who may be able to tell you if itâ€™s authentic or not. He would be discreet.â€
â€œWho is it?â€
â€œAn old friend. Heâ€™s in Novgorod. Heâ€™s a . . . researcher.â€ She avoided the word historian, malign as they were in Vasilyâ€™s view. She couldnâ€™t remember Danielâ€™s specific job appellation anyway. All she knew was that he was working for a major British television company, that they were making a documentary, and that he had left his phone number on her answering machine two weeks ago when he had arrived in Russia. She had written it down, never intending to use it but too superstitious to release the numbers into silence.
Vasily paced, peered through the blinds, returned to the table and sat. He spread his hands before him. â€œI trust you, Rosa. If you think he is a good manâ€”â€
â€œOh, heâ€™s a good man. There is no doubt.â€
Vasily nodded. â€œDo what is right, Roshka.â€
â€œIâ€™ll see if he can come to St. Petersburg.â€
â€œYou think he might?â€
Rosa hid a smile. â€œYes, I do. Donâ€™t you worry about a thing, Uncle Vasily.â€
Daniel closed out the afternoon cold and fished his room key from his pocket. The guesthouse smelled of cabbage and warm spices and he wondered what artery-clogging delights Crazy Adelina was cooking for dinner that night. He hadnâ€™t yet witnessed anything proving that Adelina was crazy, but four of the crew, who had been on the receiving end of a tirade about smoking in their rooms, assured him it was only a matter of time.
The note had been slipped under his door. It was flipped over on its face between the scarred writing desk and the dreary checked bedspread. Daniel stooped to pick it up, his heart taking an unexpected jump to see her name written there in Russian letters.
Rosa Kovalenka called.
Rosa called? Daniel had resigned himself to the certainty that she would never call. He sat on the bed and studied the note as though it might provide more details. What was she feeling and thinking?
The door to his room was still open, and he heard footsteps on the narrow landing. Em Hayward, the writer and presenter of the series. Daniel was supposed to work closely with her, editing the scripts, but despite her dark prettiness and her polite smile he felt inexplicably intimidated by her. Something wasnâ€™t quite right about her, as though the soft facade masked a steely intensity.
â€œHello, Em,â€ he called.
â€œHello, Daniel,â€ she called back, and closed her door.
He did the same, then turned to the telephone. He picked out Rosaâ€™s number nervously, each digit acquiring new significance: 8, the number of times they had made love during their brief affair; 1, how often heâ€™d said â€œI love youâ€ before she disappeared; 2, the presents he had given herâ€”a silver bracelet and a deep blue scarf the precise color of her eyes. The other things he couldnâ€™t count in single figures. Train trips between Cambridge and London to see her; desperate phone calls that went unanswered; gin and tonics consumed to obliterate the pain. But Rosa hadnâ€™t stayed. Rosa had escaped to her uncleâ€™s place in St. Petersburg, and Daniel hadnâ€™t heard her voice in more than six months.
Still, he knew it when he heard it.
â€œHello,â€ she said. The soft curves of a Canadian accentâ€”that was, after all, where she had grown upâ€”but always lingering underneath that, the kiss of the exotic place from which she drew her heritage.
â€œDaniel,â€ she said cautiously, and her caution iced his fantasies of reconciliation before they could grow too hot. â€œThank you for calling me back.â€
â€œItâ€™s been such a long time. How are you?â€
â€œIâ€™m doing okay,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™m doing fine. And you?â€
Did he mistake the tender note in her voice? Probably. He took a breath and calmed himself. â€œIâ€™m well. Iâ€™m busy. Iâ€™m still having trouble with my Russian possessive partitives.â€
She laughed. â€œIâ€™m sure youâ€™re underestimating yourself. You were my star pupil.â€
â€œThe teacher who replaced you was very dreary. I didnâ€™t bother going back to lessons once you were gone.â€ He winced, realizing he had said too much.
She left a beat of silence before saying, â€œDaniel, we found an interesting object bricked up in a wall at Uncle Vasilyâ€™s latest development site. I have a feeling that itâ€™s very old.â€
â€œHow old is the building?â€
â€œMid-nineteenth century. But this object . . . It looks much older, almost primitive. Itâ€™s a gold bear about eight inches high, has an interesting design across its stomach. Iâ€™ve never seen anything like it.â€
Daniel tried to picture it. He picked up the phone and took it to the bed to sit down. â€œIs it solid? Full-round or relief?â€
â€œItâ€™s bear-shaped, round. Itâ€™s heavy and smooth.â€
â€œYou say it looks primitive.â€
â€œAlmost . . . pagan.â€ Her self-conscious laugh echoed down the line. â€œBut I know nothing about art or history.â€
â€œNo, no. The Scythians did a lot of animal figures, but usually reliefs, not full-round sculptures. The early Slavs were very fond of bears.â€
â€œIt looks almost human in the face. Odd eyes. Theyâ€™re closed and sheâ€™s smiling, like sheâ€™s thinking about something she likes.â€
â€œIt could even be ancient Altai. They believed spirits could slip between humans and animals, and they used an eye motif . . . But it sounds too large. I donâ€™t know, Rosa, itâ€™s impossible to say without seeing it. You could take it to a museum.â€
â€œUncle Vasily wonâ€™t hear of it.â€
Daniel hesitated. â€œDo you want me to come and look at it?â€
She surprised him by answering quickly and enthusiastically. â€œWould you? It would mean a lot to Uncle Vasily if he could find out what it is. Who knows, maybe itâ€™s just a piece of junk.â€
He took a second to catch his breath. Talking to her was one thing, but seeing her in the flesh was entirely another. It occurred to him, urgently and brightly, that he hadnâ€™t made any progress at all in getting over her.
â€œOf course Iâ€™ll come,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™d love to see you.â€
â€œDaniel, itâ€™s just the bear, you understand.â€ Her voice grew soft. â€œIf we hadnâ€™t found it, I might not have called.â€
It stung, but he was grateful for her honesty. â€œYes, I understand,â€ he said, trying to sound nonchalant. â€œIâ€™ll call you when I know which day Iâ€™m coming. All right?â€
â€œOkay. I look forward to it.â€
Daniel replaced the phone in its cradle, feeling flat and disappointed. He knew the feeling well, and didnâ€™t want to descend into the melancholy haze that ordinarily followed it. Voices drifted up through the window, and he snatched up his room key and let himself out. Downstairs, behind the guesthouse, lay a tiny courtyard where his co-workers gathered to drink and share cigarettes.
â€œHereâ€™s Daniel!â€ called Richard, the chief sound operator, already half-drunk and in shoulder-slapping mode. Daniel slid onto the bench beside him and looked at the shiny new leaves on the birch spreading above them. â€œIsnâ€™t it supposed to be summer soon? When will it warm up?â€
â€œHave a vodka, that will warm you up.â€ This was Aaron, the producer, who had worked with Daniel on another project four years ago. Was that the last television job he had done? No wonder he had trouble making the rent. Aaron thrust a drink into Danielâ€™s hand. Five other men sat on the bench or on the flagstones under the tree, and their voices echoed around the walls of the buildings that bordered the courtyard.
â€œThanks.â€ He sipped the drink and tried to let Rosa go. â€œDoes anybody know what times the trains run to St. Petersburg from here?â€
There was a loud snort of laughter. Aaron raised his eyebrows with a smile. â€œYouâ€™re asking us? Youâ€™re the train expert.â€
Daniel bit his tongue. He had refused to fly from London with everybody else. He didnâ€™t like to think of his aversion to airplanes as a phobia, but had to admit after five consecutive days on English, French, German and, finally, Russian trains only something as severe as a phobia could have led to such extreme measures.
â€œWhy are you going to St. Pete?â€ asked Richard, reaching for a cigarette and offering one to Daniel.
Daniel shrugged and took the cigarette. He ...
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