“You were fated to come here.”
Annja thought she showed no reaction but the monk chuckled.
“Oh, I know that you do not believe in fate, Annja Creed. Any more than you believe in demons.
Despite the secret burden you carry. You are simply too polite to tell a fat old man to hisface that you believe he is, as you might say, full of it.
“You believe that only you, and those who think as you do, see the true face of reality. I canonly shake my head sadly and hope that someday you might see that this universe of shining
gears and ratchets you have constructed to believe in is itself merely a glittering toy, anillusion by which you hide the truth from your eyes.”
She started to say something. Whether to dispute him or make some polite evasion, she didn’tknow. But he held up a chubby finger.
“No need exists for us to debate. My universe, like your unseeing, unfeeling, uncaringmachine, shall carry on regardless of whether either of us believes or disbelieves. I onlycaution you for your sake—do not be too hasty to disbelieve in the help that comes to you inyour direst need. You can explain it away later. What is vital to your quest, and possibly yoursurvival, is that you not fight it.”
She nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
Titles in this series:
The Spider Stone
The Lost Scrolls
God of Thunder
Secret of the Slaves
The Soul Stealer
The Golden Elephant
Rogue Angel ?
…THE ENGLISH COMMANDER TOOK JOAN’S SWORD AND RAISED IT HIGH.
The broadsword, plain and unadorned, gleamed in the firelight. He put the tip against the ground and his foot at the center of the blade.
The broadsword shattered, fragments falling into the mud. The crowd surged forward, peasant and soldier, and snatched the shards from the trampled mud. The commander tossed the hilt deep into the crowd.
Smoke almost obscured Joan, but she continued praying till the end, until finally the flames climbedher body and she sagged against the
Joan of Arc died that fateful day in France,but her legend and sword are reborn….
The building fronts were whitewashed in name only. They had long since taken on a dingy cast.
Or maybe that was just Annja Creed’s frame of mind.
She wore a gray business suit over a pale lavender blouse and high-heeled shoes that wereimpractical and uncomfortable on the cobbled streets. With her head held high and shouldersthrown back she looked, she hoped, every inch the typical successful American businesswoman.
But the angles of Kastoria, strewed all up and down picturesque hills on a peninsula thatundulated into a lake, conspired against her. The unfamiliar balancing act of walking in heels,which made her back ache and sent pain stabbing up her lower legs at every step, threatened totwist an ankle or send her tumbling down the lane.
As picturesque a little Greek Macedonian town as Kastoria was, Annja felt as if she could smelltension like a tang of wood smoke in the air. Panel trucks blared horns at men trundling cratesacross the crowded street on handcarts. The way people shouted and gestured at each other madeAnnja hunch her shoulders in unhappy anticipation that knives would come out at any minute.
And all that was before she reached her scheduled rendezvous with a gang of ethnic-Albanianartifact smugglers out of Kosovo.
Along with the diesel fumes and harsh tobacco smoke a chemical smell loaded down what shouldhave been crisp air filtered through the pines on the surrounding hills. Annja passed a stackof cages where long slender animals paced nervously or stood with slightly arched backs andstared at her with beady black eyes. They were minks, destined to play a role in the fur trade,which was still the town’s main commerce and Annja reckoned also must account for theunidentified stink, since presumably the furs were subjected to some kind of chemicaltreatment.
She kept her head turning right to left, hoping she looked arrogant rather than furtive orparanoid. Furtive and paranoid would have been accurate. She was looking for a weathered darkblue sign with yellow lettering. Which of course she wouldn’t be able to read because it wasin Greek. But supposedly that wouldn’t matter; it was only a landmark.
How the Japan Buddhist Federation had turned up the contact she didn’t know and hadn’t asked.She doubted they’d tell her. They’d hired her, for a very nice sum, to investigate whyartifacts from Nepalese Buddhist shrines had begun to appear on the black market in Europe,particularly the Balkans. If she had to guess, she suspected certain of their members posed ascollectors none too concerned about the provenance of the items in their collections, so longas they were convinced of their genuine antiquity—and value. They were certainly heeled wellenough to pull off the pose.
Fearless pigeons bobbed, pecked and burbled everywhere, as disdainful of her uncertain progressas they were of the prospects of destruction beneath the wheels of the trucks and humpbackedlittle cars and overloaded handcarts. They went about their single-minded business until thelast possible moment and a heartbeat or two beyond. Then they scurried or fluttered up from thepath of onrushing doom and settled down again a few feet away as if nothing important hadhappened.
As promised, she spotted the sign on her right, near the base of the hill. A block fartherdown, the narrow lane opened onto a road that ran around the lake’s shore. Shacks and kiosksstood along the water. A few boats bobbed at rickety wharfs. The lake water was very blue butthe waves were getting pointy and even flashing a little white in the sun as the breezestrengthened. Some heavy clouds were starting to crowd the sky overhead. It looked as if astorm front was moving down from the Balkans.
Appropriate, she thought.
The sign was a surprisingly deep blue; the weathering showed not in fading so much as severecracking. In yellow above the Greek writing was an outline of a young woman who appeared to bepouring something from an amphora. Given the location it could be the waters of the lake as
easily as the local wine.
was written. Not that she had much doubt as to theTavernaAt the bottom of the sign the word
nature of the business going on behind the gray stone facade. Stocky old men with sailor’scaps, gray beards and heavy sweaters stood around the stone stoop smoking. They glared at heras she marched past, whether in suspicion or religious disapproval of assertive foreignwomanhood she couldn’t tell.
Play the part, she told herself. What’ve you got to be afraid of? Other than walking aloneinto the middle of a gang of Muslim Kosovar bandits who are doubtless armed to the teeth.
Thinking those reassuring thoughts, she turned right onto the narrow street just past thetavern’s raw stone corner.
The rooftops leaned together as if eventually they’d just meet in the middle in a sort ofhappenstance arch. They cut off the sunlight like peaks in a high mountain valley, plunging thecobbles below into gloom. Air that had been cool turned chill.
The street didn’t meet the other at ninety degrees, but rather took off at an angle up thesame hill she’d just walked so precariously down. Great, she thought. Now I get to climb inthese stupid heels.
But it wasn’t far. Half a block up a pack of men loitered in front of a building where thewhitewash had started coming off in sheets, revealing lumpy gray stucco beneath. A blue fog ofharsh Turkish cigarette smoke hung over them.
In their sweaters and long black coats and dark beard stubble they were just the sort of groupof loitering males Annja would normally give a wide berth to. Unattached males in a clumptended to spell trouble in every time and clime. These toughs looked older than your usualstreet gang, mostly thirties and up. That didn’t much reassure her, though. It likely meantthey had a much more advanced thug skill set than adolescent hoods.
The tall nervous-looking man who stepped out to meet her wore a black leather greatcoat over adark turtleneck sweater. He had a handlebar mustache backed by a three-day beard sprouting fromhis round face. The roundness was deceptive; he was lanky beneath the coat. Disconcertingly hisleft eye was milky, dead, beside his beak nose.
“You are Amanda Carter?” he asked in thickly accented English.
Annja followed the old WWII spy rule of using aliases with her own initials. It made themeasier to remember and reduced the risk of some overlooked personal item tripping her up. Shedidn’t exactly have a lot of monogrammed possessions, but you could never be too sure at thestakes she was playing for. Besides, she felt the name was easy for non-native English speakersto pronounce—and more important, remember—as well as having the Waspy ring appropriate to hercurrent cover story.
“Yes,” she said, remembering to be clipped and haughty. As wound up inside as she was itwasn’t hard to do. The pack had split and men began to drift up and down the street towardher. The members tended to keep their hands inside their voluminous coats. She was well awarethey were positioning themselves to provide security against intrusion, accidental orotherwise. She also recognized a classic predatory move. Hemming in the prey and cutting offescape.
Remember, she told herself, you have something they want—access to abundant American cash.
“You are Enver Bajraktari?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. He indicated over his shoulder. “And this my associate, Duka.”
Bajraktari cast a large shadow. Duka loomed like a mountain of bone and gristle over hisboss’s right shoulder. He had thick black hair greased back from a face and mouth like a jack-o’-lantern carved from scar tissue. His eyes were dark crescents and his smile wide, revealinga jagged jumble of brown teeth. Annja made herself not stare at this disastrous failure ofmodern dentistry.
Because it suited her persona, and absurdly made her feel slightly better, she held up theblack briefcase she had been carrying before her chest like a shield.
“Do you have the items we discussed?” she asked.
Bajraktari held out a hand. It was a surprisingly large hand, with long slender fingers. It wasthe sort of hand old-time pulp-mystery writers usually described as belonging to pianists andstranglers. Annja doubted the man played much Mozart.
In the big palm lay a figure cast in the shape of an elephant with trunk raised to forehead. Itwas either gold or gold washed. Although Annja was no authority on South Asian artifacts, itcertainly looked authentic.
“You like.” His tone suggested a command, not a question or come-on.
“Maybe,” she said. “I trust you have more?”
Bajraktari looked at her with his one dark eye. “Come,” he said.
He turned and stalked into an oblong of blackness in the ratty building behind him. To Annja’srelief Duka followed him straightaway, bending his knees considerably to get through the door.His shoulders squeezed against the frame.
The other goons in view now stood seven or eight yards away toward both ends of the block. Shehad the option to follow or not.
Inside was dim. It was cool to the edge of chill. A musty smell hit her in the face. Dust,mold, general antiquity and—
Pigeon droppings streaked down the sides of water-warped crates and decaying cardboard boxesand big vases Annja hoped weren’t ancient amphorae. They were caked in lumpy pale sedimentarylayers on every horizontal surface and at the edges of walkways across the hardwood-plank floorof the warehouse. As her vision adjusted she saw it was a warehouse filled with unsteady-looking shelves laden with boxes and objects of uncertain nature.
Following her sketchy hosts, Annja advanced into the crowded interior. It wasn’t cave-black; agrayish illumination came from somewhere, like fog. Everything that wasn’t horizontal andcaked in droppings, it seemed, was draped with cobwebs.
The narrow aisle ahead of Annja was blocked almost entirely by the mountainous mass of Duka,who progressed by leaning side to side, endangering the groaning, sagging shelves at everystep, and teetering forward, as if he lacked knees or his legs were very short. Bajraktari wascompletely hidden by his massive underling.
Annja wondered how the huge henchman did it. She had to focus on walking down the very centerof the wooden floor, with her shoulders unaccustomedly hunched forward to keep them frombrushing anything, which might cover her in dust, inspire something awful to leap out at her orsimply bring a whole overburdened rack of shelving down upon her head. Her shoulders, althoughbroad for a woman even of her height, were nothing to Duka’s. Yet he managed to avoid mishap.
At the end of ten yards or so a space opened, seven or eight yards on either side. In themiddle stood a large crate covered with some kind of dark cloth. A single lightbulb in a notvery reflective reflector cone hung from a cord that led up into blackness so complete it mighthave gone on forever into the heart of infinite night. It spilled a yellow illumination uponthe objects arranged on the cloth-covered surface.
Annja’s breath stuck in her throat. They were artifacts: statues, plates, bowls, coins. Allgleaming bright gold. A mound of the stuff. A foot-high seated Buddha presided jovially overthe lot.
“Samples,” Bajraktari said.
If it was all real—meaning both authentically ancient and actual solid gold, not just gold-washed lead, a trick the ancients were perfectly hip to—Annja was looking at upward of onehundred thousand dollars in plunder in the value of the metal alone. If you took into account
the historic value, its price became incalculable.
Annja strode forward. As it happened that fit the role she was playing, but that had beendriven right out of her mind by the sight. All she could think of now was confirming that sheconfronted evidence of a truly massive crime against archaeology. And circumstances suggestedthis was only the tip of the iceberg.
Reaching the makeshift display table, she snatched up the nearest item. Any evidence as tocontext was long lost already, especially if the loot had been polished, as appeared likely.Her finger oils weren’t going to damage the gleaming artifact if it was gold.
Annja stared down at the thing she held. It was a slightly irregular disk—a coin, imprinteroded by its passage through many previous hands. And time. She could almost feel the yearsadding to its not in-substantial weight. It showed the blurred image of the head of a youthful-looking, somewhat plump man.
To her amazement the letters stamped in it, faded though they were, were unmistakably Greek.
She turned to Bajraktari, who stood to her left with his shadow, Duka, looming as always behindhim. “What’s a Greek coin doing here?” she demanded. “I thought these artifacts wereNepali.”
Instead of responding directly to her question, Bajraktari raised his head and said somethingsharp in Albanian. Annja sensed movement behind her.
Hard hands clamped like vises on her upper arms.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Bajraktari?” Annja demanded. She became aware of agrayed-out oblong glow farther back in the warehouse heights—a time-and-pigeon-grimedskylight. “Don’t you know who you’re dealing with?”
She knew even as the words left her mouth that she wasn’t going to like the answer.
Bajraktari smiled. “There has been a change of plan,” he said.
“Says who?” she demanded.
His coal-smudge brows twitched toward one another. “Do not try my patience, woman,” he said.“For in the end you are only a woman.”
It occurred to her this was not a good time to debate feminism. She settled for an angry tossof her head and a glare. “We had a deal,” she said.
He nodded. “So we did. But all things are subject to negotiation in this world, are theynot?”
“I represent a very important figure in American business.”
“Just so. All Americans are rich. If your boss is rich by American standards, he must bereally rolling in it, no?”
Annja’s lips compressed to a line. She could see where this was going.
“It occurred to us, therefore, that Allah had delivered into our hands a most wonderfulopportunity. If your employer would pay handsomely once for our artifacts, then would he notpay handsomely twice for the treasure, as well as for the return of his very lovelyassistant?”
“You’re making a mistake,” Annja said.
Bajraktari said something in Albanian. Around him, unseeable in shadow, his men laughed.
“It shall be as Allah wills,” the pack leader said. “If you are a religious woman, youshould pray that it is not your employer who makes the worse mistake.”
Annja glared at him. She felt the men holding her shift their weight to drag her away. She drewin a deep breath. And prayed forgiveness for the grave sin she was about to commit againstarchaeology.
Then she kicked the relic-topped crate for all she was worth.
Annja had extensive training in martial arts, Asian and Western. She had hundreds of hours ofpractice and no little practical experience at using those techniques. And she was far strongerthan most women her size.
The crate, though loaded down with tens of pounds of golden wonders, was empty. It rolled rightover. Glittering priceless objects flew everywhere.
Shrill voices yipped. Men flew from the shadows like bats, clutching at the lovely tumblinggolden things. The hard hands on Annja’s arms relaxed their grip.
Driving with her long strong legs and turning her hips, Annja wrenched her right arm free. Shecontinued her pivot to slam a shovel hook with the heel of her right palm into the ribs of theman who held her left arm. The strike delivered force straight along the bones of the forearm;it was little less powerful than a closed-fist punch and presented a fraction of the danger ofbreaking your own hand.
A squeaking grunt blew out the man’s lips and he doubled over. He released her.
Annja was already spinning back. Her elbow smash caught the man on her right on the point ofhis bristle-bearded chin. She’d been aiming for his nose. The miss was fortuitous. His teethclashed loudly together. As she followed through, his eyes rolled up in his head and he toppledstraight over backward like a chainsawed tree. He wouldn’t be unconscious, she knew, and frompersonal experience she knew knocked out almost always meant stunned, not out cold.
She sensed movement rushing on her from the left. Again she spun counterclockwise to meet theman whose ribs she’d cracked. Roaring with pain-induced fury, he bore down on her with armsoutflung to catch her and crush her in a bear hug.
She drove her right hand into his solar plexus and heard a crunching sound.
Bajraktari reached into his coat and came out holding a handgun. His stiffened arm rosestraight up over his head.
Annja was already diving away as Bajraktari fired. She briefly considered summoning themystical sword she’d inherited from Joan of Arc but, useful and lethal as it was, it wouldn’tstop bullets. She tucked a shoulder and rolled neatly into an aisle.
A whole row of heavy clay pots on a shelf to her left exploded as Bajraktari hauled the weapondown and triggered another shot. Pale pink dust enveloped her as flying potsherds raked hercalves. Annja kicked off her shoes straightaway. She hated it in movies when women tried toflee or fight in heels. It was as absurd as it was unnecessary. And anyway, it was a relief tolose the accursed things.
She got her stocking feet beneath her, pushed up with her hands and launched herself down theaisle like a sprinter off the blocks. Bajraktari didn’t have a clear shot at her back but shewanted to get out of the narrow passage before somebody did.
She was still coughing and blinking dust from her eyes. It caked in her unfamiliar mascara,blurring everything beyond. The figure that abruptly blocked the lane ten feet ahead of her wasno more than a shadow.
There weren’t a lot of things the shadow could be. Except for a gangster. Almost certainlyaiming a gun at her. She launched herself into a forward running dive, throwing her arms out tokeep from doing a skidding face plant and hoping she wouldn’t break anything.
Gunfire erupted like thunder behind her. At the same time she felt the pulsing concussion of anearby muzzle-blast, powerful and full-auto. A dragon’s-breaths of muzzle-flame swept over heras she hit the ground.
She skinned both palms and did a sort of belly flop on the wood floor. In front of her she sawmotion. The smuggler who had popped up in front of her was collapsing like a suit of clothesfalling from a hanger. She knew in an instant what had happened—he and his fellow gang memberbehind her had neatly cross-fired each other when she dropped unexpectedly out of their line offire.
Ignoring the pain from raw splinter-snagged palms, she swarmed over the man in a sort ofsprawling crawl and flung herself toward the exposed stone of the wall dimly visible ahead ofher. A corridor maybe six feet wide ran between the wall and the shelves. She slid across it.
She heard a startled exclamation. A man stood almost on top of her. Had she come out of theaisle facedown he would’ve been to her left. Instead she had tucked her head and rolled ontoher right side to avoid slamming headfirst into the wall. She still caught enough of a rap atthe base of her cranium, slightly cushioned by the twist she’d wound her hair into, to shoot apulse of yellow light through her brain.
Annja had always prided herself on her ability to keep her presence of mind even in bloodcrisis. With her eyes dazzled from within, her ears ringing from nearby gunshots and herstomach roiling with terror and nausea induced by the crack on the head, she brought her kneesup to her belly and shot both long legs out in a kick that struck the smuggler’s shins andshot the pins right out from under him.
He fell across her with a guttural exclamation that had to be a curse. She gave him a hardelbow to the left ear, writhed out from under him and found herself on her feet without anyclear idea as to the process that had gotten her there.
It didn’t matter. As the man reached for her she knew she had no options. She closed her eyesand saw her sword clearly. When she opened them, the weapon was in her hand. The sword gleameddully in the smoky light. She reversed it and plunged it down between the man’s shoulder