Lambert made his move
Annja bent her knees slightly, prepared for defense, but cautious.
“I’ve got my eye on a new treasure,” he announced. The epee swept the air in a hiss. “It isanother sword. A magical one.”
“You believe in magic?” Annja countered.
“I believe what I saw when I watched you in the file room on the security cameras. You wielded
a fine sword, Annja Creed. And you produced it from thin air. Where is it? Bring it out of
wherever it is you keep it. I want to see it.”
She remained silent. Alert. Ready.
“I know something about you,” he said in a singsongy tone. “Your Monsieur Roux wasn’t quite
so careful as he should have been.”
Roux had come here? What was the old man up to now? She didn’t like what that implied.
“I’ve done my research on your Roux and Joan,” he said. “I know, Annja, I know.”
Titles in this series:
The Spider Stone
The Lost Scrolls
God of Thunder
Secret of the Slaves
The Soul Stealer
The Golden Elephant
TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILANMADRID • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND
Special thanks and acknowledgment to Michele Hauf for her contribution to this work.
Jack and Toby Lambert had been inseparable until the day Toby collapsed after baseballpractice. Twelve hours later in the hospital, Jack clung to his seven-year-old twin’s hand.Toby’s skin was a funny yellow color. He couldn’t speak, but his eyelids did flutter whenJack spoke.
Not far from the bed, behind a curtain, Jack heard a doctor announce to his parents thatToby’s liver had failed. He called it something like acute. Toby would need a transplant.Jack’s parents were instructed not to be too hopeful, for the waiting list was long, and thereweren’t a lot of donors out there.
Pressing his face against the hard hospital mattress beside his brother’s prone body, Jacksobbed quietly. He didn’t want his parents to hear. They had enough to worry about.
He and Toby had planned a raid on Nasty Black George’s awful gang of four tonight. The entireneighborhood—boasting seven boys under the age of ten—regularly organized pirate raids andbooty captures. Jack and Toby wore the monikers “Mad Bloody Jack” and “Evil Gentleman
Tobias” proudly. No one stood in their way when they came a-pirating. Their plunder was piledhigh at the bottom of Evil Gentleman Tobias’s closet. Dirty Joe still fumed about his pillagedAtari.
If his parents had money, they could buy a new liver for Toby.
Jack knew that wasn’t possible. His mom had been putting on a skirt and jacket every morningbefore he and Toby left for school. She was looking for work, they both knew, because dad’sjob was “cutting back the fat.” Whatever that meant.
“I’ll help you,” Jack whispered. His brother had not moved since his collapse. “Mad BloodyJack will plunder a real treasure so we can buy you a new liver. I promise, Toby.”
MAD BLOODY JACK KNEW just the landlubbing wreck of a ship to raid. Hidden in the tower at thecenter of the playground gym, he and Toby—er, Evil Gentleman Tobias—had kept a keen eye overthe goings-on across the street from the city park using their plundered telescope.
The purple house with the gray shutters and wild hedges always kept its curtains pulled shut.The craziest stream of traffic steadily pulled up the driveway, and then away. Some visitorswere there less than five minutes. Toby timed them on his Cap’n Crunch watch.
Pirate Silly Ned had once said his mother was always calling the cops on that LSD house. Theydid nasty things, and shouldn’t be in this neighborhood.
LSD was a drug. Jack had looked that up in the encyclopedia on the bottom shelf in his dad’soffice. It made people see visions and act funny. And people paid a lot of money for it. It wasalso illegal.
Putting two and two together, Mad Bloody Jack decided where there was LSD, there had to bemoney.
He eyed the purple house through the telescope. The sun had risen an hour earlier. Jack shouldbe in school. But he knew the purple house would be quiet until at least noon, so he had to actnow. Toby’s life depended on it.
Skipping across the street, Mad Bloody Jack insinuated himself behind the freestanding purplegarage, which was where he’d seen most of the visitors go when they stopped. Tramping a patchof dandelions, he pressed his body flat against the wall. A good pirate should practicestealth—he’d learned that word from last week’s spelling test. The window on this side ofthe garage was blocked with black paper. He checked and saw it was the same on the other side.
A thick steel padlock secured the door, but the wood was old and warped. Mad Bloody Jack wasable to slide a finger under the crack at the bottom. And there, under some kind of rug, hefelt something cold and metal.
“I DON’T KNOW where he could have gotten this….” Jack’s mother choked on her astonishmentand clung even tighter to her husband’s arm.
Her son had dumped out a pillowcase on the floor in the bathroom attached to Toby’s hospitalroom. “Plunder,” he’d muttered, and then had gaily announced the family now had enough moneyto buy Toby a new liver. He dashed to his brother’s side.
Jack’s father toed the pile of rubber-banded bills. Hundred-dollar bills. “There must be tensof thousands here.”
“Of course not. I’ll ring the police,” he said and instructed his wife to remain in thebathroom and keep an eye on the money.
A PIRATE NEVER GAVE UP the location of his best plunder. Never. But when two police officersescorted Jack’s mother from the hospital room where they’d been questioning Jack and hisfather, Mad Bloody Jack became irate.
“Don’t touch my mother!” he shouted.
“They’re not going to hurt her, Jack,” his father reassured. “Though I don’t know wherethey’re taking her. You have to tell us where you got the money. Please, Jack, to keep yourmother safe.”
In a rush of fear and utter exhaustion, Mad Bloody Jack gave the details of his raid. Hedidn’t take it all. There had been too much to carry. Now would they please let his mother goand get to ordering that new liver for his brother?
Toby died three days later. The police had confiscated the money. Jack had been inconsolable.He’d done it. He had found a means to save his brother’s life. And the adults—they’d donenothing! What was wrong with them? Didn’t they want to save Toby?
“It was never that simple,” his father said. Keith Lambert’s face was drawn and his sighchilled across Jack’s shoulders.
France, present day
Ascher Vallois unlocked the trunk of his car. The hydraulics squeaked as the trunk yawned open.He was ready for a new car, but given the finances, the ten-year-old Renault Clio would have toserve.
He set a practice épée and mask onto the trunk bed. Tearing the Velcro shoulder seams open onhis jacket, he then tugged that off.
Wednesday afternoons demanded he wear the leather-fronted plastron. The teenage students hetaught were overly confident about their lunges. Actually, they thought themselvesindestructible. They didn’t give consideration to their teacher’s destructibility. That waswhy he also wore a full mask. The scar on his jaw had been a lesson to ensure he wore completeprotection around kids at all times.
Tomorrow he planned to bring his collection of instructional videos to the studio. The studentscould learn the importance of a well-designed weapon from watching a master forge a blade. Aswell, there was much to be gained from watching fencing masters in competition.
Ultimately, he wanted to have a camera set up in the studio so he could record students, andthen play back their practice matches for them to study. The best way to learn was by observingyour own bad habits and then correcting them.
All things in good time, he told himself. And if his latest expedition proved successful, thealuminum fencing piste he’d been dreaming about could become reality. It was wireless, whichwould be more practical for movement and scorekeeping, considering he hadn’t the cash to hirean assistant.
He slammed the trunk shut. It was well past sunset, yet a rosy ambiance painted the horizon,reminding him of a woman’s blush. An autumn breeze tickled the perspiration at the back of hisneck, drying his sweaty hair.
The noise of traffic from the main shopping stretch had settled. Sens had relaxed and let outits belt. The citizens of the French city were inside restaurants chattering over roasted fowland a bottle of wine, or at home watching the nightly news or shouting at the quiz shows.
Shoving a hand in his pants pocket, Ascher mined for his keys, but paused. A tilt of his headfocused his hearing behind him and to the left.
He was not alone.
Swinging a peripheral scan, he paused only a quarter of the way through his surroundings.
Standing at the front left corner of the Clio, a tall thin man with choppy brown-and-blond hairrapped his knuckles once upon the rusted hood of the vehicle. A silver ring glinted, catchingthe subtle glow from an ornamental streetlight up the street. Small bold eyes smiled before theman’s mouth did.
Ascher felt the salute in that look. A call to duel. The foil had been raised with a mere look.He stood in line of attack.
From where had the man come? This narrow street was normally quiet, save for the businessowners who parked in the reserved spaces where Ascher now stood.
Suddenly aware that others had moved in behind him, Ascher stiffened his shoulders but kept hisarms loose, ready. He jangled his keys. A tilt of his head, left then right, loosened histensing muscles.
The air felt menacing, heavy, as if he could take a bite out of it.
“Bonsoir.”The smiling man offered a casual
Wary, yet not so foolish as to leap into a fight—this may be nothing more than a man askingdirections—Ascher offered a lift of his chin in acknowledgment.
“Mr. Vallois, I am a friend,” the man offered.
His French accent wasn’t native, and he looked more Anglo than European, Ascher thought. Adark gray suit fit impeccably upon a sinewy frame. Probably British, he assumed from the slimsilhouette of the man’s clothing.
He knew his name? Caution could be a fencer’s downfall. Confidence and awareness must remainat the fore.
“I have many friends,” Ascher said forcefully, lifting his shoulders. “I know them all uponsight. I do not know you.”
Sensing the potential threat level without moving his head to look, Ascher decided there weretwo men behind him. Bodyguards for the man standing before him?
Ascher eyed the practice épée through the window of the Clio. “Are these gentlemen behind memy friends, as well?”
“You amuse me, Mr. Vallois. And yes, if you wish it, they can be your very best friends. Morepreferable than enemies, wouldn’t you say?”
What the hell was going on? He’d been keeping his nose clean. In fact, the past few yearsAscher had gone out of his way to remain inconspicuous. There was nothing like a run-in withthe East Indian mafia over rights to claimed treasure to cool a man’s jets.
“Jacques Lambert.” The man thrust out a thin hand to shake—an advance that put him to lungedistance—but Ascher did not take the bait. This guy was not British. An American using aFrench name perhaps? “My business card claims me CEO of BHDC, a genetic-research lab in Paris.You have not heard of us.”
No need to verify that one. Ascher’s interests covered anything athletic, sporting oradventurous. Science? Not his bag. “Genetic research? I don’t understand,” Ascher said.
“It is a difficult field to get a mental grasp on,” Lambert replied. “But the beauty of itis that you don’t have to understand. Simple acceptance is required.”
“Sorry, I gave at the office.”
“I’m not on the shill, Vallois. In fact, I have an interest in financing your current dig.”
The dig? But he’d only that morning gathered a small crew of fellow archaeologists online.They weren’t set to convene in Chalon-sur-Saône for another two weeks.
Who had brought in this fellow without consulting him?
Ascher trusted the two men he had chosen to assist on the dig. Jay and Peyton Nash hadaccompanied him before. They were his age, far more knowledgeable in archaeology than him, andalso enjoyed a challenging mountain bike course, like the one they’d conquered in Scotland’sTweed Valley.
Although…he’d recruited another. A woman. He did not know her beyond what he’d learned whilechatting with her online. And admittedly, knowledge of her character had been not so importantas her figure and those bewitching amber-green eyes.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lambert, if you have been led to believe—”
The sudden heat of breath hissing down the back of his neck did not disturb Ascher so much aspiss him off. He stood tall, not about to back down or cringe from the bully behind him.
If the trunk were still open…but it was not. The only weapon he had to hand was his ring ofthree keys and a rudimentary grasp of martial arts. He slipped the ignition key between hisforefinger and middle finger, point out.
“I have been following your research online for months,” Lambert said. “Fascinating how youtracked the Fouquet journals in the Bibliothèque Nationale.”
Ascher thought about the days spent in the huge Paris library that he had genuinely enjoyed.“I haven’t posted that information publicly,” he said.
“Yes, I know. You made it very difficult, but once I tracked your conversations with the Nashbrothers, I continued to follow them.”
So his friends hadn’t invited this man. Yet they had inadvertently lured an outsider.
“I’ve hired all the men required for the dig, I’m afraid.”
“You misunderstand, Vallois.” Lambert made eye contact with the thugs over Ascher’sshoulder. He went for the riposte, slipping something out of his suit coat’s inner pocket. Itunrolled with a shake. Lambert then slid one hand into the surgical glove. “I—” he gave theglove a crisp snap “—have a keen interest in the sword.”
Ascher’s intuition screamed this was not the place he should be at this moment. Sometimes itwas better to run, and risk injury, than to stick around and risk death. Fencing skills aside,now was the time to employ street smarts.
Ascher jabbed an elbow backward, catching one of the thugs in the ribs.
A meaty arm snaked about Ascher’s neck. A vicious squeeze choked off his cry of surprise.Levering his foot against the door of his car, he tried to push off the man, but his attackerleaned into the force, making escape impossible.
“No, no, mustn’t struggle,” Lambert said calmly, as if directing a child afraid of thedentist’s drill. He tugged the fingertip of one glove, snapping it smartly into place. “Thisis not what you might suspect.”
“I suspect everything,” Ascher hissed. “I know I do not like you—”
Chokehold released, Ascher’s arms were wrenched behind him and upward. His shoulder muscleswere forced beyond their limit, and his deltoids stretched painfully. Bent forward, he intendedto kick backward, but Lambert’s next move stopped him.
Further utilizing the dread calm of a looming dentist, Lambert withdrew a vial from inside hissuit coat.
“The musketeer’s sword has been tops on my list of plunder for quite some time. I believe youhave discovered the only possible resting place for the sword, Mr. Vallois.” Lambert tappedthe finger-size vial against his wrist. There was something inside, white, stick-like.“Surprising, the conclusions you made about the location, but when I thought about it awhile,very believable. I wish you great success.”
“The sword is not for sale,” Ascher said.
“When one acquires plunder, sir, one does not pay for it. But I am willing to put forthsomething for your efforts. You will require cash to finance your dig.”
“Already taken care of.”
“Your check bounced at the bank. My guess? You should start seeing the overdrafts immediately.I know you are two months behind on rent for that little fencing salon around the corner. Pity.The children will be deprived of your witty yet charming teaching manner,” Lambert said.
Ascher grunted against the increasing force straining his muscles.
“As for that cottage you call a mansion out of town, I’ve made it my business to know yourelectricity will be shut off two days from now.” He bent close to Ascher’s face. “Allow meto ease your financial strain.”
“There is no amount you can offer for the sword.”
Ascher twisted. Two meaty hands held firmly. It was quite embarrassing how easily he’d beenwrangled. As long as his aggressor held his arms back at such a painful angle, he could notescape.
“That sword is something I have searched for for years,” Ascher hissed. The gloved handwaggled its fingers before him. A disturbing threat. “I could not possibly put a monetaryvalue to it—”
Suddenly pierced from behind, Ascher’s body clenched, his chest lifting and his body archingupward as his shoulders were wrenched further backward. He was impaled. Stuck like a pig. Thepain was incredible, so much so that much as he wanted to scream, he could not put out a singlebreath.
A blade had entered his left kidney. The thug behind him shoved it to the hilt.
Lambert stood right before him now. An intelligent and greedy gaze followed Ascher’s gasps ofpain. “Of course, it would be difficult to fix a price to so intriguing a find as the sword.”
Wincing, Ascher groaned low in his throat. He felt tears roll down his face. It was impossibleto make a defensive move or push away his attacker. Barely able to stand, he battled againsthis fading consciousness by drawing in deep breaths through his nose.
“I wager you’ll hand over the sword for a kidney.” A snap of the rubber glove released ahaze of cornstarch powder.
“I need only one!” Ascher defiantly managed to declare.
“Sure, a man can survive with one, but you won’t have that one forever.”
The other thug, who had been standing to the side, stepped forward. Ascher cried out as he tooka punch to the right kidney. But, held carefully, his torso did not take the blow with anothercringe. It seemed they wanted to ensure the knife remained firmly placed.
“Should you refuse to cooperate,” Lambert continued, “I shall return for the other. Butknow, I can give you a replacement in exchange for your cooperation.”
Feeling blackness toy with his consciousness, Ascher heard something crackle like plastic.
“Open his mouth.”
His mouth was wrenched open from the right by the one who had punched him.
Lambert stabbed something into his mouth and rubbed it inside Ascher’s cheek. “DNA evidence.I’ll take it back to the lab and immediately begin to grow your new kidney. Therapeuticcloning. Quite the marvel. Think of it as your new life insurance policy.”
The thug clapped Ascher’s jaw shut, and Ascher briefly saw Lambert deposit a white swab intothe glass vial.
“What do you say, Vallois? Do we have a deal?”
“I…” He was losing it. Pain shot up and down his spine and spidered through his entirenervous system. He had never known such agony. He couldn’t think, let alone move.
“If you refuse, I’ll have Manny tug the knife from your back. Within twenty minutes, you’llbleed out internally. You will be dead, Mr. Vallois.”
Death sounded much better than this torture, Ascher thought.
“But, keep the knife in place and accept the escort to casualty that I am willing to provide,and you’ll have a pleasant hospital stay, and be back in the field in, oh, ten days? Ofcourse, the left kidney is a loss.” The plastic rattled before Ascher’s closed eyes. “Whatdo you say?”
The man behind him tapped the blade shoved deep inside his body. Ascher yowled as thevibrations sent out new waves of shocking anguish.
“In or out?” Lambert asked. “The blade, that is.”
Feeling his body release the tense cringe and fall forward, Ascher chased the darkness. Passingout would stop the pain. And so would his compliance.
“In,” he muttered, and then the world stopped.
Court of Loius XIV Seventeenth century
“History shall revere Charles de Castelmore d’Artagnan.”
Queen Anne nodded to Charles, who stood in full regalia—musket and bandolier spread across hisblack coat trimmed in gold. A red plume dusted the air above his right brow, and his boots werepolished to a shine to rival the mirrors in Versailles.
To the queen’s right, a liveried foot guard stepped up, proffering a red velvet pillow with asword laid upon it.
Containing his excitement, Charles drew in a breath and maintained a solemn expression.
The queen took the sword by the gold hilt and held it before her, seeming to look it over, butmoreover, displaying it to all who had congregated in the king’s private chapel to celebrateone of Louis XIV’s musketeers. She handled the weapon with skill, though d’Artagnan doubted