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The four men approached Annja Creed like a well-oiled machine. Their actions told her they'd done this before.
She didn't break stride or change direction, heading toward the Mailboxes & Stuff store that she used to mail and receive packages. In her career as an archaeologist, she often received items for study and sometimes for authentication. A handful of museums and private collectors paid her to do certificates of authenticity on items they were putting on display.
Although everything added up, payment for the certificates wasn't much. However, the benefits included free access to those museums and private collections, and the goodwill of curators who were valuable sources of information when she was doing research.
The four men moved with determination, without speaking. They were young and athletic, casually dressed and instantly forgettable. She guessed that they had military training.
Everything's already been planned, Annja thought. Adrenaline spiked within her, elevating her heart rate and her senses. She stayed within the flow of the lunch crowd flooding out of the buildings onto the street. Everyone was hurrying to try to make it back on time.
She knew the four men had been waiting for her, and wondered if they had followed her from her loft. She hadn't been home in weeks. A dig in Florida had consumed her and given her a brief respite from the dregs of winter that still hovered over New York. She'd quickly dropped off luggage and headed back out.
Layered in dark winter clothing—a thigh-length navy wool coat, sweater over a long-sleeved top, and Levi's, with a knitted black beanie and wraparound blue-tintedsunglasses, her backpack slung over one shoulder—Annja figured the team had watched her closely to recognize her. But at five feet ten and with chestnut-colored hair that dipped below her shoulders, she forgot she had a tendency to stand out in a crowd.
Nikolai, the manager at the shipping business, had left messages with her answering service to let her know she had a number of packages waiting for pickup.
So why hadn't they picked her up at the airport? Annja mulled that over and realized that they weren't law-enforcement personnel. Maybe they hadn't wanted to draw attention to themselves.
Then why hadn't they nabbed her at her loft? If they knew about Mailboxes & Stuff, they surely knew where she lived. That thought led to a whole new line of questions.
Although it stunk to the high heavens, the situation made Annja curious, and curiosity had driven her through most of her life.
Annja took her cell phone out of her pocket and punched in numbers.
"Mailboxes & Stuff," a friendly male voice answered.
"This is Nikolai. How may I help you?" His Russian accent was charming, but Annja knew it was fake. Nikolai had been born and raised in Brooklyn.
"Ah, Annja, it is so good to hear from you." Nikolai lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone. "You would not believe what has been going on."
Annja stopped at the newsstand at the corner across the street from Mailboxes & Stuff. She waited in line as customers ahead of her picked out newspapers, magazines and snacks.
Checking the reflections in the windows of the nearby coffee shop, Annja watched the four men attempt to lose themselves in the crowd of pedestrians. If she hadn't already made them, she knew she wouldn't have noticed them.
"So tell me," Annja invited.
"A man came into the store," Nikolai said. "He showed me government credentials and claimed that he needed a package that was supposed to be delivered to you."
The newsstand owner dealt with his clientele quickly. The line shrank faster than Annja wanted.
"What kind of credentials?" Annja asked.
"I don't know. I didn't get a good look. They tried to intimidate me. Something with a photograph and badge."
"Do you remember his name?"
"Agent Smith." Nikolai cackled. "I thought it was very humorous. I asked him if he'd seen The Matrix."
Nikolai was a die-hard science fiction fan. He spoke Klingon and was constantly trying to teach phrases to Annja.
"What did he do?" Annja asked.
"He was not amused. Then he threatened me. So I told him he had to have a court order before I gave any package to him. He didn't produce a court order," Nikolai said. "So I called the police."
"You called the police?"
"Sure. I'm not going to play around with them. You get expensive things here, Annja, but you're not the only client I have that does."
"Right. So what did Agent Smith do?"
"What did he do? He left is what he did."
"Did the police come?"
"An hour or so later, sure. Evidently my call wasn't very important."
"Did you file a report?"
"I did. But I kept your name out of it. I just told them that someone using government ID wanted to go through the packages."
"What did the police say?" Only two people separated Annja from the newsstand vendor.
"Just to let them know if the guy showed up again. They really don't like people jacking around with official identification and pretending to be police officers."
"Have you seen him today?" Only one person remained in front of Annja.
The last customer moved off after buying copies of Time and Newsweek.
"Hang on a second." Annja asked for copies of Cosmopolitan, Wired, National Geographic and People. If she ended up in some government agency's interview room, it would be nice to have reading material while she waited for her attorney to arrive.
"Are you at the newsstand?" Nikolai asked.
Annja paid for the magazines and said thanks. Then she returned to the phone conversation. "Yes."
Across the street, Nikolai peered through the Mailboxes & Stuff window. He had shoulder-length dark hair, beard stubble, a checked shirt under a sleeveless sweater and deep blue eyes.
"Do you see Agent Smith?" Annja slid the magazines into her backpack, two on either side of her notebook computer to provide extra cushioning. The backpack was built around an impact-resistant core case, but it never hurt to be prepared.
Nikolai scanned the crowd waiting for the light. "Maybe. He's wearing different clothes today."
Annja was aware of the four men closing in on her. "Who was the package from?"
The name surprisedAnnja and took her back a few years. When she'd finished school, she'd worked at a dig at Hadrian's Wall in England. The Romans had built the eightymile-long wall to cut the country in half, walling out the Picts.
Mario Fellini had been on the dig after completing a double major in fine arts and archaeology. He was Italian, from a large family in Florence, with four older sisters determined to marry him off.
During her time there, Annja had struck up a close friendship with Mario but it hadn't gone any further than that.
Annja didn't know why he would send her something. They hadn't been in touch in years.
"Annja?" Nikolai said.
"The light is green."
Annja became aware of the pedestrians flowing around her, crossing the street. She stepped off the curb and continued across.
"Do you know this Fellini?" Nikolai asked.
"Yes. At least, I did. We haven't talked in years." Annja's pulse quickened.
"Would he send you anything illegal? Like contraband, maybe?"
"If he's still the same guy I knew, then no, he wouldn't."
"This is good," Nikolai said. "Some of my customers, I'm not so sure. I try to stay away from trouble."
"I know. I'm sorry you're caught up in this."
"You're more caught up in it than I am. That is Agent Smith behind you and to your right."
Great, Annja thought. She took a deep breath. "Is the package there at the store?"
"No. With all the interest in it, I thought perhaps I could arrange a more private delivery. I've got it put away for safekeeping."
Annja smiled. "Thank you." "Is no problem, Annja. For you, anything. If you hadn't gotten so famous doing that show, maybe you wouldn't attract strange people, you know?"
Annja knew Nikolai was referring to Chasing History's Monsters, the syndicated show she cohosted. During the trip to Florida she'd worked the dig site involving Calusa Indians. Although now extinct, the Calusa had been Glades culture American Indians who had lived on shell mounds.
Doug Morrell, Annja's producer on Chasing History's Monsters, had turned up a story of a ghost shark that protected the sunken remnants of Calusa villages. Annja had covered the legend of the ghost shark—which, as it turned out, most of the local people hadn't even heard of—while she'd been on-site.
As a result of the television show, Annja had ended up being known by a lot of strange people around the world. Sometimes they sent her things.
"You remember the shrunken head the Filipino headhunter sent you?" Nikolai asked.
"Yes." There was no way Annja was going to forget that. It wasn't the shrunken head. She'd seen those before. The troublesome part was that it turned out to be evidence in a murder case against a serial murderer who had liked the show. That had involved days spent with interviewers from several law-enforcement agencies.
To make matters worse, in the end the investigators found out that the head shrinker had intended to send the head to Kristie Chatham, the other star of the television show. Kristie was known for her physical attributes rather than her intellect. Annja had to admit Kristie's enormous popularity sometimes bothered her.
"That was a mess," Nikolai sighed. "I thought I would never get the smell out."
"I'm sure it's not another shrunken head," Annja said.
"I hope you're right."
Annja's mind was racing. She was usually a quick thinker even under pressure. "Can you make a fake package about the same size as the one I was sent?" "Yes, but why?" Nikolai asked.
"I want you to give it to me when I get inside."
"Wouldn't it be smarter to go to the police?"
"The police would drive these guys away," Annja replied.
"That seems like a desirable thing to me."
"They've made me curious."
"You know what that did for the cat," Nikolai pointed out.
"Cats are also great hunters. I intend to be a great hunter. I'll talk to you in a few minutes."
"Okay. I'll get the package ready."
"Make me wait on it for a few minutes," Annja said.
"I've got a phone call I want to make."
"Oh, and put something in the box." It wouldn't do to lug around an empty box.
"What should I put in it?"
"Whatever you want."
"No. Something with some weight."
"I don't know—"
"Anything that feels heavy, Nikolai. I just want to fool them for a minute or two."
"Okay. I'll find something."
Annja broke the connection and dialed another number from memory as she went through the door to Mailboxes & Stuff. The reflection in the door glass showed that the four men were close behind her.
They split up into two teams of two.Annja knew then that they were going to try to take the package inside the store.
She was curious and they were impatient. She knew it could prove to be a recipe for disaster.