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"Couldn't you have worn something a little more revealing?"
Annja Creed frowned as she considered the question over the Bluetooth earpiece that linked her with her satellite phone. She stood in the middle of a dank alleyway stinking with rotting garbage and Chinese takeout. Dark rain clouds hung in the sky visible between the buildings. Sporadic smog patches drifted past.
"Doug, I'm way underdressed for a potential mugging as it is." Annja wore a silver calf-length duster over black pants and a pearl-gray silk tie-waist blouse. Slouchy microsuede boots pushed her five-ten up to something over six feet. The boots were comfortable, stylish, and she could run for her life in them if she had to. She wore her auburn hair clipped back.
"This guy's not a mugger." Doug Morrell sounded put out. The producer of Chasing History's Monstersthe syndicated television show Annja costarred in with Kristie Chathamwas twenty-two, young and driven by all things Twitter.
Despite the fact that he wasn't really interested in history or archaeology, Annja genuinely liked Doug. He was like the younger brother she'd never had.
"I know he's not a mugger." Annja walked through the alley with her hands in her pockets. "He's killed three women that the Metro police know about."
"I saw those reports, too, which is why I want you to be careful."
"Careful, but less dressed."
Doug hesitated only a moment. "Yeah."
"You could at least get rid of the jacket."
"And give it to Igor to carry?"
"Don't make fun of your bodyguard."
Annja resisted the impulse to look back at Ray Venard, the guy Doug had hired for the shoot tonight. Venard was a large, hulking brute who had played professional rugby before he'd gotten caught shaving points, then was injured by outraged fans. He'd gotten through the court system unscathed, but the fans had left him with a knee that would never be the same.
"I thought he was a cameraman."
"He is. He's both. Kind of like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Bodyguard and photographer."
"Did I mention to you that when I met him in his office he was taking pictures of women for a skin magazine?"
Doug sighed. "You did."
"So not only am I not going to take my coat off to be more revealing in this cold, rat-infested alley, I'm also not going to take it off in front of Igor."
"I only mention the coat because it could help ratings."
"The ratings are fine. We just got a two-year renewal."
"So we could work on the next two-year deal."
Annja kept walking. Working for the television show was sometimes a pain, but mostly it was fun. And there was Doug and a few of the other people she liked who were connected to the production. Not only did she get to travel, but the salary and bonuses were nice and allowed her to follow up on other explorations and digs.
She watched the shadows carefully. Detective Chief Inspector Westcox hadn't been happy when she'd come to his office to discuss the recent murders that the media was attributing to "Mr. Hyde." Of course, the reporters were only doing that because "Mr. Hyde" had written in, claiming responsibility for the murders.
Westcox had shown Annja the morgue photos of the victims. The DCI was closemouthed and professional, and he'd thought to frighten her off with the brutality of the killings. The victims had been stomped to death, their faces pulped by size eighteen Rufflander work boots.
What DCI Westcox hadn't known was how much violence Annja Creed had seen. The police inspector had assumed she was a young woman inquiring into things much too bloody for her.
"I'm keeping my clothes on for the next two years, too."
Doug whined. He was a good whiner when he wanted to be, but Annja was impervious.
"You have Kristie for the T and A ratings. With me, you've got history and archaeology ratings."
The fact that Kristie Chatham was the fan darling because of her habitual loss of clothing and "wardrobe malfunctions" bothered Annja more than she would ever tell anyone. But she accepted it. She had her fans, too.
"Would Kristie agree to walking in a rat-infested alley at midnight so a serial murderer could leap out of the shadows and murder her?"
"No, of course not. If she got hurt, she wouldn't be able to work."
"And I would?"
"You're not going to get hurt. You have Igor. Besides, you're only there tonight to shoot a little mood footage. Igor also tells me the fog is going to have to be enhanced. Says it's really weak."
Annja looked back over her shoulder at the lumbering shadow that trailed her. Igor carried a portable video camera in one giant paw. "You're talking to him?"
"Texting. I'm talking to you."
"Great. So you're distracting my bodyguard."
"He'd probably be more focused on you if you weren't overdressed."
Turning her attention back to the alley ahead of her, Annja shook her head. Sometimesmost of the timeDoug had a one-track mind. "About the Mr. Hyde thing."
"You said you loved the Mr. Hyde thing," Doug said, instantly wary. "You said the Mr. Hyde thing was awesome. You couldn't wait to do the Mr. Hyde thing."
Annja had said that. But that had been when she'd thought her schedule wasn't going to be so tight. She'd hoped to get out to Hadrian's Wall. That had been the site of her first dig, and the place still held a special spot in her heart.
Then, when she'd seen those poor women in those police photographs, she realized that the "investigation" bordered on sensationalism. That the women were going to be fodder for the conspiracy mill Chasing History's Monsters routinely set into motion didn't sit well with her.
"You do realize Mr. Hyde isn't real."
"When you meet Mr. Hyde, tell him that. Either we've got one of London's oldest and eeriest monsters returned from over a hundred years of being missing, or we've got someone who rediscovered Dr. Jekyll's secret potion. I don't care which it is. It's a great story."
"That's what it isa story. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson. An allegory some say was based on Victorian views of sex."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You told me that already. And I agreed that you could put that stuff in there. As long as there's not too much of it. Which is why we're picking up the tab on your date with Professor Beeswax."
"Professor Beswick. And it's not a date. He's an expert on film, literature and myth."
"I suppose it doesn't hurt that Professor Beeswax is good-looking, though. I ran a Google search on him. I see what you saw."
"Really? You thought Professor Beswick was attractive?"
Doug nearly choked. "No! That's not what I said. Are you recording this?" He cursed. "Now I've got Diet Coke up my nose. Don't do that."
Annja chuckled. Doug was easy to set off.
"As for this Mr. Hyde thing, I got a very convincing email stating that the Dr. Jekyll formula had been discovered on the internet and someone had re-created it."
"Who was the email from?"
"An anonymous source."
"Doug, it's me and you. You can tell me."
"I can't. That's how the writer tagged the email."
"And you bought into this based on that." Annja couldn't believe it, then reminded herself she'd been in the same situation with Doug dozens of times before.
"Sure. There are the three murders. Mr. Hyde claims to have done them."
Annja bit her tongue. She was looking forward to her stay in London and dinner tomorrow with Professor Beswick appeared promising.
Ahead, one of the doors suddenly banged open and four figures spilled out into the alley. Three of them were young Asian males dressed in dark clothing backing out of a restaurant. One of them held a young woman trapped with an arm across her neck. Her eyes rolled fearfully and she hung on to the man's arm to keep her balance.
The woman was dressed in black pants and a white shirt, the typical server's uniform for a lot of restaurants. Light shined from the open doorway and revealed tattoos on the necks of two of the men. All of them carried pistols. A handful of pound notes drifted from the cloth bag one of the guys fisted.
"Doug, I'm going to have to talk to you later." She unclipped the Bluetooth earpiece and shoved it into her pocket. Annja was calm as she surveyed the scene. Her heart went out to the frightened young woman.
An older man in a suit raced through the back door and quickly stopped when he saw the gunmen. "Laurel."
"Get back, old man." One of the youths took a step forward and pointed the gun at the businessman.
"Please. You have the money. Don't take my daughter."
The youth opened fire. Annja didn't know if he was trying to hit the man or not, but one of the bullets chewed into the door and the other went through the doorway.
The man dropped to the ground, covered his head with his arms and screamed for his daughter.
"Papa!" The young woman cried out in fear and tried to free herself. One of the men not holding her backhanded her across the face.
"Hey!" Igor's loud voice thundered in the alley. "You blokes want to put the guns down before you get hurt?"
Glancing back, Annja saw that Igor had a gun in his own hand instead of the camera now. He stood holding the revolver like he knew what to do. Unfortunately, so did the three Asians. Two of them opened fire while the third hung on to their hostage.
Annja pressed herself flat against a building.
The bullets drove Igor back into cover. He rose up just long enough to fire two rounds. Both bullets went wild, and one of them came dangerously close to Annja.
In the next moment, a car roared into the alley behind Igor. The bright lights pinned him for a moment as he threw up a hand in front of his eyes. He stepped aside, but the driver opened the door and hit the bodyguard hard enough to bounce him off a brick wall. Igor rolled and dropped as the car roared by.
The driver brought the car to a rocking halt only a few feet from the three men. They opened the doors on the passenger's side and started to get in with their captive.
Annja sprang for the driver, shoved a hand into the car and caught the man by the jacket front. She yanked hard and the man's head cracked against the window's edge. The driver's eyes rolled up and showed white just before he slumped across the steering wheel. His foot pressed against the accelerator and the car sped forward before the others could climb in.
Reaching into the otherwhere that contained her sword, Annja drew the blade into the physical world. Moonlight glinted along the three-foot-plus polished steel blade. The hilt was plain, unadorned, wrapped in leather strips, and it felt completely at home in Annja's hand. The sword had been forged for Joan of Arc and only the one destined to take up Joan's crusade could wield it.
Annja shot forward as the car passed, and she knew she was moving too fast for the men to track. To them it would have looked like she'd appeared out of nowhere. She drove a double-fisted blow into the face of the man on the right. Propelled by the great strength she had when she wielded the sword, the man sailed backward and thudded against crates of trash. Rotted vegetables and refuse tumbled over him. Rats scattered and ran.
Whirling, Annja lashed out with the sword as the man holding the money took aim at her. Beyond him, the out-of-control car rammed into a streetlight, shuddered and died with an explosive release of steam. Her blade caught the man's pistol as he lifted it, and drove it from his grip. She took two quick side steps forward, then raised her right leg and drove her foot into his face.
He went down in a loose jumble of flesh and blood, unconscious before he hit the ground.
Still holding his hostage, the third robber fired again and again.
Annja ducked and went low. She shoved her left leg out and swept the legs of the man and his hostage from the ground. As they fell backward, the man kept firing, wildly spraying the stone walls on either side of the alley. Trapped between the buildings, the sharp reports rolled like thunder.
She swung the sword at the gun and knocked the weapon from the man's grip. He tried to get up, made it to his knees, but she met him with the sword hilt between his eyes. The impact snapped his head back and he sank.
Satisfied that the immediate danger was over, Annja released the sword and the weapon vanished. She walked over to the young woman and helped her to her feet.
"You're all right." Annja cradled the woman in her arms. "You're going to be fine." When her father reached them, she released the woman into his custody and went back to check on Igor.
The big man was just coming around, groaning and still trying to get his breath back.
"C'mon. Let's get you up and get out of here." Annja pulled him to his feet.
Igor held an arm across his ribs and stared at the men lying in the alley. Cooks and waitstaff were already taking them into custody.
Annja shrugged. "The driver's brakes must have gone out. He hit them and knocked them down."
"The girl's not hurt?"
"We got lucky." That was an easier story than telling the truth to the police. "Let's go. I really don't want to spend the whole night in a police station being questioned."
"Shouldn't we stay?"
Annja looked at him.
Igor grinned sheepishly. "I mean, I did try to save the girl. Maybe a little publicity will help the business, you know."
"Right. And that way Doug Morrell will know you got taken out by a couple thugs. Think he's going to want to keep you around protecting me from Mr. Hyde?"
"On second thought, I've never been a glory hound."
"But we can't leave just this minute." Igor looked at the side of the alley. "I have to find my pistol. I must have dropped it. Can you help give us a look?"