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"Such exquisite form," Roux said. He glided to a stop easily on the ice of the outdoor skating rink. "You make falling upon your wonderfully sculpted posterior a balletic act. Pure poetry." He kissed his kid-gloved fingertips.
"How about a hand, here?" Annja Creed asked. She sat like an abandoned rag doll with her mittened hands on the ice and her legs stuck out in front of her.
She regretted the request at once. The slim old man with the bright blue eyes and the carefully trimmed white beard began to clap slowly.
Seeing her expression start to resemble gathering thun-derheads he desisted and extended an arm. All around them cheerful skaters passed by emitting dragon puffs of condensed breath against a black night sky from which the bright multicolored rink lights banished stars. She fought the impression they were laughing at her.
With the help of Roux's strength, surprising in a man his apparent age, she found herself back upright with her
feet beneath her. Temporarily, anyway. She teetered, the blades of the rental skates strapped none too comfortably to her feet that slipped back and forth over the ice. Roux held her by the arm, steadying her.
"Where is your vaunted sense of balance, which you have supposedly gained through rigorous study of your black arts?" he asked.
"Martial arts," she said. " And the problem isn't lack of balance. It's lack of friction."
"If you say so. Now, pay attention. The principle is simplicity itself. When you go with the direction of the blades, you move without effort. If you press at an angle to the blade, you push. You see?"
Annja did. She was starting to. Sort of.She made herself draw deep breaths to the diaphragm, calming, centering herself. You can keep your head while people are shooting at you, she reminded herself sternly. So you can keep your head while doing something little children do effortlessly.
The fact was, she was determined not to let this get the better of her. She wasn't in the habit of backing away from challenges. It made her curse Roux all the more for talking her into this despite her reservations.
As she propelled herself forward a skinny septuagenarian a head shorter than Annja easily passed her by. Not a yard ahead of her a tiny girl, elfin face bracketed by enormous white puffy earmuffs, skated fearlessly backward.
Annja sighed. "I thought the Quays of the Old Port Skating Rink didn't open until December."
The outdoor rink was in the old St. Lawrence River dockside district appended to Montreal's downtown. Like every other run-down waterfront in every other major North
American city, it had been renovated and gentrified at enormous expense sometime in the last quarter-century. Now the skaters glided and chattered to saucy French techno-pop before the broad, benign domed edifice of the Marché Bonsecours, the old market that once housed City Hall.
"Customarily it does not open so early," Roux said, tipping his hat to a passing pair of handsome middle-aged women. "But the winter has come early to Montreal, as you can see. This global warming, it fails again to materialize, it seems."
He shook his head. "I do not understand you moderns and your superstitions. Even should the good Earth be warming, why is that bad? I lived through five centuries of what your scientists now call the Little Ice Age. Including times in which it lessened. In the times it grew cooler again, the people suffered, grew sicker and poorer. Crops failed. And whenever the weather grew warmer, prosperity and happiness returned."
She said nothing. From her own detailed knowledge of history, especially European history, she knew her mentor was right about the previous effects of climate warming.
She also knew he wasn't kidding about having experienced it for himself. What was worse, he wasn't even delusional.
"All right," she said to her companion as they picked up speed. She was finding a certain degree of control. She learned things quickly, physical or mental. "You've brought me here. You've established your dominance by ritually humiliating me. What's so urgent that you had to see me?"
"What else but the offer of a job? At a fee most welcome, given the sadly depleted state of our exchequer," Roux said.
Annja knew Roux was fabulously wealthy but he loved to cry poor. However, she also knew for a fact that their occasional joint covert enterprises, while tending to command high fees, were phenomenally expensive. For one thing she burned through all-but-bulletproof fake identities, with attendant documentation, the way some people smoked cigarettes. Even with volume discounts, the requisite quality was costly.
"Then give," she said. The old man loved to hear himself speak and would ramble all night, or possibly for days, if she didn't occasionally boot him back in the general direction of the subject at hand. The trouble was, he was highly entertaining to listen to. Being a raconteur was another skill he'd had a long, long time to develop.
He clucked and shook his head. "You moderns have no sensibility of the rhythms of life. Everything is always 'hurry-hurry-hurry.'"
"You got that right, old man," Annja said with a grin.
Roux sighed. "A consortium of wealthy American Protestant fundamentalists are organizing an expedition to examine the so-called Ararat Anomaly, believed by many to be Noah's Ark. They wish you to come along and direct excavation and preservation."
"No," Annja said without hesitation.
His fine brow creased in a frown. "Why must you always make things so difficult, child?"
" You're trying to hook me up with a bunch of Biblical literalists? They're like the archenemies of anthropologists and archaeologists."
"Why must you be so dogmatic? You really should be more open-minded."
"The Ararat Anomaly is a total crock. The mountain's
sixteen thousand feet high, for God's sake! How does a flood plant something up there?"
"It is, in fact, Turkey's highest mountain at 5,137 meters. Or 16,854 feet, as you Americans would say. I'm with you, by the way—the metric system was another unlovely conceit of the French Revolution. We might as well have kept their ridiculous calendar, with its ten-day weeks and its months with names like Heat and Fog!"
"Okay. Almost seventeen thousand feet, then. Thanks for making my point for me."
"But what of the photographic evidence? The Ararat Anomaly has repeatedly been photographed by surveillance aircraft and satellites. Some analysts claim it resembles the Biblical description of Noah's Ark."
"It's just a natural formation."
"Ah, but do you know that for a fact? How? Is this your science, to determine truth by decree like His Holiness the Pope? You've not been there. No one has, for very long. No expedition has ever succeeded in examining it in detail."
"Of course they haven't," Annja said. "The Turkish government won't let anyone in because of trouble with the Kurds. And with the fighting between the Turks and the Kurds continuing the way it is, the Turks are especially unlikely to let anyone in now."
"Just so. Yet the expedition sponsors and organizers, who I assure you are serious men who are not to be taken lightly, believe they have a way to get to the mountain and climb it with ample time to perform at least a site survey and preliminary excavation."
"You mean go in illegally, don't you?" she asked.
"It's not as if you are a stranger to that sort of thing, Annja dear."
She shrugged. The motion momentarily unbalanced her. She felt proud that she managed to right herself without clutching at Roux. He had them skating in a circuit about the rink's long oval now. She noticed he also kept them clear of the rail, most likely to prevent her grabbing it and vaulting to solid ground. Or ground with friction, anyway.
Roux had declared himself her mentor when she first came into possession of Joan of Arc's sword through some kind of power she did not fully comprehend. Even now she didn't really know what that meant. The sword traveled with her in another plane and was usually available to her in times of trouble. She could call it to her hands by willing it there if conditions warranted it. It was a privilege and a burden at the same time and Roux, who claimed to have been Joan's one-time protector, came along as part of the deal. He was always pressing her, pushing her to extend her boundaries, challenge herself.
For the most part Roux seemed content to play business manager for her unorthodox archaeological services. She knew, though, that he had an agenda entirely his own. And she had no real clue as to what it was.
"Where is your dedication to the scientific method?" he asked. "Where's the spirit of scientific inquiry? Where, even, simple human curiosity? Absent investigation, child, how can you be so sure what it is or is not?"
"Well," she said, "I mean, how likely is it?"
"My principals claim to have in their possession relics recovered from the site. Allegedly these substantiate that it is, at the very least, artificial in origin."
His gloved hands gestured grandiosely. Other skaters glanced their way and giggled. But it didn't disturb his
balance in the slightest. In fact he skated with the same ease with which a dolphin swam. He's had a lot of time to practice this, too, Annja reminded herself
"Think, Annja!" he exclaimed. "Even if it doesn't happen to be the Ark, would not a man-made structure atop the mountain be a magnificent archaeological find? Would it not also be in dire need of professional preservation? And also, the Americans offer quite a handsome fee."
"You won't even have to organize matters, nor run the expedition. That burden is borne by others. You'll be there purely as chief archaeologist."
She sighed. Roux could be devilishly persuasive.
He was right about one weakness of hers in particular. Science and the scientific method were very important to her, as was the spirit of scientific inquiry. But mostly, she was as curious as the proverbial cat.
"All right, you old renegade," she said. "You've got me wondering just what is on top of that stupid mountain. I'll agree to hear them out."
"I'm not promising anything else," she said, shaking her head so emphatically she blew her balance again and had to windmill her arms frantically. Her legs in their black tights slid right out in front if her. She landed on her tailbone with an impact that shot sparks up her spine to explode like fireworks in her brain.
Roux blinked down at her. "Try to contain your excitement, child. People stare."
Grumbling, she allowed him to help her up once more with his surprising strength of grip and arm.
"Besides," Roux said as she came back onto her skates,
a little tentatively. "I can't dally here with you forever, delightful as your company always is. I've got other projects to attend to. I'll set up a meeting and will be in touch." He skated away from her with great speed.
"Roux!" Annja called out to him as he disappeared. Once again she was left wondering what she was getting herself into.
"If you'd please follow me, miss?" The maître d' was a soft-spoken, light-skinned black man, tall and slender in his white shirt and black trousers, with hair cut short.
The establishment was called, simply, the Penthouse. Its decor was as spare as its name: dark stained oak wainscoting beneath ivory wallpaper, muted chrome accents and crystal lighting. The tablecloths gleamed immaculate white; the only touches of color in the room were the long-stemmed roses—the color of fresh-spilled blood—set on each table in narrow vases.
The real interior decoration was all exterior—the glory of midtown Manhattan by night.
Four men sat at a table with an empty chair, right by one window-wall with lights glimmering in it like a galaxy's worth of stars. The oldest man, and largest in every dimension, pushed back his chair as Annja approached behind the quietly respectful maître d'.
"Ms. Creed," he said in a voice that boomed above the
discreet murmur of conversation, the tinkle of silver on porcelain and ice in crystal. "How good of you to join us. I'm Charles Bostitch. Please call me Charlie."
He wore an obviously expensive but somewhat rumpled brown suit with a brown string tie and an expression of jovial indifference to the stares of the other diners on his big, florid fleshy face. His hair was brown and graying at the temples; it looked natural to Annja, not that she was any judge. Seams of his well-rumpled face, exaggerated by his big grin, almost concealed his brown eyes.
As she approached she realized he was very tall. He towered over her, which was rare: he had to be six-four or thereabouts, probably crowding three hundred pounds. He had the look of a former star college quarterback who hadn't quite had the NFL stuff, and whose career and physique had begun their downhill slide about the same time as graduation and continued until his fifties.
He was a billionaire who had made his money the old-fashioned way—inherited it from his Oklahoma oilman daddy. But, according to the information Roux had given to Annja, he had more than doubled the family fortune despite frequent bouts with expensive bad habits. He'd supposedly cleaned himself up and was now a vigorous proponent of muscular right-wing Christianity.
Bostitch's handshake was firm and dry and all-enveloping. Annja could feel at once how he could overpower most people without consciously trying. But Annja was not most people and she was hard to intimidate.
"It's an honor to meet you at last, Ms. Creed," he boomed. Two of the other men at the table had risen politely. The third sat hunched over and peered myopically at an electronic reader.