Read an Excerpt
She was being followed.
Annja Creed sighed with an almost nonchalant grin as she felt the familiar feeling wash over her. As many times and as many places as she'd been, she could tellwithout even turning around to confirm itthat someone was taking more than a passing interest in her.
Even here, she thought. Even in this remote industrial complex where the concrete was as gray as the cold sky overhead, she hadn't managed to escape the eyes and ears of the locals.
The question, as always, was who was following her? Since arriving in Moscow and then taking the Siberian railroad to the northeast reaches of the former Soviet Union, Annja had kept what she thought was a low profile. She'd paid cash for her transactions. She'd used her new fake passport and booked her travels under a fake name. She'd even tossed her schedule out the window and lingered in several stops for far too long.
But it hadn't worked.
She ran down the list of people in her head who might wish her harm and then frowned. The list was long and growing longer. Every new adventure seemed to add dozens of names to the roster of folks who thought the world would be a better place if perhaps Annja Creed wasn't inhaling any more of its oxygen.
She passed the plate-glass windows of a department store advertising fashions so outdated that Annja wondered if anyone actually came in and requested them. She paused, however, and used the reflecting surface to look behind her.
She kept moving rather than give away the idea that she suspected she was being followed. No sense altering the hunters.
Annja knew that professionals never allowed themselves to be seen when they followed you. So the fact that she hadn't spotted anyone in the shop window might mean she wasn't dealing with amateurs.
On one level, that was good. Amateurs in this part of the world tended to be thugs and rapists who would brutalize you and then sell you off into some sexual-slavery den.
At least the professionals just killed you and got it done with.
She smirked at the thought. How my life has changed, she mused.
She turned a corner and strolled up a narrow street. Ahead of her, she could make out an outdoor market area filled with a smattering of produce, imported electronics goods and bootleg DVDs. Annja knew the mafiya controlled these impromptu bazaars. But she hoped she could use them to lose her tail.
Unless, of course, he worked for the very same gangsters who ran the marketplace. She pondered that for a moment. But she couldn't worry about that for long. Not when she had a pressing appointment to keep with Robert Gulliver, known to his friends as Biker Bob and to the rest of the world as the cycling archaeologist.
Gulliver liked riding across the world on his favorite all-terrain bike. It was how he had scouted so many famous dig sites. Before he went in to any place with loads of equipment, he would casually assess the environment from the comfort of his bicycle. So far, Gulliver had crisscrossed the globe numerous times, although this was his first outing in Siberia.
Gulliver had sent Annja an e-mail from a cybercafé in a town just outside Minsk, asking if she would join him on a scouting mission. Annja, bored with her self-imposed exile back in Brooklyn, had jumped at the opportunity.
But even she was somewhat disgruntled by the location. So far, the dour city of Magadan had failed to impress her. The entire city was formed of cookie-cutter buildings set into neat rows. The streets were all evenly paved with ancient cars zooming down them at breakneck speeds, unconcerned if they hit pedestrians. In contrast, she occasionally spotted a sleek new Lincoln Town Car that proclaimed its driver as belonging to organized crime. Poverty was rampant, and Annja had already doled out some of her money to several children who looked closer to being scarecrows than human beings.
Gulliver had promised her a spectacular adventure, but Annja couldn't see it. Not in a city so utterly drab and awash in human misery.
Still, the fact that she had someone following her at least meant that there might be a little excitement before the day was done.
She ducked under the low awning and entered the marketplace. Immediately, her ears were accosted by the sounds of techno music infused with Russian street rap. Annja spoke a smattering of Russian, but she knew better than to try to translate the music lyrics that blasted out of the nearby speakers.
And she wasn't there to listen to music, anyway.
Ahead of her, the narrow corridor seemed to twist and turn. Elderly shoppers, their heads wrapped in heavy hats and scarves to ward off the first taste of winter in the air, pushed past her, intent on finding something valuable in the midst of chaos.
One of the vendors called out to her and held up an iPod. Annja smiled but shook her head no. She knew they made the cheap knockoffs in China and shipped them north through Mongolia before they ended up here.
Besides, Annja had her own iPod back at the hotel.
She frowned. Unless someone had broken in and stolen it, she thought. She glanced back at the iPod hawker but he was already gone.
Her unpredictable turn had prompted a man thirty feet back to stop awkwardly and turn his head.
First mistake. Maybe she wasn't dealing with professionals after all.
She hurried on, aware of a pungent stench of rotting fish assailing her nostrils. Three stalls of dead fish bedded on ice bracketed the next turn. Annja glanced at them. Even the fish were gray.
She had a decision to make. She could allow her tail to continue his surveillance, or she could turn the tables on him and find out who he was. The first choice was annoying because it meant she'd never be alone. The second choice was the more dangerous of the two. Confronting a tail was always a risk. He might be following her because he wanted to harm her. Possibly, he might even kill her.
Annja closed her eyes for the briefest of moments, confirming that Joan of Arc's swordher sword was accessible. She could see it in her mind's eye, hovering as it always seemed to. All she had to do was reach out and grab it.
She ducked under a low-hanging portal filled with cheap polyester tapestries done up in gaudy golds and bright reds. She could see the fraying edges and knew that the quality of the material only looked good to those who knew no better and had never had anything better in their lives. To some in this remote outback of Russia, polyester was the fabric of dreams.
She risked a glance back and saw the man clearly. He had no interest in any of the wares being hawked by the vendors. His face was as dour as the rest of the city. But Annja could see the deep lines etched in his face and knew that he had a pastprobably that of a hired killer. She knew finding one in this part of the world was easy. And they were always competent.
If they weren't, they simply didn't survive.
Annja made her decision. She rushed ahead and instantly heard the yells behind her as her pursuer bumped into one of the fish stalls. Ice slid everywhere and the dead fish followed, causing several shoppers to fall.
More voices joined the fray. If her pursuer was with the mafiya, most likely he'd be able to enlist some help. But if he wasn't, then he was risking their wrath by upsetting one of the chief places they made their protection money.
Annja spotted an exit and took it. Fresh air smacked into her face and she saw the narrow alley ahead of her. Grateful that she'd worn her hiking boots instead of her sneakers, Annja raced down the asphalt street.
Behind her, footsteps pounded the pavement. He was close.
Annja skidded into the alley and saw that it was filled with trash. The smell of urine hung heavy in the air. She could smell cheap vodka and the aroma of body odor. Makeshift corrugated-cardboard-box homes dotted the edges of the alley. Annja had entered a town of sorts for homeless people.
She pressed on, dodging the clotheslines that hung between two buildings. Bits of spattered cloth, remnants of winter coats and shirts hung from the lines. Steam from several grates issued forth with a sharp hiss.
The entire alley seemed eerily quiet. Behind her, at the entrance of the alley, the footsteps stopped.
This was where it would get hairy.
Annja ducked low, aware that her vision was being compromised by the crowded nature of the alley. The steam, trapped by the many laundry lines and the clothes they held, seemed to hug closer to the ground, making the alley feel more like a moor drowning in early-morning fog.
Her pursuer would have moved into the alley by now. But he'd move slowly, aware that any one of the boxes might conceal his prey. He might walk right past her. Or she might ambush him.
Annja glanced ahead. Bricks. She frowned. A dead end.
Her heart hammered in her chest. She closed her eyes and tried to reach for the sword. But when she opened her eyes, it wasn't in her hands. She tried again and then it hit her.
The alley was too narrow to swing a sword.
She almost yelped when the disembodied hand grabbed her around the ankle. She yanked her leg away and shot a kick into the hand. Someone on the ground grunted and she saw the hand retreat.
This was not a place she wanted to stay any longer than necessary.
The air around her grew heavy. Annja could feel his presence now, looming and drawing down the distance between them. She ducked down by the closest cardboard box and waited.
The steam played tricks with her eyes. She thought she could see his body parting the mist like some ship on the sea. And then she saw his feet.
Without even thinking about it, Annja launched herself at him, screaming as she did so. She collided with him, knocking him to the ground. He grunted and Annja felt a breath of air come out of his mouth as the wind was knocked out of him.
She winced. Judging by the smell, he was a fan of onion bagels.
He brought his hands up and twisted, trying to push her off him. She could see his left hand reaching for something in his coat. Annja chopped down with her fist onto his forearm, hoping his coat wasn't thick enough to dull the blow.
He grunted again and rolled.
Annja slipped off him and scrambled to her feet, her hands held up high.
As he came up, Annja lashed out with a roundhouse kick aimed at his temple. He ducked under it and punched up into the underside of her thigh. Annja jerked back, surprised that he seemed so nimble after being knocked to the ground.Again, he reached inside his coat. Annja ducked her head and flew at him, tackling him around the waist. Using her momentum, she brought them both back down to the ground.
He was better prepared this time and as she landed, his hands were already trying to work the nerve clusters in her neck with his fingers. Annja could feel the sharp twinges as he dug his fingertips into the area under her ear.
She slid away and got to her feet.
"Stop!" the man shouted.
Annja braced herself. The man got to his feet and held his hands up as if he was surrendering. "I mean you no harm," he said.
Annja frowned. "Really?"
He gestured at his pocket. "Do you mind? I will prove that I am no threat to you."
"Go slow," Annja said. "If I think you're pulling a gun"
"No gun. Just a note," he said.
- Annja watched as he fished a slip of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it and gingerly handed it to her. She took it and glanced down quickly at the words written on it.
Annja, welcome to Magadan. Please follow Gregor.
He will bring you to me.
The man smiled. "Da."
Annja smiled. "Nice to meet you."