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The Pretender's Gambit (Rogue Angel Series #51)

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Overview

With one small chess piece, the game begins?

For archaeologist and TV host Annja Creed, a late-night phone call from the NYPD means one thing: there's been a murder and the police need her expertise. The only link between a dead body and the killer is a small elephant of white jade. An artifact that's gone missing.

Once belonging to Catherine the Great of Russia, the elephant was key in a risky political gambit all those years ago. But there is...

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The Pretender's Gambit (Rogue Angel Series #51)

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Overview

With one small chess piece, the game begins…

For archaeologist and TV host Annja Creed, a late-night phone call from the NYPD means one thing: there's been a murder and the police need her expertise. The only link between a dead body and the killer is a small elephant of white jade. An artifact that's gone missing.

Once belonging to Catherine the Great of Russia, the elephant was key in a risky political gambit all those years ago. But there is another story attached to the artifact—a rumor of an ancient hidden treasure. And for a cruelly ambitious media mogul with a penchant for tomb-raiding, the elephant is nothing short of priceless.

Annja must make her move quickly, traveling across several continents with only the assistance of her extraordinary sword—purportedly the same sword wielded by Joan of Arc—and a mysterious temple monk. It's a deadly battle of wits, and one wrong move could mean game over.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780373621712
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 11/4/2014
  • Series: Rogue Angel Series , #51
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 146,409
  • Product dimensions: 4.10 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Annja Creed walked toward the small apartment building on the other side of the police line. Yellow tape strung between police sawhorses held back the early morning neighborhood crowd that had gathered. Curious onlookers dressed in everyday clothes as well as pajamas and robes pushed through the crowd.

Two news anchors, neither of whom Annja recognized and both of whom looked young, stood in bright pools of camcorder lights and tried to be professional. One of the anchors spoke in English and the other spoke in Russian. Brighton Beach, south of Brooklyn, was nicknamed Little Odessa because so many Russian immigrants lived there.

Annja liked visiting the neighborhood to practice her Russian, and to see some of the artifacts many of the residents had brought from the "old country." Several small restaurants served meals she enjoyed.

"Excuse me." Annja made her way through the crowd, nudging gently and pushing only occasionally. She was five feet ten inches tall barefooted, and tonight she wore boots. Her chestnut hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She also wore a professional intensity that encouraged the gawkers to step aside. She'd also deliberately chosen a black duster that gave her a "cop" look. Attitude meant everything.

The crowd parted and she stopped in front of a grizzled uniformed cop who held up a hand. He was thick and broad, and seemed bored. His eyes constantly roved just like a cop's always did when in a difficult situation.

"You'll have to stop right there, miss." His Brooklyn accent was thick enough to cut.

"Would you let Detective McGilley know that Annja Creed is here? He asked me to come. I'm a consultant." Annja pulled her NYPD ID from her pocket. Bart McGilley, the police detective she was here to see, had arranged for the iD after she'd helped on a few cases involving stolen artifacts. She didn't often use it.

The cop suddenly smiled as he looked at her. "Hey, I know you." He pointed a thick forefinger at Annja. "You're on that TV show. The monster thing."

Annja smiled politely and nodded. Chasing History's Monsters, the cable television show she cohosted, had a big fan base. A few of the gawkers gathered around her began to talk and whisper her name, and suddenly the focus shifted from the crime scene to Annja, which made her uncomfortable.

Bart wouldn't be happy about it either. Now that Annja had been recognized, chances were good that whatever story was unfolding here would get more airplay. Of course, Doug Morrell, the show's producer, would love the free advertising.

The cop lifted the tape. "You come right ahead, Ms. Creed. Detective McGilley is waiting for you upstairs."

Annja ducked under the tape and stood waiting on the other side. An officer there took her name for the first-responder's report. One of the camcorders swung in her direction and bathed her in light. She ignored it and stared at the building ahead of her.

Seven stories tall, the apartment building looked like most of the other buildings in the area. New York was known for its towering skyline along Manhattan, but most of the buildings were seven floors or less because no elevators had to be installed. Many of the windows on the fourth floor glowed with golden light now and Annja was willing to wager that was going to be her destination.

The cold wind raced around Annja and made her put her hands in the duster pockets.

The cop squeezed the handitalker clipped to his left shoulder. "This is Sergeant Vasari outside. I got Annja Creed here for Detective McGilley." He listened for a moment, then turned his attention to Annja. "You can go on in, Ms. Creed. They're waiting for you." Annja nodded.

"You might want to watch yourself up there." Vasari grimaced. "Heard this one was messy."

Great, Annja thought. Then she headed toward the building.

A forensics guy was waiting for Annja when she reached the fourth-floor landing. He was young and dark complex-ioned, hair messy in a current style and wore a lab coverall. "Annja Creed?"

"I am." Annja started to pull out the ID again.

The crime-scene tech held up a hand and grinned. "No need. I know you."

Annja put the ID away. "You've seen the show?"

"Not yet, but I've seen the ads out on Times Square. You ask me, the video doesn't do you justice."

Annja smiled. "Thank you."

"Are you flirting with my consultant, Kai?" Down the hallway, Detective Bart McGilley stood outside an apartment door. Six feet two and broad-shouldered, Bart was an imposing figure. He wore a dark blue suit coat and matching turtleneck under a charcoal gray duster. His kept his black hair cut short and his chin chiseled, but he had a five-o'clock shadow now.

"No, Detective McGilley, I am not." Kai winked at Annja. He held up a pair of pull-on pale blue disposable footies. "I'm diligently working to keep our crime scene secure while trying to maintain the public trust and present a polite demeanor."

Taking the booties, Annja quickly pulled them on, then added the disposable gloves. "Thanks."

"Sure." Kai's face turned serious and all humor left his eyes. "All kidding aside, what you're gonna see is pretty bad."

"I'll be all right. Thank you." Annja couldn't remember all the violence she'd seen since she'd inherited Joan of Arc's sword and changed her life. She didn't regret taking up the sword, though. She'd gotten to help a lot of people, but more than that she'd gotten to see a lot of things that had been lost to history forever. The deaths were going to happen, and she'd stopped more from taking place. The trade-off was worth it.

Skirting the bloody footprints and the evidence markers beside them, she walked down the hallway to join Bart. They'd been friends for years and she'd enjoyed his company. He was one of the few people who wasn't an archaeologist or a television fanboy who could listen to her for hours. She returned the favor when he needed a sounding board about a case.

"Did I get you out of bed?" Bart asked.

The smell of death lingered in the apartment behind Bart, an odor that Annja had grown far too familiar with. She breathed more shallowly.

"I was up working."

"Anything interesting?"

"Authenticating a couple of Mayan pieces for a collector."

"Sounds boring. Everybody's got a Mayan piece tucked away somewhere."

"I was also binge watching Dr. Who on Netflix."

A small smile twisted Bart's lips and Annja was glad to lighten his mood. He took his work seriously, and he didn't take too much time off from it. That was one of the things they had in common.

"Where are you in the Whoinverse?"

"Still missing David Tennant."

"Aren't we all." Bart's eyes narrowed as they neared the door. "I wish you didn't have to see this. The ME's office is backlogged tonight, so they couldn't make it out here to get the body, otherwise I'd have the deceased moved before I called you in. But I want to proceed with this as soon as I can because I don't want whoever did this to get away."

"It'll be okay."

Bart hesitated just a second, then turned and ushered her into apartment 4F. The door around the lock had been broken. Pieces of the locking mechanism hung shattered. Other pieces had fallen onto the floor.

The room held crime-scene techs and Detective Joe Broad-hurst, Bart's current partner, and there was precious little room left over. Broadhurst was in his midforties, thin and fit. He had dark hair and dark eyes, a neatly trimmed goatee that—just for a moment—made Annja think of Garin Braden.

"Professor Creed." Broadhurst smiled politely and nodded at Annja.

"Detective Broadhurst."

"I would say it's good to see you. Instead, I'm just going to apologize I'm seeing you again under these circumstances."

Annja nodded and turned her attention to the room. The living area was small and neatly kept for the most part. "An older man lives here by himself?"

"Yes." Broadhurst seemed a little surprised. "Somebody told you?"

Annja pointed to the foil remains of the TV dinner sitting on the coffee table. "Single guy." She pointed to the small television in the corner. It was an older set, not a flatscreen. "Older guy who listens to the television more than he watches it." She pointed at the wall where a single black-and-white photograph of a young man and woman hung. "I'm presuming that's the guy at a much younger age. He lives alone or there would be more photographs." She touched the green easy chair that had seen better days and an equally battered, nonmatching couch. "And better furniture that wouldn't be so dusty."

Broadhurst smiled a little more. "You could be a cop."

"She's better than a cop," Bart said. "She's going to be able to help us with the elephant."

"Elephant?" Annja asked. "You've got an elephant in here somewhere? Now that would be a surprise. But if you've got an elephant in here, I'm sure that would have broken the lease. Maybe the floor."

Bart gestured to the back of the apartment. "This is where it gets bad."

"His name was Maurice Benyovszky," Broadhurst said. "According to a couple of the neighbors, he ran a small mailorder business out of his home. He sounds like a little old guy trying to get by. From the looks of the apartment, unless he's got a safe deposit box stuffed full of money somewhere, Benyovszky wasn't getting rich."

The dead man was in his seventies at least, and he might still have looked like the black-and-white picture in the living room if someone hadn't beaten his face into pulp. Dressed in a faded red house robe and pajamas, the old man lay crumpled on the floor in front of a large desk covered with knick-knacks, a computer and a digital camera. Paper bags covered his hands, put there by the crime-scene techs to preserve evidence. He might have been five feet tall and weighed a hundred and ten pounds.

Blood stained the back wall and curtains over the room's window and the ceiling in a surprisingly straight line.

"His killer beat him to death with what was probably a hammer of some kind." Bart's voice was calm and hollow, his professional tone when he was talking about a case. "We haven't found the murder weapon yet, but that's what we're looking for. The cast-off blood tells us where the killer and his accomplice were standing."

"There were two of them?" After the initial shock of seeing the body, Annja's mind slipped into problem-solving mode.

"Yeah. The killer—" Bart pointed to large, bloody footprints that were far larger than the dead man would have made "—and the accomplice." He indicated a second set of footprints that were smaller, yet still larger than the victim's.

"Nobody saw anything?" Even though this was the metro area and early in the morning, Annja still struggled to believe no one had come to the old man's aid. He'd had time to yell for help.

"Not till one of the neighbors came through and found the lock on the apartment door shattered. Then there was the blood in the hallway. He decided not to come in or announce himself, got back to his own apartment and called us. This is what we found."

"When?"

"About twelve forty-five. When we found out about the elephant, I wanted to call you."

"Where's the elephant?" Annja asked.

Bart crossed the room over to the computer. "Here."

Walking around the dead man, Annja joined Bart at the computer. He moved the mouse and the monitor came out of hibernation, clearing to reveal a photograph of a white jade elephant. The image gave no indication of how large the piece was, but it was exquisitely rendered with a lot of careful detail.

Taken from a side view, the elephant had its trunk curled in and sharp sheaths that covered its tusks. A thick rectangle lay across its back from its neck to its tail and hung down to almost the rounded stomach. Atop its back, a pair of warriors rode in a covered basket. One of the warriors held a spear. The other held a bow with an arrow nocked. A skullcap covered the elephant's head. On the skullcap, a flowering plant stood out in worn relief.

Annja's interest flared up at once and she leaned closer to the screen. "The elephant looks Persian or Indian."

"How do you know that?" Broadhurst asked.

Bart said nothing, just took out his field notebook and started taking down information.

"The ears," Annja replied. "Indian elephants have smaller ears than African elephants."

"Maybe the guy who made this just liked small-eared elephants." Broadhurst shrugged. "Maybe large ears were harder to make."

Still amazed by the detail, certain that the piece she was looking at was really old and wishing she could examine it for real, Annja shook her head. "Whoever carved this went to a lot of trouble to get things right. Those ears are proportioned just right."

"Okay, I've heard of Indian elephants and the small-ears thing, but I haven't heard of Persian elephants."

"That's because the Persians used Indian elephants. Do you know much about war elephants?"

"No. We don't see much of them in New York."

"The Persians were the first to use elephants in wars. The first time historians know they were used was in the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. King Darius II of Persia fielded fifteen elephants carrying mounted archers and spearmen at the center of his line. Seeing the elephants freaked Alexander the Great out, but it didn't stop him from defeating the Persians and claiming Darius's lands after he killed him. The Indians used war elephants a lot, too, but the possibility that this is a Persian elephant exists."

Broadhurst grimaced and looked a little frustrated. "The history lesson doesn't help us with our murder. Don't put us no closer to the creep that done this."

"Can I look through these files?" Annja asked.

"Sure. Our techs have already been through it. We'll be taking the computer back with us, but you can look through what's up there."

Annja flicked through the photographs. There were nine more images of the elephant, all of them from different angles, none of them with any reference that would tell her how big the piece was.

Before and after the images of the elephant were images of other objects—cups, pottery and toys. All of them looked old, but none of them looked as old as the elephant.

"Can I have copies of these images?" Annja asked. "It'll help me track down anything that might be out there in the archaeological communities concerning this piece."

Bart glanced at Broadhurst, who hesitated only a second before nodding.

"Keep it on the down low," Bart advised. "So far only we and the killers know about the elephant angle." He let out a breath. "And the elephant's only a clue if it wasn't deliberately left on the computer as a red herring."

Annja looked back at the computer monitor. "If this isn't a lead, I should be able to find it pretty quickly for you."

Bart's cell phone rang and he answered it, spoke briefly, then looked over at Broadhurst. "That was Palfrey. They've got the nephews downstairs. Turns out they live on the second floor."

Broadhurst nodded. "I'll stay here with the body. Why don't you question the nephews. Take Professor Creed with you. According to the old man's daughter, the nephews had something to do with our vic's business. Maybe they know something about this missing elephant she can help with."

Bart glanced at Annja. "You up for this? You're still the only antiques expert I have on hand."

"Sure." Curious, Annja followed Bart out of the room, but her mind was locked on the image of the war elephant and the mystery it represented.

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