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Prague, Czech Republic
"He's going to catch fire when the motorcycle hits the back of the overturned car?" Annja Creed asked in disbelief.
"Yeah. But the real trick is when he catches fire." Barney Yellowtail calmly surveyed the wrecked cars in the middle of the narrow street between a line of four-story buildings that had seen far better days.
"When?" Annja asked, still trying to grasp the whole idea.
"When is important," Barney continued. He was in his late forties, twenty years older than Annja, and had been a stuntman for almost thirty years. "If Roy catches on fire too late, we've hosed the gag."
Gags, Annja had learned, were what stunt people called the death-defying feats they did almost on a daily basis.
"And if you hose the gag," Annja said, "you have to do it over and risk Roy's life again."
Barney grinned. He claimed to be full-blood Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma and looked it. His face was dark and seamed, creased by a couple of scars under his left eye and under his right jawline. He wore rimless glasses that darkened in the bright sunlight, and a straw cowboy hat. His jeans and chambray work shirt were carefully pressed. His boots were hand-tooled brown-and-white leather that Annja thought were to die for.
Annja was five feet ten inches tall with chestnut hair and amber-green eyes. She had an athlete's build with smooth, rounded muscle. She wore khaki pants, hiking boots, a lightweight white cotton tank under a robin's-egg-blue blouse, wraparound blue sunglasses and an Australian Colly hat that she'd developed a fondness for to block the sun.
"That's not the worst part," Barney assured her.
"That's not the worst part?" Annja echoed.
"Naw," Barney replied, smiling wide enough to show a row of perfect teeth. "The worst part is that the director will be mad."
Barney looked at her as if sensing that she wasn't completely convinced. "Mad directors mean slow checks. They also mean slow work. If you can't hit your marks on a gag, especially on a film that Spielberg's underwriting, your phone isn't going to ring very often."
Annja wondered if you had to be certifiable to be a stuntman.
"C'mon, Annja," Barney said. "I've read about you in the magazines, seen you on Letterman and kept up with what you're doing on Chasing History's Monsters. You know life isn't worth living without a little risk."
Annja knew her life hadn't exactly been risk free. Actually, especially lately, it seemed to go the other way. As a working archaeologist, she'd traveled to a number of dangerous places, and those places were starting to multiply dramatically as she became more recognized.
She thought about her job at Chasing History's Monsters. Most days she wasn't sure if it was a blessing or a curse. The syndicated show had high enough ratings that the producers could send Annja a number of places that she couldn't have afforded on her own.
The drawback was that the stories she was asked to coverhistorical madmen, psychopaths, serial killers and even legendary monsterswere usually less than stellar. Fans of the show couldn't get enough of her, but some of the people in her field of archaeology had grown somewhat leery.
None of that, though, had come without risk.
"Okay," Annja admitted. "I'll give you that. But I've never set myself on fire."
"Roy's not going to set himself on fire," Barney said. "I'm going to do that for him."
"It's just that timing is critical." Barney stepped to one side as his cell phone rang. "Excuse me."
Annja nodded and surveyed the street. The film crew had barricaded three city blocks in Prague's Old Town. A few streets over, the Vltava River coursed slowly by and carried the river traffic to various destinations.
Prague was a new experience for Annja, and she was thoroughly enjoying it. Getting the job on the movie had been as unexpected as it was welcome. She'd done a bit of work with props before, but never on a motion picture of this magnitude.
Kill Me Deadly was a new spy romp that was part James Bond and part Jason Bourne. The hero even carried the same J.B. initialsJet Bard.
Annja hadn't quite understood the plot because a lot of the details were still under wraps. She was of the impression some of them were still being worked out, which was causing extra stress on the set.
Three cars occupied the middle of the street. Two of them were overturned. All of them were black from where they'd been burned. The stuntman was supposed to hit the upright car, catch on fire and turn into a human comet streaking across the sky.
When Annja had heard about the stunt and had received an invitation from Barney to attend, she'd thought about gracefully declining. Then she'd found she couldn't stay away.
Now her stomach knotted in anticipation. She'd gotten to know the young daredevil who was about to become a human fireball. He was a nice guy and she didn't like the idea that something bad might happen to him.
"Okay," Barney said as he stepped back to rejoin her. His gaze remained on the street while he adjusted his headset. "I'm going to need you to stay quiet for a moment, Annja."
"Sure." Annja gazed down the street anxiously.
Camera operators lined the street from various points of view. All of them remained out of each other's line of sight. The crews had worked on the setup for hours. Before that, they'd measured and mapped the distances on a model of the street and the cars.
According to the computer programs Barney and the other stunt people had run, everything would go fine. To Annja, it was a lot like exploring a dig site she'd read about. Even though she knew the background and the general layout, there were far too many surprises involved to guarantee everything was safe. Some of the early Egyptian-tomb explorers had quickly discovered that.
"On your go," Barney said softly. He held up an electronic control box in both hands. "I'm with you." He flicked a switch.
Immediately a half-dozen fires flamed to life within the pile of wrecked cars. They burned cheerily and black smoke twisted on the breeze.
"We've got fire in the hole, Roy," Barney declared.
The throb of the motorcycle's engine rumbled into Annja's ears. She watched with a mixture of dread and anticipation. Roy Fein was one of the top stuntmen in the game. Barney had said that a number of times over the past few days. She didn't know if he'd been trying to reassure her or himself.
"Steady," Barney said. "Okay, you're on track. Now increase your speed to seventy-eight miles per hour."
The exact speed had been a big concern, Annja knew. Too much and the impact angle would be wrong and the motorcycle might flip end over end. Too little and Roy would fall short of the air bag that waited at the other end of the jump.
The motorcycle roared into view. Roy Fein, dressed in dark blue racing leathers and a matching helmet, had raced around the corner. A car followed only inches behind him.
"You're on," Barney said. "Hit the Volkswagen and I'm going to light you up."
At that moment, the pursuit car slowed and slewed sideways. Actors inside the vehicle leaned out the windows and fired weapons.
"I got you, kid. I got you." Barney's voice was soft and reassuring. "Get that fire-suppression unit ready."
The motorcycle rider popped a slight wheelie just before he hit the Volkswagen. Effortlessly, the motorcycle climbed the specially altered vehicle.
"Now," Barney said. His finger flipped one of the switches on the electronics box.
Immediately, the motorcycle and rider were enveloped in flames. But something was wrong. Instead of arcing gracefully across the distance, the motorcycle went awry.
"Kick loose, kid!" Barney yelled. "Lose the bike!" He dropped the electronics box and ran toward the street.
Roy pushed free of the motorcycle and spread-eagled in the air like Superman. But he wasn't flyinghe was falling. Flames twisted and whipped around his body. He threw his arms out and tried to adjust his fall as gravity took over and brought him back toward the pavement.
Annja ran after Barney, though she didn't know what she was going to do. There was no way she could help Roy. But she couldn't just stand there, either.
The motorcycle spun crazily, nowhere near the trajectory it was supposed to maintain to get near the air bag designed to break Roy's fall. Then it blew up.
The force slammed Annja to the ground. She tucked into a roll and came to her feet instinctively. Slightly disoriented, she glanced up to see where the flaming pieces of the motorcycle were coming down. She saw Barney was on his side. His face was twisted in agony as he reached toward a bloody gash soaking his shirt.
Annja went toward him. She yelled for help, but couldn't hear her own voice. She tried again. Her ears felt numb, then she realized she was deaf.
She dropped beside Barney and surveyed the wound. An irregular furrow ran along his ribs. She tried to tell him that he was going to be all right but knew that he couldn't hear her, either. She yanked his shirt from his pants and rolled the tails up to his wound, then leaned on the folds to put pressure on the wound in his side.
One of the other stunt coordinators joined Annja and dropped to his knees. His mouth was moving. She knew he was shouting something. He was young, tall and gangly, and he was in shock.
Annja grabbed one of his hands and directed him to take hold of the makeshift pressure bandage she'd created. For a moment he froze. With authority, Annja caught his face in her palms. She met his eyes with hers and struggled to remember his name.
"Tony," she said. "It's Tony, right?" She couldn't hear herself.
"I can't hear you," he said.
Annja read his lips. "It's okay," she told him. "Your hearing will come back." She hoped that was true.
Sirens, muted and faraway sounding, reached her and gave her hope that her hearing hadn't been permanently destroyed.
Tony nodded, but he didn't look any less scared.
"He's hurt," Annja told Tony. "Hold the pressure on the wound. Like this." She guided his hands.
"Okay," he said. "I got it."
"I'm going to look for a first-aid kit," Annja shouted.
Tony nodded and held on to the rolled-up shirt.
Annja got up. Her legs were shaky. She felt her phone vibrate in her pants pocket. Still on the move, she took the phone out and glanced at the number. She'd been expecting a call from Garin Braden, but the call was from New York. It was from Doug Morrell, her producer on Chasing History's Monsters.
She switched the phone off and returned it to her pocket. With her hearing compromised, the last thing she needed was a phone call.
Burning debris from the motorcycle littered the immediate vicinity. Annja looked for Roy Fein's body, knowing that he might not have survived the fall and the flames. Fire-suppression teams worked the air bag's surface. White flame-retardant foam coated the bag and made it slippery.
Some of Annja's tension drained away when she realized Roy had made it to the air bag. Then she saw him moving. The distinctive motorcycle leathers bore scorch marks and charring, but he was standing on his own two feet.
All along the street, the set teams hustled to the site. Even with all the wreckage they'd seen and helped produce for the movies, the shooting teams weren't prepared for the damage they saw now.
Without warning, another detonation occurred and the three stunt cars erupted in flames.
The force of the explosion blew Annja from her feet and rolled her away. A wave of heat washed over her back. Stunned, she lay still for a moment and checked the sidewalk around her for shadows of falling debris.
A dark mass centered over her as if she lay under a solar eclipse. She pushed her right hand against the street and rolled to her left. She barely made out the twisted wreckage of a burning car falling toward her.
The clangor of the mass of flaming metal striking the street jarred Annja and filled her head with noise. She lay still and stared at the debris that had barely missed her.
In that same moment, she spotted movement on top of one of the nearby buildings.
Three men stood atop the building. One held a box that looked similar to the one Barney had used. He pointed at Annja and spoke to his companions.
Another man drew a pistol from under his jacket and pointed it in Annja's direction. She rolled to her feet and ran toward the building because it offered quick cover.
The third man slapped the second man's arm down and the bullet fired into the rooftop. The sharp crack of the report barely registered in Annja's hearing. She lost sight of the men as she ran into the alley.
When she spotted the skeletal fire escape tracking back and forth across the side of the building, she ran for it, leaped to catch hold of the lower rung and swung herself up like a gymnast. She raced through the ladders and landings as she pushed herself to reach the top.
The panorama of the red-tiled roofs that filled the city spread in all directions. The silvery shine of the river snaked through the heart of Prague.
Forcing herself to remain calm, Annja turned slowly. Thoughts of the pistol the man had been only too willing to use were foremost in her mind. She'd only been in Prague for a few days. She didn't know anyone there who wanted to kill her.
The keening wail of the sirens drew closer.
From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the three men running across the next building. Annja launched herself in pursuit. She drove her legs hard and reached the building's edge in a dozen strides. By that time she was up to speed.
A narrow gulf nearly three stories deep loomed before her. She never slackened her effort. Her left foot landed on the building's edge and she propelled herself over the intervening distance.
Almost immediately she knew she hadn't jumped high enough. She had the distance covered easily, but she dropped too quickly. Desperate, she threw her arms out and slammed against the other building with enough force to knock the wind from her lungs.
Her fingers curled as she slid down, then caught the lip of the roof. She pushed her hiking boots against the stone wall and found purchase. When she climbed up, she started to run again.