Authors: Alex Archer
A sword, a stone and a deadly legacy…
The theft of a whetstone from a Welsh museum and the murder of a curate during a grave robbery seem, at first, like random crimes. But the troubling deeds are linked by a precarious thread. An unusual collection of rare and scattered British antiquities has become a target—and the relics’ value lies in something much more dangerous than money….
Annja Creed, archaeologist and host of television’s
Chasing History’s Monsters,
is in the U.K. when her mentor, Roux, interrupts her sojourn with news of the thefts. He’s certain that the thirteen Treasures of Britain are wanted for their rumored power. Roux tasks Annja with locating and protecting the treasures before the wrong person finds them, meaning she must stand against a woman fueled by madness and the fires of her ancient Celt blood—and a sword as powerful and otherworldly as Annja’s own.
“There’s already been enough death. So just put the sword down…”
But Awena wasn’t prepared to give up on her vengeance. She wanted Annja to pay, and lunged at her, slashing wildly. She had no skill with the weapon, but pure rage still made her more than dangerous.
Annja parried blow after blow, fending off the attacks, knowing that like any fire, Awena would burn herself out. She didn’t have the stamina to match Annja, even if the blade somehow imbued her with unholy strength.
Again Awena swung, coming at her, but the intensity of the attacks lessened as she tired. Annja felt the strain, too. The muscles in her sword arm burned where it had been touched by the blue flame.
Annja blocked each parry, swords ringing out as they clashed.
Tears streamed down Awena’s face. She seemed to shrink in on herself, drawing a shallow breath before launching the next blow.
Annja knew that this was the moment to strike.
One chance. One opening. That was all she needed.
She had to end this now….
Titles in this series:
The Spider Stone
The Lost Scrolls
God of Thunder
Secret of the Slaves
The Soul Stealer
The Golden Elephant
The Spirit Banner
The Bone Conjurer
The Dragon’s Mark
The Other Crowd
Tear of the Gods
The Oracle’s Message
Cradle of Solitude
Library of Gold
The Matador’s Crown
City of Swords
The Third Caliph
Staff of Judea
The Vanishing Tribe
Treasure of Lima
River of Nightmares
The Devil’s Chord
Clouds covered the moon. The garden was in near-perfect darkness but for the ambient orange glow of the streetlights pushing at the edges of the shrubbery. Deep among the medicinal herbs there was nothing but shadow. A short distance away two cats fought, hissing and squealing as they duked it out over territorial rights for a scrap of land not worth the urine it took to mark it. And among those deep shadows in the darkest part of the garden, the woman in black let out an almost-silent breath she’d held a second longer than was comfortable.
Awena had walked the narrow paths between the flower beds every day that week, admiring them, passing comment to the gardeners and tourists as she went, making sure that she knew every inch of them. There was no way she was going to stumble into a replica urn or turn her ankle on a shallow border or do anything else to cause undue commotion. A certain amount of noise would get put down to badgers and foxes and other nocturnal scavengers, but a woman crying out—no matter how strangled her cry—only ever sounded like a woman crying out. It was the kind of sound hardwired deep into the human psyche to draw the attention of heroes, especially after the sun went down.
The last thing she needed was any heroes.
The garden was only a brisk five-minute walk from the police station, though through a geographical and town planning quirk it was longer if a car was sent thanks to the twisting one-way streets.
She was playing the law of averages. First responders would instinctively check the front of the building before making sure the perimeter was secure, then eventually make their way over the wall she had climbed and into the garden at the rear. Each action bought her a few precious extra seconds to do what she’d broken into the garden to do.
Lights still burned at the front of the museum, small halogen spotlights meant to entice casual passersby visiting the town in the evening, their glow saying
Stop, look around, marvel at the glass display of the frontage and the great pillars of the portico, imagine what it’s like inside
. A notice promised free entry, with opening times from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon, Monday to Saturday, and from two on Sunday afternoons. It was an imposing building, even in the dark. More so in the dark. It was a mixture of classical Roman and modern architecture. At the rear of the main building stood the Roman garden and a smaller entrance that was invisible to casual prying eyes.
She moved silently, feet ghosting across the ground with the lightest of steps, her black trainers, black jeans and sweatshirt making her almost invisible in the darkness. A navy blue woolen hat kept her hair tucked out of sight and gloves ensured that there would be no fingerprints to give her away. It was all in the planning. Be methodical. Take no unnecessary risks. Idiots took risks. Idiots thought it was cool to make stuff up on the fly and improvise. Awena was not an idiot. The lock wasn’t going to be a challenge. As far as the world was concerned there was nothing in there worth stealing. She knew different.
It was a calculated risk: trying to avoid setting off the alarm would only slow her. It would also make the job exponentially more difficult. She knew exactly how long she had from the moment she deliberately tripped the alarm to the second she disappeared into the night, knew exactly what she was looking for, where it would be and how to get out of there before the first responders were even in their cars.
She broke it down into segments.
Ninety seconds to break the lock—it was fractionally longer than it had taken for her to crack an identical one at home, but then that hadn’t been in the dark. Pressure situations added a few seconds. The risk came as those seconds added up.
One hundred and twenty seconds from opening the door to be in and out before anyone came running. Another sixty seconds to get her treasure to the car—which was parked on the other side of the wall—and a final seventy-five seconds to move the car to a carefully chosen parking bay where no one would notice it.
Two hundred and fifty-five seconds.
There were few houses close by. None overlooked the garden. It was unlikely that even the nosiest of parkers would be out of their beds and twitching their curtains because of the commotion, but even if they did all they’d see would be a car driving away. In the middle of the night a car was a car was a car, almost impossible to differentiate a Volvo from a Ford from a Volkswagen. That was what she was banking on.
Awena took a deep breath and opened the door, starting the stopwatch on her wrist, and stepped inside.
Immediately inside she heard the high-pitched whine indicating the alarm had been triggered.
These systems were set up with a sixty-second grace period for people to enter the code into the alarm box. That meant she only risked one hundred and ninety-five seconds with the escalating shriek of the alarm. One hundred and ninety-five seconds was a lifetime in the silence of a little town in the middle of the night but there was nothing she could do about that. She didn’t have the code. Once the tone changed that signified an alert had been sent to a private alarm company, the alarm company would try to ascertain if it was a genuine alarm call or a mistake, which would eat up a few more precious seconds before they contacted the police. There could be delays at any link along the chain, but she couldn’t rely on that. One hundred and ninety-five seconds, in and out. That was all she had.
Awena moved quickly, making her way into the main exhibits room. The faint glow of the streetlight outside leached through the window, bathing everything inside in its curiously otherworldly orange glow. She pulled the jeweler’s hammer from where she’d carried it tucked into her jeans. As the tone of the alarm changed to an escalating shriek, she delivered a single swing of the hammer, shattering the display case’s glass top into a million orange-filled fragments.
She ignored the cache of denarii in the broken pot and reached inside for her prize.
It was the only thing in the whole museum that held any value as far as Awena was concerned.
She lifted it out of the case.
It was heavier than she’d expected, needing two hands to carry.
When the two-minute timer she’d set on her stopwatch beeped before she was halfway across the floor she realized she wouldn’t be able to get out in time and felt a rising panic as each step seemed to take a little longer than the last. She’d planned this meticulously, down to the second, but the reality of the break-in defied all of her best-laid plans. She was going to need whichever god or devil looked down on thieves to do her a favor if she was going to get out before the police showed up. And even then she had to move quickly. But like it or not, the weight slowed her down. She hadn’t bargained on that. But then, how could she have known how heavy it would actually be?
She pushed the back door open again, leaning into it, and hitched her burden a little higher, trying to run across the gravel until the fire in her legs became too much to bear. The alarm grew progressively louder. Every dog in the neighborhood tried to compete with it. She couldn’t hear anyone shouting to silence them. She couldn’t hear any footsteps or wailing sirens of police cars.
Perhaps someone was looking out for her, after all.
Awena staggered the last few strides to the wall, and as much as she wanted to drop her burden, at least for a moment to catch her breath, she knew if she did there was no way she’d get it up and over the wall. Momentum was vital. All she could do was grit her teeth against the rising tide of agony and push on until she’d strained every single muscle in her body to lever the treasure up and onto the top of it.
She braced herself against the wall, balancing the treasure while she struggled to catch her breath, then hauled herself up and rolled off the wall onto the roof of her Land Rover. She’d parked it right up against the rear wall. It meant leaving tire tracks, but she’d switched the wheels out that evening, using a set of radials meant for a much smaller vehicle. She’d switch them back tomorrow. Awena lay on her back looking up at the moon as clouds drifted across it, then pulled the weight after her, putting it onto the roof beside her, then slid down the side of the car. She’d lost track of time. She couldn’t waste so much as a single second checking her watch.
She managed to get her prize into the Land Rover—hiding it on the floor behind the driver’s seat—just as she heard the sound of a siren in the distance.
Even with the weird night acoustics of the town, she could tell the patrol car was still making its way through the one-way streets.
Close but no cigar,
she thought, grinning for the first time that night.
She fired the engine up and threw the car into first, pulling away from the grass verge without turning on her lights.
The police siren was closing in, but instead of turning right and following the road out of town, she drove straight across into Broadway, a narrow lane that led only to the Roman amphitheater and the rugby field. There, without so much as a streetlight to guide the way, she had no choice but to turn on the lights so she could navigate what amounted to a dirt track.
It was a calculated chance. She knew how the police thought. They’d expect her to run. Hiding in plain sight wasn’t in their playbook. Hiding out in the parking lot outside the old Roman amphitheater was not logical, so it was her best shot at getting away with the robbery. She’d watched the parking lot over the past week, making sure that it wasn’t unusual for cars to be left overnight. Every night there’d been a handful of motors in there, left by people who’d spent the evening in the rugby club and decided to return to collect their car in the morning.
She pulled into a space beyond the last vehicle and turned off the engine.
She sank back into the soft leather bucket seat and closed her eyes, tension flooding from her body.
She’d done it.
She gave herself a minute to savor the fact, then climbed onto the backseat and settled herself beneath a picnic blanket to wait for morning.