Authors: Alex Archer
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.
“Reminds you of old days in Russia, nyet?” Serov smiled at Klykov.
“Reminds me more of East Germany when we were thwarting the Stasi.” Klykov grinned, animated and excited. Their English had regressed during the chaos. “Look at you with your grandfather’s gun. Already having to reload. You should have one of these.” He shook his Beretta proudly. “Would be better to have two.”
“Is better to only have six rounds. Counting so many as in your guns, I sometimes forget.” Serov snapped the cylinder closed with a flick of his wrist. “Is not good to forget count and run out of bullets at wrong time.”
“They say math keeps the mind sharp.”
“Until it is blown out of your head.”
Annja started to move, but Klykov restrained her. In the next moment, another wave of gunfire tore through the apartment wall.
“I wish I had grenade.” Serov said in a low voice. “Grenade would make this thing so much simpler.”
“Grenade would mean Annja could not question Onoprienko about the elephant,” Klykov countered.
Serov nodded. “We must not let that happen. Others may get the wrong impression because we look weak.”
Annja didn’t even have a response to that. The old Russian gangsters had already killed a handful of men and somehow dodged hundreds of bullets. She stayed low with both hands locked on her pistol.
It was a massacre, and Annja was in the middle of it.
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
The Pretender’s Gambit
Aleutian Island, Russian Empire 1784
A death scream woke Hidari Kaneko in his cold bed and filled him with fear.
It’s begun. They have attacked. Now we will all die.
For a moment he clung desperately to the hope that he had only had a nightmare summoned by the ill luck that had plagued the crew of
since the ship had sunk in the freezing water of the Bering Sea months ago. He had been the ship’s pilot, charting the course until that had become impossible due to the storm and the damage done to the vessel.
Fifteen Japanese crewmen had survived the storm at Enshu and seven months of drifting helplessly till they reached the Aleutian Islands and the Russian Empire located on Amchitka. The spit of land was part of the Rat Islands that hung like a skeletal finger crooked at the Bering Sea in the freezing north of the land called Alaska.
At least, the five Russians who manned the trading post there claimed to be an empire. The Russians were all big men, noisy and loud and boastful, and the Japanese sailors did not fit in well with them. Still, the ship’s crew weathered the winter at the Russian outpost, and they persevered in the hope that a trade ship would soon drop anchor there and agree to take them away from the barren landscape.
However, the fur trade in the Aleutian Islands had dropped off miserably. Ships seldom made landings at Amchitka these days, which was why there were only five Russians occupying the fort now. That decrease in trade had angered the native people, too. They had agreed to allow the foreigners to stay there in return for trade, for the tobacco, iron and other goods they so enjoyed. In the past few days, that anger had escalated to near violence, and Kaneko doubted the Russians could stand against the Aleuts. Five men against hundreds of Aleut warriors were impossible odds.
Only that morning, Nezimov, the leader of the Russians, had ordered the execution of the Aleut chief’s daughter because he felt she did not try to support his position. Nezimov had earlier taken the young woman as his lover as part of the trade pact. Kaneko had only known the cruelty of sea before witnessing the callous murder, but he had been little more than a boy when he’d shipped out so there was still yet much he had not seen. He had not believed Nezimov would go through with the deed until the young woman lay dead, her life’s blood pouring over the frozen ground.
Daikokuya Kodayu, captain of the Japanese vessel, had not agreed with Nezimov’s course of action, but they were guests of the Russians so he could not argue for the young woman’s fate. Or perhaps he, too, had not thought the Russians would go so far. In any event, all of their lots were now cast with their hosts.
Kaneko sat on his bed and peered through the darkness. He shivered against the frigid temperatures that filled every night since he’d been there. It was now May, and he had begun to believe that winter never stayed its hand in these lands. Kaneko wished only to go back to his warm home, or even the harsh existence aboard a ship. Anything to be off of this dreadful island.
Rifles barked and men screamed in pain and anger. Several objects hit the side of the small log cabin where Kaneko resided with five of his shipmates.
“What is going on?” Churyo asked in his grumbling voice. He was an older sailor, one who had been on many voyages. He had learned to enjoy the Russians’ vodka and often drank far too much of it. In the soft darkness of evening that filled the cabin, he slurred his words.
“I do not know.” Nakagawa pushed himself up from his bed and draped sleeping furs over his thin shoulders as he walked toward the nearest window. He, too, was an older man, a fisherman before he became a sailor. He worked with the Russians on the furs, trading his labors for drink and tobacco.
More objects thumped against the walls of the cabin and Kaneko flinched at every beat. Another volley of rifle shots cracked and echoed outside, sounding nearer this time.
“Light the lantern so that we may see what is going on.” Yamashita stirred in his top bunk, rising up too quickly and banging his head on the low ceiling.
“Fool! Do not turn on the lantern,” Churyo growled. “You will only invite in whatever is going on outside. We do not want those troubles. The darkness is your friend. Light the lantern and you become a target.”
Nervously, Kaneko pulled his knives from under his bunk. Neither of them was long enough to be considered a sword, and he had never truly learned to defend himself, but he did not feel as vulnerable with them in his hands.
The cabin door banged open and Captain Kodayu strode inside. The chill wind followed him and banished some of the heat generated by the small fireplace. In his thirties, the captain was short and broad, rather soft in the middle. During the past months spent with the Russians, he had put weight back on that he’d lost while they’d been adrift.
“The Aleuts have attacked,” Kodayu announced while gripping the hilt of the sword sheathed at his hip. “We must prepare to defend ourselves. Quickly.”
“This is not our fight,” Churyo objected in a surly tone. “The Russians killed that woman, not us.”
“Do you believe the Aleuts will think about that when they overtake the fort?” Kodayu glared at Churyo. “Get out of that bed and dress or I will kill you myself.”
Cursing softly, Churyo clambered from the bunk. All knew that Kodayu was an accomplished swordsman.
Kaneko lay his knives aside and dressed hurriedly as another volley of rifle shots pierced the night.
* * *
, the hood pushed back so it did not interfere with his peripheral vision, Kaneko followed Captain Kodayu out into the late-evening gloom. He held his knives in his hands and hoped that he did not have to use them, and he hoped that he would not be dead before morning. He did not know if he could find his ancestors and the Celestial Heavens from this place if he were killed here.
The ground remained frozen and traces of dirty snow still gleamed white under the moonlight in some places. The breeze coming in from the Bering Sea chafed Kaneko’s exposed face with burning claws. The pain would leave as soon as his face numbed, but that would take time and there could be permanent damage.
The walls of the Russian fort were low, but they were strong enough and high enough to hold back the Aleuts and provide protection for the cabins contained within. Nemizov’s strong voice carried as he shouted orders and curses. Kaneko understood more of the curse words than he did of the orders, but the Russians responded at once, reloading their rifles, taking aim and firing again. None of them seemed overly distraught, obviously confident in their abilities, and Kaneko took heart in that.
Cautiously, the young pilot ducked into a position next to the rough-hewn timber of the wall where the Russian riflemen formed a line. He peered over the top while the Russians reloaded again. Aleut warriors took shelter along the timberline, but Nemizov’s men proved to be capable marksmen. Or maybe it was only that there were too many natives to miss.
When the Russians fired, Aleut warriors fell, and the wounded and dying tripped others who surged behind them. Some of the Aleuts were dead before they hit the ground, but others cried out for mercy and rescue by their fellow warriors. In the darkness, seeing the warriors clearly was difficult, but Kaneko made out the long flowing fur robes and conical hats the men wore, as well as the long thin spears they hurled with incredible accuracy. Several of the spears stuck out from the side of the cabin where Kaneko had been sleeping. More had pierced the wall, and more still littered the yard beyond.
Captain Kodayu called out to his men, ordering them to take up arms. A few of the crew had rifles. Kaneko did not, nor did he care for the loud explosions the weapons made or the rough way they handled. He wished he had a rifle now, though, and that he would never get the opportunity to use his knives.
The rifles cracked again and again. The Aleuts fell and never reached the fort.
* * *
minutes of the dawn, after hours of silence, the Aleuts attacked again. With the light, Kaneko could more clearly see the warriors. During the night they had dragged away their dead, but more of them piled up now. The Russians had stayed up the whole night keeping watch, and their aim was even better in the morning light. Despite the cold, the men loaded and shot smoothly, like machines.
Gunsmoke eddied around the wall of the fort and tasted acrid to Kaneko as he stayed at his post. Finally, though, the second attack ended in retreat, as well.
Zeminov, bold and large, his weathered face almost lost in a tangle of long wild hair and his bushy beard, came to Kodayu. The brass buttons on his coat gleamed.
“We will not stay here, Captain Kodayu. I do not believe those savages will relent, and we will eventually run low on powder and shot, no matter how many graves we fill.”
“I agree.” Kodayu understood Russian enough to know what the fur traders talked about, but Kaneko suspected that his captain was not so confident in his speaking abilities in that language. Kodayu always kept his answers short and to the point.
“Grab what you can and we will make for the beach when the time comes.”
“To do what?”
“To sail away from this place.”
“There is no ship.”
“Then we will make one. We can no longer stay here.”
* * *
was not easy, and the Russian leader proved more brutal than Kaneko had suspected. They charged into the Aleut village and took women and children as prisoners. Shortly thereafter, the Russians executed four of the Aleut leaders and there was no more talk of attacking the Russians because the indigenous people fled by boat to neighboring islands.
Sails on the horizon drew the group to the beach. Kaneko’s heart leaped when he saw the Russian ship because it would, no matter where he ended up at first, take him away from this godforsaken island. He stood on the beach and gave thanks to the luck that had brought the ship to the island.
Then he noticed how low it sailed in the water, and how sluggishly it glided. Kaneko’s heart stilled when the ship suddenly listed over to its starboard side.
“What is wrong?” Nakagawa asked.
“The ship is stricken,” Churyo answered. “It is sinking.”
As Kaneko watched with failing spirits, the ship dipped lower into the water and finally fell over onto her side. Her sails flapped in the waves instead of catching the wind.
Sailors aboard the vessel threw themselves over the side. Those that could swim struck out for the shoreline, and those that couldn’t swim drowned or grabbed on to pieces of buoyant debris and kicked themselves forward.
Only twenty sailors made it ashore. The ship floated out in the water like a dead whale turned belly up to the sun.
* * *
the supplies rescued from the ship ran short. The threat of the Aleuts returning to continue their attacks remained. In time, Kodayu came to his men, gathering them in one of the cabins they had shared. When they had arrived on Amchitka, they had numbered fifteen. Six of them had perished of sickness over the winter and lay in lonely graves far from home.
At least their bones were at rest even if their spirits wandered, Kaneko sometimes thought.
“The Russian has a plan,” Kodayu said as he looked around at the ring of faces in the room. “He does not think another ship will come soon, and we grow short on supplies since we are no longer trading with the Aleuts. We are also lacking in powder and shot. If we lose the rifles, we have no defenses.”
Churyo growled a curse.
Kodayu ignored that and continued smoothly, as was his way. “The plan is to build a ship.”
“From what?” Churyo demanded. “We cannot raise the one that has sunk in the harbor, and there are no trees worthy of such an endeavor.”
“We make a ship from whatever we have available. It is better than dying here with a spear through our guts or of hunger.”
No one argued with the captain.
* * *
everyone grudgingly called it that, was constructed from driftwood and had otter skins hanging from makeshift halyards as sails. Practice voyages out in the harbor proved that the thing floated and steered easily enough, but everyone had doubts about it withstanding the sea during the journey to Russia.
Still, there was no other way. Zeminov spoke of a Russian land, a place he called Kamchatka, that was closest to their present location. They would make for that place, he said, and the Japanese sailors would be cared for there.
“We will join the Russians,” Captain Kodayu said.
“We will drown in the sea,” challenged Churyo.
“You may stay here if you wish,” the captain replied. “Any of you that do not wish to try his luck upon the sea may stay here.”
* * *
, they put all the supplies and water aboard the craft that they could manage and set sail for Kamchatka. No one stayed behind.