Friday, August 3, 2007
An excerpt from Rogue Angel: Secret of the Slaves
Pain jabbed the muscle of Annja Creed's right forearm as she slammed it into the hardwood limb jutting from the trunk-like pole before her.
Good, she thought savagely. She slammed a palm into the slick-polished wood of the trunk itself even as her left forearm blocked into another protrusion.
Faster and faster her hands moved, in and out, over and under the blunt wooden posts stuck in sockets on the central pole. She practiced blocks, traps, strikes with stiffened fingers and fists and palms. A drumbeat rose as muscle and bone met wood with jarring impact.
Annja was a tall, fit woman in her midtwenties. She wore a green sports bra and gray shorts. The humming air conditioner kept her Brooklyn loft cool.
She paused to brush away a vagrant strand of chestnut hair that had worked loose from the bun she had pinned it in. Her scowl deepened.
The stout wooden apparatus rocked to a palm-heel thrust, despite the fact its wide base was weighed down by heavy sandbags. Annja's sparring partner was a training dummy used as an adjunct to wing chun style gongfu. She had taken up the study because it was supposed to be highly effective and easy to learn, while giving her another option for nonlethal use of force.
She had plenty of lethal options available. The deadliest was currently invisible to the naked eye. But it was not intangible, not like her rapier-quick intellect or boundless resourcefulness, which she knew could be as deadly as any physical weapons.
She whipped the back of her right hand against a wooden arm. She let the hand flop over it in a trapping move, fired a punch that made the post rock. As she worked into a blinding-fast pattern of blocks and strikes, all oriented toward the centerline of the post, as they would be to the centerline of an opponent's torso, she found herself worrying about the turn her life had taken.
She thought about the sword—her sword. She had learned that it had once belonged to Joan of Arc. And that she was the inheritor of the long-ago martyr's mantle. On a research trip to France she had, seemingly by chance, found the final piece of St. Joan's sword, broken to pieces by the English captors who burned her. At more or less the same time she had met the man named Roux. He was spry for his gray beard—and even sprier for the fact he claimed Joan had been protégée. He and his apprentice Garin Braden had failed to rescue her from execution. As a result they had been cursed—or blessed—with agelessness.
Roux had spent the half millennium since Joan's death trying to reassemble the saint's shattered sword. At first he'd regarded Annja as an interloper and tried to steal the final fragment from her. Yet when she came into the presence of the other pieces, in Roux's chateau in France, the sword had spontaneously reforged itself at her touch.
It was a bitter pill for a lifelong rationalist to swallow. Especially one who made most of her income as the resident skeptic on the notably credulous cable series Chasing History's Monsters, on the Knowledge Channel.
Her arms and hands now moved too fast for the eye to follow. The tough, seasoned hardwood creaked and strained to the mounting fury of her blows. Human bone would give way long before that old wood did.
The sword. It had come to dominate her life.
It rested now in its accustomed location—what she thought of as the otherwhere. It was not present in this world, except at her command. To summon it, she had learned, all she needed was to form a hand as if to grasp its hilt, and exert her will. And her hand was filled.
But her life, it seemed, had correspondingly emptied since the sword came into it.
Sweat soaked her hair and flew from her face. Her wrists and knuckles and elbows sounded like machinegun fire as they struck the muk-jong.
Orphaned at an early age, raised at an orphanage in New Orleans, Annja had always been alone. She was always apart, somehow, different, although she never tried to be. And it didn't often bother her.
She had never felt as if she couldn't enjoy companionship. But she didn't actively seek it. She'd had close friends at college, on digs, among the crew of Chasing History's Monsters. She had had lovers. But, she had to admit, no truly lasting loves.
And now she figured she never would. At least so long as she bore her illustrious predecessor's sacred sword.
She was an archaeologist. Her period of concentration was the later Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe. She spoke all the major modern Romance languages, and Latin, and studied any number of archaic forms—and weapons.
She wasn't sure why she was feeling a sudden gap in her life left by the lack of a lasting relationship. She had her mentor, Roux, and her sometime enemy, Garin. But she didn't really think those relationships counted. She didn't want them to.
Great, she thought as she slammed her forearms against the projecting limbs. She recognized the rare feeling she was experiencing.
"I'm lonely!" she said to her empty loft. She slammed an elbow smash into the upright on the last word. It broke free from its base and toppled backward. "Nice," she said in disgust. She rubbed her elbow, the pain corresponding to her mood. "Those things cost money."
She stomped off to the shower.
ANNJA EMERGED from the bathroom wearing a long bathrobe swirled in patterns of green, yellow and blue. Her long hair was wrapped in a towel. She heated a cup of cocoa in the microwave and looked around her loft. While jobs were scarce for a freelance archaeologist, she had lucked into enough supplementary income from her television gig and some publishing deals to afford the space.
With Roux's assistance she sometimes accepted commissions to do special archaeological assignments around the globe—always consistent with her strict sense of scientific ethics—for employers who wanted them kept discreet. They tended to be a lot more perilous than the usual university dig, and accordingly well compensated. Sometimes only just slightly over the considerable expense such missions tended to incur.
Flopping on her couch in the space left by several piles of manuscripts various contacts had sent her, mostly dealing with her side interest in fringe archaeology, she made the key mistake of clicking on the television.
She was hoping for a distraction. What she got was Kristie Chatham, on location with some kind of cockamamy Knowledge Channel crossover production in England. Annja was all too aware of not having been invited to take part.
"…standing here in front of Stonehenge," Kristie was saying brightly, "which as we all know was built by the Druids…"
Annja emitted a strangled scream and threw a cushion at the screen. "No, you bimbo," she shouted. "No, no, no. Stonehenge was built thousands of years before the Druids. Don't you bother to research anything?" A better question might've been, didn't the Knowledge Channel fact-check anything? But she knew the answer to that one, too.
"I'm here with Reggie Whitcomb of the South England Pagan Federation," Kristie bubbled on, "who's going to explain how the Druids levitated the huge cross-pieces, called sarsen stones, into place using their advanced psychic powers."
Annja grabbed the remote and clicked off the set just as Kristie turned her microphone toward a chinless guy wearing a white robe with a peaked hood that made him look as if he belonged to a middle-school auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan. The skies were black over Salisbury Plain, and the wind cracked like wet sheets whipping on a clothesline. Annja hoped Kristie would get struck by lightning. Or at least soaked to the skin.
Of course that would make Kristie's sheer white blouse transparent.And Kristie would score another topviewed video on YouTube. Unlike a lot of its media rivals, the Knowledge Channel never set its legal hounds to pull such videos down—the producers had noticed how ratings spiked for their repeats after one went online.
Annja slammed her remote on top of a stack of printouts on the couch beside her.
"It's not like I'm Ms. Establishment Science or anything," she muttered, with her chin down to her clavicle. "It's just that I don't open my mind so wide my brain rolls out my mouth."
Her cell phone rang and she frowned at it in suspicion. If that's Doug Morrell, his head's coming right off, she thought.
She picked it up, flipped it open. "Hello." "Annja Creed?"
Whomever the voice belonged to, it was not her producer from Chasing History's Monsters. The voice was like liquid amber poured over gravel—deep, rugged, yet somehow flowing.
Her eyes narrowed. I know that voice, she thought. It sounds so familiar.
"Ms. Creed?" She was certain of the Irish accent.
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry. This is Annja."
"Ms. Creed, my name is Iain Moran. I'm a musician. You may have heard of me."
"Sir Iain Moran?" Annja asked. It couldn't be.
"The same." Her mind's eye could see that famous smile, at once roguish and world-weary.
"Publico? Lead singer for T-34?"
"The very one."
"Right," Annja was in no mood for pranks.
"Don't hang up! Please. I really am Sir Iain Moran." "Sure. Multibillionaire rock stars call me every day. If Doug Morrell put you up to this, you're both way overdue for a good swift kick to the—"
"Please. I'd very much like to consult you on a professional matter, concerning your expertise. Would it help to assuage your doubts if my helicopter collected you on the roof of your flat in fifteen minutes?"
It was original, as pranks go. She had to give her caller that. "You're on," Annja said, daring her caller to push this as far as it would go.
Fifteen minutes later she stared openmouthed into the brownish haze of a hot Brooklyn day. Her face and hair were whipped by the downblast as a Bell 429 helicopter descended to the roof.
~ Secret of the Slaves will be available in bookstores September 11th, 2007.
at 9:32 AM