Книга - The Oracle’s Message
The Oracle's Message
Men would do anything for it…but one woman will determine its fateSteeped in legend, the Pearl of Palawan has a history marked by destruction, vengeance and love. But more important, the mythical black pearl is rumored to grant a power long coveted by mankind–immortality. It is a power men would risk dying to achieve.Sun, sand and scuba diving in the Philippines certainly sounded like an ideal vacation. But after a way-too-close-for-comfort encounter with a tiger shark, archaeologist Annja Creed finds herself drawn into a group of German divers. They are treasure hunters searching for the fabled pearl. Out of curiosity, Annja accompanies them. But when an old friend of hers turns up unexpectedly, she finds herself torn between her past and new acquaintances.The race is on to possess the pearl. But no one realizes the true nature of the artifact, or the danger it poses to them all.
Where did he go…?
Annja peered around the edge of the reef and the shadow was gone.
It really was almost as if the unknown figure had disappeared right off the coral reef.
What were the chances that he’d been taken by a shark? She shook her head. No, there’d be some sort of evidence of an attack. His oxygen tanks would be lying on the ocean floor. His weight belt would have been shredded.
Annja’s mouth went dry and she glanced down at her oxygen gauge.
It was running close to empty.
She needed to get back to the boat. But in the next instant, she knew where the shadow had vanished to.
The boat engine roared overhead, its sound muffled through the water, but Annja glanced up and saw the white foam as the boat suddenly shot back the way they had come out.
Leaving Annja all alone in the dark ocean.
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
The Oracle’s Message
…THE ENGLISH COMMANDER TOOK
JOAN’S SWORD AND RAISED IT HIGH.
The broadsword, plain and unadorned, gleamed in the firelight. He put the tip against the ground and his foot at the center of the blade. The broadsword shattered, fragments falling into the mud. The crowd surged forward, peasant and soldier, and snatched the shards from the trampled mud. The commander tossed the hilt deep into the crowd.
Smoke almost obscured Joan, but she continued praying till the end, until finally the flames climbed her body and she sagged against the restraints.
Joan of Arc died that fateful day in France, but her legend and sword are reborn….
The turquoise waters of the South China Sea swirled into the flow of the Mindoro Strait and the Sulu Sea to the south, bobbing the small catamaran over gentle swells. The motion was almost hypnotizing to a very tired but very relaxed Annja Creed as she steered toward the GPS coordinates she’d punched in for a little-visited coral reef off the northeastern part of Palawan in the Philippines.
She’d fled New York City two days earlier, amid a stretch of work that had left her positively drained and eager for any excuse to leave town. Sharing a bottle of Santa Margherita pinot grigio with her good friend Bart McGilley, she’d remembered that she’d wanted to go diving in the Philippines for a long time. On her last trip there, the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf had cut that dream short by taking her hostage and Annja had seen a lot more of the tropical rain-forest jungles of the south than she ever wanted to see again.
In the wake of her experience, she’d found out that the government had rounded up a lot of the Abu Sayyaf followers and most experts considered the group fairly neutralized. Annja knew there was a chance they’d regroup, but for the time being, they were content to lie low.
And that seemed like enough of an opening for Annja.
The twenty-two-hour flight from New York with a brief layover in Osaka, Japan, had left her even more tired, but the thought of some alone time and diving at the little-known coral reef inspired her.
She’d flown from Manila to the southwest island of Palawan, jutting out into the South China Sea. She and her fellow tourists had landed on a small dusty airstrip that looked like it might have been used for smuggling, transferred to a jeepney—one of the gaudily decorated World War II U.S. Army jeeps that had been converted into buses—and bounced their way through a stretch of jungle down to a river.
On the river, a small boat snaked along the tributary until they emerged into a bay. Once there, they transferred to a larger boat that skimmed its way across the waves toward the island of Apulit. As they’d neared the shore, Annja heard music and saw the resort workers coming down to the beach strumming guitars and bearing trays of fruity drinks.
One sip told Annja that Club Noah was going to be an absolute delight. The tiny resort consisted of just forty cabanas perched on stilts over the gently lapping waves of the little U-shaped bay.
Annja spent her first few hours ditching the last remnants of her overly stressed world by having a few more of the incredibly refreshing and intoxicating fruity welcome drinks and by taking a long nap in a beach hammock. The breeze blowing in from the beach rocked the hammock and Annja had passed out. After a quiet evening exploring the beach and resort she retired to her cabana for a good night’s sleep.
When she awoke the next morning, she polished off a large breakfast and then made plans to rent a small boat and diving gear. The dive master had not wanted her to go off alone, but Annja had insisted and eventually handed him a hundred-dollar bill that convinced him.
She knew that diving alone wasn’t very safety conscious, but she’d done it enough times that she no longer felt worried about the possibility of something happening that she couldn’t resolve. She’d faced down danger enough times to know her own abilities. By 10:00 a.m. she was happily sailing out to the dive spot alone and on her own terms.
She was roughly two miles offshore, and the tiny island sitting far off in the distance seemed a lot farther away than she’d expected it, too. Briefly, she reconsidered whether she should have brought the dive master along. But then she shrugged it off and set about readying herself for the dive.
Annja let the small anchor over the side and attached the dive flag to it so anyone coming near would know there were divers in the water. The last thing she wanted was a large boat steaming over her as she explored the area.
Annja stripped off the clothes she’d worn on the way out. The sun overhead blazed down and she felt the first beads of sweat starting to form along her hairline. It would be good to get into the water.
She strapped the weight belt around her waist and checked to make sure it was secure. A quick look at the oxygen tank gauge assured her that it hadn’t leaked since she’d checked it onshore. She slid into the gear and tightened the straps around her shoulders. The open-circuit gear was the most commonly used around the world and Annja had no problems checking to make sure the oxygen flow was good.
She slid a pair of flippers on her feet and put her face mask into the water, smearing the inside of the glass before settling the mask on her face. She checked the straps around her head and sucked in, testing the seal.
The catamaran bobbed in place and Annja sat on the edge of the far side of the boat, away from the anchor. Looking around, she could see a boat in the distance, but it was too far away to be of any concern to her.
Other than that, she was alone.
Here we go, she thought.
And with that, she leaned back and pitched over into the water.
She’d decided not to wear a diving suit, opting instead for just her one-piece bathing suit. She figured the water wouldn’t be too cold, and she was right. As the sea enveloped her, she felt its cooling effect on her body. But it was still at least seventy-five degrees, if not closer to eighty. She suspected there would be cooler currents and warmer currents, given the proximity of the island to three different bodies of water.
She blew out and tested all her seals. All good. She descended slowly. In this area, the water depth was only about fifty feet.
Immediately, she saw schools of brilliantly colored fish dart away from her. Pilot fish swam closer and in the distance she spotted clown fish zipping through the water.
About twenty feet below her, Annja made out a brilliant array of bright pink coral. Her eyes widened when she saw the lush life swirling around the structure. A moray eel seemed to sense her approach and ducked back inside after opening its mouth and showing her a wide array of needle-sharp teeth.
I wouldn’t want to get a hand caught on any of those, she thought.
She allowed the weight belt to pull her down, only occasionally kicking her flippers. The tug of the current moved her gradually to the side and Annja had to right herself to keep on the level heading she wanted.
Unlike a lot of coral reefs, the one Annja now approached was classified as a small table reef, meaning it was mostly isolated and didn’t have a lagoon nearby. As she descended farther, Annja could see the incredible biodiversity present. Starfish littered one side of the reef, while saddleback butterfly fish with their distinctive black markings on their backs wove and dodged nearby.
A school of triggerfish passed close by, each one seeming to inspect Annja as if she was some unknown intruder.
Annja spotted more clown fish and marveled at the brilliant orange of their scales.
A dark shape passed in the periphery of her vision and Annja’s heart beat faster for a moment until she turned.
She spotted a grouper.
Annja considered them to be an ugly fish, the way they floated through the darker waters, with their mouths opening and closing and their dead eyes locked on to whatever they happened to be swimming toward.
If she hadn’t known better, she might have felt a twinge of fear. But groupers, for all their horrid appearance, presented no threat. And Annja had a sharp diver’s knife strapped low on her right leg, just in case.
She almost laughed. And if that didn’t work, she thought, she could simply bring her sword out. She felt sure that would take care of pretty much any threat the sea could throw at her.
Her breathing had settled down nicely, her inhalations coming slow and steady as she felt the last of her cares slip away for the moment. This was what she’d wanted for so long and to think that she was finally there, drinking it all in. Annja had left the rest of the world above and behind her.
She felt great.
She drifted deeper and could see the powder-white sand on the floor of the ocean where it met the edge of the coral reef. As she suspected, the water was a little cooler there, and she moved back toward the warmer waters, aware that she’d have to make sure she didn’t stay too long. She knew she’d risk hypothermia if her core temperature came down too much.
This dive was about reconnaissance, anyway. She had just wanted to get out and find the reef, take note of some of its features and then prepare to come back over the next few days for more investigative work. Documenting this reef and its life would make for a fun project and it would totally take her mind off the work she’d left back in New York City.
She blew out a stream of bubbles that floated skyward. She glanced up and saw the bright sunlight filtering down toward where she bobbed close by the edge of the coral.
A school of powder-blue surgeonfish seemed to be buzzing close by a section of coral and Annja could see they were dining on the algae that had encrusted one portion of the reef.
The levels of life here were simply amazing. Annja could see how coral reefs accounted for so many of the ocean’s species cohabitating in close proximity to one another. The reefs themselves supplied a level of food that brought small fish. And the small fish attracted larger fish that dined on them.
And so it went up the food chain.
Right to the apex predators.
Annja steered herself left and saw the sharp spikes of a crimson-colored crown of thorns starfish atop an outcropping of coral. The notoriously voracious starfish dined on the coral and Annja wondered how long it would take to reduce the outcropping until it was level with the rest of the reef.
She heard the faint sound of a motor and glanced up toward the water’s surface. Perhaps the boat she’d spotted in the distance earlier had moved closer. She thought she spotted a dark shape closer to the surface, but dismissed it as a shadow.
It was probably caused by a cloud, she thought.
She turned her attention back to the reef.
Long spindly tendrils of sea grass waved to and fro as the current moved it about. Annja spotted smaller clown fish threading their way through the stalks, no doubt trying to use it to hide themselves from predators.
I wish I’d brought my camera, she thought then. The images in front of her face were truly incredible.
Still, there’d be time enough for that. She had a week at the Club Noah resort before she’d be forced to return to the hustle and bustle of her daily existence.
That was seven days away, though. And she didn’t want to spend her time thinking of what the return to her world would do to her outlook on life.
No, she was here now and that was what was most important.
She turned back toward where she’d been watching the clown fish. But the little guys were gone.
She drew closer to the sea grass and peered inside.
She spotted a clown fish huddled farther back, closer to the wall of coral that was behind it.
Annja frowned. Is it me that’s got him spooked?
The answer to her question came a moment later as a jackfish shot past her face mask, through the sea grass and gobbled up the poor clown fish. Annja saw the blur of movement, but had hardly enough time to register the effect.
One second, the clown fish was there; the next, it was simply gone.
The jackfish didn’t hang around, either.
Life on the reef, she thought. Everyone’s got to eat.
Annja looked around again. She realized the motor noise had stopped, but she didn’t see any other anchors leading down to the bottom. Just hers. So there was no one else in the area.
She felt a sense of unease she couldn’t explain. She checked her oxygen gauge and saw she still had plenty left.
A moment later she felt herself torpedoed from behind and thrust into the sharp coral face itself.
The impact of the blow from behind sent Annja into the coral face-first. Her mask came loose and slipped off.
Annja slammed her eyes shut and took a breath.
What the hell hit me?
She flailed about in the water, feeling around for her mask. Calm down, she told herself, it’s here somewhere. She felt to the right and found the mask.
Bringing it over her head, she started purging the water from it by sucking in air through her regulator and then blowing out through her nose, hoping she could get the water level down so she could at least open her eyes.
She sensed the movement around her and fought to keep herself from panicking; her heart thundered in her chest as she kept purging the mask.
And then she felt the water level drop below her lids and she risked opening her eyes.
A dark maw of razor-sharp teeth filled her view.
Annja jerked herself to the side as the giant body shot past her. In her periphery, she saw the dark vertical stripes and now her pulse raced.
A tiger shark.
They called them the garbage cans of the deep. Annja’s brain ran down the laundry list of facts she knew about them. Galeocerdo cuvier in Latin, they were one of the most dangerous sharks in the ocean, second only to the great white. They were predators, and dozens of human deaths had been attributed to them over the years. They were well known in the South Pacific and the waters of the Philippines, although Annja hadn’t thought there’d be much chance of one being here near the reef.
That would account for the lack of other sharks around the reef, though, she thought. Normally, there’d be other species—especially reef sharks, blacktips and others more at home near the coral.
This guy must have frightened them off.
And now, getting some distance from her pursuer, Annja could see why. The shark was massive, at least fourteen feet running from the tip of its blunt snout to the notch in its tail.
She took another breath and kept blowing out through her nose, clearing more of the water from her mask. She’d need her eyesight in order to get out of this scrape unscathed.
The tiger shark swam in lazy circles around the reef, but always kept Annja in his vision.
She ran her hand down her right leg and freed the knife from its sheath. The serrated edge could cut into the tough shark hide without much problem. But in order to do that, Annja would have to get close.
She took another few breaths and then watched as the shark suddenly turned and shot away from the reef, its dark striped form vanishing as it gained distance from the reef.
Was it gone?
Annja frowned. She’d heard about this particular tactic before. The tiger shark would sometimes leave, hoping to entice its target into the open only to return and attack more violently than before.
I’ve got time, Annja thought. And I won’t fall for that move.
She kept her back to the coral and the knife up in front of her. After two minutes of bobbing in the water, she was forced to confront the idea that maybe the shark had grown bored and left.
Annja looked around the reef. Some of the smaller fish had returned. But the jacks and grouper were nowhere to be seen. And there were no turtles anywhere close by, either.
A dark shape shot past her and she knew the tiger shark was back. It had gone overhead, close, and Annja had ducked down to avoid it.
It turned itself around and she marveled at how perfectly streamlined its body was. It looked like a banking fighter jet as it came in closer again. Its eyes never left her, but Annja had found a reasonable spot from which she could defend herself, if necessary.
If you’re going to attack me, she thought, you’ll have to commit and come in.
That would give her the opening she’d need to take it on.
But fourteen feet worth of apex predator wasn’t an even match, she decided. The tiger shark could cut her in half without much effort.
Suddenly the knife looked pitifully small in her hand.
Annja sensed the attack instead of seeing it. The shark shot straight at her, coming in hard and fast, seemingly unconcerned about the coral.
Or the knife.
Annja shot up and brought the knife down, embedding it on the top of the shark’s snout. It jerked once, wrenched the knife free from Annja’s hand and then swam away, a thin tendril of blood trailing behind.
Annja sucked in air and tried to still her hammering heart.
She glanced down and more worry seeped into her as her oxygen gauge showed that she’d have to surface soon.
That would mean leaving the relative protection of the reef.
Overhead, her boat looked far away.
Annja looked around, but the shark had vanished again. I hope that knife hurts like hell, she thought.
The level on her gauge continued to drop.
Annja was going to have to make a run for it.
I’m not doing this alone, she thought.
She summoned the mystical sword she’d somehow inherited from Joan of Arc, and the gleaming blade was snug in her hands, right where she wanted it to be.
She looked around but couldn’t see the tiger shark anywhere.
It was time to go but the problem was that on the ascent she’d have to rise no faster than her air bubbles. To rush it, she’d be risking the bends—when her body couldn’t get rid of the nitrogen in her blood. That could be as fatal as being attacked by the shark. She was only in about fifty feet of water, but she still had to maintain proper protocol.
That meant she’d be exposed for what would feel like an awfully long time.
But the level of oxygen she had was dwindling and she’d have to go for it, regardless of the risk from the shark.
Another quick glance and Annja kicked off, her fins churning behind her as she rose from the coral reef.
Instantly, she felt the presence of the shark, as if it’d been waiting behind the coral for her to show herself.
It came fast as Annja drifted higher.
She could see the rows of teeth in its mouth as it came toward her like a missile. Annja brought the sword up in front of her and swiped it through the water. It felt like she was moving in slow motion, though, cutting through the liquid of the ocean.
Still, it sliced into the tiger’s snout before the shark suddenly backed away and shot back down toward the reef.
Annja turned her eyes up and judged she was perhaps halfway to the surface. Her bubbles rose faster than she did, but only just. Annja didn’t want to remain underwater any longer than necessary.
The grim expression of the dive master lurked in her memory. She could hear his scolding now, telling her how foolish she’d been to go diving alone. Annja frowned. Maybe it had been foolish, but maybe she’d needed to do it.
She looked back just in time to see the tiger shark lurking near the seafloor. Annja’s diving knife still poked out of the top of its snout. Annja wondered if the shark would spend the rest of its days with that blade permanently planted there.
She kicked some more and cut the distance to the surface. Her heart was thundering and Annja tasted stale air.
Her tank was almost empty.
She glanced back and scarcely had time to bring the sword up as the shark rammed into her again.
Her regulator was knocked free and Annja had only a second to grab the last gulp of air before the hose was ripped away by the rush of movement.
Annja tried to put it back in her mouth but the hose was torn open. A slow stream of bubbles was being released from the tank on her back.
So much for that, she thought.
Annja shrugged one side of her straps free and then the other.
The tank fell down toward the reef, trailing the last bits of air behind it.
Annja jerked around and saw that the tiger shark was level with her at a distance of maybe fifty feet.
She brought the sword up in front of her.
The tiger shark’s eyes seemed to register the threat but cared little about it. Annja was on the menu and it meant to finish this.
It glided at her so smoothly that Annja barely registered the movement, so streamlined was the shark’s body that it caused no disturbance in the water. All that did register was the fact that the shark suddenly seemed to grow in size.
Annja marveled at the magnificence of the creature coming to try to kill her. The teeth so perfectly suited for cracking sea-turtle shells were also perfect for shredding human skin and bone.
And then it seemed to gather more speed.
Annja readied herself and felt her body take over. She cut up, stabbing right at the tiger shark, and plunged the sword straight into the shark’s nose. She knew that all sharks had sophisticated electrical sensory systems in their snouts, and she hoped by attacking it so savagely the shark would virtually short-circuit.
The effect was instantaneous. The shark seemed to stand straight up on its tail in the water and then jerked back, freeing itself from Annja’s sword. A dark flow of blood spilled into the water, clouding Annja’s vision.
And then the shark turned and shot away, trailing blood behind it.
Annja looked overhead and saw she was only eight feet below the surface. She kicked, surfaced and gasped air into her starved lungs.
Her boat bobbed on a swell a few yards away and she clawed through the surf toward it, willing the sword away to the otherwhere with the power of her mind.
As she reached the catamaran, she felt herself rise up as something struck the boat from below.
The shark hadn’t fled, after all.
Damn, Annja thought.
Disregarding the boat, she ducked back under the surface and saw the tiger shark, grievously wounded, circling around, preparing for another attack.
Annja summoned her sword and waited.
The shark had a look that told her it would attack her until one of them was dead.
There would be no quarter.
Annja steeled herself and the shark came at her, moving with an almost supernatural level of speed through the water.
Annja bent backward as the shark’s jaws snapped close by her head. She saw its belly pass over her face and plunged the sword as far as it would go into the underside of the massive beast.
The blade cut deep, scoring a line across the belly. Entrails slipped out while blood spewed into the ocean around her, turning everything dark and cloudy.
Annja imagined that she heard a deep rumbling gasp from the shark and then it simply turned over and slipped away from her.
She watched it sink down to the ocean floor. Instead of Annja being its dinner tonight, the tiger shark would be dinner for the smaller fish around the reef.
Annja nodded grimly. There was no joy in killing the magnificent beast, but she’d had no choice.
She turned toward the surface and broke through, again taking a deep breath of air. She turned toward her boat, but misjudged the distance. In the choppy water she was thrust forward and knocked her head on part of the catamaran.
She saw stars and felt blackness rushing for her.
Her final thought before she slipped under the waves was that at least she’d killed the tiger shark.
Somehow, death by drowning seemed better than being eaten by a shark.
She heard voices. That was enough to tell her she wasn’t underwater.
But was she dead?
She opened an eye and found a tanned, handsome face staring into her own. Judging by the scar on his cheek, he’d seen some sort of fighting at one point in his life. But there was an eagerness in his expression that told her he was very concerned.
She tried to speak but coughed instead. A bottle of water found its way to her lips and she took a greedy gulp, coughing some more and letting the better part of it dribble all over her face.
“Easy, easy.” His voice was strong and soothing.
Annja smiled. “I guess I’m not dead, after all.”
“Almost. But not quite.”
Annja propped herself up on one elbow and saw she was in a boat, one much larger than her catamaran. “What happened to my boat?”
Annja frowned and then remembered that the tiger shark had rammed the pitifully small catamaran. And when she’d surfaced after killing the shark, she must have hit her head against a piece of it. She felt her head and found the large bruise. She winced at the touch as pain sliced through her body.
“You’ll need to get that looked at, I suspect.”
Annja touched the spot again. The skin was bloated, swollen, and felt a little mushy to the touch. But she thought it was probably nothing worse than a bad knock. “I’ll be all right.”
“For a moment, you weren’t.”
She looked into his eyes and then smiled. “My name’s Annja.”
“You’re German?” She could hear the accent now.
Annja sat up and saw another couple of men sitting in the boat looking at her with a mixture of amusement and concern. “I’m on your boat, I take it?”
Hans nodded. “We saw the commotion in the water, saw your diving flag and wondered if you might be in some sort of danger.”
Annja shrugged. “Tiger shark.”
Hans started. “A tiger shark? You’re sure?”
“I know those stripes, Hans. Trust me.”
“How did you get away?”
Annja shook her head. “I didn’t. I killed him instead.”
That brought a low murmur from the other men on the boat. Hans smiled. “How large was the shark?”
“Probably fourteen feet. Give or take a few inches.”
“And you killed it? With what?”
Annja almost said something about the sword but caught herself. “I had a diver’s knife with me.”
“That must have been some knife,” Hans said.
“I stabbed the shark in the head with it over and over until it died.”
“You’re quite a remarkable woman, Annja.”
“I don’t feel so remarkable right now.” Annja groaned. The bobbing of the boat, which wouldn’t have bothered her if she’d been uninjured, now made her intensely nauseous.
Hans moved out of the way just in time as Annja rushed forward and vomited into the sea. After heaving a few more times, she leaned back and wiped her mouth. “Got any more of that water?”
Hans handed her the bottle and held up his hand. “Perhaps you shouldn’t drink it quite so fast this time.”
Annja nodded. “Yeah, that would be good idea.” She swirled the water around in her mouth and then spat it out along with the taste of bile. She took another sip and tried to hand the bottle back to Hans.
But the German only held up his hand. “That’s fine. You can keep that bottle. We have more.”
Annja smiled. “Not into sharing with the damsel in distress?”
Hans shrugged. “Well, ordinarily, I would not mind. But seeing as you have just, uh, purged…”
“Yeah,” Annja said. “I don’t blame you.”
Hans leaned closer. “Where is the person who was diving with you?”
Annja shook her head. “It was just me.”
Hans whistled. “You are either incredibly brave or rather foolish.”
Annja eyed him. “Probably a little of both. But I’m an expert diver. I didn’t see anything wrong with going it alone.”
Hans shook his head. “Anything can happen under the waves. As you found out. I hate to think what would have happened to you if we hadn’t been in the area.”
“I would have died,” Annja said.
Hans looked at her. But seeing nothing in Annja’s face that betrayed a sense of weakness, he merely sighed. “I think that would have been a shame.”
“I agree,” Annja said. She glanced around the boat. Oxygen tanks, regulators and fins were stacked neatly nearby. “You guys going diving, too?”
“Well, before we found you. Our diving plans will now take on a secondary importance until we determine you are safe.”
Hans pointed at her head. “I would rather have a medical doctor make that decision, Annja.”
Annja frowned. “I know my limitations, Hans. I’ll be all right.”
“Still.” Hans smiled. “You are on my boat right now. And I shall make the decisions. Now, you’re free to stay aboard, accept my hospitality and the ride back to the resort. You’re staying at Club Noah, I presume?”
“Excellent. In that case, we can take you right into the medical facility. I know the doctor there quite well.”
Annja sighed. “I don’t have a choice here, do I?”
“Not unless you’d like to jump overboard and swim back.”
Hans had a smile on his face, but Annja saw there was no way he was going to budge on his decision. She shrugged. “What the hell.” At least he seemed to genuinely be concerned about her. That was a nice change.
Hans said something quickly and quietly to another man on board and the engine churned beneath their feet. Instantly, the boat swung around and zipped back toward the resort.
Despite her nausea, Annja found the sea spray and breeze a welcoming relief. She might have a concussion, she decided. And if that was the case, she did need to get checked out.
Hans pointed ahead of them and Annja saw the resort looming. The ship’s engine downshifted and the boat slowed as they neared the shore. Hans said something else in German to the driver, who guided the boat up toward the dock close to the medical facility.
Annja groaned as she saw the dive master coming down the dock. As he noticed the boat approaching, he squinted, saw Annja and then frowned.
“Great,” Annja said. “Here comes the ‘I told you so.’”
Hans stepped out on the dock and helped Annja ashore. She turned and watched the dive master striding toward her, his tanned bald head gleaming.
“What happened, Miss Creed?”
“I had a run-in with a tiger shark.”
That brought him up short. “Tiger shark? In these waters?”
Annja frowned. “They’re all over the place around these parts. Nothing unusual about that.”
But the dive master shook his head. “We don’t usually see them around here. For some reason they tend to avoid the area. Most of our sharks are blacktip and reef.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about the tiger shark anymore,” Annja said. “I killed him.”
Hans laughed. “I was just as amazed as you, my friend.”
The dive master seemed to remember what he’d come to do and pointed a finger at Annja. “I told you not to go diving alone, didn’t I? You could have been killed out there and no one would have known it.”
“I would have known,” Annja said. She nodded contritely. “But yes, you did warn me and I ignored your advice. I’m sorry. It was wrong and don’t think that I’ll be doing it again. I’m not in a rush to repeat that particular mistake.”
The dive master seemed marginally mollified. “Well…good.”
Hans put a hand under Annja’s elbow. “We need to get her to the doctor, however. Annja knocked her head on a piece of her catamaran—”
“What happened to the boat?” the dive master asked.
“The tiger shark rammed it. It’s gone,” Annja said.
Annja grinned. “Think of how I felt.”
“You said you killed him?”
The dive master turned and walked away. “Well, at least that’s done.”
Annja glanced at Hans. “I think he was more concerned about the boat than he was about me.”
“I think you’re right.”
Annja took a deep breath and felt her legs go wobbly. “Whoa.”
Hans caught her arm. “Easy, Annja. We need to get you inside. You can’t stay out here in this blazing sunlight. It isn’t good for your condition.”
He guided her up the ramp toward the main path and then steered her into the doctor’s office.
A dark-skinned Filipino rushed over as soon as he heard them enter. “What happened?”
Annja winced as her head throbbed. “Hit my head on a part of the boat.”
Hans took over and told the doctor what had happened. The man introduced himself as Dr. Tiko. He grabbed a pen-light and peered into Annja’s eyes for a few seconds. Annja winced as the light pierced her brain. “Damn.”
Dr. Tiko stepped back. “A mild concussion, I think. Not too serious, although right now she probably doesn’t feel all that well,” he said to Hans. He glanced at Annja. “Do you, Miss Creed?”
“No, I don’t feel very well at all.”
Dr. Tiko gestured for Hans to help him and they got Annja up onto one of the beds in the facility. Dr. Tiko covered her with the sheet and then checked Annja’s blood pressure and pulse. “You need to rest. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on you.”
“I don’t want to rest,” Annja said. “I just need a few minutes to get myself back together.”
But Hans put a firm hand on her shoulder and kept her from getting up. “Annja, I will have to insist that you stay here and let Dr. Tiko take care of you.”
“Last I checked, we’re not on your boat anymore.”
“No, we’re not.”
“Then I don’t have to do what you say,” Annja said.
Hans shrugged. “That’s true. I would prefer it if you stayed here, though. After all, it would be a shame to see any lasting harm come to you.”
Annja sighed. “Well, okay, since you put it like that.”
Hans looked at Dr. Tiko. “You’ll stay here with her?”
“As long as it takes to make sure she’s okay.”
“All right, then.” Hans looked at Annja. “I’ll come back later to check on you, if that’s acceptable to you.”
Hans smiled. “Good.”
“You’re going back out there, aren’t you?”
Hans nodded. “We didn’t get a chance to complete our dive when we ran into you.”
“Thank you for bringing me back here and not listening to me being stubborn.”
Hans smiled again. “My pleasure. Now rest, Annja. I will see you later. And then we can talk further.”
Annja watched him go and, in another minute, she felt the blackness swallow her up whole.
Annja awoke several hours later, feeling only a dull throb where once her head had thundered. Dr. Tiko sat quietly at his desk, typing onto a computer and only noticed Annja was awake when she moved and the sheet fell away.
Annja was still in her bathing suit and felt dry, sun baked and in desperate need of a shower. Dr. Tiko came over with a glass of water.
“How are you feeling?”
He eyed her. “Really?”
Annja smiled. “Why is it that no one seems to believe what I tell them around here?”
Dr. Tiko shrugged. “I don’t know, Miss Creed. It could be because you made a rather silly mistake earlier that could have easily killed you.”
Annja held up her hand. “All right, I admitted my mistake. I don’t need to be treated like a teenager.” She took a sip of the water Dr. Tiko offered and marveled at how much easier it went down now.
“That’s good stuff.”
Dr. Tiko nodded. “Well, I’m pleased to see you’re feeling better. I’ve watched you while you were asleep and took your vitals at varying points throughout. I suspect you’ll have a bit of a headache for a while, but nothing too serious.”
“So I can go?”
He smiled. “I suspect you’d like to get changed. Maybe have a bite to eat?”
Annja hadn’t thought about food, but Dr. Tiko’s suggestion made her stomach rumble and she nodded with a grin. “Now that you mention it, I’m famished.”
Dr. Tiko stepped back. “All right, I can discharge you. But if your headache worsens, I want you to promise that you’ll come right back here and see me. If I’m not here, just call the main desk and they’ll page me. I live here at the resort, so it’s no trouble whatsoever.”
Annja stepped down, momentarily concerned that she might still feel wobbly, but her legs felt much stronger now. She stepped out of the doctor’s office and saw that evening had settled in. Out on the sea, the sun was already gone, leaving behind only a blaze of reds and pinks as sunset turned into an inky darkness.
Annja walked the smooth paved path back to her cabana and stepped inside. She’d left the window open and a strong breeze blew in, chilling her.
First order of business, she thought, a hot shower.
It felt wonderful ditching the bathing suit and even better feeling the water sweep away the dried salt crystals that had clung to her skin. She’d gotten a bit of sun, but nothing like a burn, which would have made the day all the more painful.
As she conditioned her hair, she took a moment to luxuriate in the scent of the lavender and rose petals, feeling a renewed sense of hunger.
At last, she stepped out of the shower, wrapped herself in a towel and walked out of the bathroom.
Under her door, someone had slipped a piece of paper. Annja squatted down, not trusting her head to suddenly bend over. She picked it up.
“Please join us for dinner. Hans.”
Annja smiled. There was only one place to get a meal at Club Noah and that was at the main administration building at the curve of the U that laid out the resort. The building, while not large, housed offices and various amenities. As well, it led to the large pavilion where the meals were served for resort guests. A massive thatched roof kept the pavilion sheltered, but it was open on three sides, inviting the ocean breezes to give diners the feeling of being almost one with nature.
She stepped into a white tropical gauzy cotton dress after applying just a hint of makeup. Annja never went overboard, but she figured a little bit tonight couldn’t hurt. She wanted everyone to realize she was fine and healthy. And there was the fact that Hans was rather a handsome man. No sense showing up looking like she’d just suffered a concussion.
Ten minutes later, she stepped out of her cabana and locked the door, sliding the key into her clutch. She walked down the path toward the pavilion. Night at Club Noah was as magical a time as any. The torches lighting the pathway cast long flickering shadows and the sea breezes kept the mosquitoes at bay.
She passed a set of stairs carved into the side of the mountain that towered over the resort. At the top, on one side was a tribute to the Virgin Mary and on the other was an open-air bar where resort guests could grab a late-night cocktail. Unfortunately, as Annja had discovered, the mosquitoes loved to hang out there and the resort staff didn’t seem to have any idea how to keep them away.
Annja passed several resort workers who said hello to her and asked how she was feeling. Club Noah was small enough that every staff member knew who was staying at the resort at any given time. Annja loved the personalized sense of care that she found here. A friend of hers had recommended this place and she could see why he had.
As she approached the pavilion, Annja could hear the sounds of diners and the clink of glasses and silverware. She stepped into the pavilion and looked around.
She turned and found herself looking at Hans, who had swapped his diving gear for a lightweight shirt and linen pants. He wore sandals and looked like he’d only recently shaved. She could smell the brace of aftershave on him and found she quite liked it.
“You’re feeling better?”
Annja touched the side of her head. “A little bit of a headache, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Hans smiled. “I’d say there appears to be very little that you cannot handle. I’m quite impressed with you.”
“Thank you.” Annja glanced around and saw the buffet table laid out with a suckling pig the Filipinos called lechón. On other platters were a wide array of fresh seafood, noodles, fresh carved beef and chicken and much more.
Hans noticed her staring and smiled. “I take it your appetite has returned?”
“In spades,” Annja said.
“Allow me to help you,” Hans said. He escorted her to the buffet table and handed her a plate, then got one for himself. “Are you familiar with the lechón?”
Annja nodded. “I’ve had it once before.”
Hans grinned. “Then you may as well have never had it before. They do an amazing pig roast here. Look at the way the skin simply falls away from the moist meat. It’s incredible.”
Annja pointed. “You’d better put that on my plate, then, or I may dive in right here.”
He laughed and heaped a serving on her plate before helping himself to some.
When they’d finished at the buffet table, Hans nodded toward a longer table where four men sat around it eating. “Please join us.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to intrude.”
“And who else would you eat with?”
She smiled. “Well, I haven’t really met anyone else here yet.”
“Exactly. So it’s settled, then.”
Annja smiled, but found herself warming up to Hans despite his somewhat overbearing attitude. She guessed he might be somewhat protective of her since he’d rescued her earlier. May as well go along with it for now, she reasoned. If it got to be too much later, she could educate him on how she could take care of herself.
Hans led her to the table and Annja noticed there were two unoccupied chairs. Hans put his plate down by one and then held Annja’s chair out so she could sit down.
She glanced at him as she did so. “You are aware that chivalry is an endangered species, right?”
“Endangered, perhaps, but not yet extinct.”
Annja looked across the table and saw the faces of the other men who had been on the boat earlier. “Nice to see you all again.”
They smiled and asked if she was feeling better. But one man, older than anyone else, remained silent until at last Hans cleared his throat.
“Annja, I would very much like to introduce you to the head of our little group here, Joachim Spier.”
Annja leveled her gaze on the older man, who regarded her with warm blue eyes and a thin smile. “Herr Spier.”
He stood and held out his hand. Annja shook it and found it was surprisingly strong. “It is my sincere pleasure to make your acquaintance, Annja Creed. When Hans told me about you earlier, I could scarcely believe our luck.”
Annja glanced at Hans. “Luck?”
Spier smiled broadly as he sat down. “Imagine, the great Annja Creed—famed archaeologist and pursuer of history’s monsters. What would the chances be of us both being at this glorious resort at the same time?”
Annja smiled. “Apparently better than either of us would have dared to think.”
“Indeed,” Spier said, nodding. “Indeed.” He leaned back. “But please, do not let me interrupt you. Hans has told me of your tremendous ordeals of earlier today and you must certainly be hungry. When you have dined some, then perhaps we can all discuss…things.”
Annja didn’t need any more coaxing and took advantage of Spier’s pause to enjoy the food before her. As Hans had suggested, the lechón was even more delicious than she remembered it being. The crispy pigskin concealed a delightfully moist meat underneath, buffered by an almost gelatinous thin layer of fat that made each mouthful even better than the last.
She helped herself to a lot of water and then grudgingly accepted a small glass of white wine when Hans offered. “Not too much, I don’t want to have to pay another visit to Dr. Tiko tonight.”
That brought a round of laughter from the table and Annja found herself enjoying the company of the German men more and more. They all talked animatedly in heavily accented English about diving in the area. Annja appreciated the fact that they refrained from switching back to German—mostly, she assumed, for her benefit.
Finally, she set her silverware down and lifted her glass of wine to her lips. The cold liquid tasted incredible and she leaned forward. “Thank you for giving me some time, Herr Spier. I was pretty hungry.”
Spier nodded. “I can see that. It’s a good sign given your earlier state, I should think. Nothing like a hearty appetite to set one on the road back to full strength.” He lifted his glass and nodded in Annja’s direction. “To your health.”
The men all laughed and toasted one another and then drank again. When Annja set her glass back down, she felt Hans eyeing her. She turned and smiled at him.
Spier spoke up. “Perhaps now that we have all dined, we might speak of other things than just the wonderful nature of the meals they serve here, eh?”
“Absolutely,” Annja said.
“What brings you to Club Noah?” Spier asked.
Annja shrugged. “A much-needed rest. I’m burned out. I’ve been crisscrossing the world for years and haven’t taken nearly enough time for myself lately. My workload in New York was getting to be too much, so I decided on a whim to simply drop everything and come here.”
Spier nodded. “You are a woman of action.”
“Some have said that, yes.”
“Excellent. I respect that immensely. And if it were only based on your reputation and from what I have observed watching that television show that you are on, I would have surmised much the same.”
Spier waved his hand. “It is not worthless praise, by any means. And there is never shame in being proud of your accomplishments, of which you have a great many.”
“Well, I’m pleased you think so.”
“I know so,” Spier said. “You’ve done much for the world of archaeology and history. You ought to be commended for the service you’ve given to mankind.”
“I’m hardly worthy of that,” Annja said. Too much praise made her uncomfortable.
Spier noted her discomfort and smiled. “Suffice it to say that we are extremely happy to have you in our presence here, Annja. Very happy indeed.”
“And what brings you all to the Philippines?” Annja asked. “Just a vacation, perhaps?”
Spier lowered his voice and shook his head. “We have come here for a much more grand purpose than mere relaxation.”
He drew closer to Annja. She could see the depth of his eyes and found herself almost hypnotized by them as he drew her into his conspiratorial attitude. “We seek a treasure rumored to be in this very area.”
Annja perked up. “Treasure?”
“They call it the Pearl of Palawan.”
A balmy ocean breeze blew across the pavilion as Spier regarded Annja. “Have you ever heard of the Pearl of Palawan?”
Annja shook her head, listening to the crashing waves on the beach. “I have not. But to be honest with you, I’m not very interested in treasure. From what I’ve experienced, things of such value have a way of destroying people.”
Spier smiled. “But imagine what good this could do if it were recovered. We could educate people about the origins of it.”
Annja frowned. “And just what are its origins?”
Spier ordered himself a glass of peppermint schnapps and waited until it arrived. He sipped it once and then leaned back in his chair. Clearly, Annja thought, he was a captivating storyteller used to commanding attention.
“Years and years ago,” Spier began, “the Pearl of Palawan—a solid black pearl of such opulence and size that it made men weep in desire to possess it—first appeared in the annals of Filipino history.”
“I’m not as familiar with this country’s history as perhaps I should be,” Annja said. “But I know some.”
“So you know of the Moros.”
Annja winced, remembering her last trip to the Philippines. “I know a little bit about them.”
“They were the first to document the pearl. But legend has it that it has existed for even longer than the period of greatness of the Moros empire. According to several documents I have unearthed, the pearl dates back many thousands of years, back to a time when fact and fiction were often entwined with each other.”
“And what do the legends say?” Annja asked.
“They say that those who possess the pearl have at their disposal an object that can grant the owner incredible vitality and power.”
“Is that so?”
Annja leaned forward as Spier helped himself to more schnapps. “Pardon me for saying so, Herr Spier, but you seem to already possess a great deal of vitality. And I’m fairly adept at knowing when I’m in the presence of a powerful person. You fit that bill easily.”
Spier smiled. “Thank you, my dear. I appreciate the sentiment, but I assure you the pearl’s powers would dwarf my own.”
Annja leaned back. “Do you know where the pearl is supposed to come from?”
Spier chuckled. “I must confess I’m a bit reluctant to tell you. I sense that you view the legend of the pearl with a bit more skepticism than I expected.”
“Forgive me if I am being rude,” Annja said. “It’s just that over the years I’ve found a lot of supposedly powerful legends have turned out to be nothing but fantasy, usually perpetrated by someone seeking to manipulate events for their own well-being.”
Spier said nothing for a moment but then looked at her. “But tell me something. You’ve probably found that just as many things live up to their legends…don’t they?”
Annja smiled. “Well, you’ve got me there. I have indeed.”
Spier nodded. “And that’s why you should keep an open mind about this, as well.”
“Tell me more.”
“I have heard,” Spier said, “that the pearl was reportedly created by an ancient civilization long since lost to the earth. These people inhabited a wide swath of land in the Pacific that was subsequently destroyed by volcanoes and earthquakes. They brought the pearl into being for the express purpose of using its power to rule their kingdom.”
“And what happened?”
“It ended up destroying them.”
Annja nodded. “Another powerful lesson, I suppose.”
“It would seem,” Spier said. “But one never knows exactly what may have transpired to destroy their civilization.” He grabbed at his glass and downed the remainder of the schnapps. “The pearl next shows up in the Moros history as belonging to a certain Queen Esmeralda. It was a gift given to her by one of her subjects who was enamored of the woman. Driven to prove his love and worth, he reportedly dove into the sea, swam underwater for seven days and, on the seventh day, emerged from the surf bearing the pearl.”
“Well, that would, of course, be impossible,” Annja said.
“Unless he grew gills,” Spier said with a laugh. “And I certainly don’t think he really did that. But the story is interesting.”
“Did he get his woman?” Annja asked.
Spier shrugged. “Actually, the queen, upon receiving the pearl, is said to have undergone some sort of transformation. Instead of rewarding her suitor, she had him executed.”
“Tough love,” Annja said.
“Indeed.” Spier sighed. “But the pearl did not stay in possession of Queen Esmeralda for very long. It seems that bad luck was destined for the Moros as the Spanish soon started visiting the Philippines.”
Annja nodded. “I’ve read something of their conquests here.”
“Then you know they battled the Moros and had a tough time of it in the thick jungles.”
“But not being ones to give up, such as they were, the Spaniards eventually succeeded in wresting control of the region from the Moros. And Queen Esmeralda was taken hostage by the invaders.”
“I assume she was meant to be a slave?”
“Perhaps, or a bride for some lucky Spaniard,” Spier said. “Whatever the case, she bought back her freedom.”
“With the pearl?”
“Of course. When the leader of the Spanish heard her pleas for freedom and learned how she intended to buy her way out of captivity, he could scarcely conceal his greed at the thought of possessing the pearl.”
“She gave it to him?”
“Queen Esmeralda ordered her subjects to bring the pearl to the Spanish. In exchange, she was to be freed.” Spier smiled. “But in a cruel ironic twist, Esmeralda herself was betrayed by the Spanish and, instead of freeing her, they refused to let her go. After all, they now had the pearl and the queen.”
“Nasty business,” Annja said.
Spier continued. “Esmeralda was distraught and managed to free herself from the chains that held her belowdecks. She made her way to the top of the main mast and threw herself overboard. But before she did, she cursed the entire Spanish flotilla. Then she dove into the sea, never to be seen again.”
“So the pearl made its way to Spain?”
Spier shook his head. “No, as soon as Esmeralda dove into the sea, the ocean grew violent. Dark clouds surged overhead while the waves pounded the fleet on all sides. As the sun vanished, the fleet was thrown into chaos. Two of the ships ran into each other, others were dashed on an unseen reef that tore their hulls wide open. As thunder and lightning crashed across the sky, the entire fleet was destroyed in the space of only a few minutes.”
“Incredible,” Annja said.
“When the clouds parted, the sea was like glass. There was no trace of the Spanish fleet. No survivors bobbed in the water on pieces of wreckage. It was almost as if they had never even been there at all.”
“But surely their ships would have come to rest underwater.”
Spier shrugged. “There have never been any found that could be attributed to the story.”
“So, it would seem that the story itself is rather suspect,” Annja said. “After all, reports of shipwrecks would mean the potential for something salvageable underwater.”
“Only if you knew exactly where the ships were supposed to have gone aground. Otherwise, how could you possibly say?”
Annja smiled. “And you think you know where they are?”
Spier grinned. “I might have an idea.”
“So what happened to the pearl, then? It was lost, too?”
“Legend has it that it returned to its proper owner—the very civilization that created it in the first place.”
“The civilization that no longer existed. Supposedly.”
Annja sighed. “That’s an awful lot of supposed history right there, Herr Spier. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t fall for it hook, line and sinker.”
He chuckled. “I would have been disappointed in you if you had, Annja. I know you are a woman of facts, yet you are also a woman who can’t help but be intrigued by legends and myths.”
“I’m a romantic at heart,” Annja said. “What can I say?”
Spier eyed her. “Say that you’ll come diving with us. Say that you’ll help us find the pearl.”
“You’re serious about going after it?”
“And the warning signs in your story? They don’t bother you at all?”
“What—that whoever possesses the pearl seems to come to an unfortunate end?”
Spier spread his arms and laughed some more. “My dear, I am eighty years old. In some ways, I feel as though I were as young and strapping as Hans here. But I am not. Eighty is much closer to the grave than it is to the womb. And so, if the legends are true, then I will not go reluctantly should my time come to pass sooner than I expect. And even if it does, I should pass from this world to the next knowing that I had a hand in retrieving a truly wondrous relic.” He pointed his empty glass at Annja. “What could be better than that?”
Annja smiled. As much as she hated to admit it, Spier had intrigued her with his tale. And while she was supposed to be here enjoying her rest and relaxation, she’d already found she missed the excitement of exploration. The visit to the reef today had shown that she always needed a sense of some sort of adventure in her life. Wasn’t that why she’d gone against the dive master’s advice and went diving alone?
Spier watched her. “I may have only just met you, Annja, but I know people. And after eighty years on this planet, I think I have the ability to see some people better than they perhaps know themselves. You and I are alike in many ways. You have the thirst for adventure flowing deep within your very soul. And as much as you might want to fight against it from time to time, you know full well it will never relinquish its hold upon you or your heart.”
Annja grinned. “Not until I’m dead, I suppose.”
Spier nodded. “Exactly.”
“And what will you do with the pearl if you are actually able to locate it?” Annja asked.
“It’s my hope that we would present it to the world together,” Spier said. “That others might learn much from it. How it was made, what properties it possesses.”
“I’m interested in knowing how this ancient civilization was able to make a pearl at all, considering that we weren’t able to manufacture artificial pearls, per se, until quite recently.”
“Perhaps that old civilization was a lot more advanced than we would give them credit for,” Spier said. “Or perhaps they had access to a species of giant oysters that gave them such objects on a routine basis. Who can tell?”
Annja smiled. “Well, I suppose we won’t know for sure unless we manage to find it.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“How big is the pearl supposed to be?”
“Roughly the size of a child’s ball. Perhaps ten inches across.”
Annja sat back. “That would be massive for a pearl.”
“And that would mean that if it came from an oyster, it would also have to have been huge.”
“Beyond measure almost,” Spier said.
Annja nodded. “Okay.”
Spier leaned forward. “Really?”
Annja smiled at him and then looked at Hans, who had remained silent throughout the story. “Well, it just so happens that I don’t have all that much going on aside from recovering from a mild concussion. So maybe a little excursion would be a good thing for me.”
“I assure you it will be,” Spier said. “The search for the pearl will prove to be a fantastic adventure, I’m certain of it.”
“Maybe we’ll even find it,” Annja said with a laugh.
Spier called for another round of drinks and then winked at Annja. “I’m almost positive that we will. Now that you have joined our expedition.”
Spier and the rest of the men excused themselves after they’d had another round of drinks. Annja nursed her glass of wine as Hans stayed behind, as well. Part of her was happy about that, but part of her suspected something else might be going on. Just before Spier had left the table, he’d exchanged a knowing look with Hans.
Annja was comfortable with the decision she’d made to join the expedition, but she wanted to make sure that Hans didn’t have any misconceptions about the nature of their relationship.
They waited in comfortable silence until the pavilion had pretty much cleared out. One of the resort’s boats was taking a big group over to a neighboring island where they had a nightclub. Annja had no interest in going.
“Joachim is very pleased that you’ve decided to accompany us on this expedition,” Hans said.
Annja looked him over. He was smiling at her and seemed brimming with confidence. “How did you get that scar?” she asked.
He touched his face self-consciously. Annja grinned. “I didn’t mean to imply that it’s horrible or anything. I was just curious.”
Hans smiled. “Doesn’t the discussion of scars and how we got them usually take place after we’ve slept together? Isn’t that what people like us do in the afterglow of orgasm?”
“People like us?” Annja sputtered, surprised by the man’s blunt statement. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
“You can’t deny it, Annja. I knew it from the moment I looked at you. You’re a warrior.”
Annja raised an eyebrow. “So does that mean you’re one, too?”
“I was,” he said. “Once.”
Hans got a faraway look in his eyes and Annja frowned. She knew what it was like to have dark memories. Sometimes the demons that you’d killed stayed away for a while. But sometimes they came back.
“Military?” she guessed.
Hans nodded. “I was a paratrooper. In Afghanistan. Working with the coalition forces at the time. Such as they were.”
“I didn’t think Germany had much of an official presence over there.”
Hans sighed. “We had a few units. Some of whom disgraced themselves. Public opinion caused the chancellor to resign. Germany pulled out most of its units. But you know that doesn’t stop the shadow governments that work despite the best interests of the people they’re elected to supposedly protect.” He finished off the remainder of his drink and slapped the glass back down on the table. “An arrangement was reached with the United States. Germany would supply a small unit of commandos—specialists trained in mountain warfare—for long-range reconnaissance patrols. Our task, as it was set forth, was to locate high-value Taliban targets.”
“So you were special operations.”
Hans nodded. “Don’t hold it against me, all right?”
Annja smiled. “I won’t.”
Hans looked out at the frothy black sea. “We were dispatched to a high mountain pass in the Helmand province. Do you know it?”
“In the southwestern part of the country, isn’t it? But I thought it was mostly desert.”
“Helmand is the main source of opium in the country. It produces more than the entire country of Burma. Intelligence suggested that the Taliban was funneling fighters mixed in with opium shipments. But rather than venture south through the desert toward the Balochistan area of Pakistan, they instead chose to journey north toward the Helmand River.”
“You were ordered to intercept them?”
Hans nodded. “We set up our observation post atop one of the higher mountains in Nawzad. We were able to use small unmanned vehicles to keep track of all the entry points in the region.” He shook his head. “It was exhausting work, sitting in that mountain range. The sun scorched us mercilessly. We had to maintain strict secrecy the entire time. The locals were all friendly to the Taliban and would have given any of us away if they had known we were there.”
“How did you manage to stay concealed for so long?”
Hans grinned. “Well, that’s what we were trained to do. My unit was sent out to live on the mountains all over the world. We went in with just enough supplies—mostly ammunition, medical and communications gear. We took some rations, but otherwise we were to live off the environment. It was a very special group of men I had volunteered to serve with. Any one of us would gladly have died for the others.”
Hans paused a moment before continuing. “On the third night we were there, we got a message that one of the drones had visual contact with a drug convoy approaching our area.
“It was night, so we had a tough time trying to pick them out among the rocks down near the river, but we also had night-vision equipment. Once we switched on, we could see them clearly. One or two pickup trucks, a whole host of mules laden with large boxes of opium packed tightly for transport. And they had close to one hundred fighters with them.”
Annja leaned forward. “How many of you?”
“Those aren’t good odds any way you cut it.”
Hans shrugged. “We called in close air support. We had laser painters—do you know what those are?”
“It shoots an invisible laser at a target that fighters and bombers can use to guide their ordnance, right?”
Hans looked at her a second before grinning. “You seem remarkably well-versed in military terminology, Annja.”
“You’re not the first soldier I’ve met, Hans.”
Hans grinned. “We directed a squadron of planes down on them and they turned the entire river basin into scorched earth. When the dust and debris cleared, the only things left behind were the smoldering hunks of what had been the pickup trucks. Everything else had been utterly destroyed.”
Annja nodded. “So, mission successful. Good stuff.”
“Ordinarily, on a mission like that, we would have been immediately extracted and moved to a different area. That’s just to protect the unit, you understand.”
“Sure. Why leave you there when the locals would have known that there must have been a unit operating in the area.”
“Exactly.” Hans sighed. “It amazes me that it seems so logical to you, and yet to my own government it was not what they did.”
“They didn’t pull you out?”
“No. They left us there. The first strike had proven so successful, they wanted us to stay in place to make sure the Taliban didn’t try to come through the region again.”
Hans held up his hand. “I know, I know. It defies all proper sense of logic and intelligence. But bureaucrats are not warriors for good reason. They’d be dead within minutes if they ever stepped onto a battlefield.”
“That must not have gone over well with the other members of your team.”
Hans frowned. “To be honest with you, Annja, it was the first time I’d ever considered the notion of disobeying a direct order. We talked it over, though, and in the end decided we had the benefit of being a small and highly mobile unit. We knew the region and felt comfortable with the idea that if we were discovered, we could exfiltrate to the extraction site and get pulled out by helicopter.”
Annja felt a strong breeze blow over and, despite its balminess, felt a shiver run through her body.
“The Taliban were, of course, furious that one of their convoys had been so utterly decimated. The cost to them in terms of monetary value—along with the cost in human life—must have been quite extraordinary.”
“They wanted your unit.”
Hans nodded. “They knew, like you said, that there had to be someone operating in the area. I found out later that they had put a bounty on our heads. The equivalent of fifty thousand dollars for our capture or death. To your local Afghani, that much money was like being promised the keys to a kingdom.”
“They turned those mountains into a war zone.”
Hans nodded and kept talking. “The first indication we had that our lives were about to get really terrible was when our sentries signaled us that we had the enemy approaching. But they didn’t just come at us from one direction. We could have easily handled that.” He frowned. “They swarmed all over that mountain, creeping up through unseen crevasses we didn’t even know about. They stalked down old goat trails. Over boulders. And when they attacked, it felt like hell itself had been unleashed upon us. Bullets flew everywhere, ricocheting off rocks, splintering whatever stubby trees happened to be in the area. The sound of gunfire never wavered. We scrambled and fought back as much as we could, but they were relentless.”
Annja’s heart beat hard against her chest. “How did you ever get out of there?”
“Somehow we made our way back to our extraction site. But when the first helicopter came in to pick us up, the Taliban launched a Stinger missile—you know, the ones your CIA gave to the mujahideen to fight the Soviets way back when? Anyway, the helicopter exploded, killing everyone on board before we could even get close to it.”
“We asked for another rescue mission. But we were denied, told it was too hot a landing zone for them to try again. We were directed to an alternate landing zone for rescue.”
“Did you go there?”
“Not before one of our team was killed by a grenade. He threw himself on it to protect the rest of us. We would have all been killed otherwise.”
Annja bit her lip. “Brave man.”
Hans nodded. “He was indeed.” He glanced away. “The secondary LZ was two miles to the east. It may as well have been a thousand. They attacked us every step of the way. Another member of my team took a bullet to his shoulder and we had to tend to his wounds. While we did, another shot took him right between his eyes. His head exploded all over me and my friend, Tomas.”
“Jesus,” Annja said.
“I hope he was with him,” Hans said. “But it certainly felt as though God had deserted us on that day. The Taliban kept up the attacks as we traversed the boulders and ravines, making our way to the secondary site.”
Annja shook her head. “No wonder you’ve got scars.”
Hans ran a hand over the scar on his face. “If only they were all as superficial as this one.” He paused and then looked at Annja. “It took us the better part of a day to reach the secondary landing zone. By that time, night had fallen, so we felt good about our chances of a pickup. After all, darkness would help the rescue chopper avoid detection to some extent.”
“Did they come for you?”
“They didn’t want to. But we screamed at them on the radio until they relented. We were down to just the two of us by then. Tomas and I pledged that neither of us would let ourselves be captured. We’d heard enough of what to expect from Taliban torturers if they should have ever caught up with us. We’d each save a bullet for taking our own lives if it came to that.
“For a while, everything went quiet as we lay nestled between two boulders. The stars came out on that cold night, blinking as they did against the backdrop of night. It was eerily quiet and almost beautiful. Tomas and I lay back-to-back ready to fight and die if need be.
“But when we heard the chop of rotor blades, the entire mountainside opened up again. It was as if they knew exactly where Tomas and I were hiding because every bullet and mortar shell seemed to be locked onto our very position. Somehow they never managed to land a direct strike, though, and we stayed safe, right up until it was time to leave and run for the chopper.”
Annja was leaning forward, closer to Hans now. Hans seemed to be breathing faster, almost as if he was reliving the event.
“We saw the chopper touch down and we ran out from the boulders. We’d ditched all our gear so we could move faster. I ran like I’d never run before. Bullets whizzed past us. Dirt kicked up in our faces. Explosions everywhere. I had to run zigzag to keep from being hit. We were so close to getting out and then I was falling into the back of the chopper.
“I turned and saw Tomas on the ramp coming in. He smiled at me. I grinned back. We’d made it. And then a single bullet burst through his chest. He died right there on the back ramp of the chopper as we lifted away. He fell to his knees and died, that smile still on his face.”
Hans was silent.
Annja took a deep breath. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
Hans cleared his throat and clenched his jaw. “The scar came from a bullet that caught me across my face, but never entered the side of my head. Just a flesh wound, in other words.”
“You were incredibly lucky.”
Hans eyed her. “Was I? I sometimes wonder if perhaps my friends who died were the lucky ones. We never should have been left out there. We never should have been abandoned like that. Three good men died because of political idiocy.”
There wasn’t much Annja could say to that.
Hans stood. “You’ll have to forgive me, Annja, but I think I’m going to get some sleep now. I’ll see you down at the dock tomorrow morning. Joachim likes to get started early.”
And then he turned and left the pavilion.
Annja watched him go and frowned. This day hadn’t ended how she’d thought it would. That was for sure.
By the time Annja got down to the dock by the dive master’s hut the next morning, Spier, Hans and the rest of the team were already there. Hans, for all the horror he’d relived with Annja the night before, looked happy and fresh from a good night’s sleep. He smiled as she came down the walkway and took her by the elbow to guide her off to one side.
“I want to apologize for my conduct last night.”
Annja smiled. “Your conduct? It’s not like you made an unwanted pass at me, Hans.”
He shrugged. “I haven’t talked about Afghanistan with many people. It is a time in my life when I faced death and lost the people I felt closest to. As such, the memories tend to run together and come out in a jumbled mess of sadness, anger and confusion.”
Annja laid a hand on his arm. “It’s okay. Really. I don’t think anyone would have come through something like that unscathed in some fashion. And, if anything, it’s my fault for being so nosy about your scar and how you got it. I certainly wasn’t expecting the story you told me.”
Hans smirked. “No, I suppose you weren’t.”
“But that’s beside the point,” Annja said. “I’m glad you shared it. It helps me understand who you are.”
Hans grinned slyly. “And why would you want to know something like that?”
Annja thought about responding but instead looked over his shoulder. “Are you going to introduce me to the rest of the team?”
“Didn’t I do that last night?”
Annja shook her head. “Actually, no. By the time I sat down and Joachim started talking, there wasn’t much time to talk to anyone else.”
“Mein Gott,” Hans said. “How rude of us.” He dragged Annja over to where the rest of the team were preparing their gear. “Annja, allow me to introduce Gottlieb, Mueller and Heinkel. You already know Joachim.”
Each of the three other divers nodded and smiled at Annja in turn. Like Hans, they were all exceptionally athletic, muscular and had strong jawlines. She wondered if they were all ex-military like Hans.
She supposed they probably were.
Joachim smiled at her. “Did you have a good night’s sleep?”
“Excellent. So, no lingering effects from the concussion?”
Annja shook her head. It was true. She felt perfectly fine today. “I don’t think so, no.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” a voice said behind her.
Annja turned and saw Dr. Tiko. She grinned at him. “No doubt thanks in large part to your excellent care, doctor.”
“Don’t believe a thing she says,” the dive master said coming down the walkway.
Annja sighed. “I thought I already apologized to you yesterday.”
“You did, but I still don’t trust you.”
Dr. Tiko came over to Annja. “You’re certain your head isn’t hurting you at all?”
Dr. Tiko frowned. “Even still, I’d much prefer it if you didn’t go diving today. There’s a chance you could still be suffering from your concussion.”
Annja shook her head. “I’m not missing this chance to go exploring, doctor. And besides, you told me it was a mild concussion.”
“Even a mild concussion can prove troublesome if it’s not treated properly and the patient hasn’t had enough rest and recuperation.”
Annja smiled. “Doctor, I assure you that this is not the first time I’ve had a concussion. I know what to expect.”
“You’ve had them before?”
“How? More boating accidents?”
Annja frowned. “Something like that.” She didn’t think it would be a good idea to mention falling down the sides of mountains, armed assailants, ice shelves and the like.
“Then that’s even more reason for you to stay here and rest today. The cumulative effect of repeated concussion can cause lasting brain damage.”
Annja laughed. “I’m pretty sure that’s already taken effect.” I have to be crazy to do the things I do, she thought.
Dr. Tiko looked at her like she was quite insane. “Miss Creed, I may have to insist that you stay behind from this expedition.”
“Dr. Tiko.” Spier came walking over with a broad smile on his face. “I don’t think that’s really necessary and neither do you.”
“Don’t tell me my business, Mr. Spier.”
Spier put a hand on his chest. “I wouldn’t dream of doing anything of the sort. But it’s just that this expedition is very important, and all the more so now that the illustrious Annja Creed has deigned to join our merry band. After all, it’s not every day the resort of Club Noah has such a celebrity as this staying on its grounds.”
Dr. Tiko’s eyes narrowed. “Celebrity?”
Spier gestured to Annja. “Surely you haven’t failed to notice that this is the one and only Annja Creed, famed archaeologist and host of the ever-amusing and educational television program Chasing History’s Monsters?”
Dr. Tiko’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t watch television.”
Spier chuckled. “Well, you will simply have to take my word for it, then, won’t you? Annja is a brilliant researcher whose knowledge will be of vital importance to my research in this area.”
“Your research into the underwater formations that haven’t been charted yet?”
Annja smiled at Dr. Tiko. “I’m really feeling quite all right, doctor. If I wasn’t, there’s no way I’d be this stubborn.”
The dive master snorted to himself. “I find that doubtful. She’d be stubborn in any condition.”
Spier looked at the dive master. “I think we’re all set from here on out, sir. Thank you for your assistance.”
Realizing he was being dismissed, the dive master harrumphed once, spun on his heels and stalked away.
Dr. Tiko wasn’t so easily convinced. “Perhaps I should come with you. I can remain on the boat and make sure that Annja is well when we get there and when she resurfaces again.”
Spier looked pained. “That would be a marvelous idea, doctor, but I’m afraid of what might befall the other resort guests if you were not around to help them should they require medical attention. After all, how would it look if the resort’s only doctor abandoned everyone else just to look after one of the more beautiful guests here?”
Dr. Tiko nodded. “Perhaps you’re right.”
Spier smiled. “Besides, all of my men have medical training. I’m sure we can stabilize Annja should she require any care while we’re out diving. And then we’d be right back in to see you as soon as possible, anyway.”
Dr. Tiko paused and then reluctantly nodded his head slowly. “All right. This goes against my better judgment, but I’ll agree to it. If anything happens out there, get her back to me as soon as possible.”
“We won’t hesitate,” Spier said.
“In that case,” Dr. Tiko said, “have a good dive.”
Annja watched Dr. Tiko walk away and then glanced at Spier. “Thanks for intervening like that.”
“Think nothing of it. I meant what I said. Your participation in this dive is most welcome and to think of you staying here alone onshore would be painful, to say the least.”
Hans nodded at the twenty-foot sloop they were stowing gear on. “We should get aboard before the doctor changes his mind.”
Spier chuckled. “Or at least decides he wants a bigger payoff.”
Annja stopped. “You paid him off?”
Spier smiled. “Just a few dollars to brighten his day. Last night after dinner I went to have a talk with him. Just to make sure he saw things our way.”
“Then what was that all about?”
Spier smiled broadly. “Why, keeping up appearances, of course.”
Hans helped Annja get aboard. “Joachim knew the dive master would be raising a commotion this morning. And if it looked like Dr. Tiko had given in too easily, then he might lose his job. So they acted out a little melodrama for the sake of the other staff workers.”
Annja laughed despite herself. “All of this just for me? You guys are making me feel a little more important than I think is warranted.” Still, she was pleased by the fact they valued her participation so much.
“I consider it money well spent,” Spier said, climbing aboard behind her. “Dr. Tiko is a good man, and a good doctor. It’s always wise to keep such people on friendly terms. One never knows when they’ll prove especially useful given the right situation.”
Mueller was the last man aboard, releasing the ropes that held the sloop to the dock. Heinkel gunned the engine and they reversed and then shot out toward the bay.
The early sun felt hot on Annja’s skin, but the cool splashes of water kept her from sweating too much. The sloop, designed for fast movement, seemed to jump the waves as they zipped away from Club Noah toward the area where Annja had been diving the day before.
“I wonder if we’ll see more tiger sharks,” she said aloud.
Hans looked at her. “If we do, we’ll be sure to point them in your direction since you seem so adept at killing them.”
Annja frowned. “I didn’t want to kill it, but it left me no alternative.”
“We’re not judging you, Annja,” Spier said. “I think we’re all quite a bit in awe of you actually. It’s not every day that you meet a woman who is able to kill a fourteen-foot tiger shark.”
“I suppose not,” Annja said. Good thing they don’t know what I used to kill the damned thing, she thought.
They made good time, and within twenty minutes they’d arrived at more or less the same location as the day before. Gottlieb got them all squared away with gear, and Hans helped Annja into her rig. She tested the regulator, found she had good oxygen flow and then prepared her mask.
Spier spoke quietly in German to his team, who had huddled a bit closer to one another, effectively meaning Annja couldn’t hear them.
Spier glanced at her. “Forgive me, Annja. I don’t mean to exclude you.”
“Hardly,” Spier said. “We always have a small prayer before we go diving. It’s nothing secretive at all, just more of a personal tradition that we enjoy doing. We like to think it keeps us safe.”
“Has it so far?”
Spier nodded. “Yes.”
“Well, then, that’s a good thing,” Annja said. She glanced at Hans. “Maybe I could have used something like that yesterday, huh?”
Hans grinned. “I don’t think you needed any prayers, Annja. You seemed quite capable on your own without divine intervention.”
“I needed you guys, though.”
Hans shrugged. “We were just passing through. Anyone else in the same situation would have done the same thing.”
“You’re being modest.”
Spier cleared his throat. “I hate to break up this little gathering, but we’re wasting time. I don’t want to lose the day. The weather report says we could get some rain this afternoon, which means our window for proper exploration is a small one.”
“Sorry,” Annja said. “You’re right. We should get going.”
Spier nodded. “If you get into trouble, look for Hans. He’ll be close by your side today.”
Well, that’s not a bad thing at all, Annja thought. She glanced at Hans, who gave her the thumbs-up and a smile around his mouthpiece before falling backward over the side of the sloop.
Annja heard the splashes as, one by one, the team dropped over the side of the boat and vanished into the sea below.
She took one final look around.
Here we go again, she thought.
She dropped back into the ocean.
Annja felt the bright blue waters of the sea envelop her once again as she turned over and got her bearing. She saw Spier and the rest of his team ahead of her, but off to her right side floated Hans, watching her protectively.
She gave him the thumbs-up sign and he nodded, pointed and they descended together.
A world of bubbles rose from the team as they dove deeper toward the coral reef. Annja found that she had a small feeling of uneasiness in her stomach, but quickly decided it was due to her fear that there might be another tiger shark lingering in the area.
She needn’t have worried. She could already see that the activity around the reef was far greater than it had been yesterday. She spotted a few blacktip sharks meandering around the reef, snatching up smaller fish when the opportunities presented themselves.
Hans eyed her as she looked at the sharks, but unlike yesterday, they were only six-footers. Hardly the massive size of the tiger shark. And while they’d need to be mindful, she knew that the blacktips posed little threat.
Still, she glanced down and reassured herself that she’d replaced the diving knife she’d lost yesterday. The new knife sat snug in its sheath alongside her right calf.
All of the other divers were similarly outfitted. And unlike yesterday, being in a group gave everyone a much better level of protection.
Why did I go diving by myself yesterday? she wondered. It was really reckless of me.
Hans pointed ahead at the coral reef and Annja saw a moray eel poking its head out of the crevice in the formation. She nodded back at Hans and they continued on.
Spier seemed only marginally interested in the reef life itself. He never paused and Annja could see the strength of his leg muscles as they slowly powered him deeper into the depths. For an eighty-year-old man, Spier had remarkable strength and he seemed to have an endless supply of it.
Annja might have wondered what his diet was if she hadn’t seen him devour a ton of fish, beef and pork last night. He seemed to eat whatever he pleased and not suffer for it. But then again, he was also extremely active for his age. Maybe his metabolism had something to do with his extraordinary health.
Spier led them along, past the part of the coral reef where she’d met the shark. Annja was surprised. I thought we’d start with exploring this part of the reef, she thought.
She glanced at Hans, but he didn’t seem to notice.
Annja poked him and he turned. Annja gave him an inquisitive look but he only winked and then pointed for Annja to follow Spier’s lead.
What was going on here?
Annja kicked her legs, pleased that her head hadn’t started aching once she’d descended. The last thing she wanted was to prove Dr. Tiko right by coming back ashore with a worse headache than how she’d shown up yesterday.
But she felt good. Powerful.
She smiled, tasted the salt water and spat it out around her mouthpiece.
Hans swam ahead of her and Annja churned her legs to catch up. They had gone past a school of surgeonfish and Annja spotted a sea turtle lingering nearby, its hooked beak giving it the appearance of an odd-shaped nose.
Annja felt a lot better seeing it. If the sea turtle was around, the chances of spotting another tiger shark seemed even more remote. Tiger sharks loved to eat sea turtles and their teeth were especially suited for cracking the shells to get to the rich meat inside.
Spier led them farther along the reef and then hovered in the depth of the water. He turned and gestured for Annja to come closer. Annja kicked and moved over to where he floated.
Spier pointed at the area of the reef Annja hadn’t had the chance to explore yesterday. She swam down and looked at the conical-shaped coral.
The formation was very strange.
From her past diving trips, Annja knew that shapes like that didn’t appear naturally.
But if it wasn’t natural, then what was it?
She looked at Spier and gave him a quizzical look. He nodded and pointed to another area. Annja glanced around. Heinkel and Mueller had already branched off from the team and were exploring on the other side of the reef. She looked at Hans and he pointed in the same direction that Spier had.
So we’re going to split up, Annja thought. All right, then.
She swam over to Hans and they glided along the base of the reef, careful to avoid any dark holes that might conceal more moray eels. A reef shark swam lazily by, barely even glancing at them.
Hans looked at Annja as if to make sure she was okay being that close to a shark. She gave him a thumbs-up and he nodded. They continued swimming.
Finally, Hans had them stop near the edge of the reef. Looking up, Annja could see their boat some distance above. They’d gone down and then moved perhaps a half mile farther away, running the length of the reef.
From where she floated, Annja could make out the drop-off where the reef gave way to much deeper, darker water.
Were they on the edge of some sort of atoll? She frowned. Yesterday it hadn’t seemed like the reef stretched on for such a distance, and yet here they were.
Hans started exploring the base of the reef and Annja followed. They poked and prodded the various outcroppings, but Annja couldn’t see anything that resembled the conical outcropping Spier had shown her a few minutes before.
Maybe this was a dead end?
Annja sighed. The problem with diving was the communication was very scant. You had a few hand signals and that was it unless you had speaking masks.
But Hans seemed unconcerned with the lack of communication and kept his survey going. Annja floated above and behind him, looking where he looked but also keeping her eyes peeled for anything of interest.
Gradually they worked their way around toward the back of the reef. The water there was much warmer. Annja thought she spotted another conical outcropping and she swam right for it.
Hans had to kick to catch up, but he saw what she was eyeing and followed her lead.
Annja came to rest floating in front of an encrusted piece of coral that seemed strangely symmetrical. She looked across and saw that there was another outcropping and she decided they were almost like miniature towers.
She ran her fingers down the edges of the towers and found small holes that appeared as though they’d been deliberately carved in the structure.
Annja’s mind raced. Hadn’t Spier said something about a long-lost civilization? Was this evidence that they existed? Or was this simply some sort of natural occurrence, as unlikely as that might have seemed?
She noticed Hans looking at the towers intently. When he glanced back at her, Annja gave him a shrug. I don’t know what it is, she wanted to say.
Hans removed his diving knife and pried away some of the built-up barnacles, trying to get a better look at the structure.
Annja watched as the mollusks came away in his hand. And there, underneath the buildup, Annja thought she saw something smooth.
She ran her hand over the exposed patch and almost shouted. It was as smooth as marble.
In fact, she thought it might well be marble.
But how? How could marble have developed under the sea?
Had this supposed city of the lost civilization slipped into the ocean for some reason? Had an earthquake opened up the ground and tossed them into the seas?
Annja shook her head. Whatever this was, she needed more answers than she could find just floating in the ocean.
Hans was making notes with his grease pencil on an underwater clipboard. He’s mapping the area, she decided. This must be along the lines of what Spier was searching for.
Hans looked up and nodded at her as if they’d managed to find something of importance. But Annja wasn’t sure what they’d found. What she really wanted was to get to her computer and do some research.
Maybe she could talk to some locals and see what they knew about this supposed lost civilization.
There was probably nothing to it. But Spier certainly believed there was. Annja wondered if the story of the pearl might not hold some other purpose for Spier. He was eighty and seemed to be fighting his growing age with a tenacity that defied the aging process.
Did he think the pearl would help him stave off his inevitable death?
It was possible, she supposed. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d run into crazy people who thought that immortality was worth whatever price you had to pay to try to achieve it.
Annja glanced at her oxygen gauge. They’d been underwater for almost forty minutes and would have to surface soon.
Hans seemed to read her mind and pointed back the way they’d come. Annja followed him. They left the warmer waters and Annja shivered slightly as she breached the cooler waters where the reef dropped off.
She glanced to her side, thinking about how close she’d come to being devoured by the tiger shark yesterday. Out there in the deep waters, they ruled the roost.
Hans pointed ahead and Annja saw the rest of the team had reassembled back at their entry point.
Time to surface.
Annja checked her depth gauge and saw she’d have to rise slowly. She’d gone deeper than she had yesterday and would need extra time to reduce the danger of the bends.
Mueller and Heinkel went up first. Annja watched them slowly rise toward the surface. Spier and Gottlieb went up next and then Hans and Annja started their ascent.
Annja watched her air bubbles.
Hans watched her as they rose together, his eyes locked on hers.
Annja tried to grin at him, but she tasted more salt water and gave up trying. There’d be enough to talk about once they got back onto the boat.
Sunlight filtered down through the waves and Annja could feel its warmth even ten feet below the surface. A few small fish rose to investigate her, but then quickly scattered when Hans moved his hands in the water.
Annja kept her eyes always moving. She could taste the last third of her oxygen now. It was stale in her mouth.
Spier had timed his exploration perfectly.
Annja broke the surface a few minutes later and saw that dark, angry clouds blotted the horizon.
The sloop bobbed in the waves nearby. Mueller and Heinkel were already aboard, with Spier and Gottlieb closing in on the sloop.
Hans came up next to her. “You all right?”
Hans noticed the clouds. “Looks like things are going to go downhill from here, don’t they?”
“Definitely going to rain. Hard.”
Hans nodded. “So, it will be a good afternoon for a hearty lunch and then perhaps a nap.”
“A nap?” Annja asked.
He winked. “I’m a growing boy. I need my rest.”
She pushed him toward the sloop. “Let’s get aboard.”
She swam over to the sloop and Hans helped her climb up. Heinkel took her oxygen tank and weight belt. Gottlieb handed her a towel and Annja rubbed it over her hair.
Spier smiled at her. “So, Annja, what did you think of our first dive?”
“It was bigger than I imagined. I thought it was just like any other reef when I started to explore it yesterday.”
Spier laughed. “Hardly. Although I’m not surprised you were drawn to it. It’s intriguing, isn’t it?”
“You could say that.”
“So, are you convinced?”
“That the reef is, in fact, the remnants of a lost city.”
“How can you be so sure?” Annja asked as the sloop whisked them back toward the Club Noah resort. “Those ruins might be something else entirely. There’s no record of the civilization ever existing.”
“But the pearl had to come from somewhere, didn’t it?” Spier’s eyes sparkled in the fading sunlight.
Annja glanced to the west and saw the clouds growing darker. They’d be lucky to get back to the dock before the sky opened up on them. Already, the waves they bounced over were churning white as the wind kicked up.
“We don’t have the pearl yet,” Annja said. “So, there’s no way of knowing for sure where it might have come from.”
Spier smiled as if he were humoring a child. “I think we’ll be able to convince you more fully on our next dive.”
Hans frowned. “That likely won’t happen until tomorrow. Judging from the approaching storm, it’s going to be quite unsettled for a while.”
Spier shrugged. “We could always go night diving tonight once the storm clouds pass.”
“A night dive?” Annja frowned. She hadn’t gone night diving in a very long time. The risks of diving at night were always so much more than during the day. For one thing, visibility was almost nonexistent unless you had state-of-the-art lights.
“We’ll be fine,” Spier said, as if reading her thoughts. “We’re all experienced night divers and Heinkel here has brought along the powerful lamps we’ll need to set up on the reef.”
“You think the dive master will let us take his boat and gear out for a night dive? He strikes me as rather easily upset,” Annja said.
Hans laughed. “A few well-placed dollars should suffice.”
Spier shrugged. “Why not? At least this way we know we’ll be able to get what we came here for.”
“And what did you come here for?” Annja asked. “I mean, I know you want the pearl and all, but for what purpose?”
“I thought I told you last night,” Spier said. “I wish to have the scientific community take a look at it. Examine it. Discover the true nature of the pearl and what its powers might be.”
“Maybe it’s just a black stone,” Annja said. “Without any powers whatsoever.”
“That would be regrettable,” Spier said. “To have traveled all this way only to find out such a thing. Tragic.”
Annja felt a few raindrops hit her face and looked up. The sun had vanished, replaced by the boiling cloud mass above them. Dark streaks mixed with gray, swirling about like steam from some evil black-magic cauldron.
“I think we’re about to get—”
Annja never finished her sentence because at that moment a crack of lightning flashed above them, followed by a rumble of thunder.
A deluge of rain flowed down over them in sheets of tepid water. Mueller guided the sloop to the resort’s dock and they scrambled ashore, grabbing their gear and making for the dive master’s shack.
He seemed genuinely glad to see them and took all the equipment back. Spier smiled at him. “You’ll refill those tanks right away, won’t you?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because we’ll need them again later tonight.”
“Later? This storm isn’t going to let up anytime soon. You’d be foolish to go venturing out in this.”
“We won’t,” Spier said. “But we will once it passes.”
“That could be midnight.”
“So it might be midnight.” Spier held out his hand and, while the team looked away, Annja saw the dive master pocket the sheaf of bills Spier passed him.
Money certainly doesn’t seem to be an issue for Spier, she thought. I wonder where he gets it all.
It occurred to her that she knew very little about Spier or his team. Aside from Hans.
She smiled. She knew a lot about him already.
“You all right, Annja?”
She looked up and saw Hans eyeing her. She smiled at him. “I’m fine. Just a bit tired, is all.”
“What about lunch? You could do with a meal,” Spier said. “I suspect we all could before indulging in a little siesta.”
Annja hadn’t thought about food, but the suggestion of it made her stomach rumble. “I could eat.”
They ran from the dive master’s shack to the main pavilion. Strong gale-force winds lashed at the pavilion but aside from the tables set near the open-air walls, the rest of the area stayed nice and dry. Annja supposed that they knew how bad the weather could get and the resort had been designed accordingly.
There was something rather cool about eating in the midst of a torrential downpour, anyway. She dined on some fresh crab-and-lobster-meat salad, drank some of the fresh mango juice and watched as Spier and his team compared notes on the morning’s dive.
“You saw those conical outcroppings, Annja?” Spier asked after a few moments.
“And yet you refuse to believe they indicate the existence of a lost civilization?”
She smiled. “Forgive me for saying so, Joachim, but a few conical outcroppings do not a lost civilization make.”
“Well, they don’t refute its existence, either.”
“Granted, but I’d like to know a bit more about what we’re supposed to be hunting for here.”
“Like what civilization this is supposed to be, exactly.”
Spier paused and took a bite of his sandwich. “You’ve no doubt heard of Atlantis.”
“The legend of a prehistoric earth inhabited by technologically advanced races, that sort of thing.” Spier shrugged. “It’s nothing new, of course. But the conventional thinking has always maintained that Atlantis must have been located in either the Mediterranean or the Atlantic.”
“But you don’t believe that?”
Spier wiped his mouth. “It’s not that I don’t believe it, it’s just that I’m not interested in Atlantis.”
“But I am interested in the other civilizations that were reported to have existed at the same time. Lemuria and Mu.”
Annja frowned. “Most people think that they were one and the same.”
Spier shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think there were three centers of innovation on prehistoric earth—that is, the earth that existed prior to a massive cataclysm that wiped out the races and the evidence that they ever existed.”
“So you think that Lemuria or Mu is the civilization the pearl comes from?”
“I’m fairly convinced of it.”
“But what evidence do you have?”
Spier shrugged. “It’s not evidence that I need in order to believe. I need faith first. If I am then able to locate evidence, then all will be well.”
Annja sighed. She wasn’t going to be able to argue with Spier about how utterly unscientific an approach that was. She’d met people like him before. They got an idea in their heads and there was no way of prying that idea loose unless you could shock them into seeing reality. With Spier, she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to do that.
Not that there was any harm in his believing the pearl might come from a lost civilization. Annja was game enough to go along with the expedition for as long as it took. And there was something intriguing about the conical structures on the reef.
“I scraped away some of the growth and what was underneath was truly amazing,” Hans said suddenly.
Annja had almost forgotten about that. “Marble,” she heard herself saying. “It looked and felt like marble.”
Hans nodded. “I agree.”
Spier’s smile widened. “Very interesting.”
Annja looked at him. “I wouldn’t say that necessarily supports your idea of the reef being evidence of a lost civilization, however.”
“Yet marble does not occur naturally underwater,” Spier said. “Surely you’d concede that point?”
“So, it must have gotten there somehow.”
“Yes, but it could have been anything. An earthquake, a terrible storm.”
“I don’t think the Moros or other early Filipinos used marble,” Spier said. “I don’t believe it’s even indigenous to the local geography.”
Annja frowned. She’d need to look that up. If it was true, then that might be another point in Spier’s favor, but she wouldn’t jump to conclusions before she had a chance to check things out for herself.
“I can look into it,” she said.
Spier nodded. “That would be good, I think.” He pushed back away from the table. “All in all, I think we had a fruitful dive today. And when we continue, I’m certain we’ll find even more spectacular things.”
Gottlieb spoke up. “Are we going back tonight?”
“Depends on the storm,” Spier said. “If we can escape the weather, I should think a nighttime dive would prove most exciting.” He glanced at Annja. “Are you interested in coming along?”
Annja smiled. “You’ll still have me along?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Annja shrugged. “I haven’t exactly drunk the Kool-Aid, yet.”
Spier’s eyes narrowed as he processed the reference, and then he smiled. “Ah, yes, well, no worries. I don’t like people who automatically believe everything they’re told, anyway. I find your skepticism refreshing actually. It will help keep us all honest, I suspect.”
Annja smiled. “Glad to help.”
Spier nodded. “And of course you’re welcome to join us. I would miss your presence if you were not with us.”
“As would I,” Hans said quietly.
She smiled at him. “All right, then. I may take the afternoon and see if I can pull anything up on my computer about some of the things we’ve discussed.”
Spier shrugged. “As you wish. I doubt you’ll find anything that would put us off our quest, however. My faith is, as is the faith of my team, very strong.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Annja said. “But until such time as I have faith of my own, I’ll stick to facts.”
Spier smiled. “We’ll see you later, then.”
He walked out into the pouring rain and quickly disappeared from view. The rest of the team dissolved into smaller conversations in quiet German that Annja could barely make out.
Hans seemed happy to simply sit close by. “Still feeling well?”
Annja nodded. “Totally. No problems at all. Just a bit tired.”
Hans smiled. “Nothing like an afternoon nap to restore your energy.”
Annja winked. “I suppose that would depend on exactly what the nap entails, wouldn’t it?”
Hans leaned back. “I am a true believer in the power of a siesta.”
“And what about an afternoon delight?”
Annja sighed. “Never mind. If I have to explain it, then it’s already lost its appeal.”
Hans narrowed his eyes, but after a moment he grinned. “Ah…I think I understand now.”
“I suppose there would be only one way to find out for sure.”
Annja grinned. “A fact-finding mission?”
Hans shrugged. “Reconnaissance.”
Annja nodded. “Recon works for me.”
Annja stood and yawned. “Guess I’ll grab a nap.”
She walked out into the pouring rain.
When Annja woke a few hours later, rain continued to pelt the cabana. She’d left the veranda open again, welcoming the gusting winds. She looked out from the bed and watched as the waves battled one another beneath the dark clouds.
A quick glance at her watch told her that it was after five in the evening. Presumably, dinner would be served soon in the main pavilion. But before she ate another meal, Annja wanted to do some research.
She eased herself out from under Hans’s arm. He shifted, mumbling in his sleep. Annja looked down at him and smiled. He was handsome even with his eyes closed.
She took a quick shower and dressed, then eased out the door, running softly down the main path toward the administration building. She could have used her own computer, of course, but she wanted a little privacy, and since she had a guest with her, it seemed a better idea to do this without Hans looking over her shoulder.
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- Жанр: Героическое фэнтези, Зарубежное фэнтези, Зарубежные приключения, Книги о приключениях, Фэнтези про драконов
- Язык: Книги на английском языке
- Объём: 290 стр. 1 иллюстрация
- ISBN: 9781472085788
- Дата выхода книги: 13 мая 2019
- Версия: 📚 Электронная книга
Men would do anything for it…but one woman will determine its fateSteeped in legend, the Pearl of Palawan has a history marked by destruction, vengeance and love. But more important, the mythical black pearl is rumored to grant a power long coveted by mankind–immortality. It is a power men would risk dying to achieve.Sun, sand and scuba diving in the Philippines certainly sounded like an ideal vacation. But after a way-too-close-for-comfort encounter with a tiger shark, archaeologist Annja Creed finds herself drawn into a group of German divers. They are treasure hunters searching for the fabled pearl. Out of curiosity, Annja accompanies them. But when an old friend of hers turns up unexpectedly, she finds herself torn between her past and new acquaintances.The race is on to possess the pearl. But no one realizes the true nature of the artifact, or the danger it poses to them all.
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