Anja’s knee kissed gravel as she leaned her motorcycle into the turn at speed. The demons in her head sniggered at the prospect of her sudden demise, as rocks kicked up by the front tire pelted her riding leathers and bounced off her goggles. The edge of her rear tire scraped the dirt road’s precipice. Pebbles rolled down the cliff into the fog-shrouded jungle far below. Around the bend, she straightened her stance and twisted open the throttle.
Ahead, beyond drifting veils of mist, her prey accelerated and widened his lead. Anja’s 1953 Vincent Black Shadow had been touted by its maker as the fastest motorcycle in the world, but that didn’t matter much on Bolivia’s infamous Death Road. The one-lane dirt trail snaked along a mountainside covered in tropical forest. Waterfalls often manifested without warning and filled the road with lakes of mud, and the jungle below was said to have been blanketed with fog since before mankind first arrived in South America.
Condensation clouded the bike’s gauges. Anja had to trust her feel for the Black Shadow as she pushed it hard through an S-turn, and she prayed for a straightaway on the other side so that she could close the gap between her and her escaping Nazi target.
Bullets zinged past her right shoulder. Bark exploded from slender tree trunks. Stones leapt from the muddy earth and tumbled into the road behind Anja.
She glanced at her right mirror. A line of four motorcycles—souped-up BMW touring bikes, the same kind as the one she was chasing—were pursuing her.
They knew I would hunt him, Anja realized. This is a trap.
The quartet was closing in. They were only seconds behind her now.
Anja berated herself for getting careless. She shifted her weight with the direction of the next curve and got so low that she felt the road grind against the side of her leg. More bullets ripped past above her and vanished into the mist. Swinging into the back of the S-turn, she plucked her last grenade from her bandolier. She squeezed its shoe in her left hand. “DANOCHAR,” she said to her invisible demonic porter, “take the grenade’s safety pin—and only the pin.” In a blink, the safety pin vanished.
She let the grenade fall from her hand onto the foggy road.
After she rounded the next turn she heard the explosion—coupled with the screams of riders caught in the blast or thrown with their broken bikes into the haze-masked treetops far below. Men and machines crashed through branches with cracks like gunshots. Then there was only silence on the road behind her.
Ahead of her, the man she had come to kill fought to extend his lead.
The roar of the wind and the growl of the Black Shadow bled together as Anja pushed the British-made motorcycle to its limits. The bike cleaved its way across a deep puddle. Anja used what mass she had to pull her bike around a close pair of perilous turns, and then she bladed through a wall of fog to see a straight patch of road with her prey in the middle of it.
She gunned the throttle and ducked low to reduce her wind resistance. Her long sable hair whipped in the wind like serpents.
Just have to get close enough before he makes the next turn …
At last the Black Shadow lived up to its reputation. It felt like a rocket as it brought Anja to within five meters of the fleeing Nazi. She followed him through the next turn—then dodged toward the cliff wall on her right as he flung a hunting knife blindly over his shoulder. The blade soared past her head and then it was gone, out of mind.
Enough. I came for the kill, not the hunt.
Calling once more upon her yoked demonic arsenal, Anja conjured the spectral whip of VALEFOR. A flick of her wrist sent the massive bullwhip streaking ahead of her. Its barbed tip wrapped around the neck of her target, and Anja squeezed the Black Shadow’s brake lever.
Her bike skidded to a halt on the dirt road, and her whip went taut. It jerked the Nazi off his ride, which launched itself off the cliff into the gray murk between the trees. As the Nazi landed on his back, his bike vanished. From the impenetrable mists came the snaps of it crashing through heavy branches, a sound that made Anja think of a hammer breaking bones.
She shifted the Black Shadow’s engine into neutral, slowed its throttle to a rumbling purr, and then lowered its custom side stand. Her magickal whip remained coiled around her target’s neck as she prowled forward to lord her victory over him.
A jerk of the whip focused his attention on her. “You are Herr König, yes?”
He spat at her. “You’re the Jungle Witch.”
It amused her that the Nazis whom she had spent the better part of a decade hunting throughout South America had somehow mistaken her for a local. The error was forgivable, she supposed; her prolonged exposure to the sun and weather had tanned her once-pale skin, effectively masking her Russian heritage. She drew her hunting knife from its belt sheath and leaned down. “Move and I’ll cut your throat.”
He remained still, no doubt in part because the demon’s whip was still coiled around his throat. The strap of the man’s leather satchel crossed his torso on a diagonal. She sliced through it near its top, above his shoulder and close enough to his throat to keep him cowed.
“Don’t move,” Anja said. With a spiral motion of her hand, she commanded VALEFOR’s whip to bind the German fugitive war criminal at his wrists and ankles. Certain he was restrained, she picked up his satchel and pawed through its contents. Most of it was exactly what she had expected to find: extra magazines for the man’s Luger, which was still in its holster on his right hip; a few wads of cash in different currencies, all of which she pocketed. She shook the bag upside down. From it fell an ivory pipe, a bag of tobacco, a pencil, an assortment of nearly worthless coins, and a battered old compass. The bag appeared to be emptied, but it still felt heavy to Anja. She muttered, “What are you hiding in here?”
With her hands she searched the interior of the satchel. She found hidden pouches concealed under large flaps. Her prisoner squirmed on the ground as she untied the laces of the flaps. One pouch contained what looked like assorted resources of the Art. From the satchel’s other clandestine pouch she pulled a leather-bound journal. “Well,” she said, flipping open the book to peruse its handwritten contents, “this is interesting.” The few full words and sentences it contained were scribbled in German, but her yoked spirit LIOBOR made it possible for Anja to read any human language with ease. Unfortunately, the spirit was of no help when it came to parsing the acronyms and abbreviations that littered most of the pages.
She showed the open journal to her prisoner. “Explain your acronyms.”
“Burn in Hell, witch.”
“In time, yes.” She flipped another page and admired its high-quality linen paper. “I know your Thule Society dabblers have re-formed under the name Black Sun, as a nod to Herr Himmler. But what is Odessa? Is that your network here in South America? The one that brought you all to Argentina when the war ended?”
He maintained his silence as a faint growl of motorcycle engines echoed in the distance.
It was evident to Anja that Herr König was not going to provide any useful intelligence. At least, not in the limited time she had remaining before more of his cohorts arrived. Normally she would not have feared a confrontation with his ilk, but she had been holding yoked demons for too long. Her headaches had worsened and become nearly constant in the past week, and she feared increasing her morphine dosage past what she knew to be a safe measure. Soon she would need to release most of her yoked demons, spend a week recovering her strength, and then yoke them or other spirits all over again. It was time for her to fall back and plan her next move.
But first she needed to address the problem of Herr König.
A flourish of her left hand released him from the demonic whip. Free but still on his knees, König smirked at Anja. “We’ll find you, Jungle Witch.”
“Your minions will try. But before I send you to Hell, I want you to know my name.” She made a fist with her right hand, and the unholy talent of XENOCH racked the Nazi with torments worse than the human imagination could conceive. She raised his body off the ground with the telekinesis of BAEL and savored his contorted expression of agony. “My name is Anja Kernova.” She flung him high into the air as if he weighed nothing, and as he plummeted toward the jungle she blasted him in midfall with a fireball courtesy of HABORYM. His burning corpse vanished through the fog and jungle canopy and was swallowed by shadows.
Eerie silence settled over the valley. Anja took a moment to enjoy the solitude. Rugged mountains towered around her, but the jungle’s misty atmosphere had imbued them all with the quality of fading memories.
Then she heard far-off motorcycles drawing closer.
She tucked the Odessa journal inside her jacket and got on her bike. The Black Shadow rumbled as she shifted it into gear, and she sped south, Hell’s dark rider alone on Death’s Road.
* * *
Like most gentlemen’s clubs in metropolitan London, The Eddington was defined by its subdued ambience. Its interior looked as if it had been hewn from the finest mahogany and black marble, and the only things in the main hall older than the leather on its chairs were its founding members’ portraits, which lined the walls and looked down with perpetual disdain on those who had been cursed with the misfortune of being born after the Industrial Revolution.
Tucked in a semiprivate anteroom, Dragan Dalca stood to greet his three smartly attired guests as they were ushered into his company by The Eddington’s chief steward, Mr. Harris.
“Gentlemen.” Harris gestured toward Dragan. “Your host, Mr. Dalca.”
“Thank you, Harris.” Dragan gestured toward the open seats around his table. “Please, have a seat.” Noting an unspoken prompt by Harris, Dragan said to the three briefcase-toting businessmen, “You must be parched. What can we bring you?”
“Gordon’s martini,” said the Frenchman. “Dry as the Gobi.” Harris nodded.
The American asked, “Do you have bourbon?”
Harris tried not to look put out. “I’m afraid not, sir. Can I offer you scotch whisky?”
“A double of The Macallan Twenty-five,” the American said.
Harris approved the order with a nod, then looked at the Russian. “Sir?”
Dragan caught Harris’s eye. “Double vodka, rocks.”
In unison, the businessmen tucked their briefcases under the table.
Harris stepped back, pulled closed the anteroom’s thick maroon curtain to give the men some privacy, and departed to fill the drink order, leaving Dragan alone at last with his guests. The trio greeted Dragan with faltering smiles. The Frenchman was the first to speak. “Your message implied this meeting would be private.”
“I disagree,” Dragan said. “And I am not responsible for your inferences.”
The ever-present voice nagged Dragan from behind his thoughts: «Get on with it.»
Dragan settled into his high-backed chair and folded his hands together. “The three of you are here because I’ve promised to raise your stock prices and market shares.”
“We know what you promised,” the American said, his impatience festering. “Now we want details.” The Frenchman and the Russian nodded at their peer’s declaration.
«Skip the small talk,» needled the voice in Dragan’s psyche.
Stay quiet and let me do this. Dragan sat forward and plastered an insincere smile onto his face. “You three represent aircraft manufacturing companies that recently have fallen behind in the race to secure clients on the international market. And I’m sure you all know why.”
“Those pricks at de Havilland,” groused the American.
The Frenchman nodded. “Indeed. The Comet 1, to be precise.”
“It is the only thing my clients talk about,” the Russian said. “They overlook its weaknesses and see nothing but its jet engines. ‘This is the future,’ they tell me.”
“And it is,” Dragan said. “Unchecked, de Havilland will dominate the market for at least another decade, if not longer. Assuming, of course, that nothing … unfortunate happens.”
This time his unsubtle implication drew raised eyebrows from his guests. The Russian leaned forward. “What sort of misfortune could derail such potential?”
Dragan reached inside his jacket and pulled out a slender gold cigarette case. He opened it, plucked out a Gauloises, and lit it with a match stroked against the table’s edge. Waving out the match’s flame, he took a deep pull of the rich Turkish tobacco, and then he exhaled through his nostrils. “If you gentlemen are interested in reversing de Havilland’s fortunes and improving your own, it might interest you to know that the Comet 1, despite its early success, is plagued by two fatal flaws, both of which de Havilland has worked hard to conceal.”
This revelation stoked the American’s interest. “What sort of flaws?”
“Let it suffice to say that one is a matter of engineering, the other of materials. Together, they could be exploited to undermine de Havilland’s position in the marketplace.”
Skepticism infused the Frenchman’s mood. “And you know this … how?”
“A pair of incidents,” Dragan said. “Last March, a Comet 1A crashed during takeoff from Karachi Airport. The flacks at de Havilland blamed it on pilot error—”
The Russian cut in, “The Canadian Pacific Air accident?”
“Yes,” Dragan said. “Just under two months later, another Comet 1 crashed, just minutes after takeoff from Calcutta. All six crew and thirty-seven passengers were killed.”
“I read that report,” the American said. “It blamed the crash on a thundersquall.”
Dragan shrugged. “I don’t deny the storm was a factor. But it was not the cause. Sooner or later, a Comet 1 will experience an in-flight disaster that it can’t blame on pilots or weather.” He goaded them with a sly smirk. “Sooner, I hope, for your employers’ sakes.”
The Frenchman sharpened his focus, clearly intrigued. “So what has this to do—”
The curtain opened, revealing Harris. Balanced on one hand was a tray bearing the men’s drinks. As he passed out the libations, he said discreetly to Dragan, “Phone call for you, sir.”
“Thank you, Harris.” Dragan stood and offered his guests an apologetic smile. “Forgive me, gentlemen. I shall return promptly.” The others excused him with polite nods.
Dragan crossed the main hall at a quick but dignified pace. Just before he reached the concierge’s desk, he caught his reflection in the glass door of a trophy case and paused to push his black hair back into place and to smooth a few rogue whiskers back into his thin mustache. Then he accepted the phone’s receiver handset from the concierge, and he stretched its cord around a corner into the coatroom so that he could take his call with a modicum of privacy.
Knowing that only one person on earth knew to reach him at The Eddington, he snarled, “What is it, Müller?”
“I apologize for the interruption,” replied Heinrich Müller, sounding nothing at all like the man who just a decade earlier had been the commandant of Hitler’s feared Gestapo, “but there’s news out of Bolivia.”
Hope swelled inside Dragan, the product of unjustified optimism. “She took the bait?”
“Yes. Well, no. Not exactly.” Müller’s tone was heavy with shame. “You were right, she was watching the roads to La Paz. But she didn’t fall for the decoy.”
“If she didn’t go after the decoy, how do you know she—” Realization struck Dragan like a hot shower turning ice-cold without warning. “What happened? What went wrong?”
Müller breathed a leaden sigh. “König and his guards. She took them all on the Death Road.” After a pause gravid with shame, he added, “And she captured his journal.”
Profanities logjammed in Dragan’s mouth, the flood of invective too great for him to give it voice. He knew not to make a spectacle of himself inside The Eddington. Instead he clenched a fist and counted to five while drawing deep breaths.
His irritating inner voice was not so considerate.
«This is a disaster. Contain this, now!»
Silence! I will handle it.
“Müller,” he said at last, “round up everyone we can spare, and bring them to La Paz. Find the woman as soon as possible. Take her alive if you can, but your chief priority—”
“Is to recover the book,” Müller said. “I remember, sir.”
“See that you do. If you or your men kill Anja Kernova before we find that book, I’ll bury your body so deep the Devil himself couldn’t find it.”
Müller was still mouthing hollow assurances as Dragan handed the receiver back to the concierge, who set it back onto the phone’s cradle behind his podium.
Twenty-one steps back to the anteroom, Dragan told himself. Breathe and put your smile back on before you step through that curtain.
Low chatter filled the space between his guests as he sidled back into his chair. “Thank you for your patience, gentlemen. I asked you each to bring the first half of my fee, as a retainer. And I brought you here together because I want to make sure that all of you who stand to benefit pay your fair share—I won’t tolerate freeloaders. You all pay, or the deal is off.”
“And what are we paying for?” asked the Russian.
“To inflict a very public setback on your most dominant competitor. One that will ruin it, and for which it will take all the blame.”
The American turned cagy. “And when might such an event take place?”
“Midafternoon, the day after tomorrow. In Rome.”
Wary looks of conspiratorial intent were exchanged among the guests at Dragan’s table. The Russian nodded. “That would be a most valuable twist of fate.”
“And now you know why my fee is so high,” Dragan said. “My terms are simple. Half your payment up front, in cash. The remaining half will be due upon delivery of my promise. If I fail to deliver, your deposits will be returned in full, without question.” He steepled his fingers and leaned forward. “But in case any of you might be thinking you can renege on the second half of your payment, know this: I have never been bilked, nor will I be. Do you all understand me?”
Fearful nods confirmed that his guests knew that his threats were not idle ones.
“Splendid. Thank you for coming. I’ll look forward to seeing you all again on the eleventh.”
The businessmen downed their drinks with steep tilts of their glasses, and then they rose from the table to beat a quiet retreat through the main hall and then out the front door.
Dragan stole a look through the table and inside the briefcases, using RAUM’s gift of the Sight. He was gratified to see that each briefcase was packed full of cash—American dollars, French francs, and Russian rubles, respectively.
He sipped his vodka, and then he beckoned the steward.
The dignified, middle-aged Englishman arrived at his table. “Sir?”
“The cases under my table,” Dragan said. “Please see them to Mr. Holcombe, and tell him I want the entire sum invested in short sales of de Havilland stock.”
“I shall see to it at once, Mr. Dalca.”
“Thank you, Harris.”
Dragan enjoyed the enveloping silence of the club while Harris and a member of his staff toted the briefcases full of cash to the waiting hands of Dragan’s broker.
Twenty-four hours from now, I’m going to be a very wealthy man, he mused. All I need to do now is get the book from that Russian bitch … and then justice will be done.
Copyright © 2018 by David Mack