Former Justice Department operative Cotton Malone has received an anonymous note carrying an unfamiliar Web address. Logging on, he’s shocked to see Cassiopeia Vitt, a woman who’s saved his life more than once, being tortured at the hands of a mysterious man who has a single demand: Bring me the artifact she’s asked you to keep safe. The only problem is, Malone doesn’t have a clue what the man is talking about, since Cassiopeia has left nothing with him. So begins Malone’s most harrowing adventure to date—one that offers up astounding historical revelations, pits him against a ruthless ancient brotherhood, and sends him from Denmark to Belgium to Vietnam then on to one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world: the tomb of China’s First Emperor, guarded by an underground army of terra-cotta warriors, which has inexplicably remained sealed for more than two thousand years—its mysteries about to be revealed.
BONUS: This edition contains a Cotton Malone Dossier, an excerpt from Steve Berry's The Columbus Affair, and a short story by Steve Berry, The Balkan Escape.
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About the Author
History lies at the heart of every Steve Berry novel. It’s this passion, one he shares with his wife, Elizabeth, that led them to create History Matters, a foundation dedicated to historic preservation. Since 2009 Steve and Elizabeth have traveled across the country to save endangered historic treasures, raising money via lectures, receptions, galas, luncheons, dinners, and their popular writers’ workshops. To date, nearly 2,500 students have attended those workshops. In 2012 their work was recognized by the American Library Association, which named Steve the first spokesman for National Preservation Week. He was also appointed by the Smithsonian Board of Regents to serve on the Smithsonian Libraries Advisory Board to help promote and support the libraries in their mission to provide information in all forms to scientists, curators, scholars, students, and the public at large. He has received the Royden B. Davis Distinguished Author Award and the 2013 Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers. His novel The Columbus Affair earned him the Anne Frank Human Writes Award, and his historic preservation work merited the 2013 Silver Bullet from International Thriller Writers.
Steve Berry was born and raised in Georgia, graduating from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University. He was a trial lawyer for 30 years and held elective office for 14 of those years. He is a founding member of International Thriller Writers—a group of more than 2,600 thriller writers from around the world—and served three years as its co-president.
For more information, visit www.steveberry.org.
Read an Excerpt
tuesday, may 15
Cotton Malone typed the Web address with trembling fingers. Like a phone that rings in the middle of the night, nothing about an anonymous message was ever good.
The note had arrived two hours ago, while he'd been out of his bookshop on an errand, but the employee who'd accepted the unmarked envelope forgot to give it to him until a few minutes ago.
"The woman didn't say it was urgent," she said in her defense.
"Chinese lady, dressed in a gorgeous Burberry skirt. She said to give it only to you."
"She used my name?"
Inside had been a folded sheet of gray vellum upon which was printed a Web address with a dot-org suffix. He'd immediately climbed the four flights of stairs to his apartment above the bookshop and found his laptop.
He finished typing and waited while the screen blackened, then a new image appeared. A video display console indicated that a live feed was about to engage.
The communications link established.
A body appeared, lying on its back, arms above the head, ankles and wrists bound tight to what looked like a sheet of plywood. The person was angled so that the head was slightly beneath the feet. A towel wrapped the face, but it was clear the bound form was a woman.
"Mr. Malone." The voice was electronically altered, disguising every attribute of pitch and tone. "We've been waiting. Not in much of a hurry, are you? I have something for you to see."
A hooded figure appeared on the screen, holding a plastic bucket. He watched as water was poured onto the towel that wrapped the bound woman's face. Her body writhed as she struggled with her restraints.
He knew what was happening.
The liquid penetrated the towel and flowed unrestricted into her mouth and nose. At first a few gulps of air could be stolen-the throat constricted, inhaling little of the water-but that could be maintained only for a few seconds. Then the body's natural gag reflex would kick in and all control would be lost. The head was angled downward so gravity could prolong the agony. It was like drowning without ever being submerged.
The man stopped pouring.
The woman continued to struggle with her restraints.
The technique dated back to the Inquisition. Highly favored since it left no marks, its main drawback was harshness-so intense that the victim would immediately admit to anything. Malone had actually experienced it once, years ago, while training to become a Magellan Billet agent. All recruits had to take their turn as part of survival school. His agony had been amplified by his dislike of confinement. The bondage, combined with the soaked towel, had created an unbearable claustrophobia. He recalled the public debate a few years ago as to whether waterboarding was torture.
Damn right it was.
"Here's the purpose of my contact," the voice said.
The camera zoomed tight on the towel wrapping the woman's face. A hand entered the frame and wrenched the soaked cloth away, revealing Cassiopeia Vitt.
"Oh, no," Malone muttered.
Darts of fear pierced his skin. A light-headedness overtook him.
This can't be happening.
She blinked water from her eyes, spit more from her mouth, and gained her breath. "Don't give them a damn thing, Cotton. Nothing."
The soaked towel was slapped back across her face.
"That would not be smart," the computerized voice said. "Certainly not for her."
"Can you hear me?" he said into the laptop's microphone.
"Is this necessary?"
"For you? I believe so. You're a man to be respected. Former Justice Department agent. Highly trained."
"I'm a bookseller."
The voice chuckled. "Don't insult my intelligence, or risk her life any further. I want you to clearly understand what's at stake."
"And you need to understand that I can kill you."
"By then, Ms. Vitt will be dead. So let's stop with the bravado. I want what she gave you."
He saw Cassiopeia renew her struggle against the restraints, her head whipping from side to side beneath the towel.
"Give him nothing, Cotton. I mean it. I gave that to you for safekeeping. Don't give it up."
More water was poured. Her protests stopped as she fought to breathe.
"Bring the item to Tivoli Gardens, at two pm, just outside the Chinese pagoda. You'll be contacted. If you don't show-" The voice paused. "-I think you can imagine the consequences."
The connection was severed.
He sat back in the chair.
He hadn't seen Cassiopeia in more than a month. Hadn't spoken to her for two weeks. She'd said that she was headed out on a trip but, characteristically, offered no details. Their relationship was hardly one at all. Just an attraction that they both tacitly acknowledged. Strangely, Henrik Thorvaldsen's death had drawn them closer, and they'd spent a lot of time together in the weeks after their friend's funeral.
She was tough, smart, and gutsy.
He doubted if she'd ever experienced anything like that.
Seeing her on the screen tore at his gut. He suddenly realized that if anything happened to this woman his life would never be the same.
He had to find her.
But there was a problem.
She'd obviously been forced to do whatever was necessary in order to survive. This time, however, she may have bitten off more than she could ever chew.
She'd left nothing with him for safekeeping.
He had no clue what she, or her captor, was talking about.
Karl Tang assumed an expression that conveyed not
the slightest hint of what he was thinking. After nearly three decades of practice, he'd mastered the art.
"And why have you come this time?" the doctor asked him. She was an iron-faced, stiff-bodied woman with straight black hair, cut short in a proletarian style.
"Your anger toward me has not waned?"
"I have no hostility, Minister. You made it quite clear during your last visit that you are in charge, regardless of the fact that this is my facility."
He ignored her insulting tone. "And how is our patient?"
The First Infectious Disease Hospital, located just outside Chongqing, cared for nearly two thousand people afflicted with either tuberculosis or hepatitis. It was one of eight facilities scattered throughout the country, each a forbidding complex of gray brick surrounded by green fences, places where the contagious could be safely quarantined. But the security these hospitals enjoyed also made them ideal for the housing of any sick prisoners from the Chinese penal system.
Like Jin Zhao, who'd suffered a brain hemorrhage ten months ago.
"He's lying in his bed, as he's done since the first day he was brought here," the doctor said. "He clings to life. The damage is enormous. But-again, per your order-no treatment has been administered."
He knew she hated his usurpation of her authority. Gone were Mao's obedient "barefoot doctors," who, according to the official myth, had willingly lived among the masses and dutifully cared for the sick. And though she was the hospital's chief administrator, Tang was the national minister of science and technology, a member of the Central Committee, first vice premier of the Chinese Communist Party, and first vice president of the People's Republic of China-second in power only to the president and premier himself.
"As I made clear last time, Doctor," he said, "that was not my order, but the directive of the Central Committee, to which I, and you, owe absolute allegiance."
He voiced the words for the benefit of not only the foolish woman but also the three members of his staff and two captains from the People's Liberation Army who stood behind him. Each military man wore a crisp green uniform with the red star of the motherland emblazoned on his cap. One of them was surely an informant-reporting most likely to more than one benefactor-so he wanted any account to speak glowingly of him.
"Take us to the patient," he calmly commanded.
They walked down halls lined with lettuce-green plaster, cracked and lumpy, lighted by weak fluorescent fixtures. The floor was clean but yellowed from endless moppings. Nurses, their faces hidden by surgical masks, tended to patients clad in striped blue-and-white pajamas, some wearing brown robes, looking much like prisoners.
They entered another ward through a set of swinging metal doors. The room beyond was spacious, enough for a dozen or more patients, yet only one lay in a single bed beneath dingy white sheets.
The air stank.
"I see you left the linen alone," he said.
"You did order me to do so."
Another mark in his favor for the informant to report. Jin Zhao had been arrested ten months ago, but had suffered a hemorrhage during questioning. He was subsequently charged with treason and espionage, tried in a Beijing court, and convicted, all in absentia since he'd remained here, in a coma.
"He is just as you left him," the doctor said.
Beijing lay nearly a thousand kilometers to the east and he supposed that distance bolstered this woman's nerve. You may rob the Three Armies of their commander in chief, but you cannot deprive the humblest peasant of his opinion. More of Confucius' nonsense. Actually the government could, and this insolent bitch should heed that fact.
He motioned and one of the uniforms led her across the room.
He approached the bed.
The man lying prostrate was in his mid-sixties, his dirty hair long and unkempt, his emaciated frame and sunken cheeks reminiscent of those of a corpse. Bruises splotched his face and chest, while intravenous lines snaked from both arms. A ventilator fed air in and out of his lungs.
"Jin Zhao, you have been found guilty of treason against the People's Republic of China. You were afforded a trial, from which you lodged an appeal. I regret to inform you that the Supreme People's Court has approved your execution and denied your appeal."
"He can't hear a word you're saying," the doctor said from across the room.
He kept his eyes down on the bed. "Perhaps not, but the words must be spoken." He turned and faced her. "It is the law, and he is entitled to proper process."
"You tried him without him even being there," she blurted out. "You never heard a word he had to say."
"His representative was afforded the opportunity to present evidence."
The doctor shook her head in disgust, her face pale with hate. "Do you hear yourself? The representative never had the opportunity to even speak with Zhao. What evidence could possibly have been presented?"
He couldn't decide if the informant's eyes and ears belonged to one of his staff or one of the army captains. Hard to know anything for sure anymore. All he knew was that his report to the Central Committee would not be the only retelling, so he decided to make clear, "Are you sure? Not once has Zhao communicated anything?"
"He was beaten senseless. His brain is destroyed. He will never awaken from the coma. We keep him alive simply because you-no, excuse me, the Central Committee-ordered it."
He caught the disgust in the woman's eyes, something else he'd seen more and more of lately. Especially from women. Nearly the entire hospital staff-doctors and nurses-were women. They'd made great strides since Mao's Revolution, yet Tang still adhered to the adage his father had taught him. A man does not talk about affairs inside the home, and a woman does not talk about affairs outside.
This insignificant doctor, employed at a minor state-run hospital, was incapable of understanding the enormity of his challenge. Beijing ruled a land that stretched five thousand kilometers east to west and more than three thousand north to south. Much was uninhabitable mountains and desert, some of the most desolate regions in the world, only 10% of the country arable. Nearly one and a half billion people- more than America, Russia, and Europe combined. But only 60,000,000 were members of the Chinese Communist Party-less than 3% of the total. The doctor was a Party member, and had been for more than a decade. He'd checked. No way she could have risen to such a high managerial position otherwise. Only Party-membered, Han Chinese achieved such status. Hans were a huge majority of the population, the remaining small percentage spread across fifty-six minorities. The doctor's father was a prominent official in the local provincial government, a loyal Party member who'd participated in the 1949 Revolution and personally known both Mao and Deng Xiaoping.
Still, Tang needed to make clear, "Jin Zhao owed his loyalty to the People's government. He decided to aid our enemies-"
"What could a sixty-three-year-old geochemist have done to harm the People's government? Tell me, Minister. I want to know. What could he possibly do to us now?"
He checked his watch. A helicopter was waiting to fly him north.
"He was no spy," she said. "No traitor. What did he really do, Minister? What justifies beating a man until his brain bleeds?"
He had not the time to debate what had already been decided. The informant would seal this woman's fate. In a month she'd receive a transfer-despite her father's privileges-most likely sent thousands of kilometers west to the outer reaches, where problems were hidden away.
He turned toward the other uniform and motioned.
The captain removed his holstered sidearm, approached the bed, and fired one shot through Jin Zhao's forehead.
The body lurched, then went still.
The respirator continued to force air into dead lungs.
"Sentence has been carried out," Tang declared. "Duly witnessed by representatives of the People's government, the military-" He paused. "-and this facility's chief administrator."
He indicated that it was time to leave. The mess would be the doctor's to clean up.
He walked toward the doors.
"You just shot a helpless man," the doctor screamed. "Is this what our government has become?"
"You should be grateful," he said.
"That the government does not debit this facility's operating budget for the cost of the bullet."
And he left.
Malone left his bookshop and stepped out into Højbro Plads. The afternoon sky was cloudless, the Danish air comfortable. The Strøget- a chain of traffic-free streets, most lined with shops, cafés, restaurants, and museums-surged with commerce.
He'd solved the problem of what to bring by simply grabbing the first book off one of the shelves and stuffing it into an envelope. Cassiopeia had apparently opted to buy herself time by involving him. Not a bad play, except the ruse could only be stretched so far. He wished he knew what she was doing. Since last Christmas, between them, there'd been visits, a few meals here and there, phone calls, and e-mails. Most dealing with Thorvaldsen's death, which seemed to have hurt them both. He still couldn't believe his best friend was gone. Every day he expected the cagey old Dane to walk into the bookstore, ready for some lively conversation. He still harbored a deep regret that his friend had died thinking he'd been betrayed.
"You did what you had to in Paris," Cassiopeia told him. "I would have done the same."
"Henrik didn't see it that way."
"He wasn't perfect, Cotton. He sent himself into a spiral. He wasn't thinking and wouldn't listen. There was more at stake there than just his revenge. You had no choice."
Agent Interviewed: Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone
Status: Retired (on special assignment here)
Interview Location: Café Norden, Copenhagen, Denmark Subject: Recent incursion into the People’s Republic of China
Question 1: Your impressions of China?
Amazing. Here’s a culture that has been around for over 4000 years yet is still struggling to identify itself. An ancient place, and that old-world feel is still there, especially in the areas I visited. I learned that well over 50% of the world’s great inventions and innovations originated in China—things like printing, the zero, the compass, the stirrup, the abacus, the seismograph, the rudder, the parachute, and masts and sails. The list is long. But, because of the country’s isolation, and the tendency of one emperor to eradicate all vestiges of those who came before him, the Chinese literally forgot what they had accomplished. Can you imagine?
The country is incredibly varied in geography and culture, it stretches more than 3000 miles east to west, and it contains two of the world’s great deserts, the Gobi and Taklamakan, which I skirted. Some of the highest mountains on the planet rise from the Tibetan plateau in the south, which I visited. Maybe most impressively, 1.3 billion people live in China, so it’s the most populous place on the planet. But despite all that, the country remains tremendously fragile, its political culture is volatile and unpredictable, bound together only by force and fear. It would not take much to send it over the edge.
Question 2: Who was there, on the ground, with you?
Stephanie Nelle, head of the Magellan Billet, authorized the incursion, facilitated by a cooperating Russian agent known only as Ivan. Cassiopeia Vitt accompanied me, along with Viktor Tomas, a freelance agent I’d dealt with previously in a file titled The Venetian Betrayal. This time Tomas was covertly working with Karl Tang, China’s deputy premier. Cassiopeia and I have not worked together in awhile, as my experiences in Germany and the Antarctic last Christmas (detailed in a file titled The Charlemagne Pursuit) and then in France (The Paris Vendetta) did not concern her. Her involvement here came as the result of a long term friendship with a Russian ex-patriot, Lev Sokolov, and the abduction of his son. There’s a file, The Balkan Escape, which explains in detail her connection with Sokolov.
Question 3: Are you able to offer any insight into the epidemic of child trafficking in China?
This is truly a major problem, which Lev Sokolov experienced firsthand.
Some estimate that as many as 70,000 children are stolen in China every year. Its one-child policy and a cultural preference for boys has fostered a vicious trafficking industry. Sons traditionally care for their parents and, of course, carry on the family name, so female fetuses are many times either aborted or abandoned. Incredibly, it’s illegal to abandon, steal, or sell a child in China, but not illegal to buy one. I learned that a young boy costs around $900 U.S. That’s a lot of money considering the average Chinese worker earns only about $1700 U.S. annually. But people pay it. The government is doing something, but not nearly enough to stop it. Lev Sokolov was fighting an uphill battle, and that’s why he called Cassiopeia.
Question 4: What observations, if any, can you offer on Qin Shi’s tomb?
The tomb mound itself has stood in central China for over 2200 years. It was once the size of the pyramid at Giza in Egypt. It took thousands of men over 12 years to complete the underground palace complex where Qin Shi is buried. His body still rests beneath the mound. The tomb itself is the size of a football field, topped by a jeweled ceiling representative of stars and a floor that depicts Qin Shi’s empire in three dimensions including mountains, villages, roads, and rivers, lakes, and oceans fashioned of mercury. It has remained unexplored, as no Chinese emperor or government has ever allowed anyone inside. The only written account of the interior was penned 2000 years ago. A kilometer away stands the terracotta army—an amazing collection of 8000 unique soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses, all arrayed in tight battle-formation. That area is open to the public and its museum complex is extensively visited. Interestingly, when the terracotta warriors were discovered in 1974, no one had any idea that they ever existed. Remember that practice of purging memories? The same thing happened here. The emperors who came after Qin Shi made sure that every detail of his existence was forgotten. Only in the past few decades has interest in the First Emperor been re-kindled.
Question 5: Can you confirm the existence of the Ba?
The Ba is an ancient Chinese brotherhood, begun over 3000 years ago. It sprang out of the Legalist movement, a political philosophy which emphasizes a central government made strong through the use of force and fear. In other words, another one of those Chinese inventions was the concept of totalitarianism. The Ba encompassed followers of Legalism, headed by a single man known as the Hegemon. Confucianism is the counter to Legalism. That philosophy came along 2500 years ago and stressed the willing obedience of the people from a compassionate, fair, and benevolent government. Both philosophies stressed a strong central authority, they simply achieve that end through radically different means. This debate, Legalism versus Confucianism, lies at the heart of Chinese politics. Even now, with a communist—which is to say, Legalist—regime in control, Confucianism is on the rise. I found myself square in the center of a war between these two factions.
Question 6: Can you provide any insight into eunuchs? We’re told you encountered them.
I learned a lot about eunuchs and the huge role they played in Chinese history. They began as mere palace attendants, and their mistreatment was common. For example, each time they encountered a member of the imperial family they had to debase themselves by serving as slaves. Early in life they realized that they could never be venerated as scholars or statesman. Their ability to survive, once their services were no longer needed, depended on how much wealth they could secretly amass. To acquire that, they needed to stay in close proximity to authority. So keeping themselves in good graces with their patrons, and keeping their patrons in power, became their primary focus. Many emperors became utterly dependent on their services, and the eunuchs became surrogate rulers. The vast majority were corrupt and inept, but some achieved great stature. One invented paper. Another became the father of Chinese history. Zheng He rose to be the greatest sailor China ever produced, building a 15th century fleet that explored the world. When the Ming Dynasty fell in the 17th century, 100,000 eunuchs were forced from the capital. They were supposedly eradicated in the early 20th century but I can confirm that is no longer the case.
Question 7: Is the abiotic/biotic theory of oil production viable?
This was the most fascinating thing I encountered. I never realized that the concept of 'fossil fuels' is not a proven theory. The idea that oil originated from decayed organic material—such as plants and animals, including dinosaurs—was conceived in 1757 by a Russian scientist named Mikhail Lomonosov. There is no proof that oil is biotic in origin. In fact, the Russians firmly insist that oil is abiotic—that it originates from deep within the earth, the result of natural geological processes. The implications from this are enormous. Biotic oil is finite, while abiotic oil is potentially limitless. The Russians have long believed in abiotic oil since they have discovered reserves far deeper in the earth than where any biotic oil could possibly lay. Thankfully, abiotic oil can be identified thanks to diamondoids which exist within it. These microscopic crystals can only be formed only deep in the earth, where great heat and pressure exist, far away from where any fossil fuels might be. Which one of these theories is correct? I’ll leave that to you folks to analyze.
Question 8: What are your future plans?
To return to my bookshop and earn a living. But you never know what will happen next. I had a dream the other night that I was drawn back home, to the United States, for some reason. Odd I’d imagine that.