The general has two problems. He only has copies, which could be discounted as forgeries, and he doesnt know the exact location of the originals. Soon he discovers that the key to finding them lies with Matt Moretti, an alcoholic former Army Ranger currently working as an archivist for the US government. Hunted by the general, a Chinese assassin, European police, and his own government, the archivist goes on the run across Europe as he tries to unravel the clues that will reveal Maos long-kept secret. Along the way he meets Han Li, a beautiful Chinese agent and assassin in her own right who is also seeking the original documents. Only time will tell, however, whether they will manage to keep them out of the hands of the general.
In this thriller, an alcoholic former Army Ranger joins forces with Chinas top assassin to recover secret documents that could topple the Chinese government.
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The footsteps were getting closer. They weren't the fast-paced tempo of someone running. Instead the pursuer had a methodical pace, which echoed down the moist cobblestone streets. Yesterday she wouldn't have given these footsteps a second thought. Yesterday her life had been different. She stopped and listened. A moment later, there was only silence. Then it dawned on her. If she could hear him, then the reverse was also true. She silently cursed herself for not realizing it sooner. How else would he have been able to follow her through the maze of narrow streets she'd been traversing? She slipped off her shoes and put them in her backpack. When the footsteps started again, they were no longer behind her. Instead they headed off in another direction and soon faded into the distance. Even so, she realized she was far from safe. Daybreak was five hours away, and no one was likely to come into this area until then. Of equal concern was the fact that she was lost. The erratic path she'd taken in trying to evade her pursuer had brought her into the city's business district. But exactly where she was within that area she had no idea. She thought about breaking into one of the surrounding shops and hiding until daylight. But every store had steel shutters that protected both the doorway and display windows, leaving her no option but to remain in the open.
She continued running, hoping to eventually recognize a landmark that would allow her to pinpoint her location. When that happened, she'd know how to get to her destination, where she'd leave the package she had in her backpack. Ten minutes after taking off her shoes, she again stopped and listened for her pursuer. Absolute silence permeated the area. She decided to crank up the pace, and even though she didn't know exactly what was ahead of her, she wanted to get as far away from her pursuer as possible. But on her second stride, something sharp sliced deep into the sole of her left foot. She stumbled and fell on her right side, the backpack cushioning most of the fall. Her foot felt as if it were on fire. She wanted to cry out in pain, but instead she bit her lip, knowing that any sound might give away her position. Looking behind her in the dimly lit street, she saw a long piece of jagged metal jutting from between two cobblestones. Her foot was sliced from end to end, and blood was seeping out of the gash with abandon. Trying to stem the flow, she removed the shoes from her backpack and put them back on. Hopefully the tight fit would compress the slice enough to slow the bleeding. She'd try to compensate for the sound of her shoes on the cobblestones by walking slower. Hopefully her pursuer wasn't close enough to hear it. But the first time she put weight on her foot, she collapsed in excruciating pain. She clenched her teeth to keep from screaming as tears of pain streamed from her eyes. Using the shoe to compress the wound was a bad idea. If she had any chance of continuing, she'd have to go barefoot.
She was angry for not taking her cell phone, which she'd left charging in the bedroom. But everything had happened so quickly. There wasn't time to grab it then. She barely had an opportunity to write down the recipient's address, stuff everything into her backpack, and escape into the alleyway behind her residence. If she hadn't been working on her computer at one in the morning, she was sure she'd be dead. Her pursuer would apparently do anything to get the package she was carrying. She understood why, as its contents were critically important to at least a few countries and possibly more. But she wasn't even certain what she was carrying wasn't just an elaborate hoax. That was why earlier that day she had tried to send it by special courier to someone she knew could verify its authenticity. The problem was that the transportation company she regularly used was on strike. It seemed there was always a labor disruption of some kind going on in Italy. In a strange way, the workers' demand for higher wages had saved her life. If the courier had taken it, she wouldn't have been up late getting the recipient's address off her computer. Nor would she then have heard the approaching footsteps or seen — against the courtyard wall of her residence — the shadow of a man carrying a gun.
As she continued walking, every step was agony. Her pace was now so slow that she'd all but given up hope of finding a landmark and escaping her pursuer, resigning herself to the fact that he'd eventually find her if by no other means than from the blood trail she was leaving. She was looking for a place to sit down and let fate take its course when she recognized the name of the business directly across the street from where she was standing. She'd been there a couple of times but only during the daytime. It looked different under the dim streetlight. Nevertheless, she had her landmark, and it was less than a block from where she needed to deliver the package. Adrenaline and hope coursed through her body. She decided to drag her injured foot across the moist cobblestones and limit the weight she was putting on it. She wasn't going anywhere fast, but there was no question in her mind that she'd at least get to her destination.
The piazza was deserted when she entered. She decided to put on her shoes to try to keep the blood trail from leading her pursuer to the package. She knew the pain would almost incapacitate her, but she felt there was little choice.
Stepping with one foot and dragging the other, she eventually reached the destination. As she turned and looked behind her, she was pleased to see that there was no trail of blood exposing the path she'd taken. She immediately felt as if a burden had been lifted from her. The package was safe. Now it was time for her to escape. She began dragging herself back through the piazza, hoping to get to one of the side streets and then a nearby residential area where she could summon help. She'd gotten nearly two-thirds of the way there when she thought she heard something to her left and turned slightly. That was when something slammed into her back with such force that the air rushed from her lungs and she was hurled to the ground. She couldn't breathe. It felt as if someone were sitting on her chest. With some effort, she turned over on her back. Looking up, she saw a tall, well-dressed Asian man standing over her. He held his shoes in his left hand and a gun with a suppressor in his right.
The stranger squatted next to her. "Where are they?" he asked in a voice that was not much above a whisper.
She had no breath. Gasping for air, she saw that her white knit top had a red spot and that it was growing.
"Where are they?" he repeated in almost perfect English.
She was starting to get cold, and her eyesight was becoming unfocused. She didn't want to die, but she knew that was the only possible outcome.
"Where you'll never find them," she said, her voice barely audible.
"Pity," the man replied just before her head snapped back and her empty gaze fixed on the stranger.CHAPTER 2
The tall dark-haired Asian woman watched the man look nervously about as he unsteadily crossed the street. He was middle-aged, and he wore a cream-colored three-piece suit, white shirt, and solid brown tie. He carried a black ballistic nylon travel bag over his shoulder, which she guessed contained his personal items. The man kept his head down and held his left hand to the side of his face as he walked, probably hoping to avoid being noticed or giving away his facial features. If she had a sense of humor, she would have laughed. Being Asian, carrying what amounted to a suitcase, and wearing a suit in the Caribbean was anything but inconspicuous.
Dusk was gradually turning into night, and the man had difficulty navigating the uneven and cracked sidewalk, stumbling and falling several times as he tried to stay on the three-foot-wide path. She wasn't surprised. Through the window of the restaurant he'd just left, she'd watched him consume three martinis and a bottle of wine in the space of a little more than three hours. She thought he was probably celebrating his committing the perfect crime. He'd soon learn it wasn't all that perfect.
She'd been told by the old man that most of the people who hid their money on this island came only once. That was because the government required anyone establishing a bank account to sign the required documentation in person. After that, all transactions could be done over the internet. In coming here, most ignored the island's only airline, preferring to use their own aircraft instead. There was a number of those parked at the airport, one of which was hers. The man she was following had arrived on the airline. Therefore, she knew there was no way he could leave until the following day. The island's only airport was closed at night because the surrounding mountains and short runway made nighttime flights too dangerous.
The woman understood why the man chose this island. If she'd embezzled half a billion dollars, she'd also choose a country where no amount of coercion by a foreign government could force it to reveal the names of its depositors. The high fees their banks charged guaranteed their clients' anonymity.
She'd hunted many men like the one staggering before her, each believing he was too smart to be caught. They all thought they could hide forever and live well off the money they'd stolen. The man she was watching undoubtedly believed his crime would go undetected for another week until he failed to return to Beijing from his supposed vacation. But the truth was the old man suspected what he'd done as soon as he left for the Caribbean, and he was never wrong. The person she was looking at was only one of many embezzlers that he'd sent her to kill.
The man eventually made his way into the hotel at the end of the street, a one-story white clapboard structure whose paint had long ago cracked like alligator scales under the hot tropical sun. It was built in the 1960s, but the constant humidity, storms, and ravages of the sun made its exterior appear to be a half century older. The hotel's twenty guest rooms were lined up in a single row at the edge of the beach, affording each guest an unobstructed view of the ocean. Each room had a small wood-decked patio, and in the center of each one there was a white plastic table and four matching chairs. Three wooden steps provided access to the strip of sand separating the hotel from the ocean.
When the dark-haired woman entered the lobby, her prey was walking away from the check-in desk and toward the guest rooms. Following at a cautious distance, she saw him enter the sixth room down the hall, after which she turned, hurried out of the hotel, and ran to the beach. When she stopped in front of the man's patio, she saw that his drapes were open and the lights were on. She didn't see him inside the one-room accommodation, which meant that he was probably in the bathroom. Going onto the raised wooden deck, she looked at the aged sliding glass door. Grabbing the back end, she gently jiggled it up and down while at the same time pulling it toward her. Soon the hooked bolt worked itself free. Sliding it open, she entered.
The room was approximately five hundred square feet, decorated in 1960s retro modern, with white ceramic floor tile laid in a diagonal pattern throughout. The king-size bed was centered on the wall to the right as one entered the room. On the opposite wall, a black leather-faced bar extended from end to end with six bottles of unopened liquor resting on top. In front of it were two white vinyl and chrome backless swivel barstools. A white Petrie sofa occupied the center of the room and offered a view of the ocean. In front of it was a driftwood coffee table with a smoked-gray glass top. The bathroom was beside the sliding glass door. The man was wiping his mouth with a washcloth when he walked into the bedroom. In one quick motion, the dark-haired woman encircled his neck with her left arm and placed crushing pressure on his trachea while at the same time pressing on the back of his neck with her right hand. The man blacked out before he understood what was happening.
She lowered the embezzler to the floor, turned him over on his back, and took off his clothes, leaving on only his tighty-whities. She then bound and gagged him with bathroom towels, being careful not to make the bindings so tight that they would leave marks on his skin. Once the man was secure, she searched his pants and jacket pockets until she found the small piece of paper that experience told her would most likely be there. If it wasn't, the gloves would come off and she'd have to torture him until she got what she needed. Fortunately that wasn't necessary, and she placed the paper on the coffee table behind her. Removing a cell phone from her pocket, it took less than five minutes to repatriate the stolen money. The woman walked to the bar, grabbed a bottle of vodka, and opened it on her way back to the unconscious man. Kneeling beside him, she gently slapped the side of his face.
The woman watched as the man's eyes opened and went wide as he saw her looking down at him. She studied his face, and from those she'd caught in the past, she knew what would come next an attempt to communicate and convince her that it wasn't him. And when he found out he was bound and gagged, he'd make a brief attempt to break free, and when he realized the futility of his situation, he'd express self-serving remorse. Looking into his eyes, she again saw this sequence unfold. Now that he'd been caught, he wanted forgiveness and a reset so that he could return to his life the way it was. No harm, no foul. That wasn't going to happen. It was time. The dark-haired woman straddled his body and sat on his chest, pinning his head between both her knees. With his hands tied behind his back, there was little he could do to resist. The woman reached down and squeezed his nose between her thumb and forefinger until he was just about to pass out from a lack of oxygen. Releasing her grip, she removed his gag and allowed him to take in a mouthful of air before squeezing his nose and pouring vodka down his throat as he gasped for air. Before he choked, she allowed him to breathe and become oxygenated, and then she repeated the process. This continued until the man had consumed enough vodka to put his blood-alcohol level off the chart, after which she wiped her prints off the bottle. Then she pressed his hand firmly on it before letting it roll onto the floor. The embezzler was still breathing but not moving when she got up and opened the patio door. She wiped her prints off whatever she'd touched and then hoisted the unconscious man onto her shoulders in a fireman's carry. The man was heavy but not unbearably so. She walked across the patio and down to the water until she was knee-deep. Then she slid the man off her shoulders and held his head several inches below the surface.
When the man's body hit the water, he awakened, struggling with whatever remaining strength and consciousness he had to try to get to the surface. But with his legs and feet still bound, it was futile. He eventually stopped moving, but the woman continued to hold him under water for another minute before removing the towels that bound him. The incoming tide would eventually carry him back onto the beach and erase her footprints. He'd become another drunken businessman who had drowned while going for a swim. The old man would be satisfied with her performance.CHAPTER 3
Li Fang — or Annie, as she was called by her friends — was locking up her office at the National Library of China in Beijing. As usual, she was late. For the past half hour her boss had again tried to convince her to spend the weekend with him in Shanghai, telling her that they were soul mates and belonged together. The fact that he was married didn't seem to enter the equation, at least not on his side. He finally left, but he promised to continue his efforts of winning her over. She couldn't wait.
As she passed through the lobby, she noticed two young men in casual dress and an older man wearing a dark business suit and standing near the three glass exit doors. The older person looked to be in his early sixties, with jet-black hair cut so near the scalp that it looked like stubble. Getting closer, she noticed that his neck was so wide that his head gave the appearance of connecting directly to his thick torso. At six feet and with a ramrod straight posture, he exuded an air of authority. In his hand was a photo, and he quickly put it inside his jacket pocket as she approached the exit.
"Li Fang?" he asked.
"We're with the government. Come with us," he said brusquely, briefly showing her his credentials and offering no other explanation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Archivist"
Copyright © 2018 Alan Refkin.
Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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