copenhagen, denmark tuesday, october 4, the present
Cotton Malone stared straight into the face of trou
ble. Outside his bookshop’s open front door stood his ex-wife, the last person on earth he’d expected to see. He quickly registered panic in her tired eyes, remembered the pounding that had awoken him a few minutes before, and instantly thought of his son.
“Where’s Gary?” he asked.
“You son of a bitch. They took him. Because of you. They took him.” She lunged forward, her closed fists crashing down onto his shoulders. “You sorry son of a bitch.” He grabbed her wrists and stopped the attack as she started crying. “I left you because of this. I thought this kind of thing was over.”
“Who took Gary?” More sobs were his answer. He kept hold of her arms. “Pam. Listen to me. Who took Gary?”
She stared at him. “How the hell am I supposed to know?”
“What are you doing here? Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“Because they said not to. They said if I went anywhere near the police, Gary was dead. They said they would know, and I believed them.”
She wrenched her arms free, her face flooded with anger. “I don’t know. All they said was for me to wait two days, then come here and give you this.” She rummaged through her shoulder bag and produced a phone. Tears continued to rain down her cheeks. “They said for you to go online and open your e-mail.”
Had he heard right? Go online and open your e-mail?
He flipped open the phone and checked the frequency. Enough megahertz to make it world-capable. Which made him wonder. Suddenly he felt vulnerable. Højbro Plads was quiet. At this late hour no one roamed the city square.
His senses came alive.
“Get inside.” And he yanked her into the shop and closed the door. He hadn’t switched on any lights.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice shredded by fear.
He faced her. “I don’t know, Pam. You tell me. Our son has apparently been taken by God-knows-who, and you wait two days before telling a soul about it? That didn’t strike you as insane?”
“I wasn’t going to jeopardize his life.”
“And I would? How have I ever done that?”
“By being you,” she said in a frigid tone, and he instantly recalled why he no longer lived with her.
A thought occurred to him. She’d never been to Denmark. “How did you find me?”
“They told me.”
“Who the hell is they?”
“I don’t know, Cotton. Two men. Only one did the talking. Tall, dark-haired, flat face.”
“How would I know?”
“How did he speak?”
She seemed to catch hold of herself. “No. Not American. They had accents. European.”
He motioned with the phone. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“He said to open your e-mail and it would be explained.”
She glanced nervously around at the shelves cast in shadows. “Upstairs, right?”
Gary would have told her he lived over the store. He certainly hadn’t. They’d spoken only once since he’d retired from the Justice Department and left Georgia last year, and that had been two months back, in August, when he’d brought Gary home after their summer visit. She’d coldly told him that Gary was not his natural son. Instead the boy was the product of an affair from sixteen years ago, her response to his own infidelity. He’d wrestled with that demon ever since and had not, as yet, come to terms with its implications. One thing he’d decided at the time—he had no intention of ever speaking to Pam Malone again. Whatever needed to be said would be said between him and Gary.
But things seemed to have changed.
“Yeah,” he said. “Upstairs.”
They entered his apartment, and he sat at the desk. He switched on his laptop and waited for the programs to boot. Pam had finally grabbed hold of her emotions. She was like that. Her moods ran in waves. Soaring highs and cavernous lows. She was a lawyer, like him, but where he’d worked for the government, she handled high-stakes trials for Fortune 500 companies that could afford to pay her firm’s impressive fees. When she’d first gone to law school he’d thought the decision a reflection of him, a way for them to share a life together. Later he’d learned it was a way for her to gain independence.
That was Pam.
The laptop was ready. He accessed his mailbox.
Pam rushed toward him. “What do you mean? He said to open your e-mail.”
“That was two days ago. And by the way, how did you get here?”
“They had a ticket, already bought.”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Are you nuts? What you did was give them a two-day head start.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” she yelled. “You think I’m a complete idiot? They told me my phones were tapped and I was being watched. If I varied from their instructions, even a little, Gary was dead. They showed me a picture.” She caught herself and tears flowed anew. “His eyes . . . oh, his eyes.” She broke down again. “He was scared.”
His chest throbbed and his temples burned. He’d intentionally left behind a life of daily danger to find something new. Had that life now hunted him down? He grabbed the edge of the desk. It would do no good for both of them to fall apart. If whoever they were wanted Gary dead, then he was already. No. Gary was a bargaining chip—a way to apparently gain his undivided attention.
The laptop dinged.
His gaze shot to the screen’s lower-right corner: receiving mail. Then he saw greetings appear on the from line and your son’s life noted as the subject. He maneuvered the cursor and opened the e-mail.
YOU HAVE SOMETHING I WANT. THE ALEXANDRIA LINK. YOU HID IT AND YOU’RE THE ONLY PERSON ON EARTH WHO KNOWS WHERE TO FIND IT. GO GET IT. YOU HAVE 72 HOURS. WHEN YOU HAVE IT, HIT THE NUMBER 2 BUTTON ON THE PHONE. IF I DON’T HEAR FROM YOU AT THE END OF 72 HOURS, YOU WILL BE CHILDLESS. IF DURING THAT TIME YOU SCREW WITH ME, YOUR SON WILL LOSE A VITAL APPENDAGE. 72 HOURS. FIND IT AND WE’LL TRADE.
Pam was standing behind him. “What’s the Alexandria Link?”
He said nothing. He couldn’t. He was indeed the only person on earth who knew, and he’d given his word.
“Whoever sent that message knows all about it. What is it?”
He stared at the screen and knew there’d be no way to trace the message. The sender, like himself, surely knew how to use black holes— computer servers that randomly routed e-mails through an electronic maze. Not impossible to follow, but difficult.
He stood from the chair and ran a hand through his hair. He’d meant to get a haircut yesterday. He worked the sleep from his shoulders and sucked a few deep breaths. He’d earlier slipped on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt that hung open, exposing a gray under
shirt, and he was suddenly chilled by fear.
“Pam, shut up. I have to think. You’re not helping.”
“I’m not helping? What the—”
The cell phone rang. Pam lunged for it, but he cut her off and said, “Leave it.”
“What do you mean? It could be Gary.”
He scooped up the phone after the third ring and pushed talk.
“Took long enough,” the male voice said in his ear. He caught a Dutch accent. “And please, no if-you-hurt-that-boy-I’m-going-to-kill-you bravado. Neither one of us has the time. Your seventy-two hours have already started.”
Malone stayed silent, but he recalled something he learned long ago. Never let the other side set the bargain. “Stick it up your ass. I’m not going anywhere.”
“You take a lot of risks with your son’s life.”
“I see Gary. I talk to him. Then, I go.”
“Take a look outside.”
He rushed to the window. Four stories down Højbro Plads was still quiet, except for two figures standing on the far side of the cobbled expanse.
Both silhouettes shouldered weapons.
“Don’t think so,” the voice said in his ear.
Two projectiles shot through the night and obliterated the windows below him.
The occupant of the Blue Chair watched as one car de
posited two occupants under a lighted porte cochere. Not a limousine or anything overtly pretentious, just a European sedan of muted color, a common sight on busy Austrian roads. The perfect means of transportation to avoid attention from terrorists, criminals, police, and inquisitive reporters. One more car arrived and deposited its passengers, then headed off to wait among the dark trees in a paved lot. Two more appeared a few minutes later. The Blue Chair, satisfied, left his second-floor bedchamber and descended to ground level.
The meeting convened in the usual place.
Five gilded, straight-backed armchairs rested atop a Hungarian carpet in a wide circle. The chairs were identical except for one, which sported a royal blue scarf across its cushioned back. Next to each chair stood a gilded table that supported a bronze lamp, a writing pad, and a crystal bell. To the left of the circle a fire bristled inside a stone hearth, its light dancing nervously across the ceiling murals.
A man occupied each chair.
They were designated in descending order of seniority. Two of the men still possessed their hair and health. Three were balding and frail. All were at least seventy years old and dressed in sedate suits, their dark chesterfields and gray homburgs hanging on brass racks off to one side.
Behind each stood another man, younger—the Chair’s successor, present to listen and learn but not to be heard. The rules were long standing. Five Chairs, four Shadows. The Blue Chair was in charge.
“I apologize for the late hour, but some disturbing information arrived a few hours ago.” The Blue Chair’s voice was strained and wispy. “Our latest venture may be in jeopardy.”
“Exposure?” Chair Two asked.
Chair Three sighed. “Can the problem be solved?”
“I think so. But prompt action is needed.”
“I cautioned we should not interfere in this,” Chair Two sternly reminded, shaking his head. “Things should have been allowed to run their natural course.”
Chair Three agreed, as he had at the previous meeting. “Perhaps this is a signal that we should leave well enough alone. A lot can be said about the natural order of things.”
The Blue Chair shook his head. “Our last vote was contrary to such a course. The decision has been made, so we must adhere to it.” He paused. “The situation requires attention.”
“Completion would involve tact and skill,” Chair Three said. “Undue attention would defeat the purpose. If we intend to press forward, then I recommend we grant die Klauen der Adler full authority to act.”
The Talons of the Eagle.
Two others nodded.
“I’ve already done that,” the Blue Chair said. “I called this gathering because my earlier, unilateral action required ratification.”
A motion was made, hands raised.
Four to one, the matter was approved.
The Blue Chair was pleased.
Malone’s building shook like an earthquake and
swelled with a rush of heat that soared up through the stairwell. He dove for Pam and together they slammed into a threadbare rug that covered the plank floor. He shielded her as another explosion rocked the foundation and more flames surged their way.
He gazed out the doorway.
Fires raged below.
Smoke billowed upward in an ever-darkening cloud.
He came to his feet and darted to the window. The two men were gone. Flames licked the night. He realized what had happened. They’d torched the lower floors. The idea wasn’t to kill them.
“What’s happening?” Pam screamed.
He ignored her and raised the window. Smoke was rapidly conquering the air inside.
“Come on,” he said, and he hustled into the bedroom.
He reached beneath the bed and yanked out the rucksack he always kept ready, even in retirement, just as he’d done for twelve years as a Magellan Billet agent. Inside was his passport, a thousand euros, spare identification, a change of clothes, and his Beretta with ammunition. His influential friend Henrik Thorvaldsen had only recently reobtained the gun from the Danish police—confiscated when Malone had become involved with the Knights Templar a few months back.
He shouldered the bag and slipped his feet into a pair of running shoes. No time to tie the laces. Smoke consumed the bedroom. He opened both windows, which helped.
“Stay here,” he said.
He held his breath and trotted through the den to the stairwell. Four stories opened up below. The ground floor housed his bookshop, the second and third floors were for storage, the fourth held his apartment. The first and third floors were ablaze. Heat scorched his face and forced him to retreat. Incendiary grenades. Had to be.
He rushed back to the bedroom.
“No way out from the stairs. They made sure of that.”
Pam was huddled next to the window gulping air and coughing. He brushed past her and poked his head out. His bedroom sat in a corner. The building next door, which housed a jeweler and a clothing store, was a story lower, the roof flat and lined with brick parapets that, he’d been told, dated from the seventeenth century. He glanced up. Above the window ran an oversized cornice that jutted outward and wrapped the front and side of his building.
Someone would surely have called the fire and rescue squads, but he wasn’t going to wait around for a ladder.
Pam started coughing harder, and he was having trouble breathing himself. He turned her head. “Look up there,” he said, pointing at the cornice. “Grab hold and move yourself to the side of the building. You can drop from there onto the roof next door.”
Her eyes went wide. “Are you nuts? We’re four floors up.”
“Pam, this building could blow. There are natural gas lines. Those grenades were designed to start a fire. They didn’t shoot one into this floor because they want us to get out.”
She didn’t seem to register what he was saying.
“We have to leave before the police and fire rescue get here.”
“They can help.”
“You want to spend the next eight hours answering questions? We only have seventy-two.”
She seemed to instantly comprehend his logic and stared up at the cornice. “I can’t, Cotton.” For the first time her voice carried no edge.
“Gary needs us. We have to go. Watch me, then do exactly as I do.”
He shouldered the rucksack and wiggled himself out the window. He gripped the cornice, the coarse stone warm but thin enough that his fingers acquired a solid hold. He dangled by his arms and worked his way, hand over hand, toward the corner. A few more feet, around the corner, and he dropped to the flat roof next door.
He hustled back to the front of the building and peered upward. Pam was still in the window. “Come on, do it. Just like I did.”
An explosion ripped through the third floor. Glass from the windows showered Højbro Plads. Flames raked the darkness. Pam recoiled back inside. A mistake. A second later her head emerged and she hacked out violent coughs.
“You have to come now,” he yelled.
She finally seemed to accept that there was no choice. As he’d done, she curled herself out the window and grabbed the cornice. Then she leveraged her body out and hung from her arms.
He saw that her eyes were closed. “You don’t have to look. Just move your hands, one at a time.”
Eight feet of cornice stretched between where he stood and where she was struggling. But she was doing okay. One hand over the other. Then he saw figures below. In the square. The two men were back, this time with rifles.
He whipped the rucksack around and plunged a hand inside, finding his Beretta.
He fired twice at the figures fifty feet below. The retorts banged off the buildings lining the square in sharp echoes.
“Why are you shooting?” Pam asked.
Another shot and the men below scattered.
Pam found the corner. He gave her a quick glance. “Move around and pull yourself my way.”
He searched the darkness but did not see the gunmen. Pam was maneuvering, one hand clamped onto the cornice, the other groping
for a hold.
Then she lost her grip.
He reached out, gun still in his hand, and managed to catch her. But they both crumpled to the roof. She was breathing hard. So was he.
The cell phone rang.
He crawled for the rucksack, found the phone, and flipped it open.
“Enjoy yourself?” the same voice from before asked.
“Any reason you had to blow up my shop?”
“You’re the one who said he wasn’t leaving.”
“I want to talk to Gary.”
“I make the rules. You’ve already used up thirty-six minutes of your seventy-two hours. I’d get moving. Your son’s life depends on it.”
The line went silent.
Sirens were approaching. He grabbed the rucksack and sprang to his feet. “We have to go.”
“Who was that?”
“Who was that?”
A sudden fury enveloped him. “I have no idea.”
“What is it he wants?”
“Something I can’t give him.”
“What do you mean you can’t? Gary’s life depends on it. Look around. He blew up your store.”
“Gee, Pam, I wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t pointed it out.”
He turned to leave.
She grabbed him. “Where are we going?”
“To get answers.”
Excerpted from THE ALEXANDRIA LINK © Copyright 2011 by Steve Berry. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.