Tuesday, December 11, The Present
Cotton Malone hated enclosed spaces.
His current unease was amplified by a packed cable car. Most of
the passengers were on vacation, dressed in colorful garb,
shouldering poles and skis. He sensed a variety of nationalities.
Some Italians, a few Swiss, a handful of French, but mainly
Germans. He’d been one of the first to climb aboard and, to
relieve his discomfort, he’d made his way close to one of the
frosty windows. Ten thousand feet above and closing, the Zugspitze
stood silhouetted against a steel- blue sky, the imposing gray
summit draped in a late- autumn snow.
Not smart, agreeing to this location.
The car continued its giddy ascent, passing one of several steel
trestles that rose from the rocky crags.
He was unnerved, and not simply from the crowded surroundings.
Ghosts awaited him atop Germany’s highest peak. He’d
avoided this rendezvous for nearly four decades. People like him,
who buried their past so determinedly, should not help it from the
grave so easily.
Yet here he was, doing exactly that.
Vibrations slowed as the car entered, then stopped at the summit
Skiers flooded off toward another lift that would take them down
to a high- altitude corrie, where a chalet and slopes waited. He
didn’t ski, never had, never wanted to.
He made his way through the visitor center, identified by a
yellow placard as MŸncher Haus. A restaurant dominated one
half of the building, the rest housed a theater, a snack bar, an
observatory, souvenir shops, and a weather station.
He pushed through thick glass doors and stepped out onto a
railed terrace. Bracing Alpine air stung his lips. According to
Stephanie Nelle his contact should be waiting on the observation
deck. One thing was obvious. Ten thousand feet in the high Alps
certainly added a heightened measure of privacy to their
The Zugspitze lay on the border. A succession of snowy crags
rose south toward Austria. To the north spanned a soup- bowl valley
ringed by rock- ribbed peaks. A gauze of frosty mist shielded the
German village of Garmisch and its companion, Partenkirchen. Both
were sports meccas, and the region catered not only to skiing but
also bobsledding, skating, and curling.
More sports he’d avoided.
The observation deck was deserted save for an elderly couple and
a few skiers who’d apparently paused to enjoy the view.
He’d come to solve a mystery, one that had preyed on his mind
ever since that day when the men in uniforms came to tell his
mother that her husband was dead.
"Contact was lost with the submarine forty- eight hours ago.
We dispatched search and rescue ships to the North Atlantic, which
have combed the last known position. Wreckage was found six hours
ago. We waited to tell the families until we were sure there was no
chance of survivors."
His mother had never cried. Not her way. But that didn’t
mean she wasn’t devastated. Years passed before questions
formed in his teenage mind. The government offered little
explanation beyond official releases. When he’d first joined
the navy he’d tried to access the court of inquiry’s
investigative report on the sub’s sinking, but learned it was
classified. He’d tried again after becoming a Justice
Department agent, possessed of a high security clearance. No luck.
When Gary, his fifteen-year- old, visited over the summer,
he’d faced new questions. Gary had never known his
grandfather, but the boy had wanted to know more about him and,
especially, how he died. The press had covered the sinking of the
USS Blazek in November 1971, so they’d read many of
the old accounts on the Internet. Their talk had rekindled his own
doubts– enough that he’d finally done something about
He plunged balled fists into his parka and wandered the
Telescopes dotted the railing. At one stood a woman, her dark
hair tied in an unflattering bun. She was dressed in a bright
outfit, skis and poles propped beside her, studying the valley
He casually walked over. One rule he’d learned long ago.
Never hurry. It only bred trouble.
"Quite a scene," he said.
She turned. "Certainly is."
Her face was the color of cinnamon which, combined with what he
regarded as Egyptian features in her mouth, nose, and eyes signaled
some Middle Eastern ancestry.
"I’m Cotton Malone."
"How did you know I was the one who came to meet you?"
He motioned at the brown envelope lying at the base of the
telescope. "Apparently this is not a high- pressure mission." He
smiled. "Just running an errand?"
"Something like that. I was coming to ski. A week off, finally.
Always wanted to do it. Stephanie asked if I could bring"–she
motioned at the envelope–"that along." She went back to her
viewing. "You mind if I finish this? It cost a euro and I want to
see what’s down there."
She revolved the telescope, studying the German valley that
stretched for miles below.
"You have a name?" he asked.
"Jessica," she said, her eyes still to the eyepiece.
He reached for the envelope.
Her boot blocked the way. "Not yet. Stephanie said to make sure
you understand that the two of you are even."
Last year he’d helped out his old boss in France.
She’d told him then that she owed him a favor and that he
should use it wisely.
And he had.
"Agreed. Debt paid."
She turned from the telescope. Wind reddened her cheeks.
"I’ve heard about you at the Magellan Billet. A bit of a
legend. One of the original twelve agents."
"I didn’t realize I was so popular."
"Stephanie said you were modest, too."
He wasn’t in the mood for compliments. The past awaited
him. "Could I have the file?"
Her eyes sparked. "Sure."
He retrieved the envelope. The first thought that flashed
through his mind was how something so thin might answer so many
"That must be important," she said.
Another lesson. Ignore what you don’t want to answer. "You
been with the Billet long?"
"Couple of years." She stepped from the telescope mount.
"Don’t like it, though. I’m thinking about getting out.
I hear you got out early, too."
As carelessly as she handled herself, quitting seemed like a
good career move. During his twelve years he’d taken only
three vacations, during which he’d stayed on constant guard.
Paranoia was one of many occupational hazards that came with being
an agent, and two years of voluntary retirement had yet to cure the
"Enjoy the skiing," he said to her.
Tomorrow he’d fly back to Copenhagen. Today he was going
to make a few stops at the rare- book shops in the area–an
occupational hazard of his new profession. Bookseller.
She threw him a glare as she grabbed her skis and poles. "I plan
They left the terrace and walked back through the nearly
deserted visitor center. Jessica headed for the lift that would
take her down to the corrie. He headed for the cable car that would
drop him ten thousand feet back to ground level.
He stepped into the empty car, holding the envelope. He liked
the fact that no one was aboard. But just before the doors closed,
a man and woman rushed on, hand in hand. The attendant slammed the
doors shut from the outside and the car eased from the station.
He stared out the forward windows.
Enclosed spaces were one thing. Cramped, enclosed spaces were
another. He wasn’t claustrophobic. More a sense of freedom
denied. He’d tolerated it in the past–having found
himself underground on more than one occasion–but his
discomfort was one reason why, years ago, when he joined the navy,
unlike his father, he hadn’t opted for submarines. "Mr.
Malone." He turned. The woman stood, holding a gun. "I’ll
take that envelope."
Excerpted from THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT © Copyright 2010 by
Steve Berry. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All