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 un¬marked 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. “What woman?”
“Chinese lady, dressed in a gorgeous Burberry skirt. She said to give it only to you.” “She used my name?” “Twice.”
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 re¬straints.
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 grav¬ity 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 ex¬perienced 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 claustro¬phobia. He recalled the public debate a few years ago as to whether wa¬terboarding 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, reveal¬ing 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 safe¬keeping. 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 Chi¬nese 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.
Excerpted from The Emperor’s Tomb by Steve Berry. Copyright © 2010 by Steve Berry. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.