Matchup, p.14
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       MatchUp, p.14

           Lee Child

  Reacher said nothing.

  “Everyone in America watched. Or listened.”

  “I’m on the move a lot.”

  “You headed south now?” Brennan changed the subject.

  “I was.”

  “Good time of year for that.”

  “I often sleep outside.”

  “You sleeping outside tonight?” Brennan took another sip of her IPA.

  “It’s Luong’s dime, so I’m staying one more night at the Marriott.”

  “As am I.” Brennan studied Reacher over the rim of her mug.

  “Shall we go there?” Reacher studied her back.

  Brennan ingested another milliliter of beer. A long moment passed before she answered.


  Reacher nodded.

  And they did.


  DIANA GABALDON IS A FORMER scientist with four degrees, including a PhD in behavioral ecology. In the 1980s she had a story churning in the back of her head. A tale about a mid-18th century Scotsman and a feisty Englishwoman. To really liven things up, she decided to add the element of time travel. The end result became the novel Outlander, which went on to be a massive bestseller with twenty-seven million copies in print across the globe. To date, there have been seven more installments in the adventures of James Fraser and Claire Randall. Now there’s even a television series that has brought the characters to life for a whole new audience.

  Diana’s world thrives in the past, which made her the perfect partner for Steve Berry, who writes modern-day thrillers that rely heavily on something unique from the past. Steve’s character, Cotton Malone, has starred in twelve novels. He’s a retired Justice Department agent, living in Copenhagen, who runs an old bookshop. And much to his chagrin, his former profession keeps finding him.

  As with Sandra Brown, Steve is also short story challenged. He can write them, but they take great effort. Likewise, as with C. J. Box, Diana is proficient. So, together she and Steve plotted the story, then Diana produced a first draft. Steve then edited and rewrote. Interestingly, this is the only story written for this anthology in the first person.

  And present tense, no less.

  But these two intrepid writers faced a complicated dilemma. How do they seamlessly meld the 18th-century world of Diana Gabaldon (including time travel), with Steve’s modern-day hero Cotton Malone?

  Their solution is masterful.

  Fans of both writers are going to love—

  Past Prologue.



  Always have.

  Something about its collage of gray and green enchants me. I especially love its castles, and through the car window I study Ardsmuir, which looms out of the northern Scottish moor like something God himself hacked from the ancient rock. I have to admit, a less-welcoming pile I have never seen but, after all, centuries ago it had once been a prison. I’ve been driven straight from the Inverness airport and climb out of the car into a bone-chilling combination of driving rain and bitter north wind.

  “Mr. Malone,” comes a shout faintly over the roar of the storm.

  I turn to see a man hurrying toward me across the flagged-stone courtyard, a red golf umbrella precariously clutched in one hand, a flashlight, or an electric torch as they would say here, in the other. I hustle toward the shelter of the umbrella, but not before retrieving my travel bag from the driver and leaving five pounds for a tip.

  “So pleased you made it, Mr. Malone.” The man with the umbrella shoves the flashlight under one arm in order to free up a hand for shaking. “I’m John MacRae.”

  “Call me Cotton.” I duck under the umbrella. “And for God’s sake, let’s get out of this mess. Reminds me of south Georgia and the storms we get there.”

  Inside, the walls are more of the forbidding granite from outside, only here they serve as a matte for clusters of swords, shields, and stags’ heads that dot the entrance hall. Thankfully, the roar of the wind and rain is gone. I set down my travel bag. MacRae hurries to take my overcoat, which I surrender, reluctantly, not accustomed to a manservant.

  “The gentlemen—and lady,” MacRae adds with a smile, “are all in the drawing room with Mr. Chubb. Let me show you the way, and I’ll have your bag sent up to your room. There’s a fire waiting.”

  I follow MacRae and enter the drawing room, a large comfortable space with dark-stained overhead beams and heavy furniture. More animal heads stare down from the walls. An unusual globe with a hollow interior catches my trained eye, its open ribs marking latitude and longitude. As advertised, a robust, crackling blaze, one suitable for roasting an ox, burns in the stone hearth. I make for it, barely pausing to shake hands with my host for the evening, Malcolm Chubb. I’ve crossed paths with Chubb before at various book auctions in London, Paris, and Edinburgh. During those times the Scot had been wearing a stylish Savile Row suit. Now he looks like a Christmas tree, ablaze in red-and-green tartan from waist to knees, and sporting a drape of the same fabric over one shoulder held in place with a striking bronze brooch.

  “Wretched evening,” my host says in apology, before thrusting a glass of single malt into my hand. “We didn’t think you’d make it, but we’re so pleased that you did.”

  I’m not much of a drinker, barely touching the stuff. But I know how the Scots feel about their malt. So I hold the glass up against the light and admire its golden murkiness. Then I allow the bitter liquid to lay a comfortable burn down my gullet, which thaws me enough to take stock of the room. A dozen or so booksellers and collectors loiter about, drinking more whisky, nibbling morsels from trays servants pass around, chatting to each other. A couple of them—a man named Arkwright that I know, and a woman I don’t—doubtless “the lady” MacRae had mentioned earlier—are standing in front of a cloth-draped table at the far side, admiring the dozen or so books displayed within their velvet nests.

  Strangers always raise my radar, and I keep a watchful eye on the lady, while saying to Chubb, “I wouldn’t have missed it.” I eye my host’s tartan. “Clan McChubb?”

  “Would that it was. No, the Scots blood is on my mother’s side. Clan Farquarson. Isn’t it dreadful?” Chubb flicks a hand at his blazing kilt, setting the tassels on his hairy sporran swinging. At a closer glance, I realized it’s a dead badger, for God’s sake. “You’ll be relieved to know that we’ve set aside something a bit more subdued for you.”

  Was I hearing right? “For me?”

  “Absolutely,” Chubb says. “This is quite an occasion. We’re expecting the media, though given the weather, it may only amount to a junior reporter from the Inverness Courier. But everyone, and I do mean everyone, including photographers, will be here for the book auction tomorrow. There will be plenty of time for an inspection of the wares later, but d’you want a quick look, before you go up to dress for dinner?”

  “I think I would like that.”

  I finish off the rest of my malt and Chubb relieves me of the empty glass, passing it to a hovering waiter, then beckoning me toward the display table. Approaching close, an odd vibration shoots through me, one only a committed bibliophile could understand. I love books. And though my profession had been first a naval officer, then a lawyer, and finally an American intelligence operative, books have finally sunk their claws deep into me. Now retired from the Magellan Billet, a covert unit within the United States Justice Department, I own an old bookshop in Copenhagen, which has acquired a reputation for being able to find what collectors seek. And though my former profession as a spy has an annoying habit of revisiting me from time to time, books are most definitely my life now.

  I step to the trestle table, catching the dry smell of old bindings, and admire some of what will be auctioned tomorrow.

  A Book of Deer, straight from the 10th century a small information card notes. I know the volume. An Irish gospel text, one of the oldest-surviving manuscripts ever produced in Scotland. The Book of the Dean of Lismore, a compilation o
f 15th-century poetry, is a real treasure. Only a few editions exist. Its poems supposedly taken from the strolling bards themselves. A few of the other Celtic tomes are likewise rare. But second from the end is the book that really interests me. With luck, I’ll even take it back to Denmark as I already have a buyer for it. The other offerings are all prime specimens, immensely valuable in their own right, but this is an incunabulum—which means it had been printed before 1501, in the days of movable type. It is also, so far as anyone knows, the only copy ever made of this particular book.

  A grimoire. A book of sorcery.

  That includes spells, alchemy, and what would certainly have been considered outright witchcraft in the 15th century. The label comes from the French word grammaire, which at first referred to all books written in Latin. Eventually, it came to be associated only with books of magic. I dare not touch it, though I want to. Per the usual practice at auctions such as this, it will be carefully displayed, page by page, during a detailed inspection right before the bidding, its pages turned by means of a swabbed stick held by gloved hands. For now, it is open to a page showing an exquisite wood-block print of a winged lion being either attacked or embraced by a wingless lion. The text in Latin on the opposite page, headed by a beautiful illuminated O, is twined with fruiting vines and serpents. To my surprise, this isn’t the only grimoire on display, though it is by far the best. There are two others, one from the late 17th and another from the mid-18th century.

  “These are all from a collection belonging to the last owner of this castle,” Chubb says, from behind my shoulder, a pair of bifocals perched on the tip of the Scot’s nose. “We think the one from the 15th century is a copy of a much older volume. Perhaps hand penned by Saint-Germain himself. Le grimoire du Le Compte Saint-Germain.”

  There’s a name. More legend than fact. At once a courtier, adventurer, inventor, pianist, and alchemist. Credited with near godlike powers and immortality. But nobody knows if he’d ever been real.

  “That’s quite a claim,” I say. “Is there anything to support the idea?”

  “Only hope, my good man,” Chubb says. “Simply hope. The former owner of that grimoire had quite a taste for strange things. Both natural history and the odder branches of the occult. He owned many books on magic, though most of those aren’t anything special. Not like this beauty.”

  “What was his name?” I ask, moving down the table to examine a spectacular double-folio edition of Albertus Seba’s Das NaturalienKabinett, open to a pair of pages featuring an array of delicately drawn puffer fish, all looking surprised and annoyed.

  “Appleton,” Chubb says. “An Englishman. Strange man, I gather. He vanished quite suddenly one day without a word. The estate had to wait seven years to have him declared dead. That’s why these”—he nods at the books—“had not come on the market before.”

  “He just vanished? Foul play?”

  Chubb shrugs. “No sign of anything amiss, either physically or in terms of his affairs. The police investigated thoroughly. But you know, the cliffs are quite near. You could hear the sea now, if it wasn’t raining so hard. And if he’d gone walking and fallen there, the currents are treacherous. The body would be swept out.”

  One of the servants approaches, bows, then murmurs something to Chubb, who nods and turns back.

  “Dinner in twenty minutes. You’d best go up and dress. Nigel will show you the way.”

  Malcolm Chubb hadn’t been joking.

  Waiting for me, laid out on the poster bed, is a kilt, complete with sporran, hose, oddly laced shoes, and a short jacket. The tartan is a subdued gray with a faint blue check, everything crafted of fine wool. A low fire burns in the grate of the bedroom, casting a golden glow. It might technically be spring on the calendar, but it feels like winter, or at least late fall, outside. I’m actually not all that fond of the harsh Scottish weather.

  But it’s part of the charm.

  The good with the bad, as the saying goes.

  I undress and hesitate a moment over the question of underwear, but then shrug and don the kilt without it.

  What the hell.

  When in Scotland—

  Back downstairs, Chubb introduces me to the other guests, all of them are wearing Highland dress too. Even the lone woman, who wears a full-length bodiced dress, a becoming muted tartan in shades of lavender and blue.

  “Madam LeBlanc.” Chubb pauses and bows, gesturing. “Allow me to present a valued friend, Mr. Harold Earl ‘Cotton’ Malone.”

  She’s tall, with blond hair not her own as a trace of light brown can be seen at the roots. The color, though, suits her swarthy skin. Her smile reveals curious marks of fun that surround twinkling hazel eyes. I draw the conclusion that she’s of money, accustomed to the finer things. She holds out a hand, and before I can decide whether I’m supposed to kiss it, she grabs mine and gives me a pleasantly firm clasp.

  “Enchanted, Mr. Malone,” she says. “Call me Eleanor, if you like.”

  I catch a faint French accent, but her direct manner is straight American business.

  “Call me Cotton.”

  “Such a name. I bet there’s a story there.”

  I grin. “Quite a long one.”

  I’d like to speak to her more, but Chubb is ushering me onto the next of the kilted guests. My eidetic memory, a gift at birth from my mother’s side of the family, catalogs them all. There is John Simons, a London bookseller, short and spectacled, sporting a black kilt with a tartan tie. Wilhelm Fenstermacher, from Berlin, whom I met once long ago, of the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Nigel Soames from Edinburgh, a private collector, who I see now and then at Sotheby’s. And Alexsandr Kuznyetsov, a saturnine sort whose predétente steel teeth clash with his Black Watch kilt. Most likely a private shopper for an oligarch, the people now with the real money in Russia. But who am I to judge. I too am here on behalf of others.

  At dinner, I find myself seated next to Eleanor LeBlanc. She’s adroitly dividing her attention between me on one side and Fenstermacher on the other, the effort made even more impressive as she is conversing in both English and German. Languages come easy to me, another benefit of my unusual memory. I’m fluent in several, so I catch all of her conversation with Fenstermacher. Finally, I ask whether she has a particular interest at the auction, as it’s always good to know the competition.

  “Most definitely,” she says, tossing me a slight smile. “The same as yours, I believe. The incunabulum grimoire.”

  I had not been trying to disguise my interest, but I’m a little surprised that she’d been watching close enough to notice.

  Her smile deepens, as she sees the question on my face.

  “I have a personal interest in that book,” she explains. “It was in my own family for generations. An impoverished ancestor sold it in the late 18th century, and it wandered, as you might say, for some time, owner to owner. I was excited to see it in the catalog here.”

  “So if you get it, you plan to keep it? Expensive bit of sentimentality.”

  She lifts one shoulder in a graceful shrug and twinkles at me. “Or perhaps I mean to use it. I’m told there are a great many interesting spells in that book.”

  I chuckle at her dismissal of my questions.

  Conversation thereafter becomes more general, a genial dinner, but one at which the undercurrents of calculation are clear, everyone sizing up everyone else, deciding just how deep a given pocket might be. I love private auctions. They come with all the intrigue of my former profession without the risk of dying.

  By the time the dessert plates are cleared a tiredness has crept over me, and I’m glad when the meal ends. Some of the guests ask for another brief look at the books on display in the drawing room, but I pass, leaving Madame LeBlanc to the others with a gallant kiss of her hand.

  I SLEEP LONG AND HARD, surely the aftereffects of the whisky, the dinner, and exhaustion from yesterday’s travel from Denmark. I awake early, feeling fresh as the day outside. A bright sun shines through the
slit in the drapes and, when I open them, the moor stretches out before me in a brilliant, rolling green under a cloudy sky.

  A mass of crumpled shirts and creased slacks confront me when I open my travel bag. I’d been too tired last night to hang anything up. I glance again out the window and, shrugging, find the least-wrinkled shirt and an Arran sweater from the bag, pairing them with my kilt, sporran, and hose from the night before. Might as well stay in the mood.

  A shower and shave refreshes me even more.

  Downstairs, breakfast is full Scottish, meaning full English, with a choice of eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, muffins, fried tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, and a disemboweled haggis. A discreet notice advises the availability of porridge, which I think is probably the only thing saving the Scots from epidemic constipation. I help myself liberally from the groaning sideboard
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