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Warning: this novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

Note: this excerpt contains MAJOR spoilers from the first two books of the 'Helen Trilogy,' FEVER DREAM and COLD VENGEANCE.


+ Forty Hours

For the past forty hours, she had been blindfolded and kept constantly on the move. She had been bundled into the trunk of a car, the back of a truck, and—she guessed—the hold of a boat. In all the furtive shuttling from place to place, she had grown disoriented and lost track of time. She felt cold, hungry, and thirsty, and her head still ached from the savage blow she’d received in the taxi. She had been given no food, and the only liquid offered her had been a plastic bottle of water, thrust into her hand some time back.

Now she was once again in the trunk of a car. For several hours they had been driving at high speed, apparently on a freeway. But now the car slowed; the vehicle made several turns; and the sudden roughness of the ride led her to believe they were on a dirt road or track.

Whenever she had been transferred from one makeshift prison to another, her captors had been silent. But now, with the road noise reduced, she could hear the murmur of their voices through the vehicle. They were speaking a mixture of Portuguese and German, both of which she understood perfectly, having learned them before either English or her father’s native Hungarian. The talk was faint, however, and she could make out very little beyond the tones, which seemed angry, urgent. There seemed to be four of them now.

After several minutes of rough travel, the car eased to a halt. She heard doors opening and closing, feet crunching on gravel. Then the trunk was opened and she felt chill air on her face. A hand grabbed her by the elbow, raised her to a sitting position, then pulled her out. She staggered, knees buckling; the pressure of the hand increased, raising her and steadying her. Then—without a word—she was shoved forward.

Strange how she felt nothing, no emotion, not even grief or fear. After so many years of hiding, of fear and uncertainty, her brother had appeared with the news she had long dreamed of hearing but had resigned herself would never come. For one brief day she had been afire with the hope of seeing Aloysius again, of restarting their lives, of finally living once more like a normal human being. Then in a moment it was snatched away, her brother murdered, her husband shot and perhaps dead as well.

And now she felt like an empty vessel. Better to have never hoped at all.

She heard the creak of an opening door, and she was guided over a sill and into a room.

The air smelled musty and close. The hand led her across the room, apparently through a second door and into an even mustier space. A deserted old house in the country, perhaps. The hand released its grip on her arm, and she felt the pressure of a chair seat against the back of her knees. She sat down, placing her remaining hand in her lap.

“Remove it,” said a voice in German—a voice she instantly recognized. There was a fumbling at her head, and the blindfold was pulled away.

She blinked once, twice. The room was dark, but her long-blindfolded eyes needed no period of adjustment. She heard footsteps recede behind her, heard the door close. Then, licking dry lips, she raised her eyes and met the gaze of Wulf Konrad Fischer. He was older, of course, but still as powerful looking and as heavily muscled as ever. He was seated in a chair facing her, his legs apart and his hands clasped between them. He shifted slightly, and the chair groaned under his massive build. With his penetrating pale eyes, his dark tan, and his closely trimmed thatch of thick, snow-white hair, he exuded Teutonic perfection. He looked at her, a cold smile distorting his lips. It was a smile Helen remembered all too well. Her apathy and emptiness were replaced by a spike of fear.

“I never expected to receive a visit from the dead,” Fischer said in his clipped, precise German. “And yet here you are. Fräulein Esterhazy—forgive me, Frau Pendergast—who departed this earth more than twelve years ago.” He looked at her, hard eyes glinting with some combination of amusement, anger, and curiosity.

Helen said nothing.

Natürlich, in retrospect I can see how it was done. Your twin sister—der Schwächling—was the sacrificial pawn. After all your protests, your sanctimonious outrage, I see how well you have learned from us, after all! I almost feel honored.”

Helen remained silent. The apathy was returning. She would be better off dead than living with this pain.

Fischer peered at her intently, as if to gauge the effect of his words. He took a pack of Dunhills from his pocket, plucked one from the box, lit it with a gold lighter. “You wouldn’t care to tell us where you’ve been all this time, would you? Or whether you’ve had any other accomplices in this little deception—beyond your brother, I mean? Or whether you’ve spoken to anyone about our organization?”

When there was no response, Fischer took a deep drag on the cigarette. His smile broadened. “No matter. There will be plenty of time for that—once we get you back home. I’m sure you’ll be happy to tell the doctors everything…that is, before the experiments begin.”

Helen went still. Fischer had used the word Versuchsreihe—but that word meant more to her than simply “experiments.” At the thought of what it meant—at the memory—she felt a sudden panic. She leapt to her feet and ran headlong toward the door. It was a mindless, instinctive act, born of the atavistic need for self-preservation. But even as she charged the door, it was opened, her captors standing just beyond. Helen did not slow, and the force of the impact knocked two of them back, but the others seized her and gripped her hard. It took all four to restrain her and drag her back into the room.

Fischer stood up. Taking another deep drag on the cigarette, he regarded Helen as she struggled silently, fiercely. Then he looked at his watch.

“It’s time to go,” he said. He glanced again at Helen. “I think we had better prepare the hypodermic.”


+ Forty-Four Hours

The knock came at half past two in the afternoon. Kurt Weber put down the bottle of sweet tea he’d been drinking, dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a silk handkerchief, turned off his computer monitor, and walked across the tiled floor to answer it. A quick look through the eyehole indicated a respectable-looking gentleman.

“Who is it?”

“I’m looking for the Freiheit Importing Company.”

Weber replaced the handkerchief in his breast pocket and opened the door. “Yes?”

The man stood in the hallway: slender, with piercing silver eyes and blond hair so pale, it was almost white.

“May I have a minute of your time?” the gentleman asked.

“Certainly.” Weber opened the door farther and motioned the man to a seat. Although the man’s suit was plain—simple black—it was of beautiful material, exquisitely tailored. Weber had always been something of a clotheshorse, and as he moved back behind his desk, he found himself unconsciously adjusting his own cuffs.

“Interesting,” the man said, glancing around, “that you conduct your business in a hotel.”

“It was not always a hotel,” Weber replied. “When it was built in 1929, it was called the Rhodes-Haverty Building. When it became a hotel, I saw no reason to bother relocating. The view of Atlanta’s historic district from here is second to none.”

He took a seat behind the desk. “How may I be of service?” The visit, of course, was almost certainly a mistake—the “importing” Weber did was for a private client only—but this wasn’t the first time people had called on him. He had always made a point of being polite with such callers, to give the impression his was a legitimate business.

The man sat down. “I have just one question. Answer it, and I’ll be on my way.”

Something in the man’s tone made Weber hesitate before replying. “And what question is that?”

“Where is Helen Pendergast?”

This is not possible, Weber thought. Aloud, he said: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You are the owner of a warehouse in downstate New York. It was from this warehouse that the operation to abduct Helen Pendergast was put into motion.”

“You aren’t making any sense. And since it appears you have no business to conduct, I’m afraid I shall have to ask you to leave, Mr.…?” As he spoke, Weber very casually opened the center drawer of his desk and placed his hand inside.

“Pendergast,” the stranger said. “Aloysius Pendergast.”

Weber drew out his Beretta from the desk, but before he could aim it, the man, seemingly reading his mind, lashed out and slammed the pistol from Weber’s grasp. It went tumbling across the floor. Covering Weber with his own weapon, which had appeared from nowhere, the man retrieved the Beretta, put it in his own pocket, and returned to his chair.

“Shall we try again?” he asked in a reasonable voice.

“I have nothing to say to you,” Weber replied.

The man calling himself Pendergast hefted the weapon in his hand. “Are you truly not attached to your own life?”

Weber had been very carefully trained in interrogation techniques—both how to administer and how to resist. He had also been schooled in how one of superior blood and breeding should conduct himself before others. “I’m not afraid to die for what I believe in.”

“That makes two of us.” The man paused, considering. “And what is it, exactly, that you believe in?”

Weber merely smiled.

Pendergast glanced around the office again, his gaze finally returning to Weber. “That’s a rather nice suit you’re wearing.”

Despite the big Colt trained on him, Weber felt perfectly calm, perfectly in control. “Thank you.”

“Is that by chance a Hardy Amies, my own tailor?”

“Sadly, no. Taylor and Merton, just a few doors down Savile Row from Amies.”

“I see we share a fondness for fine clothes. I would imagine our mutual interest extends beyond just suits. Take ties, for instance.” Pendergast caressed his own. “While in the past I’ve usually favored handmade Parisian ties, like Charvet, these days I prefer Jay Kos. Such as the one I’m wearing at present. At two hundred dollars, not cheap, but in my opinion worth every penny.” He smiled at Weber. “And who makes your ties?”

If this was some novel interrogation technique, Weber thought, it was not going to work. “Brioni,” he replied.

“Brioni,” Pendergast repeated. “That’s good. Well made.”

Suddenly—again with speed that more resembled an explosion than movement—Pendergast shot up from his chair, leapt over the desk, and grabbed Weber by the throat. Dragging him backward with shocking strength, he threw up the sash of the nearest window and propelled the struggling Weber into it. In terror Weber grasped the window frames on both sides. He could hear the traffic on Peachtree Street twenty stories below, feel the updraft.

“I love the windows in these old skyscrapers,” Pendergast said. “They actually open. And you were right about the view.”

Weber clung desperately to the sides of the window, gasping with terror.

Reaching around with the butt of his gun, Pendergast smashed the fingers of Weber’s left hand, breaking bones, then pounded on his right. With a cry, Weber felt himself shoved backward into open space, his arms flailing uselessly, his legs still hooked over the windowsill. Pendergast prevented his fall by grabbing his tie, holding him out at arm’s length from the window.

Frantically Weber pressed his calves against the sill, choking and fighting to maintain a grip.

“A man should always know his wardrobe—and his wardrobe’s limitations,” Pendergast went on, his voice still light and conversational. “My Jay Kos ties, for example, are made of Italian sevenfold silk. As strong as they are beautiful.”

He gave Weber’s tie a rough jerk. Weber gasped as one leg began to slip from the sill. He scrabbled to regain his footing. He tried to speak, but the tie was choking him.

“Other manufacturers sometimes cut corners,” Pendergast went on. “You know, like single stitching, only two folds.” He gave the tie another tug. “So I want you to be sure of the quality of your tie before I ask you my question again.”

Jerk.

With a harsh sound, Weber’s tie began to rip. He stared at it, crying out involuntarily.

“Oh, dear,” Pendergast said, disappointed. “Brioni? I don’t think so. Perhaps you’ve been deceived by a forgery. Or you’ve been cutting corners, lying to me about your haberdashers.”

Jerk.

The tie was now torn halfway across its fat end. From the corner of his eye, Weber could see a crowd gathering below, pointing upward, distant shouts. He felt his head start to swim. Panic overwhelmed him.

Jerk. Rip.

“All right!” Weber screamed, scrabbling at Pendergast’s hand with his own broken and twisted fingers. “I’ll talk!”

“Make it quick. This cheap tie isn’t going to last much longer.”

“She’s, she’s leaving the country tonight.”

“Where? How?”

“Private plane. Fort Lauderdale. Pettermars Airport. Nine o’clock.”

With a final, brutal tug, Pendergast pulled Weber back into his office.

“Scheiße!” Weber cried as he sprawled across the floor, in a fetal position, cradling his ruined hands. “What if my tie had torn completely?”

The man’s smile simply widened. And suddenly Weber understood—this was a man as far on the edge as a person could be while remaining sane.

Pendergast withdrew a step. “If you’re telling the truth, and I recover her without incident, you don’t have to worry about seeing me again. But if you have deceived me, I’ll pay you another visit.”

In the act of turning toward the door, Pendergast stopped. He loosened his own necktie, unknotted it, threw it toward Weber. “Here’s the real thing. Remember what I said about cutting corners.” And with a final, cold smile, he slipped out of the office.





TWO GRAVES is copyright © 2012 by Splendide Mendax, Inc. and Lincoln Child.
TWO GRAVES is available in paperback from Grand Central Publishing, www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

© 2019 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child