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The tomb of China’s First Emperor, guarded by an underground army of terra-cotta warriors, has remained sealed for more than 2,000 years. Though it’s regarded as one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world, the Chinese government won’t allow anyone to open it. Why?
That question is at the heart of a dilemma faced by former Justice Department operative Cotton Malone, whose life is shattered when he receives an anonymous note carrying an unfamiliar Web address. Logging on, he sees Cassiopeia Vitt, a woman who’s saved his life more than once, being tortured at the hands of a mysterious man who has a single demand: Bring me the artifact she’s asked you to keep safe. The only problem is, Malone doesn’t have a clue what the man is talking about, since Cassiopeia has left nothing with him. So begins Malone’s most harrowing adventure to date—one that offers up astounding historical revelations, pits him against a ruthless ancient brotherhood, and sends him from Denmark to Belgium to Vietnam then on to China, a vast and mysterious land where danger lurks at every turn.
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An Interview with Cotton Malone by Steve Berry
Agent Interviewed: Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone
Status: Retired (on special assignment here)
Interview Location: Café Norden, Copenhagen, Denmark
Subject: Recent incursion into the People’s Republic of China
Question 1: Your impressions of China?
Amazing. Here’s a culture that has been around for over 4,000 years yet is still struggling to identify itself. An ancient place, and that old-world feel is still there, especially in the areas I visited. I learned that well over 50% of the world’s great inventions and innovations originated in China--things like printing, the zero, the compass, the stirrup, the abacus, the seismograph, the rudder, the parachute, and masts and sails. The list is long. But, because of the country’s isolation, and the tendency of one emperor to eradicate all vestiges of those who came before him, the Chinese literally forgot what they had accomplished. Can you imagine?
The country is incredibly varied in geography and culture, it stretches more than 3,000 miles east to west, and it contains two of the world’s great deserts, the Gobi and Taklamakan, which I skirted. Some of the highest mountains on the planet rise from the Tibetan plateau in the south, which I visited. Maybe most impressively, 1.3 billion people live in China, so it’s the most populous place on the planet. But despite all that, the country remains tremendously fragile, its political culture is volatile and unpredictable, bound together only by force and fear. It would not take much to send it over the edge.
Question 2: Who was there, on the ground, with you?
Stephanie Nelle, head of the Magellan Billet, authorized the incursion, facilitated by a cooperating Russian agent known only as Ivan. Cassiopeia Vitt accompanied me, along with Viktor Tomas, a freelance agent I’d dealt with previously in a file titled The Venetian Betrayal. This time Tomas was covertly working with Karl Tang, China’s deputy premier. Cassiopeia and I have not worked together in a while, as my experiences in Germany and the Antarctic last Christmas (detailed in a file titled The Charlemagne Pursuit) and then in France (The Paris Vendetta) did not concern her. Her involvement here came as the result of a long term friendship with a Russian ex-patriot, Lev Sokolov, and the abduction of his son. There’s a file, The Balkan Escape, which explains in detail her connection with Sokolov.
Question 3: Are you able to offer any insight into the epidemic of child trafficking in China?
This is truly a major problem, which Lev Sokolov experienced firsthand.
Some estimate that as many as 70,000 children are stolen in China every year. Its one-child policy and a cultural preference for boys has fostered a vicious trafficking industry. Sons traditionally care for their parents and, of course, carry on the family name, so female fetuses are many times either aborted or abandoned. Incredibly, it’s illegal to abandon, steal, or sell a child in China, but not illegal to buy one. I learned that a young boy costs around $900 U.S. That’s a lot of money considering the average Chinese worker earns only about $1,700 U.S. annually. But people pay it. The government is doing something, but not nearly enough to stop it. Lev Sokolov was fighting an uphill battle, and that’s why he called Cassiopeia.
Question 4: What observations, if any, can you offer on Qin Shi’s tomb?
The tomb mound itself has stood in central China for over 2,200 years. It was once the size of the pyramid at Giza in Egypt. It took thousands of men over 12 years to complete the underground palace complex where Qin Shi is buried. His body still rests beneath the mound. The tomb itself is the size of a football field, topped by a jeweled ceiling representative of stars and a floor that depicts Qin Shi’s empire in three dimensions including mountains, villages, roads, and rivers, lakes, and oceans fashioned of mercury. It has remained unexplored, as no Chinese emperor or government has ever allowed anyone inside. The only written account of the interior was penned 2,000 years ago. A kilometer away stands the terra cotta army--an amazing collection of 8,000 unique soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses, all arrayed in tight battle formation. That area is open to the public and its museum complex is extensively visited. Interestingly, when the terra cotta warriors were discovered in 1974, no one had any idea that they ever existed. Remember that practice of purging memories? The same thing happened here. The emperors who came after Qin Shi made sure that every detail of his existence was forgotten. Only in the past few decades has interest in the First Emperor been rekindled.
Question 5: What are your future plans?
To return to my bookshop and earn a living. But you never know what will happen next. I had a dream the other night that I was drawn back home, to the United States, for some reason. Odd I’d imagine that.
Steve Berry is the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author of The Lincoln Myth, The King’s Deception, The Columbus Affair, The Jefferson Key, The Emperor’s Tomb, The Paris Vendetta, The Charlemagne Pursuit, The Venetian Betrayal, The Alexandria Link, The Templar Legacy, The Third Secret, The Romanov Prophecy, and The Amber Room. His books have been translated into 40 languages with more than 18,000,000 copies in 51 countries.
History lies at the heart of every Steve Berry novel. It’s this passion, one he shares with his wife, Elizabeth, that led them to create History Matters, a foundation dedicated to historic preservation. Since 2009 Steve and Elizabeth have traveled across the country to save endangered historic treasures, raising money via lectures, receptions, galas, luncheons, dinners, and their popular writers’ workshops. To date, nearly 2,500 students have attended those workshops. In 2012 their work was recognized by the American Library Association, which named Steve the first spokesman for National Preservation Week. He was also appointed by the Smithsonian Board of Regents to serve on the Smithsonian Libraries Advisory Board to help promote and support the libraries in their mission to provide information in all forms to scientists, curators, scholars, students, and the public at large. He has received the Royden B. Davis Distinguished Author Award and the 2013 Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers. His novel The Columbus Affair earned him the Anne Frank Human Writes Award, and his historic preservation work merited the 2013 Silver Bullet from International Thriller Writers.
Steve Berry was born and raised in Georgia, graduating from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University. He was a trial lawyer for 30 years and held elective office for 14 of those years. He is a founding member of International Thriller Writers—a group of more than 2,600 thriller writers from around the world—and served three years as its co-president.
For more information, visit www.steveberry.org.
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