The Bourne Imperative by Eric Van Lustbader : Page 1

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Prologue

Sadelöga, Sweden

She came out of the mist, and he was running, just as he had been for hours, days. It felt like he had been alone for weeks, his heart continually thundering inside his chest, his mind befogged with bitter betrayal. Sleep was unthinkable, rest a thing of the past.

Nothing was clear now except that she had come out of the mist after he had been certain—for the thirteenth, or was it the fifteenth, time?—that he had eluded her. But here she was, coming for him like a mythical exterminating angel, indestructible and implacable.

His life had been reduced to the two of them. Nothing else existed outside the wall of white—snow and ice and the wispy brushstrokes of fishing cottages, deep red with white trim, small, compact, containing only what was necessary. He admired such judiciousness.

The mist burned like fire—a cold fire that ran up his spine and gripped the back of his neck, just as she had gripped the back of his neck—when? Days? A week ago? When they had been in bed together, when she had been another person, his lover, a woman who quickly discovered how to make him shiver and melt with pleasure.

Half-skating across a large frozen lake, he slipped, lost his gun, which went skittering over the ice. He was about to make a lunge for it when he heard the snap of a twig, as clear and sharp as a knife thrust.

Instead, he continued on, made for a stand of shivering pines. Powdery snow sprayed his face, coating his eyebrows and the stubble of a long flight across continents. He did not dare waste another moment looking back over his shoulder to check the progress of his pursuer.

She had dogged his tracks all the way from Lebanon. He had met her in a packed, smoke-blurred bar in Dahr El Ahmar—or maybe now he would admit to himself that she had met him, that every gesture, every word out of her mouth, had been by design. Events seemed so clear now that he was on the precipice of either escape or death. She had played him instead of the other way around—he, the consummate professional. How had she so easily slipped inside his defenses? But he knew, he knew: the exterminating angel was irresistible.

Inside the pines he paused, his breath clouding the air in front of his face. It was bitterly cold, but inside his winter camo coat, he felt as if he were burning alive. Clinging to one of a maze of black tree trunks, his mind returned to the hotel room, stinking of bodies and sex, recalling the moment when she had bitten his lip, her teeth clamped down on his flesh while she somehow said, “I know. I know what you are.”

Not who, but what.

She knew. He looked around now at the city of interlocking branches, at the labyrinth of needles in which he hid. It was impossible. How could she know? And yet…

Hearing again the snap of a twig, he started, turned slowly in a circle, all his senses questing toward the direction of the sound. Where was she? Death could come at any minute, but he knew it wouldn’t be quick. There were too many secrets she needed to know, otherwise she would have killed him during one of their animalistic trysts. Nights that still gave him shivers of arousal, even though he now knew how close he had been to death. She had been playing with him—perhaps because she came to enjoy their lovemaking as much as he did. He gave a silent laugh, his lips pulled back from his teeth, more a snarl than a smile. What a fool! He kept deluding himself that there had been something between them, even in the face of the most explicit evidence to the contrary. What a spell she had woven over him! He shuddered, crouching down, contracting into himself as he pressed his spine against the rough pine bark.

Suddenly he was tired of running. It was here, in the frozen back of beyond, that he’d make his stand, even though he had no clear idea of how to emerge alive from this killing field. Behind him, he heard the insistent burble of water. In Sadelöga, you were never far from inlets of the Baltic Sea, the air mineral-thick with salt and seaweed and phosphorus.

A blur caught like a fish on a line at the corner of his eye. There she was! Had she seen him? He wanted to move, but his limbs felt as if they were filled with lead. He could not feel his feet. Turning his head slowly brought a sliver of her advancing into the tree line.

She paused, her head cocked to one side, listening, as if she could hear him breathe.

Unbidden, his tongue ran across his severely swollen lower lip. His mind raced backward, to an exhibit of Japanese wood-block prints—stately, serene, calming. All except one piece of erotica that was so famous everyone had heard of it even if they hadn’t actually seen it in person. It hung before him, a depiction of a woman in the throes of unimaginable ecstasy, administered by her octopus-lover’s dextrous eight arms. That was how he thought of his lover, his stalker. In the overheated Dahr El Ahmar hotel room he had known the depths—or heights—of the ecstasy experienced by the woman depicted in the wood-block print. In that respect, he wasn’t sorry. He had never imagined, let alone expected, that anyone could give him so much pleasure, but she had, and he was perversely grateful, even though she might very well be the death of him.

He started. She was coming now. Even though he didn’t hear her, had lost her in the maze of trees, he could feel her moving closer, drawn to him in some inexplicable manner. So he sat and waited for her to appear, considering what he would do when that happened.

He did not have long to wait. Seconds passed slowly, seeming to float away in the water somewhere behind him, at the far edge of the stand of pines. He heard her call his name, softly, gently as she had when they were lovers, entwined, locked in their own ecstasies. A shiver ran down his spine, lodged between his legs, and would not dissipate.

Still…He had resources left, surprises, chances to walk out of this killing ground alive.

Putting his head down, he slowly drew his knees up to his chest. It must have started snowing fairly hard because more and more flakes were pushing their way through the tangle of needles. Green shadows morphed to charcoal-gray, obscuring him further. Snow began to cover him, light as the flutter of angel wings. His heart thudded within his rib cage and he could feel his pulse in the side of his neck.

Still alive, he thought.

He sensed her as she slipped between the trunks of two pines. His nostrils flared, one animal scenting another. One way or another, the hunt was at an end. He felt a certain relief. Soon it would be over.

She was so close now that he heard the crunch as her boots cracked the gossamer-thin crust, plunged into the snow with each careful step. She stopped six feet away. Her shadow fell over him; he had felt it for weeks now as he traveled north by northwest in his vain attempt to dislodge her.

I know what you are, she had said, so she must know that he was on his own. There was no contact to call in case of emergency, in case of her. He had been cut out of the herd, so there would be absolutely no chance of the herd being disturbed or, worse, probed, should he be caught and put under articulated interrogation. Nevertheless, she also knew that he held secrets in the darkest corners of his mind, secrets she had been sent to extract from him in the same way a diner extracts the meat from the very top of a lobster’s claw.

Octopus and lobster. Those terms more accurately characterized the two of them than any more traditional definition.

She spoke his name again, more definitively this time, and he raised his chin off his chest to look her in the eye. She held a 10 mm EAA Witness Pistol aimed at his right knee.

“No more running,” she said.

He nodded. “No more running.”
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