Matchup, p.18
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       MatchUp, p.18

           Lee Child


  GAYLE AND DAVID COFOUNDED INTERNATIONAL thriller Writers, so it was only fitting they be teamed together for this anthology.

  Gayle’s character, Liz Sansborough, appeared in her first novel, Masquerade (1996). The story of an old assassin trying to come in from the cold, the book was rejected some thirty times, largely because publishers believed the market for international spy thrillers was as dead as the Cold War. Plus, there was another problem—Gayle was female, and as one publisher told her agent, “No woman could’ve written this book.” High-octane adventure and a geopolitical story that spanned the globe was then a male-only field. Still, Masquerade went on to become a New York Times bestseller, and Publishers Weekly has listed it among the top ten spy novels of all time.

  Rambo, of course, derives from the classic First Blood, which David penned in 1972. That character has evolved into icon status. It’s even now an actual word in the dictionary. Few fictional characters can claim that fame. There’s not been a new Rambo story in print for over thirty years. David has toyed with ideas, but none have “spoken to him,” which is a prerequisite for him before starting any project. When asked to be a part of this book we hoped that something might speak up and, thankfully, it did.

  This story was a true collaboration.

  David and Gayle e-mailed and talked on the phone many times, hashing out the plot, engaging in a vigorous back-and-forth reminiscent to them both of 2004 through 2006 when they were busy creating International Thriller Writers. David was a little apprehensive about using Rambo in a short story. He worried that whatever he might do with his character in the future might be compromised.

  So he and Gayle devised a clever solution.

  One that delivers on all fronts.

  Rambo on Their Minds.




  THE LONG SHADOWS OF MORNING drifted across highway 55. Forests clothed in autumn golds and reds pressed the road where a dusty five-year-old van cruised the speed limit, attracting no attention. In the front seat, the driver and his passenger—armed and alert—wore sunglasses and baseball caps pulled low across their foreheads.

  From the vehicle’s rear came the sounds of a moan and coughing.

  The passenger peered back over his shoulder. His name was Rudy Voya, a muscular man in his midthirties, with a broad pale face and high Slavic cheekbones. “She’s waking up,” he reported. He carried a .40 Smith & Wesson in a shoulder holster under his leather jacket. At his feet lay his AK-47. “Looks as if you shot her up perfect, Max.”

  “Not like we don’t have a lot of practice,” the driver, Max Tariksky, said with a nod. He was Rudy’s cousin, the same age and hearty build, but forty pounds heavier. His face was round, his nose a ski slope, and his hooded gray eyes steely. He carried a 9 mm Browning under his windbreaker.

  They had snatched the woman when she was on her dawn run through Rock Creek Park in Chevy Chase. Her name was Liz Sansborough, and she was a professor of psychology at Georgetown. She should’ve been an easy mark, but she was also ex CIA and rumored to have been an undercover officer. Taking no chances, Rudy had pretended to lose control of a bicycle, crashing into her, knocking her to the ground, while Max had hurried from a bench to help her stand but instead had injected her with a fast-acting sedative. They’d shoved her and the bike into the van before anyone had a chance to realize what was happening.

  Now she was curled like a lemon peel on the floor behind them.

  The highway bent sharply left and crested a ridge. As a mountain valley unfolded below, Max slowed the van. No vehicles were in sight. On their right an asphalt lane came into view and he turned the van onto it, braking inside the trees. Ten feet ahead stood a reinforced security gate with barbed wire on the top. On either side a chain-link fence extended into the forest. The sign on the gate warned PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO TRESSPASSING.

  Rudy jumped out, hurried to the gate, and pressed four numbers on a security pad. By the time he ran back to the passenger seat the steel gate had slid open. After Max drove through, the gate closed behind them. They now had complete control of the property’s hundred acres.

  The drive wound up through oaks, pines, and poplars for nearly two miles. In this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains hunt clubs were common. The family had owned this one for nearly twenty years and was considered a good neighbor. Which meant they minded their own business. In rural Warren County privacy was next to godliness.

  Checking on Liz Sansborough, Rudy saw that she’d rolled over onto her other side. He studied her in her sleek, yellow jogging clothes, her auburn hair falling out of her ponytail. With her full lips and wide-set eyes she was pretty. Her hands were scraped from when she’d tried to cushion her fall after the bicycle struck her. Other than that, she didn’t have a scratch or a bruise on her.

  That will soon change, Rudy thought.


  She felt dizzy, sick to her stomach. Where was she? What had happened? As the stench of exhaust burned her nose, she began to remember—two men in the park, a bicycle knocking her down, someone offering to help her stand, the sting of a hypodermic. Just before she passed out they’d thrown her into a van. The van. That must be where she was now.

  The vehicle stopped.

  So did the engine. Two doors opened and banged shut.

  She forced herself up into a sitting position just as the rear door swung open. Two men stared at her, the same two who’d kidnapped her. One briefly aimed his AK-47.

  Then they yanked her out.

  Rallying, she slammed her knee in a hizagashira strike into the belly of the larger one. Swearing, he grabbed her and threw her down hard. Gravel bit into her palms. She felt dizzy again. She forced herself to lift her head and look around. The van had stopped in front of a two-story log house. Next to it was the berm of what appeared to be an outdoor shooting range. Farther over she saw a swimming pool, covered for cold weather.

  What is this place? she wondered in a daze.

  One of the men was aiming a cell phone at her, holding it so long that she realized he must be making a video.

  “Say something,” he ordered. “Say, ‘Help me, Simon.’ ”

  She hurt everywhere. Her vision was blurred. “Go to hell.”

  The other man swung his hand, his palm connecting with her cheek. “Say it.”

  Pain exploded through her face.

  He swung the other hand and slammed the other cheek.

  She pitched over, tasting blood.

  “Say it. Goddammit.”

  Need to—

  Her eyes closed. She smelled pine trees.


  She heard water trickling.

  A stream?

  A forest?

  Some kind of camp?


  FOR THE TENTH TIME, SIMON childs scanned the items on the restaurant’s breakfast menu. Yet again, he glanced past the hostess toward the entrance. Once more he looked at his watch—a vintage Rolex that Liz knew he admired and that she’d given him as a prewedding present.

  Twenty minutes to ten.

  He and Liz had made plans to meet here, in Georgetown, for breakfast at nine and then go to a final meeting with their wedding-reception caterer. He didn’t understand why she hadn’t phoned to tell him she was going to be late. He’d called her three times but had reached only her voice mail. Amid the clink of silverware and the murmur of conversations, a voice interrupted his worried thoughts. He looked up, surprised to see the hostess standing next to him.

  “Mr. Childs, this arrived for you.”

  She handed him a small box wrapped in silver wedding paper. He frowned, seeing his name on an attached card.

  “A messenger delivered it,” the hostess explained. “He pointed toward you and said to tell you that Ms. Sansborough apologizes for being late.”

  “Thank you.”

  As she returned to greeting more guests, there was a faint buzzing sound from the box in his hand. It vibrated. In an instant, he realized why. He tore off the bow, ripped off the wrapping paper, and yanked off the box’s lid. Inside was a cell phone. He pressed the Answer button and held the phone against his ear.

  “Liz?” he asked.

  “She’s been detained,” a female voice said.

  His chest tightened. “What do you mean ‘detained’? Who is this?”

  “Someone who’s concerned about your fiancée’s welfare.” The woman’s voice had a Russian accent and the confidence of someone accustomed to exerting authority. “I sent you a video attachment. Unless you want to disturb people sitting near you, I suggest that you watch it outside. I’ll call you again in three minutes.”

  The transmission went dead.

  He walked swiftly toward the door, sidestepped a couple entering, and hurried out to the parking lot. Ignoring the cold morning air he scrolled through the phone, found the video attachment and pressed it.

  And saw Liz lying on gravel.

  “Say something,” a man’s voice ordered. “Say, ‘Help me, Simon.’ ”

  Liz looked groggy, stunned. But managed to say, “Go to hell.”

  A hand with a jagged scar on it streaked into view, the palm crashing into one cheek, then the palm of the other battering her other cheek, drawing blood. “Say it. Goddammit.”

  The image abruptly changed to one in which Liz slumped on a padded bench. There were zip-tie cuffs on her wrists that were looped around some kind of metal pole. Both cheeks looked raw and swollen. Blood smeared her nose and chin.

  The same scarred hand clasped her injured cheeks.

  “Let’s try again. You know what I want.” The camera moved closer, her blood-covered face filling the screen. “Say it.”

  The hand squeezed so hard that its knuckles whitened.

  Her eyes widened.

  She tried to scream, but the hand kept squeezing. Crushing.

  She writhed, managing to say past the hand, “Help . . . me . . . Simon.”

  The video ended.

  But he continued to see Liz’s battered face.

  The phone vibrated.

  He jabbed the Answer button and said, “I will find and kill you.”

  “You don’t have time for useless threats,” the woman’s voice said. “Last night, in Washington, the FBI arrested an associate of mine. His name is Nick Demidov. I want him released.”

  “We don’t have anything to do with the FBI.”

  The woman’s harsh laughter reminded him of an old Russian expression—the ruthless walk over the dead.

  “You’re an MI6 operative on temporary assignment to the FBI for a special Russkaya Mafiya task force. And your fiancée used to work for the CIA, probably still does. I’m giving you less than twelve hours to get Nick free, so use your influence. Call in favors. It should be easy. He’s not important. The FBI will admit that they just swept him up because they hope he’ll lead them to someone higher.”

  “If he’s that low level, why does he matter to you?”

  “He’s my brother. Our mother is upset, as am I. Poor Nick isn’t smart, which is obvious, given that he allowed himself to be arrested. But he’s family. You’ve got until nine o’clock tonight to deliver him.”


  “Keep the phone I gave you. It has an open mic. Even when it’s turned off, the phone transmits everything you and anyone near you say, so don’t even think about warning your buddies at the FBI about what’s going on. If I even slightly suspect you’re playing games, the next video will show your fiancée’s ears being cut off.”

  “I want a video report every half hour to prove Liz is alive and healthy,” he demanded.

  “Every two hours is often enough. Remember, the world won’t end if the task force lets Nick go. But your world will end, if they don’t. Give me my brother, or I’ll give you your fiancée’s dismembered corpse.”


  Keeping her eyes closed, she reached to hold her burning cheeks, but her wrists were secured to something. She was slumped on a padded surface. As she struggled to remember where she was, the sound of voices penetrated her foggy mind. With a chill, she recognized them as those of her kidnappers. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she’d heard them talk to each other and to someone else, a woman, on what sounded like a speakerphone. The woman had addressed one of them as Rudy and the other as Max. Breathing deeply to fight the pain, she made herself focus on them.

  “John J. was on TV last night,” Rudy was saying.

  “ ‘John J.’? What are you talking about?” Max asked.

  “John Rambo. You know, First Blood,” Rudy said. “When I was growing up in Moscow, I got better at English by watching the movies.”

  She noticed the slight hissing of his s’s, a characteristic of some English-speaking Russians.

  “Rambo hardly says a word. How could you learn English from those movies?” Max asked.

  “From the other characters.”

  “After the way the third Rambo movie made us Russians look, I’m surprised you watched any of them.”

  “I admit the third one isn’t the best, but that first one was great.”

  She was learning nothing from them, so she forced her eyes open and saw that she was lying on a weight lifter’s bench beside a massive Nautilus machine. As her mind cleared, she realized that the plastic zip-tie cuffs on her wrists encircled one of the machine’s metal poles, holding her arms up. The restraint was so tight it cut into her skin. She studied the pole and the multigym station with its pulleys, handles, and weights, wondering whether there was a way to twist free. It didn’t look hopeful, and if she succeeded, she’d still have to deal with the two bastards who’d grabbed her.

  “If you wanted to learn English from Rambo, you should’ve read the novel,” Max said.

  “There’s a novel?”

  “He dies at the end.”

  “No, the police chief’s still moving at the end. You can see him twitch when they put him in the ambulance.”

  “Not in the novel,” Max said.

  “The police chief dies in the novel?”

  “And Rambo.”

  “Stop bullshitting me.”

  Following the sound of their voices, she peered across the room and saw that this was some kind of security center—the two men were sitting in the middle of a long curved desk, while above and around them rose five levels of closed-circuit TV monitors displaying views of a steel gate, a driveway, the exterior of the log house, and a chain-link fence, most in dense woods. Because the majority of screens showed the fence, she guessed it surrounded the property and there must be many forested acres.

  Carrying a coffee mug, Max swiveled in his chair and headed toward a kitchenette. “I’m telling you Rambo gets killed in the novel. Colonel Trautman shoots him.”

  “No, no, no. Rambo can’t die.”

  “That’s what Stallone said. That’s why the movie ends the way it does.” Max poured coffee.

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