Matchup, p.19
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       MatchUp, p.19
 

           Lee Child

  “Then why would Stallone end the novel that way? You’re not making sense.”

  “Stallone didn’t write the novel.”

  “You’re starting to bother me.”

  “I’m telling you.”

  “Then who the hell wrote the novel?”

  “I can’t remember.” Max returned to his chair and sat.

  “You’re making all this up.”

  As they talked, she studied the room.

  On her left was an expansive gun cabinet in which a dozen M4 assault rifles stood neatly in a line. Boxes of ammo were piled on shelves. To her right a wooden staircase climbed upward. All four walls were made of concrete blocks. There were no windows. The place had the feel of not only being secure but underground.

  She focused again on the men at the big console. They were watching a screen twice as large as the others. It showed a grid on which a green dot was slowly traveling along one of the lines.

  “He’s on the move,” Max said.

  Rudy laughed. “And he’s no Rambo.”

  A phone rang somewhere in the chamber.

  Max pressed a button on the computer, and a woman’s disembodied voice reported from a speaker, “We’ve got Simon Childs on a leash. I need you to e-mail me a video of Sansborough every couple of hours to keep him motivated, until he delivers the package.”

  At Simon’s name, Liz tensed, feeling fresh pain roll through her. Now she remembered. The men had made her beg Simon for help. So Simon was involved and there was a “package.” What was so important that they’d kidnapped her to get Simon to do what they wanted?

  “Not a problem,” Rudy said. He turned and grinned at Liz. “You want us to hurt her some more?”

  “Not yet. Maybe later.”

  Liz stared back at the asshole, refusing to show fear.

  But they’d let her see their faces.

  No way could they allow her to live.

  AS SIMON STARED AT THE phone in his hand, a car horn startled him. He jerked his head up, abruptly aware of the restaurant’s parking lot. A taxi was stopping at the building’s entrance and the passenger was getting out. He ran to the taxi, veered in front of a waiting couple, and lunged into the backseat.

  “Hoover Building,” he told the surprised driver.

  While the taxi merged into the morning traffic, Simon examined the phone. The woman had told him it had an open mic. In that case Liz’s captors would now have heard where he was going. But he’d been ordered to use his influence, so his destination shouldn’t alarm them.

  He hoped.

  The time on the phone was 9:54 a.m.

  Less than twelve hours remained.

  He and Liz were scheduled to be married ten days from now, and by God he was going to make certain it happened.

  The FBI’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue had been built with a rugged concrete exterior—to create a powerful, dominating impression. But after little more than four decades, the concrete was decaying, and nets enclosed the upper stories to prevent chunks from falling onto pedestrians.

  Feeling that something might indeed crash onto him, Simon hurried inside the massive building. He tried not to arouse suspicion by looking impatient while he waited in a long line at the security checkpoint.

  Another line blocked his way to the elevators.

  A clock on a wall showed 10:28 when he finally entered the third-floor office where the Russian Mafia task force was located. The special agent in charge, a spectacled woman named Cassidy, spoke rapidly into a cell phone while a broad-shouldered man named Grant typed on a keyboard.

  Cassidy ended her call and tossed Simon a puzzled look. “I thought you and Liz were finalizing your wedding reception today.”

  “The caterer postponed the meeting,” Simon said, not daring to doubt that the phone did indeed broadcast the conversation.

  He considered writing a note to alert them to what was happening, but he couldn’t depend on them not saying something that would make Liz’s captors suspicious. Instead he studied Grant’s computer screen and pointed toward a new name on a list.

  “Who’s Nick Demidov?”

  “Not sure yet.”

  Grant clicked on the name, opening an almost blank document that showed photographs of a dark-haired, fortyish man in a black leather sports jacket.

  “The police grabbed him last night when they raided a warehouse stashed with stolen prescription painkillers,” Cassidy said. “He has a Virginia driver’s license, but all he claims to speak is Russian. So far there’s no record on him. What’s interesting is he had two hundred thousand dollars in the trunk of his car. A six-year-old car, no less. If he had that kind of money, he should have been driving the best. He seems to be a courier.”

  “We sent for a translator,” Grant said. “Maybe Demidov can lead us to somebody important.”

  “You know, he’s starting to look familiar,” Simon lied again.

  “Oh?” Cassidy asked.

  “When I worked on the European task force, he was a bagman for a Russian money launderer in London. If I talk to him, maybe he’ll drop the ‘I don’t speak English’ act and tell me what he’s doing in D.C. Where are you holding him?”

  LIZ FELT NAUSEATED.

  Her head ached and her face still throbbed. Worse, whatever Max and Rudy had shot her up with had muddled her brain.

  Dammit, enough whining, she told herself. Focus.

  She heard Simon’s voice. “Where are you holding him?”

  She snapped open her eyes and realized his voice was coming from a speaker on the computer desk across the room. Beside it sat the large monitor where the green dot had been moving the last time she looked.

  Now the dot was motionless.

  They’re tracking Simon.

  Another man’s voice sounded from the speaker, answering Simon. “Demidov is in a safe house out by Tysons Corner. Here’s the address.”

  She heard someone writing on a piece of paper and tearing it from a pad.

  In his chair at the security center, Max grinned. “I love it when a plan comes together. We gotta get Demidov away from the FBI before they figure out who he is. I’m e-mailing this to Marta in case she didn’t pick it up.”

  “I’ll be in touch.”

  Simon’s voice again.

  On the speaker, a man and woman said good-bye to Simon, and the sounds diminished to footsteps and distant voices.

  Max chuckled and leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head.

  “That Simon guy is no Rambo.”

  Rudy headed toward the Nautilus multigym. “The first Rambo movie’s okay, but I like the first sequel more.”

  He did some upper-body stretches.

  “The one where he goes back to Vietnam?” Max asked. “You’ve gotta be kidding. Russians look like idiots in that one also.”

  “Hey, it was the Cold War. You need to give the movie some artistic license. How much weight do you think Stallone bench-presses?”

  “More than you.”

  With a shrug, Rudy sat at the machine, gripped two handles, and exhaled as he pushed his arms out and away from his body.

  Weights lifted.

  Liz’s wrists jerked up, her zip-tie cuffs caught in the mechanism.

  Rudy noticed and laughed.

  Inhaling, he returned to his original position and pushed out his arms once more.

  Again her wrists were yanked up.

  She stared at the cuff and realized it was being pinched. She wriggled her arms around so the tie was in the center between her wrists, and gritted her teeth as Rudy continued the exercise.

  “Remember that scene where Rambo was tied to upright bedsprings,” Rudy said, “while the Russian interrogators ran electricity through the metal springs, torturing him?”

  “Where would they have found bedsprings in the jungle?” Max asked.

  “You’re starting to get on my nerves. I told you. Allow for artistic license. So Rambo starts shaking and shaking from the electricity, rattlin
g the bedsprings, and all of a sudden the guys torturing him realize what’s happening, and Rambo’s so crazy with pain and rage, he—”

  The sound of a car door being opened through the speaker interrupted them.

  “Tysons Corner,” Simon’s voice said to someone.

  THE TAXI TOOK AN OFF-RAMP from the rush of traffic on the 495. Avoiding the huge shopping malls and corporate buildings that Tysons Corner was known for, it reached a quiet street of attractive houses and expensive landscaping. Conscious of how swiftly time was passing, Simon forced himself to follow protocol, giving the driver an address two blocks away. The watcher at the safe house would think it suspicious if he arrived at the front door in a taxi rather than first cleaning his trail on foot. Paying the driver, Simon waited until the taxi disappeared around a corner.

  As dark clouds threatened rain, he pulled out the cell phone he’d been given and hurried toward his destination. He continued to assume that anything he said could be overheard, so he didn’t bother using the number programmed into the phone and instead spoke directly to the blank screen.

  “Prove that Liz is still alive.”

  LIZ FELT A SURGE OF hope as Simon’s voice spilled from the speaker.

  “Send a video update. Now.”

  Max pressed a button on the console. “Marta?”

  “Do it,” the woman’s Russian-accented voice ordered. “Let him see you damage her a little more.”

  “Cool,” Rudy said.

  Her stomach cramped as he turned toward where she was cuffed to the Nautilus machine, her arms stretched painfully above her head.

  “Hey, Max, I’ve got an idea,” the broad-shouldered Russian said. “Why don’t we make our own Rambo movie?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “Remember, when he was tied to the bedsprings.”

  “You should see a shrink. You’ve got Rambo on the brain.”

  “No, listen. When they weren’t shooting electricity through him, the guys torturing him heated his knife and made it look like they were going to burn out one of his eyes.”

  THE SAFE HOUSE WAS A split level, with a huge lawn and a two-car garage under lace-curtained windows. Walking toward it, Simon told the phone, “I said I want a video update.”

  “Your impatience is nothing compared to mine,” the voice of the Russian woman replied.

  The phone made a chiming sound that indicated a text message had arrived. Simon opened an attachment. With a mixture of fear and rage he again saw Liz positioned on the padded bench, but this time her arms were stretched above her head, her wrists still locked around the metal pole. More blood covered her face. Abruptly her arms jerked higher, the force great enough to slam her head back against the wall.

  She groaned.

  With equal abruptness, her arms fell, only to be jerked upward again as if she were a puppet.

  Her head sagged forward.

  The camera tilted down to reveal the scarred hand that Simon had seen earlier. The angle suggested that it belonged to the man who held the camera. The fingers gripped a long, saw-backed knife, holding its blade against the noisy blue flame of a butane blowtorch set on a table.

  “Out there, you might be the law, but in here, we are,” a voice with a Russian accent said. He seemed to be quoting from something. “Mess with us, and we’ll show you a war you’ll never believe.”

  “Yeah,” another Russian voice said. “You don’t want us to come for you, Murdock.”

  Who the hell was Murdock?

  They sounded insane.

  The point of the blade glowed red as the camera followed it toward Liz. She pressed her head desperately back against the wall. The fiery tip moved toward her left eye. She struggled to turn her head, but the blade went this way and that, matching her frantic movements. At once, it shifted toward her ear and branded it with the silhouette of the knife’s tip.

  Liz screamed.

  The video ended.

  “It’s six minutes after twelve,” the Russian woman’s voice said from the cell phone. “You have less than nine hours to give me my brother.”

  He lowered the phone.

  Struggling not to show how agitated he was, he put the phone in his pocket and approached the safe house’s front door. As he pressed the doorbell, he peered up toward where he assumed a concealed camera watched him.

  “Simon Childs,” he said. “Cassidy sent me.”

  He waited while someone inside compared his face to the image in his electronic file.

  A lock buzzed.

  He turned the doorknob, entered, and showed his ID.

  Thickly carpeted stairs led down to the left and up to the right. A man in a dark sport coat, a white shirt, and a loosened tie studied him from the bottom level. The open coat revealed a pistol in a holster on his belt.

  “You looked like that phone call was bad news,” the man said.

  “I’m getting married in ten days. The reception’s a logistical nightmare.”

  The man nodded sympathetically. “The second time I got married, the caterer had a heart attack two days before the wedding. Cassidy says you might have seen Nick Demidov before.”

  “His name isn’t familiar, but his photograph is. I think he’s someone the European task force picked up when I was in London.”

  “London? Then he’s lying and he does speak English?”

  “That’s one of the things I came to find out.”

  He descended the stairs to a room that had a leather sofa and chair with plush cushions that showed no indication of having been sat upon. A coffee table was bare. At the far end, fake logs were stacked in a gas fireplace where blue flames wavered with artificial steadiness.

  “Can’t get the chill out of this basement,” the man said.

  “You’re here alone?”

  He pretended to sound puzzled, when he actually felt relieved.

  “Until nine p.m. when my relief checks in. No need for anyone else. The way this place is set up, one agent at a time is all that’s necessary. It’s not as if Demidov’s a heavy hitter and needs protection. But hey, maybe he’ll lead us to somebody big. I’m John Fadiman, by the way.”

  They shook hands.

  Then Fadiman led him into a room, where several video monitors showed the approaches to the house. Simon noticed a ring of keys and a cell phone next to a half-full coffee cup on a desk. He switched his attention to a glass wall that revealed an adjacent bedroom with little furniture. Wearing a black shirt and trousers, a dark-haired man lay on a narrow bed. His eyes were closed and his hands were folded on his chest. He had a heavy, expressionless face.

  “That’s all he’s been doing since we put him in there,” Fadiman said. “Either he needs a lot of sleep, or else he’s been locked up before and knows how to pass the time.”

 
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