Matchup, p.22
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       MatchUp, p.22
 

           Lee Child

  In a few seconds, she would step onto the gravel. The noise she made would give her away. She wouldn’t be able to recover before he lunged toward the noise and shot her.

  In the face. In each breast. In the stomach.

  For Rudy.

  He knew that Marta would want Sansborough alive, to exchange her for Nick. But the truth was, Max didn’t like Nick. On the other hand, Rudy had been Max’s cousin.

  His friend.

  No more watching Rambo movies with him.

  No more joking around.

  Close to him, a shoe stepped onto gravel.

  Shouting to engage her startle reflex and momentarily paralyze her, he rushed ahead, firing.

  THE SIGN AT THE SIDE of the highway—Marsdon 20 miles—increased Simon’s feeling of urgency.

  So close.

  The clouds darkened.

  A misty rain blotted the countryside, obscuring the beauty for which the area was famous. He switched on the windshield wipers and glanced toward his phone, hoping to receive another text.

  When he finally made it to Marsdon, then what?

  There were a lot of woods out here.

  A black SUV sped past him, hurling spray across his windshield.

  MARTA ADJUSTED THE WINDSHIELD WIPERS to a higher speed and pressed harder on the SUV’s accelerator.

  LIZ’S SHOE CRUNCHED THE GRAVEL of the parking lot, the noise seeming so loud that she recoiled, nearly dropping the knife. Someone suddenly shouted to her left.

  Max.

  His footsteps thundering toward her.

  Gunshots roared.

  A bullet tugged her right sleeve.

  It would have struck her chest if she hadn’t lurched back from the sound she made on the gravel.

  Adrenaline broke her paralysis.

  She saw Max’s indistinct shape charging into view. She had a rock in her right hand, having planned to throw it and distract him one final time before she raced toward the lodge. Now she hurled it toward his increasingly clear face and ran into the forest.

  The drizzle started to dissolve the mist.

  Trees began to materialize.

  Hearing Max curse behind her, she stretched her long legs farther, faster. Finally able to see where she was going, she zigzagged frantically through the bushes and trees.

  FOR A MOMENT MAX THOUGHT that he’d been shot, but then he realized what had struck his forehead.

  A rock.

  He raised a hand to the already throbbing, swelling lump and felt blood.

  “That’s something else you’ll pay for,” he screamed.

  His pain-blurred vision cleared.

  He heard Sansborough crashing through the forest.

  Let her run.

  With the mist dispersing, it would be easy to follow her now. He fired once more in her direction, wanting to spur her into a panic, knowing that adrenaline would soon make her hyperventilate and sap her strength.

  It wouldn’t be long now.

  He took the almost-expended magazine from his pistol and stuffed it into a pocket. He freed a spare magazine from his belt and shoved it home. A round was already in the chamber. He didn’t need to rack the slide as so many stupid Hollywood actors unnecessarily did.

  But never in a Rambo movie.

  As the drizzle beaded on his windbreaker, he broke into an easy, confident jog, taking care that his breath rate didn’t increase.

  That was the secret.

  If his breathing remained steady, everything else about him would be steady. It didn’t matter how far Sansborough got at the start. He could easily track her down, using the “find” app. Ahead, beneath an evergreen branch, he saw something that made him smile.

  Blood.

  One of his bullets had struck home.

  Now he had yet another way to know where she was heading.

  LIZ LEAPED OVER A FALLEN tree, landed on wet leaves, slipped, and nearly dropped.

  Her right arm felt numb.

  She wanted to clutch it, to try to stop the flow of blood, but she had to keep a tight grip on the knife in her left hand. Racing onward, she didn’t understand why she felt out of breath. She’d run in marathons, for God’s sake. With all her stress training, she shouldn’t be breathing this hard this soon. But she’d never run a marathon after being shot.

  “Sansborough, what you did to Rudy I’m gonna do to you,” Max yelled behind her. “But you won’t die as fast as Rudy did.”

  Her brain raced. How had he known that she’d headed back to the lodge? The only noise made had been when she stepped on the gravel. Nothing before that. Straining to fill her lungs, she veered around a tangle of bushes. Her legs almost buckled, but this time it wasn’t because of slippery leaves.

  “Bet you’re feeling woozy from all the blood you’re pumping out,” Max yelled. “Won’t be long now.”

  She glanced desperately over her shoulder and felt as though she’d been punched when she saw splotches of blood behind her. If the drizzle didn’t wash them away fast enough, Max could easily follow her.

  The question kept insisting.

  How did he know she’d headed back to the lodge?

  Running, she felt the lump of the phone in her pocket.

  A wave of fury gripped her.

  He was using that to track her.

  She pulled out the phone and threw it away.

  “You sound like you’re running a little slower,” Max shouted. “Legs feeling weak? It won’t be long now.”

  Breathless, her legs losing strength, she peered down at the knife she clutched. She felt so light-headed she had to take care that if she fell, she wouldn’t land on it. The blade had sawteeth on the back, reminding her of the knife in a Rambo movie she and Simon had seen on television. The damned things were broadcast every week, it seemed. Rambo had unscrewed the cap, revealing a hollow handle that contained a needle and thread with which he’d sewn a wound shut.

  Running, Liz unscrewed the cap on this one.

  The hollow grip contained nothing.

  She remembered a scene in which Rambo had burst from the camouflage of branches and—

  JOGGING EASILY AFTER HER THROUGH the rain, Max glanced occasionally at the find app on his phone. Even though the noise Sansborough made was easy to follow—and to a lessening degree, the blood—it never hurt to be extrasure. Passing a tangle of bushes, he frowned when he saw that the dot indicated that Sansborough wasn’t straight ahead as the blood track indicated but instead she was to his left.

  Somehow he was passing her.

  He stopped and aimed toward a tangle of bushes. Was she hiding behind them? But he didn’t see any blood leading in that direction.

  Wary, he took a step closer.

  Another step. He tightened his finger on the trigger. Then he saw the phone on the ground. Dammit, she’d figured out what he was doing and thrown it away. Now he had only her blood and the sounds of her running to tell him where she was. But he no longer heard her running.

  Had she collapsed from loss of blood and the shock of having been shot?

  He returned to the trail she’d left and followed at a cautious walk. As water dripped off the brim of his baseball cap, he scanned the trees on each side. He passed a tall boulder and checked behind it. The rain had finally washed away the blood, but her footprints were more obvious, collecting water.

  He moved faster.

  He came to the stream and saw where she’d slid down to it. When she’d struggled up the opposite side, she’d made deep furrows in the mud. He stepped over a fallen log, eased down the slippery bank, started across the stream, feeling how cold the water was, and suddenly gasped from a blow to his back that hurtled him into the water.

  LIZ LUNGED FROM THE HOLLOW she’d scooped from the mud under the log.

  A few minutes earlier, she’d crossed the stream and entered the trees on the opposite side. There she found a dead branch that fit into the hollow grip of the knife. Then she circled back to the stream, walked through the water, and crawled un
der the log.

  As Max descended past her, aiming toward the trees on the opposite bank, she had thrust with the rigged spear. Adding her weight to it, she pushed with all her remaining strength and plunged the blade deeper into him.

  He groaned and fell facedown into the stream.

  Her hands had shook. Her lungs felt starved for oxygen.

  Springing toward him, she shoved the spear even deeper into his back. He raised his face from the water and struggled. Using her uninjured arm, she grabbed a rock from the stream and struck it against the back of his head. He slumped, his face partially out of the water. She struck his head again, feeling the softness of blood under his hair.

  She struck a third time.

  A fourth.

  She heard his skull crack.

  She hit him again and again.

  The rock went deeper into bone.

  Shrieking, she straddled his back and pressed his face into the water, holding it under until long after his death shudder had stopped.

  She needed all her strength to stand and stagger backward. When she slumped on the muddy bank, she kept her grip on the rock in case she needed to use it again.

  She couldn’t stop shaking.

  Finally, she decided to head back to the lodge and stop her bleeding. She placed a foot on his back and tugged the spear free. The effort of using her wounded arm made her groan. Max had dropped his pistol. She picked it up. As the rain fell, the forest again seemed enshrouded by mist, but she knew that the haze was really the consequence of blood loss.

  She gave Max a fierce kick just to make sure he was dead.

  Then she climbed the bank and followed her trail of blood.

  SIMON DROVE OVER A RIDGE and saw an asphalt lane on the right, flanked by forest. He’d seen two driveways in the past five miles. They’d looked welcoming, with signs that advertised facilities for training and breeding horses. In contrast, this turnoff led to a reinforced steel gate and a fence with barbed wire along the top. He steered off the highway and stopped in front of the gate. A number pad was mounted to a pole.

  He left the car and pressed the key fob, releasing the vehicle’s trunk. After carefully raising it, he smelled the vinegar stench of carbon dioxide.

  But it wasn’t enough to hide another stench.

  “You son of a bitch, I pissed my pants because of you,” Nick said.

  He lay on his side, his arms taped behind him.

  “What’s the code to open the gate?” he asked, ignoring the rain that struck him.

  “Code? Gate? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Do you want me to close the trunk again? I’ll keep it shut a lot longer. Maybe the next time you’ll do something else in your pants. Or would you rather see your sister?”

  “My sister. Oh, I want to see my sister for sure. The stupid skank.”

  “Your happy reunion isn’t going to occur unless you tell me the code to open the gate.”

  Nick recited four numbers.

  He pressed them on the pad and heard a whir.

  The gate started to open.

  He returned to Nick and told him, “Bye for now.”

  He shut the trunk, hopped into the car, and drove through the open gate. In the rearview mirror, he saw it closing behind him. The lane continued through the forest for quite a while. Then Simon rounded a curve and abruptly came to a large clearing. Beyond a gravel parking area stood a two-story log house. A few small buildings sat next to a swimming pool that had been covered for the winter. A bermed area contained a shooting range with metal silhouettes of human-shaped targets.

  A drab van was parked in front of the house.

  The front door hung open, suggesting that someone had entered or left in a hurry. He stepped out of the car and drew the pistol that he’d taken from the FBI agent. Ignoring the rain, he scanned the clearing. He didn’t dare call Liz’s name, lest his voice attract whoever had been holding her captive.

  He took a step toward the lodge.

  Movement attracted his attention to the far side of the clearing.

  A figure emerged from the trees, staggering.

  Whoever it was held a spear and was covered with mud so thick that the rain hadn’t dissolved it. The figure stumbled across the gravel and Simon saw blood on the right arm—and a suggestion of yellow on the figure’s legs.

  Liz’s jogging suit was yellow.

  He started to run toward her, only to be stopped by a gunshot and a bullet that tore up gravel in front of him. He spun toward the lodge’s porch where a tall woman, with long blond hair and Slavic features, aimed a pistol at him. She wore a beige pantsuit and a brown suede jacket.

  “Drop the gun,” she told him.

  He obeyed. “Marta?”

  “Where the hell is Nick?”

  “In the trunk.”

  “Alive?”

  “How else would I be able to exchange him for Liz?”

  “Show me.”

  At the edge of his vision, Simon was aware of Liz’s grotesque mud-covered figure continuing to stumble across the gravel. She dropped to one knee, then planted the blunt edge of the spear into the gravel and used it to draw herself up.

  “Never mind about her,” Marta said, stepping closer with the gun. “Show me that Nick’s alive.”

  He pressed the key fob and opened the trunk.

  Peering in, he told Nick, “Your sister’s asking for you.”

  Nick said something caustically angry in Russian.

  He dragged him out and propped him on his feet. With legs taped together, the man had trouble standing.

  “Cut him loose,” Marta ordered.

  “I’ll need to reach for my pocketknife.”

  “Be careful.”

  He pulled out the knife and cut the tape that secured Demidov’s
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