Matchup, p.23
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       MatchUp, p.23

           Lee Child
 

  legs. The Russian spread them, steadying himself. Simon sliced the tape that bound the wrists.

  “Now drop the knife,” Marta said.

  He did so.

  Demidov winced as he moved his arms slowly forward, giving the impression that his muscles were locked, then he removed the tape that remained on his wrists.

  “This is all your fault.”

  “I’m sorry, Nick. I admit I made a mistake. But I corrected it. I got you out.”

  “The goddamned restaurants that the health department shut down. The courier you didn’t send, so I had to pick up the money on my own, which is why the feds were able to grab me at the warehouse. That stupid dry-cleaning shop. Every time I leave the office, my clothes stink.”

  “Nick, I told you I’m sorry.”

  “Where the fuck is everybody? Why didn’t you bring more help?”

  “I couldn’t.”

  “Couldn’t? What do you mean?”

  “They’re all in Texas.”

  “What are they doing in—”

  “Hijack jobs. It’ll look like Texas gangs did it. No one’ll ever suspect that—”

  “You sent everybody to Texas? On your own?”

  “I thought—”

  “You stupid cunt, don’t think. You’re not good at it.”

  Marta shot him.

  He took a step back and looked surprised.

  She shot him again.

  Then a third time.

  Blood first seeped, then poured from the wounds.

  Demidov collapsed to the ground.

  Not moving.

  She aimed at Simon.

  Liz continued to stagger across the gravel. Except for the blood on her arm and the bit of yellow that showed on her legs, she was still covered with mud. With each halting step, she placed the blunt edge of the spear ahead, using it to support her weight. Marta switched her aim toward Liz, then back toward Simon.

  The woman peered down at her brother, then lowered the pistol. “Look at what you finally made me do.”

  When Liz reached them, she wavered and remained standing only because she leaned on the spear.

  “Where’s Max?” Marta asked.

  “Dead.”

  “I’m impressed.”

  “Rambo,” Liz murmured.

  “What?”

  “Saw Rambo use his knife to make a spear. Saw him hide in a stream. Saw him do a lot of things.”

  “You’d better get her to a hospital,” Marta said. “She’s delirious.”

  “Hospital?”

  “You kept your part of the bargain. Not that it matters.” Marta stared down at Nick’s body. “A lot of people are going to be angry about what I just did.”

  “Maybe I can help.”

  “How?”

  “Protect you. Give you a new start. The FBI. Witness relocation program.”

  Marta laughed as if he were making a joke.

  Again she stared down at her brother.

  Liz’s eyes closed, then she toppled. Simon grabbed her before she struck the gravel. She was terribly cold. He held her tightly, wanting never to let her go. When Simon looked up, Marta was gone.

  A few seconds later a black SUV roared into view from behind the house and sped along the lane, disappearing among the trees.

  “Sorry I missed breakfast,” Liz managed to say.

  He looked down.

  She did her best to smile.

  “Same time tomorrow?” she asked.

  “On a hospital tray maybe. No more talking.”

  He picked her up, carried her into the lodge out of the rain, and laid her on a wooden bench.

  She closed her eyes.

  “Don’t go to sleep. You’ve got to stay awake. Fight the shock.” He tore open the right sleeve of her jogging suit, exposing a bullet wound, and found his cell phone. After calling for an ambulance, he searched the house and located a medical kit in a cabinet in the basement. He washed and disinfected her wound as best he could and bound it with a pressure bandage. She shivered, perhaps the first symptom of hypothermia. He pulled off her cold, wet jogging suit and covered her with a throw that he found on a sofa.

  Then he held her.

  “Rambo,” she murmured again.

  “What about him?” he asked, alarmed by her delirium but humoring her, trying to keep her from falling asleep.

  “Died in the novel.”

  “Don’t talk about dying.”

  “Bedsprings. Electrocution.”

  Simon couldn’t figure out what she meant.

  “Bedsprings,” she repeated.

  “Yes, sweetheart. Bedsprings.”

  “Rambo.”

  “Yes, sweetheart. Rambo.”

  “They said you weren’t him.”

  He held her tighter, desperate to make her warm.

  “But to me, you are.”

  He smiled.

  Both at her compliment, and at the sirens approaching in the distance.

  KARIN SLAUGHTER AND MICHAEL KORYTA

  WHEN KARIN SLAUGHTER AGREED TO be a part of this anthology, she had two provisos. The first was the story would take place in the 1990s and, second, her partner would be Michael Koryta.

  I readily agreed to both.

  Thankfully, Michael agreed too.

  The challenge here was for each writer to take their worlds back in time, to a point when their characters were much younger, just starting out in their respective fictional careers. Karin wanted to provide a look at Jeffrey Tolliver as a young man, from 1993. While writing him before, she always knew some things about his early years, but intentionally kept those close.

  “It’s fun to keep secrets from readers,” she jokes.

  This story allowed her an opportunity to share a few of those tidbits.

  For Michael, this was the first time he’s ever written from Joe Pritchard’s point of view. He actually hasn’t written about Lincoln Perry or Joe in eight years, and those stories were always told in the first person, from Lincoln’s point of view. This story provided a chance to not only move the characters back in time but also to change the lens.

  Michael notes that a pattern developed during the process. He would write something and hand it off to Karin. Then she’d write something a lot better and funnier and hand it back. It came to a point that he didn’t want the story to end, because it became a lot of fun. One of the major characters is named after a bet he lost to the novelist Alafair Burke. I won’t tell you which one, but the studious reader will know.

  And here’s the best irony.

  Word-wise, this is the longest effort included in this anthology.

  Yet it carries a curious title.

  Short Story.

  SHORT STORY

  HELEN, GEORGIA

  FRIDAY, MARCH 12, 1993

  5:46 A.M.

  THIS WASN’T THE FIRST TIME Jeffrey Tolliver had stumbled around a dark hotel room looking for his clothes. His bare feet cut channels into the musty shag carpet. His hands blindly reached into the shadows. Alcohol permeated the air. And sweat. And sex.

  Rustling came from the bed as the woman rolled over. She snored lightly, which might have been endearing if he knew her name.

  Rebecca?

  He smiled past his hangover.

  Delta flight attendant. Ex-cheerleader. Long blond hair. Five nine, which was a good height for his six three. She had good numbers everywhere else, too, but then Jeffrey remembered that Rebecca had stood him up.

  For two weeks, he’d worked double shifts so he could take a long weekend off. He had made the nearly four-hour drive from Birmingham only to find a phone message waiting about a storm coming through, the airline moving planes around, and that was how a hot weekend in the north Georgia mountains had ended with him slinking off alone to the hotel bar and drinking too much, then talking too much, then ending up in bed and doing too much with—

  More snoring.

  She was a slip of a thing under the sheets. A waist he could almost wrap both hands arou
nd, which had its pluses and minuses. Not as tall as Rebecca. Not as smart. Did smart matter? He’d like to think not, but then after a while, you needed someone with an imagination.

  Shayna.

  That was the woman in the bed. She was so country sticks came out of her mouth when she talked, but she knew that the hotel’s name, the Schussel, was missing an umlaut—and she knew what an umlaut was—and that Schussel was German for “key.”

  Jeffrey found his boxers by the closed curtains. He slipped them on as he rustled the curtains, looking for the rest of his clothes. A sock made itself known. His sock? He made like a stork and shoved his left foot into the tube. He wriggled his toes. Definitely his sock.

  This was what guys in his business would call a clue.

  Jeffrey widened his search pattern from the last known sock. Bed, dresser, TV, chair. The Schussel Mountain Lodge was like every hotel room he’d ever awakened in, but done in a Bavarian style. Or Georgia’s idea of Bavarian style, because for reasons unknown, the whole town of Helen was made to look like an Alpine Village dropped down in the foothills of the Appalachians.

  His fingers brushed his wallet on the dresser. His keys. His pager. ChapStick. His shiny new detective’s badge and somewhat older gun were locked in the wheel well of the trunk, though he’d had both out on the drive up from Birmingham in case of cops or robbers.

  “Shit.”

  He hissed out the word a split second before a searing pain shot through his big toe, which had caught on one of the metal bed legs. He leaned heavily on the mattress. His hand gripped into a fist, and he realized that his fist was holding something that wasn’t part of the sheets.

  T-shirt.

  “Y’all right?” the girl asked.

  “Yes,” he told Shayna.

  Not Shayna.

  Shayna was last weekend.

  Jeffrey remembered a necklace with the name spelled out in script. Custom made, she’d told him, given to her by her stepfather to commend her high school graduation. He’d pretended this was a normal conversation for a twenty-six-year-old man to have with an eighteen-year-old girl in a downtown bar, and that he wasn’t a cop, a newly minted detective, who should arrest her for underage drinking instead of having sex with her in the backseat of her Cadillac.

  Her stepfather’s Cadillac.

  He fumbled for the switch in the bathroom, shutting the door as the fluorescent light flickered on. He checked his reflection in the mirror. He looked slightly more hungover than he felt. Or maybe he was getting better at being hungover, which was a skill that twigged off all the branches of his family tree.

  He turned on the faucet. The handle came off in his hand. Water squirted sideways, up, down. He fumbled to fit the handle back on the nut. He watched the stream turn from brown to yellow to something close to clear before splashing his face with cold water.

  Jeffrey looked up at the mirror again.

  His T-shirt was soaking wet. A wet Maginot Line cut across his boxers where he’d leaned against the sink basin. His underwear was bright orange with blue-and-white AU’s all over it.

  Auburn University.

  Rebecca the flight attendant had been a Georgia cheerleader. He’d worn the boxers as a joke but now the joke was probably on him because he hadn’t packed a lot of clothes for the four-day retreat and he was pretty sure he was wearing his only underwear.

  “Y’all right in there?”

  She said “there” like “thar,” which wasn’t an indictment, especially to a man from south Alabama, but something in her tone set his teeth on edge.

  He said, “Just gonna take a shower.”

  Before she could offer to join him, he reached behind the lank shower curtain and turned the handles. He stood in the middle of the small bathroom with his eyes closed. The hangover tapped at the bridge of his nose like an accusatory finger. How long could he keep doing this? He wasn’t a kid anymore. It wouldn’t be too long before his youthful indiscretions turned into full-blown, irreparable mistakes.

  His eyes opened.

  He cocked his head at a noise.

  Outside the bathroom, but inside the room. Or maybe not inside the room so much as outside in the hallway, because he could’ve sworn he heard the door to the room click closed.

  Jeffrey turned off the shower. He opened the door and turned on the light. No girl in the bed. No pager. No wallet. No keys.

  She’d even taken his ChapStick.

  “Motherfuck.”

  He could see every corner of the room, but he still checked on the other side of the bed, under the bed, looking for anything, but especially his pants. He found his right tennis shoe under the desk and jammed his foot into it on his way out the door.

  Which closed behind him.

  He patted his pockets for the key, but there were no pockets.

  Somewhere not far away, a door opened on squeaky hinges. He looked up the hallway, which T-d off at the end, one side going to the elevators, the other to the exit stairs.

  The door closed with the heavy, metal clunk of a fire exit door.

  He bolted up the hall, lopsided on one shoe, each step jarring some truth into his hungover brain. That he wore wet, orange boxer shorts, a soaked white T-shirt, one sock, one shoe and no wallet, no pager, no ID, no car keys, and no fucking ChapStick.

  He rounded the corner on his shoed foot, the waffle sole ripping shag from the carpet. He shouldered open the exit door and grabbed the metal railings of the stairs so that he could slide down on his palms.

  Fourth floor, which meant that the sound of feet hitting the
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