Matchup, p.24
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       MatchUp, p.24

           Lee Child
 

  treads two floors below was the girl not named Shayna. He glanced over the side and saw two things. Her hand on the railing and the leg of his jeans flapping as she barreled down the stairs.

  “Stop.”

  Jeffrey swung around the landing like a monkey in a Tarzan movie.

  “Stop,” he bellowed again, using his cop voice, which should be just as effective with thieves here as it was back in Birmingham.

  Not-Shayna had hit the bottom floor. He saw the door close as his socked foot slipped across the last landing. He caught himself before he slid down the stairs. He pushed himself off the last step, exploding against the exit door, lunging into the lobby, ready to keep running in whatever direction the girl led him, but was stopped cold by a group of missionaries. Or he guessed they were missionaries, because their bright blue T-shirts shouted, ASK ME ABOUT BEING A MISSIONARY FOR JESUS.

  “Jesus,” he mumbled, because that was the word that stuck in his head.

  There were at least thirty of them crowding the lobby, all blond with eyes as blue as their shirts, all teenagers, both men and women with cherubic cheeks lit up red with zeal for the Lord. He tried to look over the crowd, to discern which direction to go next, but there were no telltale swinging doors or arrows pointing the way.

  One of the missionaries said, “Holy crap, mister. You’re in your underwear.”

  “Running shorts,” he said, resisting the urge to cover himself. “Training for a marathon.”

  “With just one shoe?”

  “Half marathon.”

  Jeffrey made his way through the crowd of blue shirts, stepping over suitcases and duffel bags, scanning the floor for his jeans or his wallet in case these missionaries, by some miracle, were going to save him.

  The woman at the front desk already had her lips pursed when he approached. He’d never met her in his life, but she said, “You again.”

  “Me again,” he echoed, switching up the inflection so that it could be a statement or a question.

  The corner of her lip trilled, but not like an old lady pucker, more like what you’d see from a pit bull right before it ripped off your nut sack with its bare teeth.

  “Whatchu doin’ down here in your underwear again?” she asked.

  He chose to ignore the “again,” asking, “Did you see that woman I was with come through here?”

  “You mean my daughter?”

  Jeffrey took a moment to collect his thoughts.

  He’d taken reports off idiots who’d been rolled by women. At least Not-Shayna hadn’t been a prostitute, though then again he’d had sex with her and she’d taken all his money, and on the other hand as a cop himself, he knew that no cop believed the guy in his boxers who said he was rolled by a woman who wasn’t a prostitute. But goddamn, he’d never paid for sex in his life. He’d played football at Auburn for two years. He was pretty much guaranteed sex until they carted him off to the old folks home, and even then he was pretty sure there’d be some Tigers who would take care of his War Eagle. Though it pained him to say this, for right now, at this moment, the football didn’t matter. Half of policing was knowing how to lay down a threat.

  He could talk his way out of this.

  He was in the process of opening his mouth when he heard the distinctive, guttural roar of a 1968 Mustang with a hole in the carburetor and a length of twine holding up the muffler.

  “Shit.”

  He turned toward the front door.

  The missionaries parted like the Red Sea for everybody except Moses, which was to say not at all. He shoved them out of his way, going faster than he ever had up the football field, which likely was why he’d only played two years for Auburn.

  He ran through the parking lot, arms and legs pumping under the clouded glow of the receding moon. The Mustang had a healthy head start. It was already making a right onto the main road.

  Jeffrey kept running, even as he became aware of three things.

  One was that it was pointless to chase a car on foot. Even with two shoes, the car was always going to win.

  Two took longer to register, and that was the knowledge that the temperature had dropped about thirty degrees from the day before. This didn’t come as a revelation so much as a series of contractions. The muscles in his legs cramped. His abs cramped. His arms cramped. Other things started to shrink from the cold, too.

  But none of this distracted from number three, which was the real killer. The Mustang was not his Mustang. It was likely a ’68, and it had the same mixture of faded paint and primer, but his Mustang was sitting exactly where he’d parked it last night.

  Somehow, Not-Shayna had stolen the wrong car.

  He slowed to a jog.

  The Mustang that wasn’t his Mustang was turning again, this time into the adjacent parking lot. Another Alpine hotel. Another German word for its name. He checked over his shoulder. The moon was squinting over one lone peak, blue early morning sky casting an ominous shadow over the full parking lot. Every pant of breath out of his mouth showed a puff of air in front of his face.

  The Mustang slowed as it weaved through the next door parking lot. Not-Shayna looked distracted, which was good because he ran parallel to the car, head low as he shielded himself behind a bunch of other cars. He ended up crouched at the front wheel of a big blue school bus that must have belonged to the missionaries because it too said ASK ME ABOUT BEING A MISSIONARY FOR JESUS.

  The Mustang turned a third time, heading down an alleyway that separated the Schussel Mountain Lodge from the Schloss Linderhof, which was done up like a cardboard castle had thrown up on a Motel 6.

  Footsteps.

  A young black man holding a steaming cup of coffee was leaving the Linderhof lobby. He tipped his Cleveland Indians hat at Jeffrey as he continued down the sidewalk. You didn’t see many Cleveland fans in Helen. Or black people for that matter. He nodded back like it was perfectly normal to be crouched in a parking lot wearing one sock and one shoe and orange underwear in a town built like an Alpine village.

  He waited until the man was out of sight, then kept his knees bent low as he headed around the back of the Schussel Lodge on the opposite side of the alleyway. Without the parking lot lights, he could barely see more than a few yards in front of him. His entire body shuddered from the cold. The grass was wet because of course it was wet. His one sock got soaked, basically becoming a cube of ice as he made his way to the rear of the building. He saw the nose of the Mustang peeking out from the alley. Maybe fifty yards away. There was a dip in the pavement, a downhill dive to three giant green Dumpsters that stood sentry. The entire area was bathed in light from the xenon bulbs overhead. His ears tensed in that weird way that reminded him that Darwin had been right.

  In the alley, there were some familiar sounds, not a car door opening or closing, but the dragging of a metal Auburn keychain across the rear panel of a car as a key clicked into a lock and clicked and clicked, because for whatever reason, the key to his Mustang had worked in the ignition of the Mustang that was not his, but it would not work in the not-his-Mustang’s trunk lock.

  But then it worked.

  The trunk opened, the hinges squealing the same way they squealed in his car.

  He moved fast because all he had was the element of surprise. He wasn’t worried about getting shot. There were far, far worse things that could happen. Three months he’d had a gold shield. Three months he’d been in suits and ties instead of short-sleeved polyester uniforms with sixty pounds of equipment around his hips that beat into his legs and abs like a pile driver every time he chased some idiot perp through the streets of Birmingham.

  He loved his gold detective’s shield more than he’d ever loved a woman. Taken better care of it, too. And his lieutenant hadn’t wanted to give him the promotion because he didn’t trust Jeffrey, and Jeffrey didn’t trust his lieutenant because he was an asshole.

  Forty yards away.

  He heard the solid thunk of a car door closing. He clip-clopped on his one tennis sho
e, the cold in his socked foot working up his leg like a python. The sunrise was two scant hours away, but the temperature felt like it was dropping by the minute. How was that even possible? Two days ago, the thermometer had been in the seventies and now he felt like he was standing inside a commercial freezer.

  Thirty yards.

  Suddenly, he dropped flat to the ground, face and palms pressed to the asphalt.

  Muscle memory.

  His body had reacted faster than his brain could process the sound of a gunshot cracking like thunder in the thin, cold air.

  Had Not-Shayna found a gun?

  And accidentally fired a shot?

  The reports he’d have to fill out on that one. Not that he didn’t know how to fill out those reports in his sleep because he was a fucking vice detective and for the last three months, at least once a day, he’d taken a report from a stupid John who’d had his shit stolen by a hooker.

  He pushed himself up.

  Twenty yards.

  Ten.

  He crouched again, this time in front of the Mustang. He put his palms flat against the hot metal, trying to soak up the warmth. She had a gun, and the gun had been fired, and he was a cop so he had to do something about it.

  Tires screeched in the alley.

  He stood, shoulders hunched, so he could sneak a look over the top of the car. A blue Ford pickup, older model, peeled backward up the alley, leaving smoke and burned rubber in its wake.

  He looked down.

  His left foot was no longer freezing cold. Blood streamed around his sock, forming a lake, wicking into the material, soaking everything in its wake.

  Steam came off the hot liquid.

  He lowered himself down into a push-up and peered beneath the car.

  Not-Shayna stared back, but not really.

  She was caught in the in-between where life or death were the only questions going through her mind.

  He’d seen the look many times before.

  He scrambled around the car, head down as he made his way toward the woman because she had stopped being Not-Shayna the thief and had started being the victim of a gunshot wound.

  He scanned the empty alley as he ran into the open. The woman was gut shot, one of the worst kinds of injuries. His Glock was in her hand. He touched the muzzle. Cold as ice, so she hadn’t shot herself. He took the gun and pointed it around the alley again, looking up for fire escapes or bad guys climbing into open windows.

  The blue Ford truck.

  Two people in the cab, one obviously the shooter. He’d seen them both—not their faces, but their shapes. One of them was wearing a baseball cap.

  “Help. Me,” the woman begged.

  The hotel windows were closed, but there were guests inside who must have heard the gunshot.

  He raised his voice, “Somebody call the police.”

  “Help,” she repeated.

  Her hand covered her belly. Blood rolled out between her fingers, a steady river of red that indicated an artery had been opened. He pressed his hands on top of hers, trying to stop the bleeding. She screamed from the pain, and he screamed over her, yelling, “Call the police.”

  She grabbed his wrist. Her mouth opened to cough. Blood sprayed out. Warm drops splattered his cold skin. Jeffrey laid his hand to her cheek. He looked down at her, aware that he had been above her like this last night, that just a handful of hours ago everything between them had been different. Her eyelids fluttered. He inhaled and the heat from her body reached into his mouth, traveled down his throat, and spread its fingers into his chest.

  He shouldn’t have drunk so much.

  He shouldn’t have talked so much.

  He should have remembered her name.

  “Don’t move.” The man’s voice had cracked on the second word. “I mean it, mister. Just—don’t.”

  Slowly, he turned his head.

  A skinny beanpole of a kid riding high tide in his cop uniform was pointing a gun. Or at least trying to. The revolver shook in the boy’s hands. His pointy elbows were akimbo. His knees kept locking and unlocking. He had to be at least six five, maybe one fifty after a good meal. His gun belt hung cowboy-style loose around his slim hips, but his eyes were wet with tears.

  “Please don’t move.”

  “It’s all right.” He read the man’s name tag. “Paulson, I’m gonna put down my gun, all right? That’s all I’m gonna do.” Slowly, he laid his Glock on the pavement. Even more slowly, he raised his hands. “Paulson, you’re holding that revolver the right way, with both of your hands in a standard grip, pointing at my center mass, but maybe move your finger off the trigger?” He waited, but the officer didn’t move. “That’s not how they taught you at the academy, is it, Paulson? What’d your instructor say? Keep your finger on the side, just above the trigger, so you don’t make a mistake.”

  The boy’s Adam’s apple bobbed like a mermaid.

  “Paulson, just think about what your instructor said. What’d he tell you about only putting your finger on the trigger when you’re ready to shoot somebody?” He indicated his raised hands with a nod. “Are you ready to shoot me, Paulson?”

  Carefully, with painstaking slowness, Paulson snailed his finger off the trigger.

  “That’s good.” He felt his lungs finally relax enough to take a full breath. “Now radio your boss. Tell him you’ve got a dead woman and an unarmed man in custody, and that he needs to put out an APB for an older model Ford pickup, blue, two passengers, one likely African American, wearing a Cleveland Indians ball cap.”

  The kid started to do as he was told, but then Jeffrey made the mistake of relaxing his shoulders.

  “Don’t,” Paulson screamed, his left hand going back to his gun, his finger tapping the trigger. “Don’t move. I mean it.” He seemed to realize his voice was more like a plea than an order. “Please, mister. I don’t wanna shoot you.”

  “I don’t want you to shoot me, either.”

  The statement gave them both pause.

  A scuffling sound echoed down the alleyway. Another officer, this one more senior, came trotting toward them on what looked like a bad set of knees. His gun was out, but with a hell of a lot more self-assuredness. The chief of police, judging by the stars on his collar. He was barking into his radio, calling in the codes, alerting all available to get the hell over here.

  “Don’t fucking move,” the chief ordered, sighting him down the nose of his revolver. “You try anything and I’ll—”

  “I’m a cop,” Jeffrey said. “Birmingham, Eighth Precinct, Vice. My lieutenant is—”

  “This ain’t the time for talking.” The old guy wasn’t open to suggestions, and he couldn’t blame him. None of this looked good for anybody. “Slow as molasses, I want you to lace your fingers on top of your head.”

  He did what the cop told him to do. “Please listen to me, sir.” He talked to the chief because Paulson was leaning his shoulder against the wall like he was about to pass out. “You need to find a blue Ford pickup—”

  “I cain’t throw a rock without hittin’ a blue pickup truck. Shit, my son drives a blue pickup.” The chief was already reaching into the open trunk. Then he removed and held up a brick of cocaine. “You wanna tell me about this?”

  His bowels turned liquid.

  “Hoo-ee.”

  The chief had dollar signs in his eyes. Thanks to new federal laws, arresting agencies were allowed to keep proceeds from drug seizures. “You gotta ’bout ten grand worth of guns, a stack of cash, a hundred grand worth of coke.”

  “He killed Nora,” Paulson said.

  A small town like this, the young cop probably had gone to high school with the victim. He was crying for real now. His gun had stopped shaking. But his finger stayed on the trigger.

  “You murdered her in cold blood.”

  “Steady now.” The chief peeled his eyes away from the booty in the trunk. His smile said he fully understood the situation, or at least what he thought was the situation. “That why you shot her, bo
y? Come down here to peddle some guns and blow, but she got greedy?”

  “Down?”

  Jeffrey glanced at the car.

  He’d seen it at the time but hadn’t registered the fact until now.

  Ohio license plates, front and back.

  The cop dropped the brick of cocaine back in the trunk, then
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