Matchup, p.29
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       MatchUp, p.29
 

           Lee Child

  the roads tonight.”

  Perry clicked off the radio. “It occurs to me that it might not have been a bad idea to let one of the locals know where we are going, no matter how dim-witted they seem to be. If we end up running into trouble with Double—Lord, did I really just say that?—if we end up having problems up here, it’ll be a while before anyone can get to us.”

  “We’ll be fine,” Joe said.

  “That’s what the Donner Party told each other.”

  A gust of wind buffeted the car.

  The Malibu fishtailed, but Perry steered it into the skid and kept his foot off the brake and the car corrected. Still, Joe had grabbed the armrest and moved his own foot toward an imaginary brake like a jumpy driver’s ed instructor.

  He should have insisted on driving.

  “You just keep your eyes on the road, and let the Donners fend for themselves,” he said, but he was regretting the rush out of town now, himself. The rush had been planted by that seed of distrust the DEA had shared, unwilling to tell him what cops in Georgia were dirty, but just that they suspected some of them were. Between that and the way the locals had handled the scene the only person with a badge he trusted down here was, ironically, the one who’d just been kicked loose from a cell.

  No, there was more than that.

  It was also the idea that Antonio Childers was close at hand. They’d come all this way and into this storm for the singular purpose of picking Childers up with their existing warrant, but what they had now—that surveillance tape of the shooting—was something that had eluded Joe for too long. Courtroom gold. Evidence that would not just put Childers in prison, but keep him there.

  If he was still alive.

  From the back, Tolliver cleared his throat. He clearly had too much pride to stick his head between the front seats like a dog. Joe was beginning to wish he’d given Tolliver the wheel. Perry had a lead foot and too much confidence.

  “Listen,” Tolliver said, “since we’re all in this together, why don’t you tell me a little bit more about this Antonio Childers. Are you thinking he’s your bad guy, or a hostage?”

  “Both,” Perry said.

  “Maybe both,” Joe corrected. “Surveillance footage shows him coming and going fast, but if our local source was right, he came and went with Nora Simpson’s brother. All the interesting dynamics of that family relationship aside, we’re starting to believe that Double Simpson might not have been pleased to see his sister murdered.”

  “If nothing else, she was an earner for him,” Tolliver agreed. “So you’re telling me that we are heading into a potential hostage rescue wherein we’re looking for a murderer and revenge-seeking sadist. Plus no one knows where we are and we’ve got three guns to our names. Let’s hope we don’t run into any Wampas.”

  Perry said, “I’ll take three guns over a nervous Tauntaun.”

  Joe said, “Were those local Indian tribes or something? Or some sort of Civil War thing? I don’t know the history of this part of the country that well.”

  Perry turned to exchange a shocked stare with Tolliver.

  Tolliver shook his head in disbelief. “He hasn’t seen Star Wars?”

  Before they could push that dialogue further, the wind rose to a howl and the Malibu shuddered and shivered, the back tires sliding again.

  Perry dropped the speed.

  “Why don’t you watch the road instead of thinking about Star Trek,” Joe said.

  “Wars. Star Wars.”

  “They’re different?” Joe asked, and he was legitimately surprised to learn this, thinking that it explained a lot of confusion over the years.

  Headlights rose behind them.

  Joe was hoping for a plow, but the headlights were set too low for that. And coming on too fast.

  “Son of a bitch,” Perry said. “This asshole is really going to try to pass me, in this weather?”

  “Then let him,” Joe said, and right then the vehicle behind them turned on its police flashers, painting the white landscape with red and blue light.

  “You’ve got to be shitting me,” Perry said as he eased to a stop. There was no shoulder left to pull onto, only snowbanks, so he just stopped in the road.

  “Just get your badge out,” Joe said, but the police car behind them didn’t stop, it just passed by. For an instant, they were side by side with it in the whirling white snow and fading gray day. It was still light enough to read the logo on the car’s door panel.

  Helen Police Department.

  Then the car was by and the flashing lights went off. The driver had just turned them on to goose the Malibu out of his way. The driver was keeping up a hurrying speed, like he had places to get and people to see, weather be damned.

  “Seems like we’re outside of Helen’s jurisdiction,” Perry said.

  “I’ll tell you something else,” Tolliver said from the backseat. “That giant stick behind the wheel was Paulson. He’s the kid who stuck his gun in my face in the alley this morning. Didn’t it seem like he was in a bigger rush to get up the mountain than we are?”

  Perry looked at Tolliver, then at Joe. “Follow him?”

  They both nodded.

  The wind rose in the same proportion as the road, both of them crawling steadily higher. Perry was driving faster than Joe would have liked, but he had to do it to keep the Helen police car in sight.

  “Any idea where we are?” he asked Tolliver.

  “Not sure, but I’d say we’re in the park.”

  “What park?”

  “Unicoi State Park, which is inside the Chattahoochee National Forest, which is where Anna Ruby Falls is located.” He looked out the window. “I would say pay attention to your surroundings, but everything is white.”

  “We didn’t pass through any gate,” Perry said.

  “There aren’t any gates. You just drive in.”

  Brake lights came on ahead of them.

  The Helen police car was pulling to a stop.

  “Drive past,” Joe instructed.

  His hand had crept to the butt of his gun.

  As they drove by, the Malibu’s headlights pinned two vehicles in the relentless snow. The Helen cruiser and a Ford pickup that was idling, the engine running to keep the heater going, probably. It was covered with snow, but the hood was warm enough to have left melted streaks across it that showed traces of the paint.

  “Black, not blue,” Joe said, disappointed. “Has a roof rack of lights, too. That’s not the one from the surveillance video.”

  “I was told that Double Simpson drives a new black Ford,” Tolliver said. “That one fits the bill.”

  “So what do you want to do?” Perry asked as he drove around a curve and the road plummeted down, the other vehicles falling out of sight in the mirrors. “Go back in the car, or go back on foot? If it’s just Paulson and Simpson sitting there, with no sign of the blue truck, we’re going to have to explain—”

  His words faltered as the Malibu caught black ice and slid, the car drifting sideways as if the steering wheel was an unimportant thing. Perry spun it and slammed on the brake. Neither effort made any impact. They turned in a near 360, the spinning headlights illuminating snow-laden limbs, and then there was a muffled thump and a jarring impact as the back of the car smacked into a snow-covered bank. Perry slammed the gearshift into first and hit the gas.

  The tires spun without catching.

  “Kill those headlights,” Joe said. “Kill it all, actually.”

  Perry shut off the lights and the engine.

  The stillness was eerie, no sounds save the wind and the whisper of falling snow on the glass.

  “I guess that answers your question,” Tolliver said from the backseat. “We’ll be going back on foot.”

  “For the record,” Joe said, “Barney Oldfield was a race car driver who couldn’t hold a curve. Maybe you’ll remember him now.”

  He popped open his door and had to push hard to keep the wind from slamming it shut on him. Somewhere in the distanc
e was a crashing, thundering sound that had to be the roar of the falls that Tolliver mentioned. In this weather it wouldn’t be long before that water would ice into spikes and daggers. Cleveland, Georgia, had gotten confused with Cleveland, Ohio, today. He thought about the dumb-shit remark he’d made that morning to Luisa, the DEA agent, about how they wouldn’t be troubled by the snow.

  If only she could see them now.

  Tolliver had found a flashlight in the back of the car. Perry had packed a go-bag, which seemed unnecessary at the time, but now that the car had spun out in the middle of nowhere, Joe was grateful for the supplies.

  He was climbing out of the car when a moaning sound made him stop half in and half out of the car. For a moment, he thought it was the wind, low and mournful as it whistled through the trees. But then it returned, and while the wind might be able to moan, it was not able to cry out for help.

  “That’s behind us,” Tolliver said.

  He was already out of the car, standing nearly knee-deep in a drift, and had his gun in one hand and flashlight in the other. Perry got out carefully, taking care not to make any noise. The cry came again, and it might have been mistaken for the howl of a wounded animal if not for that single word it formed.

  Help.

  Tolliver handed Perry the flashlight and moved toward the sound without speaking. Joe followed, motioning at Tolliver to separate, and Tolliver nodded and moved laterally without hesitation, putting distance between them while Perry hung back, ready to provide covering fire. In this triangular formation they moved slowly through the snow. The wind gusted and a pine bow shed its weight, dumping fresh, cold powder across Joe’s neck and shoulders, some of it sliding under his shirt and melting in a chilled slick along his spine.

  The voice came again, crying for help, but it was weaker now, fading.

  Joe was just about to say they might have gone in the wrong direction, that Tolliver had been mistaken about where the voice was coming from, when they crested a ridgeline and saw the man hanging by his arm from the tree.

  Five steps farther, and Joe recognized him.

  Antonio Childers was handcuffed to a low-hanging pine limb. His face was a mask of battered flesh and blood, and he wasn’t dangling from the branch because he’d been hung too high for his feet to reach the ground.

  He was dangling from it because his legs were broken.

  Tolliver whispered, “What’d they do to him?”

  “Whatever they wanted,” Perry said.

  Joe looked out into the wind-whipped snow and the gathering darkness and said, “Let’s get him out of the tree and the hell out of here in a hurry. Before whoever hung him up there comes back.”

  He tossed Tolliver the handcuff keys. Tolliver caught them with one hand, tucked the Glock into the back of his pants, and went to free Antonio.

  Perry said, “They kept him alive for a reason. They’re not done with him.”

  Joe was about to concur when he heard a sound that made him look over his shoulder. Nothing in sight, but he wasn’t sure how much that mattered. Thomas “Double” Simpson had grown up on these mountains.

  Perry went to help Tolliver carry Antonio back toward the car. When they were close enough, Joe looked at the man’s battered face and said, “You’re a long way from Eddy Road, Antonio. Happy to see a familiar face?”

  Childers, who’d once promised to kill Joe and all those dear to him, whimpered like a child.

  Begging for help.

  “Don’t worry,” Joe said. “We’ve come to take you home to Mansfield.”

  There was a snapping sound in the woods, and Joe whirled again.

  Still nothing visible.

  The roar of the falls in the distance had seemed to quiet, and the temperature was dropping fast. The blackness of night was rising even faster. The moon fought through the clouds, casting eerie white light on the snow. He’d never wanted to get away from a place more than this one.

  “We’re going to need shelter,” Joe said.

  He was trying to remember old survival priorities. First aid was priority number one, but the only member of the group who was hurt was Antonio, and there wasn’t anybody in the group who was qualified to set broken legs. So let Antonio suffer a little longer, and move on down the list.

  Shelter was next.

  “Let’s go back to the car, dig it free, and get the hell out of here,” Tolliver said. “I don’t want to sit and wait. Let the locals handle Double Simpson.”

  Nobody contested that advice.

  Tolliver and Perry dragged Antonio through the snow, his bleeding, broken legs leaving a trail.

  They’d made it halfway back to the car when headlights lit up the snow behind them.

  6:13 P.M.

  JEFFREY FROZE IN THE GLARE of the lights.

  He glanced over his shoulder. The lights were high beam, casting everything behind them in shadow, but he could still make out exactly what he was expecting to see.

  The black truck, and a figure holding a sawed-off shotgun.

  Not Paulson, because Paulson was the circumference if not the height of a flag pole. This guy was solidly built, shorter, and had a hell of a lot more confidence about the weapon in his hand.

  Had to be Double Simpson.

  “Leave the black fella with me and I’ll let you walk off this mountain,” Simpson called out.

  Pritchard, who came across as pretty cerebral for a Cleveland cop, asked, “Or we don’t drop him and then what?”

  Double slapped the short muzzle of the shotgun against his palm. The smacking sound echoed in the snowy silence.

  Pritchard said, “Seems like we have no choice.” His tone was convincing, but Jeffrey gathered the guy was like every guy on the Birmingham force, which meant two things. He was a consummate liar and he was never, ever going to let some thug tell him what to do.

  Double said, “I’ll give you sixty seconds to get back to your car and get the hell out of here.”

  Jeffrey let Antonio drop, which meant Perry had no choice but to do the same, and also meant that everyone had their hands free now.

  Pritchard got it.

  And gave Jeffrey a nod, moving toward the car, which was on his right. Jeffrey inched left, which was away from the car and toward a thick stand of trees twenty feet away.

  Pritchard told Double, “You can have him. Just let us know where the body is when the thaw comes.”

  “What?” Antonio, who’d been content to play dead while they dragged his two-hundred-pound ass through the forest, was suddenly coherent. “No, man. You can’t do that to me. This cracker’s gonna—”

  “Sorry about your luck,” Pritchard said, and he kept making his way in the thick snow toward the car.

  Perry seemed to be itching to make a stand, but he finally got with the program when Jeffrey moved left, following their lead. He understood that the plan wasn’t to get to the car and go. The plan was to get out of the range of the shotgun because no matter what Double said, none of them were stupid enough to believe he was going to let them walk off this mountain.

  “Please,” Antonio begged. “Come on, man. You can’t—”

  Pritchard slipped around the side of the car.

  Jeffrey darted into the woods. He heard a gun blast as he dove to the ground, the air cracking like lightning from the sky.

  Perry oofed as he landed beside Jeffrey. He didn’t move for a few seconds, and he wondered if the kid had been hit, but then Perry whispered, “Is Joe clear?”

  He knelt on the lee side of a large oak, checking for Pritchard.

  The moon gave off just enough light to make out shapes, but
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