Matchup, p.47
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       MatchUp, p.47

           Lee Child
 

  He saw something moving in the brush near the lake, about two hundred feet from his deck. He focused on the spot, but it was getting darker and he couldn’t see anything. It may have just been a breeze off the lake stirring the brush.

  Or it could have been a deer.

  Or a bear.

  He’d left his 9 mm Glock in the cabin, a stupid thing to do when you’re alone in the wilderness. He’d looked death in the eye more than once, and feared no man. But he did have two fears—nuclear weapons, which was rational based on a few of his cases, and bears, which he knew was not totally rational.

  He kept staring at the brush, thinking about going inside for the Glock. But he was comfortable in the deep chair, and the scotch made him lazy.

  It was mid-October and the trees were already shedding here in the North Country. And it was chilly. He took another sip of scotch. This place was okay in the summer, but after Labor Day most of the tourists and fishermen were gone and the North Country became eerily deserted until ski season began. So even if this wasn’t a good place to relax, it was a good place to disappear for a while. His last case, on his new job with the Diplomatic Surveillance Group, had left him in career limbo, known officially as administrative leave.

  He thought back to that case.

  He’d been on a routine surveillance of a Russian UN diplomat, Colonel Vasily Petrov, who was actually an SVR intelligence officer and a dangerous man. But the routine surveillance had turned into something that was anything but routine. More politically sensitive. Long story short, he’d broken some rules—or, to be more positive, he’d shown extraordinary initiative—and gotten himself into major trouble.

  As usual.

  But he’d brought the case to a successful conclusion.

  As usual.

  So while Washington was trying to decide if he should get a commendation or a pink slip, he was told to stay home and keep his mouth shut.

  Feds were such assholes.

  On top of all this, his FBI wife, Supervisory Special Agent Kate Mayfield, had accepted a transfer to D.C., and they were now what was called estranged.

  Meaning what?

  Barely speaking and definitely not fucking.

  And to further complicate his life he was involved with a young lady named Tess Faraday who’d been assigned to him as a DSG trainee. Turned out she was an undercover State Department intelligence officer, tasked with keeping an eye on him.

  Life was full of surprises.

  Some pleasant, some not.

  Bottom line, he needed a break from his professional and personal problems and Dick had offered him a cabin on Lake Whatchamacallit. No one will bother you there. No one can find you and, best of all, cell-phone service is pretty bad. That’s what his friend had said. To complete the isolation Dick had no landline phone in the cabin or Internet service. He was reachable, as per the requirements of his admin leave. But how do you know if you’re reachable before you get to where you’re not?

  Right?

  Anyway, it was good to get away. All he had to do now was figure out what to do with his time. The problem with doing nothing, as he always said, is not knowing when you’re finished.

  He yawned and finished his scotch, which had found its way to his brain. Dick had a few fishing poles in the cabin so tomorrow he’d go fishing. And the next day, too. He wasn’t sure what to do with a fish if he caught it. Shoot it? Maybe he’d also take a hike in the woods. Could a 9 mm Glock drop a bear?

  He heard more rustling in the undergrowth, coming from the trees to his left. He sat up, listening hard. It was deathly quiet here except for the birds, and sound traveled far in the cool air. He heard the sound again and focused on the nearby tree line. Something was there and he could hear it moving. He assumed it was a deer, foraging for leaves at dusk.

  A flock of birds rose from the trees and flew off.

  He laid his glass on the flat armrest of the Adirondack chair and stood.

  The sound got closer.

  Fight or flight?

  If he was a bird, he would have taken flight. But he wasn’t, so he took a step toward the edge of the deck. Then, remembering that his gun lay on the kitchen table, he retreated back toward the door. It was not inconceivable that someone had been sent here to whack him. He had lots of enemies. Russians, Islamic terrorists, and criminals he’d sent to jail, not to mention the CIA who had actually tried to kill him in Yemen. But none of those potential assassins were stupid enough to make that much noise.

  He relaxed.

  It had to be a deer.

  He stood focused on the tree line that ended about twenty feet from the cabin, expecting to see an animal emerge from the woods.

  But it wasn’t a deer that charged out of the tree line and ran directly toward him.

  BENNIE ROSATO HELD HER CELL phone to her ear, becoming angrier by the minute. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, though she only caught every fourth word because the cell reception was terrible. She had driven all the way up to this lake to spend a romantic weekend with her boyfriend, Declan, who was on depositions in Pittsburgh. He was supposed to meet her here tonight but was canceling on her.

  And she wasn’t hearing near enough of a good enough excuse.

  “Bennie, I’m sorry. But it can’t be helped,” he was saying.

  “What can’t be helped? What are you talking about? I’m here alone in this stupid cabin.”

  “You know how depositions go. You’re a lawyer, too. There’s just too much material to cover in one day. We couldn’t get it done.”

  “It’s the weekend. Do it Monday.”

  “I can’t. The witness has to go back on Monday and they’re refusing to produce him. I think it’s going to take both Saturday and Sunday. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you.”

  She should’ve guessed that this would all go south. Declan had placed the winning bid on the Woodsy Weekend Getaway at the silent auction to benefit the Equal Justice Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, her alma mater. She’d said they should just write a check. But no, Declan thought they should get something for their money.

  She should’ve known better.

  Those silent auction items were a scam. You didn’t “win” if you had to pay, plus they were always for vacations she didn’t have time to take and to places she didn’t want to go. They were always in the off-season, like now. A chilly October night by a lake in the middle of nowhere. God’s Country, the auction catalog had said. No, godforsaken.

  With mosquitoes and probably bears.

  Maybe even wolves.

  She plopped onto the old plaid couch, which smelled of mildew. Everything up here smelled horrible.

  “I have to go,” he said. “I’m really sorry.”

  “What am I supposed to do now?” she demanded, and even she didn’t like her tone.

  She was never one of those women who nagged, until she was. She had so much work to do back in Philly, a caseload that would keep two associates busy, and an entire law firm to run. Plus she’d been counting on vacation sex, and lots of it. After all, a girl had needs.

  “You should just take the weekend. Enjoy yourself.”

  “How can I enjoy myself? I didn’t bring any work.”

  He chuckled. “That’s the point. Don’t work. Enjoy yourself.”

  “I didn’t even bring a book.”

  “So download one.”

  “There’s no Internet. There’s almost no cell reception. There’s not even a telephone, a television, or a radio.” She couldn’t remember the last time she’d listened to the radio, but still. “It’s hell on earth. With bears.”

  “Did you see a bear?” His tone turned serious. “Are there bears?”

  “Probably. I bet the bears get lousy reception, too.”

  “But it looks beautiful in the pictures. Is it beautiful?”

  “It’s dark.” She threw up her hands, resigned. “I should just go home.”

  “I think you should stay and relax.”
/>
  “The only place I feel relaxed is a courtroom.”

  “Really?”

  “Have we met?”

  He paused. “Maybe you need to think about that, babe.”

  “Oh, I do?” she shot back, then, on impulse, hung up the call and tossed the phone on the couch. She’d be damned if she’d be lectured by the man who was standing her up.

  This sucked, there were no two ways about it.

  She and Declan were crazy about each other, but the problem was their schedules, and the lives of two trial lawyers didn’t leave time for much frolic and detour.

  She folded her arms, fuming. Then glanced at the phone, waiting for Declan to call back. If he did, she’d hang up on him again. She certainly did not need him telling her that she needed to relax, work less, and not stress. She’d heard it all before, and he was just as much of a workaholic as she was. Maybe not quite as much, but still, he worked hard too. And they both owned their own law firms, so he was no more mellow than she was.

  Maybe a little.

  She glanced at the phone but it didn’t ring, and she found her gaze flitting restlessly around the room. There was a living room/kitchen combination with mismatched plaid furniture and a battered coffee table that held an old book of crossword puzzles, but otherwise no reading matter. The wood floors looked splintery, and the walls were paneled with grooved knotty pine, like somebody’s basement from the 1960s. The kitchen cabinets had been painted pukey yellow, and the kitchen was stocked with only the barest essentials. She’d arrived in the daytime and sat on the back deck, sipping a Diet Coke, enjoying the scenery and waiting for Declan’s call announcing his imminent arrival. Now, as the sunlight faded, the cabin and the woods began to feel sinister.

  She glanced again at the silent phone.

  Maybe he couldn’t get a call through. She thought about calling him back, but decided against it. He should call her back, if anybody should call anybody. She stewed, arms still folded. It wasn’t that she didn’t know how to relax. It was just that if she were going to take the weekend off, she wanted to have fun.

  She stood and walked to the sliders that faced the deck to lock up for the night. She glanced outside and noticed lights in the cabin through the woods to her right. So at least there was one other person in the world. She wondered who else was stupid enough to come here. Probably another silent auction winner.

  Then suddenly, she realized she’d forgotten something.

  Her dog, Max, was gone.

  IT WAS HARD TO SEE in the dark, but Corey was certain it was a ravenous wolf running toward him. Or his wife’s lawyer with a subpoena. Hard to tell the difference—even in broad daylight. Actually, it was a dog, specifically a golden retriever who scampered onto the deck, his bushy tail wagging frantically, his wet nose to the deck as if he’d gotten the scent of some animal.

  Maybe a bear.

  He felt a bit silly for thinking a wild animal or an assassin had been stalking him. But better to imagine the worst than to experience it. A little paranoia is a good thing. Keeps you from relaxing too much.

  Keeps you alive.

  He dropped to one knee and called out, “Come here, buddy.”

  The retriever trotted over, his pink tongue lolling out of a broad smile. The dog was panting heavily, obviously overexerted, and the next thing he knew the dog stuck his muzzle between Corey’s knees, slobbering all over his baggy cargo pants.

  He buried his fingers in the dog’s thick scruff, warm with sweat. “You chasing rabbits?”

  A bark answered.

  “You need a drink?”

  More barking.

  “Dewar’s and water?” He thought the retriever’s ears perked up, so he commanded, “Sit.”

  The retriever instantly plopped his butt on the deck, his tail still wagging like a windshield wiper.

  “Good dog.”

  He wouldn’t have minded the companionship for the week, but he guessed that the obedient retriever belonged to somebody. He felt around the dog’s neck, finding a collar. He took his cell phone from his pocket, navigated to flashlight function and shined it on the nylon collar, locating the tag, which he read.

  “Max.”

  The dog barked in recognition.

  “Last name?”

  Nothing.

  “Date of birth?”

  A curious look.

  “Any prior arrests?”

  More silence.

  “Don’t lie to me, Max.”

  The dog barked.

  So it had come to this.

  Talking to a dog.

  He looked closely at the tag and saw the owner’s name. Bennie Rosato. There was no address, but there was a phone number with a 215 area code, which was Philadelphia. The dog certainly had not walked here from Philly, so the owner had to be in the area.

  He sat cross-legged on the deck, looking into Max’s big liquid eyes. The dog stared back as if to say, You’re a nice human, but I’m lost and looking for my owner.

  He punched Bennie Rosato’s number into his phone and petted the dog while it rang in his ear. There was static on the line, which meant that cell reception was weak. The call went to voice mail and a default computer voice said, “You have reached the cell phone of Bennie Rosato. Please leave a message at the beep.”

  He waited for the signal, then said, “Mister Rosato, my name is John Corey and I think I found your golden retriever, Max, at Lake Wha . . . the lake. He’s safe and sound. Call me at this number.”

  He hung up and said to Max, “That should do it.”

  It was possible that Max would run off again. Then when Mr. Rosato called, he’d have to say, Sorry, pal, your dog skipped out. So he went inside the cabin and found a ball of twine in a junk drawer. He returned to the deck and tied the twine around Max’s collar and started to tie it to the rail. Then he had another thought.

  “Maybe you could find your owner. You’re a retriever. Right?”

  A bark seemed to agree with the observation.

  “Okay, let’s take a walk while we’re waiting for the phone call.”

  With Max at the end of the makeshift leash, he stepped from the deck and allowed the dog to lead him toward the lake. Then they turned left toward the other lit cabin a few hundred yards away. The shoreline was rocky and strewn with glacial boulders, and Max seemed easily distracted by any scent that he picked up, so they weren’t making much progress.

  “Not much of a bloodhound, are you?”

  Max seemed insulted.

  “Sorry.”

  He started to realize this was not a good idea. The dog was more interested in nature than in finding his owner, plus it was getting dark and cold and he was wearing only a sweatshirt. Also, he’d left his Glock on the kitchen table. Max was pulling at the leash, trying to ferret out something between two boulders.

  “We’re going back,” he said.

  But Max had become disobedient and pulled at his twine leash, which might snap.

  “Come on. I’ll find you a dead squirrel for dinner.”

  But Max wasn’t listening and he found himself out in the cold, dark night, unarmed and alone except for a hyper dog. This was how small bad decisions lead to big bad consequences. He pictured the headline in the New York Post.

  “Bear Eats Fed.”

 
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