Matchup, p.48
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       MatchUp, p.48
 

           Lee Child

  His instinct was to let the animal go and head back to his cabin. But he’d called Rosato, so he at least had to keep Max with him. The dog was lapping water from the lake, then he raised his hind leg and pissed.

  He noticed that Max was now looking up the slope at the lighted cabin in the distance. “Is that where you live, boy? Where’s Bennie, Max? Let’s go find Bennie.”

  The dog barked and began trotting along the shore toward the cabin.

  “Good boy. Go to Bennie.”

  Max tugged at his leash and Corey trotted along behind him toward the lit cabin.

  He redialed Rosato’s number as he walked, but it went to voice mail again and he ended the call without leaving another message.

  It was getting colder, and he was tired from the long drive, and he was feeling naked without his gun.

  A thought popped into his head.

  No good deed goes unpunished.

  “MAX,” BENNIE CALLED OUT, AS she tore through the woods, frantic.

  She waved her flashlight back and forth but didn’t see him in the thick brush. Max had been with her on the back deck, but she’d forgotten about him when Declan had called.

  Tree branches tore at her bare skin since she was clad only in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. A wave of guilt washed over her and she was afraid for Max’s life. She’d only had the golden retriever a few months, but she loved him and so did Declan. They’d rescued him together, and she couldn’t lose him up here in the middle of nowhere.

  “Max.”

  But heard no barking or panting anywhere.

  The woods surrounding her were dense, dark, and cold, and she kept her hands out in front, clearing the branches with her hands. She wondered if Max had gone to the other house, the only lighted one on the lake, so she headed toward it in the distance. She kept going, threading her way through the pines and fall foliage. She felt her forearms getting scratched and cut, and she almost tripped on some tree roots, but she kept going, deeper and deeper. The lights of the cabin slowly became brighter and bigger, and she knew she was getting closer.

  She called the dog’s name again and again, feeling tears come to her eyes. Anything could happen to him in these woods. Max was just a goofball, like most golden retrievers. They trusted everybody and loved everything. Plus he was a city dog and he had no idea what was going on in the country. She’d had him on a leash earlier because he’d been so distracted by all the different smells, and he’d gone nuts when he’d seen a squirrel.

  She tripped, almost falling to the ground, which was when she realized something. The light was closer but she didn’t see the lake anymore. Somehow, when she’d teared up, she’d become turned around in the woods, drifting away from the lake, which was a mistake.

  She whirled around in the darkness, casting the jittery cone of light around her in a circle. Which only confirmed her fear. The lake was nowhere in sight and she was surrounded on all sides by woods. If she wasn’t headed toward the lighted lake house anymore, where was she going? But there were lights ahead, and maybe Max was there.

  She took a few steps through the trees, heading toward whatever lights they were, but something made her slow her step and proceed with caution. She found herself lowering the flashlight, then switching it off, because whatever she had reached in the middle of nowhere was putting out a lot of electricity.

  But it wasn’t a house at all.

  She remained motionless, peering out at the scene from behind a tree. The light was coming from a pole-mounted floodlight, which cast a harsh brightness on a clearing. All the trees had been cut down and the land leveled around a large modular building, like a windowless storage shed, but the strangest thing was that the building was covered with camouflage netting. A black pickup was parked outside the shed, and she thought it was running, but then she realized she was hearing the hum of a generator.

  She’d been a criminal lawyer long enough to know when she was seeing trouble. The shed was in the middle of a thick forest, it had its own generator, and was camouflaged. She wondered if this was drug related, a meth lab, or maybe stolen goods. It was some kind of clandestine operation, and for a moment she wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t want to call 911 until she was safely out of the area. And she didn’t want to get out of the area until she was sure Max wasn’t near the building.

  Or inside it.

  She ducked down as the woods were suddenly swept with bright high beams, and she watched as another black pickup pulled into view from a dirt road on the other side of the camouflaged shed. She realized she was wearing a white T-shirt and flattened herself on the ground so she wouldn’t be easy to spot.

  Two men climbed out of the truck, but it was too dark to see anything more than their silhouettes, though she heard their voices. They were speaking a foreign language. It wasn’t French, Spanish, Italian, or German, and it didn’t have the soft squishy sounds of Polish or Eastern Europe. She didn’t want to be politically incorrect or paranoid, but it sounded Arabic.

  One man began unloading a large box and the other man helped him, and the two of them inched along with the box, stutter-stepping on the way to the shed. They passed through a pool of light, and she could see that the box was a wooden crate, long and narrow. She took one look at its shape and thought instantly rifles or armaments.

  Her mouth went dry.

  She was a lawyer, not a cop.

  And she was no terrorism expert, but she watched CNN. The idea was, if you see something, say something. She didn’t know what she was seeing, but she knew she was going to say something. But first she had to get out of there without them seeing her.

  Suddenly her cell phone rang.

  The men turned to the sound.

  She fumbled in her pocket for her phone and hit the button with trembling fingers, silencing it.

  But the men stood looking in her direction, then lowered the box.

  The floodlights went dark.

  So she ran.

  COREY AND MAX CLIMBED THE dark slope toward the lighted cabin, and he saw a white BMW parked in the gravel driveway with Pennsylvania plates, which was a good clue that Mr. Rosato of Philadelphia lived here.

  Max was pulling at the leash, so he let him go.

  The dog ran onto the back deck and he followed and saw that the sliding glass door was partly open. Max beelined into the cabin, so obviously this was where his owner was.

  Case closed.

  He didn’t necessarily want to meet Mr. Rosato and he didn’t want Mr. Rosato to thank him or offer him a drink or ask him to stay for a spaghetti dinner, so he decided to just slide the door shut and head back to his cabin.

  But what if this was not Rosato’s cabin?

  Then whoever lived here would have a new dog.

  And Rosato would still be calling about his.

  No good deed, indeed.

  He resigned himself to some human interaction and called in through the half-open slider, “Mr. Rosato.”

  No reply.

  He stuck his head into the cabin. Max was curled up on the couch. He noted that this living room was almost as grungy as the one in his cabin. Whoever owned or had rented this place would be better off living in the BMW. He called out again, “Mr. Rosato.”

  Max barked.

  But no one seemed to be home, which was odd, considering the car outside. Maybe there was a second car. Or maybe a bear had gotten in through the open sliders and eaten Mr. Rosato. Served him right for losing his dog and leaving the door open.

  Then it occurred to him that Rosato might have gone off on foot to find his dog. But this could still not be Rosato’s cabin. He could make a call and run the Pennsylvania license plate number, but that was a lot of effort.

  He looked at Max on the couch.

  Dogs don’t have to make decisions.

  They eat, sleep, play, and screw.

  In his next life?

  Maybe.

  All great detectives—as he was—came to conclusions based on clues, evidence, and
information. Not on assumptions, speculation, or lazy thinking. So, reluctantly, he entered the cabin. Nothing in the living room or kitchen provided a clue as to who lived here, or if they were still here.

  He called up the staircase, then climbed the steep creaky steps to the second-floor bedrooms. He realized he was technically trespassing, and he hoped Bennie Rosato—or whoever lived here—didn’t pick this moment to return. The story of Goldilocks and the three bears popped into his head.

  At the top of the stairs was an open bathroom door and two closed doors. He knocked on the door to his left, hoping he wasn’t waking someone from a postcoital slumber.

  He opened the bedroom door and peeked inside. Empty.

  The other bedroom door was slightly ajar and he looked inside. There was a small unpacked suitcase on the bed, but no evidence that a bear had eaten the occupant.

  He stepped into the bedroom and read the tag on the suitcase. Bennie Rosato. A Philly address and the same phone number that was on Max’s collar.

  Now the case was closed.

  He went downstairs and filled a bowl with water and left it for Max who was still curled up on the couch.

  “There’s more water in the toilet bowl. Don’t pee on the floor. See ya around, pal.”

  Max looked up at him and seemed to say thanks with a bark.

  He left the cabin and slid the door shut, happy that he’d fulfilled his duty as a good citizen. He started back toward the lake rather than take the shortcut to his cabin through the dark woods. As he headed downhill toward the lake he redialed Rosato to tell him, or leave a message, that his dog was in his cabin. The number rang as he continued toward the lake, and he waited for voice mail to kick in.

  The phone stopped ringing.

  Then a breathless voice said, “Help.”

  The fuck?

  BENNIE TORE THROUGH THE WOODS, not knowing where she was going. She didn’t know if the men had seen her, but she wasn’t taking any chances. She kept the flashlight off but clutched it in case she had to use it as a weapon. She hurried as fast and as quietly as she could, away from the light. She held her phone, pressing 911 on the run, but she could tell it wasn’t connecting. She knew she had her GPS function on, and she prayed that dispatch would find her call and pick up her signal.

  Suddenly the phone vibrated in her hand.

  Her heart leapt to her throat. Maybe it was 911 calling back. Or Declan. But she didn’t recognize the number.

  She answered on the run, whispering, “Help. Please, come quickly, I’m lost in the woods near the lake. My name is Bennie Rosato. Please, hurry. I think I saw—”

  “You’re Bennie?” a man’s voice asked.

  “Yes. Is this 911?”

  “No. I’m John Corey. Did you get my message that I found your dog. Max. He’s back in your cabin. Are you a woman?”

  She used her arms to whack branches out of her path. She didn’t hear anyone behind her so either they were being quiet or she’d lost them. “Listen, I think I saw some terrorists in the woods. I’m trying to call 911.”

  “Where are you?”

  “In the woods. They might be following me. They were loading a box of guns into a shed that’s camouflaged with netting. They spoke Arabic.”

  “You sure?”

  “I watch Homeland.”

  “That makes me feel better.”

  A smart-ass? Just what she needed at the moment.

  “Can you describe where you are?” he asked. “Look around. What do you see?”

  The man’s tone was calm, oddly businesslike, which comforted her in a strange way. “I see woods. It’s dark.”

  “Are you moving uphill or down?”

  “Down.”

  Actually, she was practically stumbling forward.

  “Keep moving downhill. The lake sits at the bottom of a bowl. Understand? I’m at the water’s edge, about a hundred yards from your cabin. Stay on the line.”

  “Okay.”

  She kept running through the woods. Branches swatted her bare arms, legs, and face, and she stumbled a few times, but kept going, making sure she was headed downhill. She still didn’t hear anyone behind her, but she didn’t slow her pace though she was becoming out of breath.

  “Are you okay?”

  “I’m getting there.”

  “As soon as I see you, I’ll call 911.”

  “Hang up and call now.”

  “I don’t want to lose you. Do you see the lake?”

  “Not yet.”

  “Have you crossed the gravel drive that runs around the lake?”

  “I don’t know. It’s dark.”

  “Can you hear anyone behind you?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Stay on the phone and keep moving.”

  COREY STOOD ON A BOULDER near the lake, scanning the woods at the top of the slope. A half-moon was rising and he hoped Bennie Rosato would see him silhouetted against the water. She could be right about someone chasing her, but he didn’t think she’d stumbled onto a terrorist camp.

  Those things didn’t happen in real life.

  A sign of the times, though, as everyone liked to play cop.

  He’d learned never to form a conclusion without evidence. For instance, Bennie Rosato had turned out to be a woman.

  He said into his phone, “Listen, my cabin is the lighted one a few hundred yards to the right of yours, as you face the lake. Understand?”

  “I got it.”

  “Go there. I’m heading there now to get my gun.”

  “What?”

  “I’m a federal agent. I have a gun.”

  “Thank God. But why aren’t you carrying it?”

  That, he thought, was what an FBI postmortem inquiry would ask. So he came up with a good excuse. “Your dog distracted me.”

  “You’re blaming a dog?”

  “Just head for my cabin.”

  He started jogging that way, glancing at the woods as he moved.

  BENNIE NOTICED THE TREES THINNING out around her, then she crossed the narrow gravel road that circled the lake and picked up her pace. The forest vanished around her and she was on a bare rocky slope close to the lake. To her left was her cabin and to the right was the other lit one.

  John Corey’s.

  In fact, she saw a man running along the shoreline toward the cabin. She wanted to yell out to him but didn’t want to risk it if she was being followed.

  She added a burst of speed and ran down the slope on a course that would intersect with Corey. She waved her arms to attract his attention, but he didn’t see her, though he was glancing at the woods as he ran. She whispered into her phone, “I can see you. Look to your right.”

 
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