Matchup, p.54
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       MatchUp, p.54

           Lee Child
 

  She reached for her iPad. The day before, Martin Price had been able to send a text message from somewhere inside that cavern. Now, falling to her knees, she prayed that the reverse would also be true.

  ALI FULLY EXPECTED LELAND TO step into the cavern. But he was nowhere to be seen. Instead, an arriving text dinged on her phone. She glanced down at the message.

  ARCHER’S THERE. TRAP.

  Before she could pass the warning along to Bravo, the figure of a woman materialized in the entrance of the cave behind them. She was dressed all in black. Assuming a bowman’s stance, she sent an arrow whirring into the cavern. Bravo ducked to the ground, shoving Ali down with him an instant before the arrow ricocheted off the cavern wall an inch from her right cheek.

  Their attacker reached for another arrow.

  BRAVO LAUNCHED HIMSELF FORWARD AND slammed his left forearm into the woman’s head, then raced past into the snowy void at the cavern’s mouth, hoping to engage the Archer.

  To his surprise, the woman didn’t give chase.

  Behind him, though, he could hear the sounds of a one-on-one battle as Ali engaged the Knight he’d thrown off-balance. He hoped he’d given her enough of an opening.

  Another vague outline, far larger than the first, appeared out of the snow. He shifted right at Anson Stone, striking him before his adversary had time to notch an arrow.

  The Archer tumbled over backward, arms and legs flying.

  He struck three or four times with his closed fist, driving the Archer back beneath the thickening carpet of snow. The Archer’s right arm arced upward and slammed a rock into Bravo’s temple.

  He collapsed.

  The Archer grabbed the front of his coat, jerked it hard to the left. Bravo tried to clear the fog the blow had caused. The Archer reversed their positions, now on top, trying to pound the back of Bravo’s skull against the ground.

  But the snow acted like a cushion.

  The Archer pressed one hand onto Bravo’s face, trying to force his head under the snow. But the chill only served to revive Bravo, and he emerged from his stupor with the alacrity of someone fleeing an ice bath.

  Still, his breathing was being stifled.

  Full understanding of his dire situation flooded him.

  He forced his body to go limp.

  The Archer, sensing that his prey was either unconscious or dead, heaved Bravo’s head upward to find out which. He intended to deliver a closed-fingered blow straight to the Archer’s windpipe.

  But never had a chance.

  He heard the dull thud of Leland Brooks’s weighted baton smash into the back of Anson Stone’s head.

  The Archer landed dead weight on Bravo’s back, forcing what little breath he still had out of his lungs. Seconds later, the still body was rolled away and Leland helped Bravo to his feet.

  The two men then raced into the cavern.

  They could hear breathing in the pitch dark. Bravo had lost his Maglite during the struggle. Fortunately Leland still had his, which was switched on. In the beam’s glare they saw Ali leaning against the side of the cavern, gasping for breath, her opponent on the rocky floor, out cold.

  Bravo dug into his backpack and came out with a fistful of tie wraps. “We need to secure them.” He looked at Ali. “Are you all right?”

  She nodded. “You?”

  “I wouldn’t be if it weren’t for Leland.”

  Who was busy fastening the prisoner’s arms behind her.

  “He thumped Anson Stone a good one on the head with that baton of his. I don’t think Anson’s dead, but it’s going to be a while before he comes around.”

  “Let’s get him tied up before that happens,” Leland said.

  Bravo nodded. “And bring him inside.”

  “Do you think there are any others?” Ali asked.

  “I hope not.”

  WHILE THE TWO MEN STEPPED back outside, Ali struggled to locate her phone. She found the unit and sent Sister Anselm a text created with trembling fingers.

  THANKS FOR THE WARNING. IT WAS A TRAP. WE’RE ALL OKAY.

  A few moments later a reply text came.

  FATHER PRICE SAYS TO LOOK FOR A LOOSE BOULDER INSIDE THE CAVERN. IT’S THERE, SOMEWHERE. I THINK IT MAY BE ON THE RIGHT HAND SIDE.

  Anson Stone was still unconscious when Leland and Bravo carried him inside the cave, then dropped him to the ground.

  “I heard from Sister Anselm. Martin tried to warn us that it might be a trap. But he said to look for a boulder inside the cavern.”

  “What exactly are we looking for?” Leland asked.

  “A copper tube, probably green with verdigris,” Bravo said. “It contains the Veil of Saint Veronica.”

  LELAND MANAGED TO BUILD A fire just outside the entrance to the cave, leaving their prisoners next to it for warmth while Bravo and Ali searched for the boulder. When they finally found it, they were surprised at how readily it moved, revealing the treasures hidden underneath—a dead, no-brand flip phone, a pile of loose beads, and the copper tube.

  “The Veronica,” Bravo said in a reverential tone. “The cloth used to wipe Christ’s brow on his way to the Crucifixion. A holy relic from the earliest days of Christianity.”

  “An ancient holy relic,” Ali agreed. “Along with a modern burner phone.”

  “Kind of emblematic of how the world works nowadays.” Bravo rolled the tube, examining it closely. “Amazing craftsmanship. It had to be to ensure the veil’s survival over the centuries.”

  “Are you going to open it here?” she asked.

  “Absolutely not.”

  He shoved the quiverlike tube into his backpack. “The veil is more than two thousand years old. It will need to be opened by a professional, under the most controlled of circumstances.”

  “Inside the Vatican?” she asked.

  He shook his head. “Not until we’ve established what it is.”

  “And your prisoners?”

  “They’ll be handled.”

  “Murdered, you mean?”

  “No. We’ll give them a chance to tell us what they know.”

  “Tortured then?”

  He smiled. “We’re the good guys, remember?”

  “Sometimes it’s hard to tell. But still no cops?”

  “Not our style.”

  “What about the two men you lost?”

  “If the Knights tells us where they are, we’ll arrange for a proper burial.”

  “If not?”

  He shrugged and said nothing.

  He’d earlier sent a text to the men he’d brought to Flagstaff as backup, the ones last seen following the part of the extramuros team that had come to the hospital. With the backup agents on their way, and before Ali and Bravo had launched their search, Leland had offered to hike back down to the end of the road to guide the new arrivals back to the cavern. By the time Leland returned, the snow had stopped falling. Bravo and Ali were sitting outside the cave, huddled next to the fire, keeping it going.

  His men dealt with the prisoners, who were starting to come around.

  Leland deposited the picnic hamper in a spot near the fire and then settled down next to it. “Since I went to the trouble of preparing this food, we’re going to sit here and eat it before we hike back down the mountain. Now, would anyone care for a Cornish pasty?”

  SIX WEEKS LATER, SISTER ANSELM Becker sat by the gas-burning log fire at the newly remodeled St. Bernadette’s Convent in Jerome while another fierce snowstorm, the third of the season, swirled outside.

  It was almost Christmas.

  She was glad to be home and warm on this cold and windy night.

  When her phone rang with Bishop Gillespie’s distinctive ring, she was sure she was about to be summoned to some poor soul’s bedside.

  “No,” the bishop said. “No call-out tonight. At least not so far, but I’ve just had a fascinating conversation with Bravo Shaw.”

  Sister Anselm had never taken to the man she still insisted on referring to as Father Shaw. He claimed
to be a Franciscan, and she was determined to have him live by those words.

  “What did he have to say for himself?” she asked, not bothering to conceal the disapproval in her voice.

  “They opened the sealed quiver earlier this afternoon. What they found inside wasn’t the Veil of Saint Veronica.”

  “I knew it,” she declared. “The whole thing was a fake from beginning to end, just like all the others.”

  “It’s not exactly a fake,” the bishop said. “It’s cloth all right—fragments of cloth—but it turns out the fragments are from something even more valuable than the veil. It contains seven tiny words written in Phoenician glyphs.”

  “What difference does that make?”

  “It means,” he said, “rather than coming from the time of Christ, it may be much older than that. In addition to the glyphs there appears to be the seal of King Solomon inconspicuously woven into one corner.”

  She was nothing short of astonished.

  “In this instance,” the bishop said, with a smile she could hear in his voice, “it seems we’ve encountered something that is both fake and real at the same time. I also believe that Bravo Shaw and his associates will see to it that those fragments end up where they belong.”

  “You’re saying I misjudged the man?”

  “I believe so.”

  He chuckled.

  “Sister Anselm wrong? I’m marking that down on the calendar. As far as I know this is a singular occurrence.”

  Looking for more chilling short stories from your favorite thriller writers?

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  AUTHOR BIOGRAPHIES

  LARA ADRIAN is the author of more than twenty-five novels, including the Midnight Breed vampire romance series, with nearly four million books in print worldwide. She also writes as Tina St. John, where her historical romances have won numerous awards including the National Readers Choice, the Romantic Times Magazine Reviewer’s Choice, and the Booksellers Best. All her novels regularly appear in the top spots of all the major bestseller lists. She lives in Florida. To learn more, visit laradrian.com.

  STEVE BERRY is the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author of twelve Cotton Malone adventures and four stand-alone thrillers. His books have been translated into forty languages with more than twenty-one million copies in fifty-one countries. He’s a member of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries Advisory Board and a founding member of International Thriller Writers—a group of more than thirty-eight hundred thriller writers from around the world—serving three years as its copresident. Find out more at steveberry.org.

  C. J. BOX is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-three novels including the Joe Pickett series. He won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel in 2009, as well as the Anthony Award, Prix Calibre 38 (France), the Macavity Award, the Gumshoe Award, Barry Award, and the Western Heritage Award for Literature. His novels have been translated into twenty-seven languages. Four have been optioned for film and television. He’s an avid outdoorsman and lives with his wife, Laurie, on a ranch in Wyoming. His website is cjbox.net.

  SANDRA BROWN is the author of sixty-seven New York Times best sellers. She has upward of eighty million copies of her books in print worldwide. She holds an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Texas Christian University, where she and her husband Michael Brown, have instituted an annual scholarship. She has served as president of Mystery Writers of America, and in 2008 was named a Thrillermaster, the top award given by International Thriller Writers. In 2011, she participated in a USO tour of thriller writers to Afghanistan. Lots more can be found at sandrabrown.net.

  LEE CHILD was born in Coventry, England, but spent his formative years in the nearby city of Birmingham. In 1995, at the age of forty, as a result of being fired during a corporate restructuring, he decided to see an opportunity where others might have seen a crisis. So he bought six dollars’ worth of paper and pencils and sat down to write Killing Floor, the first in the Jack Reacher series. Now there are tens of millions of Reacher novels across the globe in too many languages to count, and two major motion pictures involving the character. He divides his time between Manhattan, France, and England. Check him out at leechild.com.

  NELSON DEMILLE spent three years at Hofstra University, then joined the army and saw action as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, where he earned the Air Medal, Bronze Star, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. His first major novel was By the Rivers of Babylon, published in 1978. There have been many more since, most #1 New York Times best sellers. He is a past president of Mystery Writers of America and was named Thrillermaster by International Thriller Writers in 2015. He holds three honorary degrees: doctor of humane letters from Hofstra University, doctor of literature from Long Island University, and doctor of humane letters from Dowling College. He lives on Long Island, New York, with his wife and son. For more, visit nelsondemille.net.

  DIANA GABALDON holds degrees in zoology, marine biology, a PhD in quantitative behavioral ecology, and an honorary doctorate in humane letters. She spent a dozen years as a university professor before venturing into novel writing, creating the phenomenally successful Outlander series, which is published in forty-two countries and thirty-eight languages. It is also a hugely popular television series on the Starz network. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband. Her website is dianagabaldon.com.

  ANDREW GROSS majored in English at Middlebury College. After earning an MBA from Columbia University, he first worked at the Leslie Fay Companies, a women’s clothing firm started by his grandfather, then went into the sports apparel field. Eventually, he followed his dream and started writing. Ultimately, he became the author of fourteen New York Times bestselling thrillers, five cowriting with James Patterson and nine on his own. His books are now sold in over twenty-five countries. His latest, One Man, is a World War II thriller built on his own family’s history. He lives in Westchester County, New York, with his wife. Find out more at andrewgrossbooks.com.

  CHARLAINE HARRIS was born and raised in the Mississippi River Delta. First published in 1981, she was firmly embedded in the mystery genre before branching out into new territory. Starting with the premise of a young woman with a disability who wants to try interspecies dating, she created the Sookie Stackhouse urban fantasy series. The first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, won the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Mystery in 2001. The series, which ended in 2013, ultimately found readers in over thirty languages and became the HBO series True Blood. She lives in central Texas with her husband and, when not writing, takes care of a house full of rescue dogs. Learn more at charlaineharris.com.

  LISA JACKSON is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than eighty-five thrillers. Before being published Lisa was a mother struggling to keep food on the table by writing novels, hoping that somebody would pay her for one of them. Eventually, that hope became a wonderful reality. Today, she’s neck deep in murder with over twenty million copies of her books worldwide. Learn more about her at lisajackson.com.

 
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