Authors: Douglas Preston,Lincoln Child
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery Fiction, #Government Investigators, #Pendergast; Aloysius (Fictitious character)
DOUGLAS PRESTON AND
NEW YORK BOSTON
Lincoln Child dedicates this book to his daughter, Veronica
Douglas Preston dedicates this book to Marguerite, Laura, and Oliver Preston
Cairn Barrow, Scotland
S THEY MOUNTED THE BARREN SHOULDER
of Beinn Dearg, the great stone lodge of Kilchurn vanished into the darkness, leaving only the soft yellow glow of its windows tingeing the misty air. Attaining the ridge, Judson Esterhazy and Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast paused and switched off their flashlights to listen. It was five o’clock in the morning, the cusp of first light: almost time for the stags to begin roaring.
Neither man spoke. The wind whispered through the grasses and moaned about the frost-fractured rocks while they waited. But nothing stirred.
“We’re early,” said Esterhazy at last.
“Perhaps,” murmured Pendergast.
Still they waited as the faintest gray light crept into the easternmost horizon, silhouetting the desolate peaks of the Grampian Mountains and casting a dreary pall over the surroundings. Slowly, the landscape around them began to materialize out of the darkness. The hunting lodge stood far behind them, turrets and ramparts of stone streaked with damp, surrounded by black fir trees, heavy and silent. Ahead rose the granite ramparts of Beinn Dearg itself, disappearing into the darkness above. A burn tumbled down its flanks, dropping into a series of waterfalls as it made its way to the black waters of Loch Duin, a thousand feet below, barely visible in the faint light. To their right and below lay the beginning of the great moorlands known as the Foulmire, overspread by rising tendrils of mist, which carried upward the faint smell of decomposition and swamp gas mingled with the sickly scent of overblooming heather.
Without a word, Pendergast reshouldered his rifle and began walking along the contour of the shoulder, heading slightly uphill. Esterhazy followed, his face shadowed and inscrutable under his deerstalker cap. As they climbed higher, the Foulmire came into direct view, the treacherous moors stretching to the horizon, bounded to the west by the vast black-sheeted waters of the great Inish Marshes.
After a few minutes, Pendergast halted and held up a hand.
“What is it?” Esterhazy asked.
The answer came, not from Pendergast, but in a strange sound echoing up from a hidden glen, alien and dreadful: the roar of a red stag in rut. It throbbed and bellowed, the echo resounding over the mountains and marshlands like the lost cry of the damned. It was a sound full of rage and aggression, as the stags roamed the fells and moorlands fighting one another, often to the death, over possession of a harem of hinds.
The roar was answered by a second, closer in, which came boiling up from the shores of the loch, and then yet another cry rose from a distant fold of land. The scattered bellowings, one after another, shook the landscape. The two listened in silence, noting each sound, marking its direction, timbre, and vigor.
Finally Esterhazy spoke, his voice barely audible over the wind. “The one in the glen, he’s a monster.”
No response from Pendergast.
“I say we go after him.”
“The one in the Mire,” murmured Pendergast, “is even larger.”
A silence. “Surely you know the rules of the lodge regarding entrance into the Mire.”
Pendergast made a short, dismissive gesture with a pale hand. “I am not one who is concerned with rules. Are you?”
Esterhazy compressed his lips, saying nothing.
They waited as a gray dawn bled suddenly red into the eastern sky and the light continued to creep over the stark Highland landscape. Far below, the Mire was now a wasteland of black pools and ribbons of marshy water, quaking bogs and heaving quickmire, interspersed among deceptive grassy meadows and tors of broken rock. Pendergast extracted a small spyglass from his pocket, pulled it open, and scanned the Mire. After a long moment, he passed the glass to Esterhazy. “He’s between the second and third tor, half a mile in. A rogue stag. No harem.”
Esterhazy peered intently. “Looks like a twelve-point rack on him.”
“Thirteen,” murmured Pendergast.
“The one in the glen would be much easier to stalk. Better cover for us. I’m not sure we have even the ghost of a chance of bagging the one in the Mire. Aside from the, ah, risks of going in there, it’ll see us a mile away.”
“We approach on a line of sight that passes through that second tor, keeping it between us and the stag. The wind is in our favor.”
“Even so, that’s treacherous ground in there.”
Pendergast turned to Esterhazy, gazing for a few awkward seconds into the high-domed, well-bred face. “Are you afraid, Judson?”
Esterhazy, momentarily taken aback, brushed off the comment with a forced chuckle. “Of course not. It’s just that I’m thinking of our chances of success. Why waste time in a fruitless pursuit all over the Mire when we have an equally fine stag waiting for us down there in the glen?”
Without responding, Pendergast delved into his pocket and extracted a one-pound coin. “Call it.”
“Heads,” said Esterhazy reluctantly.
Pendergast flipped the coin, caught it, slapped it on his sleeve. “Tails. The first shot is mine.”
Pendergast led the way down the shoulder of Beinn Dearg. There was no trail, only broken rock, short grass, tiny wildflowers, and lichen. As night gave way to morning, the mists thickened over the Mire, eddying about the low areas and streaming up the hillocks and tors.
They moved silently and stealthily down toward the verge of the Mire. When they reached a small hollow, a corrie, at the base of the Beinn, Pendergast gestured for them to halt. Red deer had an extremely acute suite of senses, and the men had to take exquisite care not to be seen, heard, or scented.
Creeping to the brow of the corrie, Pendergast peered over the top.
The stag was about a thousand yards off, moving slowly into the Mire. As if on cue, he raised his head, snuffled the air, and let out another ear-shattering roar, which echoed and died among the stones, then shook his mane and went back to sniffing the ground and taking odd snatches of grass.
“My God,” whispered Esterhazy. “He’s a monster.”
“We must move quickly,” murmured Pendergast. “He’s heading deeper into the Mire.”
They swung around below the rim of the corrie, keeping out of sight, until they had lined up the stag with a small tor. Turning, they approached the animal using the hummock as cover. The edges of the Mire, after the long summer, had firmed up, and they moved quickly and silently, the soft hillocks of grass acting as stepping-stones. They came up in the lee of the hill, then hunkered down behind it. The wind was still in their favor and they heard the stag roar again, a sign he was unaware of their presence. Pendergast shivered; the end of the roar sounded uncannily like that of a lion. Motioning Esterhazy to remain behind, he crept up to the hill’s edge, cautiously peering through a tumble of boulders.
The stag stood a thousand yards off, nose in the air, moving restlessly. He shook his mane again, the polished antlers gleaming. He raised his head and roared once again. Thirteen points: at least five hundred inches of antler. Strange that this late in the rutting season, he had not accumulated a sizable harem. Some stags, it seemed, were just born loners.
They were still too distant for a reliable shot. A good shot wasn’t good enough; one could never chance wounding an animal of this caliber. It had to be a certain kill.
He crept back down the side of the hill and rejoined Esterhazy. “He’s a thousand yards off—too far.”
“That’s exactly what I was afraid of.”
“He’s awfully sure of himself,” said Pendergast. “Since nobody hunts in the Foulmire, he’s not as alert as he should be. The wind’s in our faces, he’s moving away from us—I think we can chance an open stalk.”
Esterhazy shook his head. “There’s some treacherous-looking ground ahead.”
Pendergast pointed to a sandy area adjacent to their hiding spot, where the track of the stag could be seen. “We’ll follow his track. If anyone knows the way through the Mire, he does.”
Esterhazy held out a palm. “Lead the way.”
They unshipped their rifles and crept out from behind the tor, moving toward the stag. The animal was indeed distracted, focused on scenting the air coming from the north, paying little attention to what lay behind him. His snuffling and roaring covered the sounds of their approach.
They advanced with the utmost care, pausing whenever the animal hesitated or turned. Slowly, they began to overtake him. The stag continued to ramble deeper into the Mire, apparently following an airborne scent. They continued in utter silence, unable to speak, keeping low, their Highland camouflage perfectly adapted to the moorland environment. The trail of the stag followed almost invisible rivels of firmer ground, the path snaking among treacly pools, shivering morass, and grassy flats. Whether from the untrustworthy ground, the hunt, or some other reason, the tension in the air seemed to increase.
Gradually, they moved into shooting range: three hundred yards. The stag paused yet again, turning sideways, nosing the air. With the faintest of hand gestures, Pendergast indicated a halt and carefully sank into a prone position. Pulling his H&H .300 forward, he fitted the scope to his eye and carefully aimed the rifle. Esterhazy remained ten yards behind, crouching, as motionless as a rock.
Peering through the scope, Pendergast settled the crosshairs on a spot just forward the shoulder of the animal, took a breath, and began to squeeze the trigger.
As he did so, he felt the cold touch of steel against the back of his head.
“Sorry, old boy,” said Esterhazy. “Hold your rifle out with one hand and lay it down. Slow and easy.”
Pendergast laid down the rifle.
“Stand up. Slowly.”
Esterhazy backed away, covering the FBI agent with his hunting rifle. He suddenly laughed, the harsh sound echoing over the moorlands. Out of the corner of his eye, Pendergast saw the stag startle and bound away, disappearing into the mists.
“I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” said Esterhazy. “After a dozen years, it’s a bloody tragedy you didn’t leave well enough alone.”
Pendergast said nothing.
“You’re probably wondering what this is all about.”
“In fact, I am not,” said Pendergast, his voice flat.
“I’m the man you’ve been looking for: the unknown man at Project Aves. The one Charles Slade refused to name for you.”
“I’d give you a fuller explanation, but what’s the point? I’m sorry to do this. You realize it’s nothing personal.”
Still no reaction.
“Say your prayers, brother.”
Esterhazy raised the rifle, aimed, and pulled the trigger.