The Prisoner's Gold (The Hunters 3) (3 page)

BOOK: The Prisoner's Gold (The Hunters 3)
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She ended up doing both.

Although it was a perfect day for skiing, she hadn’t come to Vermont to enjoy the fresh powder. She was there to compete in the PEAK Winter Death Race, a form of hell that combined endurance racing, obstacle courses, and mental acuity exams. It was a competition designed to push contestants to their breaking points … and then dare them to keep going. The race was so grueling and the racers so determined that it was common for competitors to leave behind torn flesh – and even the occasional fingertip – and never break stride.

Snow covered most of the course, and the air temperature was hovering around forty degrees. Brisk, but not devastatingly cold. Despite the chill, Sarah wore only a tight-fitting black sports outfit that was now so encrusted in mud that her shapely figure had transformed into a bulbous blob of browns and grays, like a corpse buried in the woods.

She had already run several miles up and down the mountainside, stopping only to complete the challenges. It had begun with quartering logs with an ax before swimming to the bottom of a muck-filled pond to retrieve a bag of LEGO. Per instruction, she had carried the pouch to the next station where she had used the tiny bricks to construct a toy motorcycle while reciting the names of all fifty US states. Once she had completed that task, she had stacked a thousand pounds worth of sandbags into a ten-foot pyramid while shouting the list of states again – only this time in reverse alphabetical order.

The hardest parts for her weren’t the tasks themselves but the complete uncertainty about the length of the race or what drudgery might be lurking around the next corner. In her line of work, having a plan was crucial; failing to think ahead could get her captured or killed. But at PEAK, she never knew what to expect next. There was no way to train for this event. She just had to be in good enough shape to handle anything that they threw at her, no matter how long it lasted.

Thankfully, the next task was right up her alley.

She had to climb the waterfall.

In the summer when the stream was barely trickling, the rock face would have presented little difficulty for an expert climber like Sarah. But with the spring thaw in full effect, the wall was protected by a thick layer of bubbling whitewater that was so cold it was one step away from being ice. To make the task harder, she had to carry the bucket of rocks to the top without using her hands. For her, that meant placing the bucket behind her head and shoving the rope handle into her mouth.

A field marshal inspected her every move. ‘You know, you don’t have to do this. Just say the word, and I’ll give you a warm blanket, a thermos of hot chocolate, and a ride back to the lodge.’

‘Fuuuu youuuuu!’ she said through clenched teeth.

He laughed at the vulgarity and backed away.

Sarah stepped into the frigid pool at the foot of the falls and felt her legs go completely numb. As she trudged toward the falling water, her mind drifted far from Vermont. Mentally she was no longer in the icy froth but on a warm beach at the team compound in Fort Lauderdale.

During the past year, she had learned a lot about herself. She used to prefer to work alone, but now the isolation of it was less thrilling. After working with a team of highly skilled experts on a pair of high-stakes missions, she had discovered the value of teamwork. Not only had she come to recognize the talents of others but she saw how they could complement her own abilities. And this realization had slowly carried over into other aspects of her life.

Including the Death Race.

Two tasks back, she had convinced other contestants that the only way up a steep mudslide was to form a human chain. Many of the others had refused to accept that the obstacle required collaboration, but Sarah had figured it out immediately. After becoming a part of a ‘Barrel of Monkeys’ chain with five mud-coated competitors, she had succeeded in reaching the top.

Everyone who insisted on doing it alone had failed.

Champing down on the rope handle of the bucket – with its heavy cargo of river stones nestled behind her damp head – she felt like she was wearing some kind of torture device. She stepped into the downpour and was immediately drenched. The water felt like needles piercing her skin. With the rope jammed in her teeth, she couldn’t close her lips. The cascade of icy water flooded her mouth, making her teeth ache and breathing difficult. All she could do was try to close off her throat as she looked up under the falls to see the next hold.

Fortunately, the rock wall was merely damp from spray and not fully soaked from the surging water, which arched out from the ledge above and mostly hit the bucket of rocks behind her head as she tried to find her grip. This made the bucket heavier and the task that much harder. Although the challenge was devious, she quickly figured out how to defeat it.

Sarah noticed two thin crevices up the back of the cliff. She jammed her fingers inside the left crack and placed her boots inside the right. Then by pulling her hands in one direction and pushing with her feet in the other, she was able to anchor herself against the wall. From there, she simply had to adjust her pressure as she inched her way up the rock face. The technique was called a
layback
: an advanced maneuver that was difficult to master. But with a low center of gravity, most women climbers found it easier to do than men did.

Once she found her rhythm, she made her way up the cliff with relative ease. As long as she kept her head turned to the right or left, the water passed harmlessly behind her and missed the bucket entirely. At the top of the rock, right below the apex of the surging waterfall, she found a horizontal crevice that allowed her to slide completely to a rocky ledge past the edge of the water. From there, she climbed around the frigid stream and made her way to a different field marshal who was there to make sure her bucket of rocks was still intact.

He gave her a thumbs-up and pointed her toward the finish line.

A short jog through the snow, and she would be the winner of the event.

The first female ever to capture the main prize.

Just then, she heard her cell phone start to ring. Attached to her arm in a bulletproof case capable of withstanding water, mud, rock, and LEGO, the phone blasted out a verse from Oingo Boingo’s
Weird Science
. It was her ringtone for Hector Garcia.

If the geek was calling, it could mean only one thing.

There was another mission for the team.

Sarah smiled as she reached for her phone, which was buried under a layer of mud. She had balked at first when Cobb had requested each team member be available at all times, but it truly didn’t bother her. In fact, she actually looked forward to the next call. She had quickly come to realize that she only felt truly alive when on a mission with the team.

Sure, she would pretend to be annoyed and put on a huge show of bitching and complaining that she had been called in during the middle of the race, but the truth was she couldn’t wait to fly to Florida to get back in the game.

Besides, she had no intention of winning the race.

Not with TV coverage at the finish line.

The team didn’t need that kind of attention.

Still smiling, Sarah put the phone to her ear and hissed, ‘What?’

3

Sunday, March
16

Hong Kong

Normally Lim Bao would take his time as he strolled through the plush lobby of the high-rise hotel where his boss lived. He would admire the shiny marble floors, the expensive artwork on the walls, and the attractive hostesses behind the front desk.

But today wasn’t an ordinary day.

Today someone was chained to a chair in the parking garage.

Waiting for the elevator, Lim impatiently tapped his leather shoe on the carpet until he heard the chime indicating the car had arrived. He stepped inside, slid his keycard into the slot, then entered his security code for the 117th floor. An elderly couple with their grandson stepped toward the car as the doors began to close, but he glared at them and shook his head.

They quickly got the hint and backed away.

A moment later, the doors sealed shut and the elevator rocketed skyward as Lim’s stomach leaped into his throat. Though he hated the nausea that always accompanied him to the penthouse, he knew it could have been much worse.

At least it wasn’t a
glass
elevator.

On the
outside
of the building.

Whoever invented those was an asshole.

The hotel occupied the top sixteen floors of the International Commerce Centre, which was the tallest building in Hong Kong and the seventh tallest in the world. Roughly two hundred feet shorter than the One World Trade Center in New York, the ICC would have been higher on the list if the number of stories was the determining factor instead of raw height – since many of the world’s tallest buildings added massive antennas for no other reason than to be taller.

A soft ding signaled the car’s arrival, and the elevator slid open with a quiet whoosh. Waiting on the other side were Chang and Lang, the identical twins hired to guard the door during the day shift. They looked like trolls comically stuffed into black Armani suits. Rippling with muscles and bulk, the men were also highly flexible, lending far more function to their heft than was typical of bodybuilders. As Lim passed, each raised a fist diagonally across his chest in salute. He barely noticed as he raced down the corridor to his mentor’s room.

Another two guards stood at the double doors to the Presidential Suite, but they allowed him to pass without being frisked. He was the only one permitted to do so. Once inside, Lim ignored the breathtaking/nauseating view and went straight to the exercise room where he found his middle-aged mentor face down on a rubberized mat, working through his daily calisthenics. Wearing only dark sweat pants, the man was effortlessly raising himself in a one-thumbed push-up. His rippled torso glistened with so much sweat under the harsh lights that he almost seemed to glow.

Feng He was the present-day leader of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists. The brotherhood had existed in secrecy for centuries but had risen to fame at the start of the twentieth century when they had fought off the British imperialists who they believed were plundering the wealth and resources of China. The members of the brotherhood were still vehemently opposed to any and all foreign interference in China, but it had taken Feng’s leadership over the past decade to bring the organization out of the shadows and into the world of high finance.

Lim was constantly amazed at the financial support that the brotherhood received. He couldn’t actually remember the last time he had seen Feng pay for anything – not only in Hong Kong, but anywhere they went. And with a rising tide of Chinese nationalism, that sort of respect would only continue to grow in the future.

Feng leaned back on the downthrust of his push-up, then sprang forward with his legs. The lunge launched his body upward at a forty-five-degree angle. He deftly landed on his feet and continued forward to the ballet bar mounted across the wall of windows. Feng grabbed a plush towel off the wooden bar and gently patted the perspiration from his face. Then he breathed in and out a few times, exaggerating the action with his arms, as if the heavy breaths completed his exercise.

Lim said nothing as he waited for his boss to acknowledge his presence.

Eventually Feng turned and smiled broadly, showing perfect white teeth. Then he spoke in Mandarin to his second-in-command. ‘What has you in such a rush today?’

‘The brothers have captured a smuggler,’ answered Lim, who was standing at attention as if he were reporting to an emperor.

‘And why should I care?’ Feng asked, amused. In a district the size of Hong Kong, there were literally thousands of crimes per day, most of which had nothing to do with the Fists.

‘The smuggler is Australian. We caught him at the Tsim Sha Tsui marketplace.’

‘What was he smuggling?’

‘Jade figurines from the Ming Dynasty.’

Feng’s smile vanished, and a scowl furrowed his brow. He took notice whenever foreigners committed any crime in China – from small slights to massive drug deals – but he took particular interest when a foreigner tried to rob his country’s heritage. He moved across the room, grabbed a thin black T-shirt, and slipped it over his powerful torso. ‘Where is he?’

‘We have him downstairs. Should I have him brought up for you?’

‘No,’ Feng growled. ‘We will go down.’

They rode silently to the hotel lobby and switched elevators to descend the entire distance to the sub-basement’s parking level.

The elevator opened to a clean, brightly lit lot with thick yellow lines on the ground and walls. The building had several lots, but this level was closed off for the Fists. Diagonally across from the elevator was a private office where the smuggler was being kept.

Inside the office there were three large guards in tailored suits, all standing silently around a wooden desk and chair. Chained to the desk was a scruffy Australian of nearly thirty. His eyes were sky blue and his hair an unruly mop of dirty blond curls. He was big – more than two hundred pounds of meat – although his body lacked definition.

‘Good afternoon,’ Feng said in English.

Relief filled the tourist’s face as he looked up at Feng and Lim.

‘Oh, thank God! Someone who speaks English. Listen, mate, I’m not sure what these boys have told you, but I didn’t do anything wrong. My business partner assured me that the items were paid for and our shipping permits were up to date. Obviously I can’t read the damn forms – they’re written in symbols or whatever you call those squiggly things – but I swear to you, I thought everything was legal.’

‘Is that so?’ Feng said, pondering his next move.

‘I’m telling you, mate, it’s nothing but a misunderstanding.’

Feng nodded and stuck out his hand. ‘Yes. A big misunderstanding.’

The Aussie smiled and leaned forward to shake hands with Feng, hoping upon hope that Feng was dumb enough to believe his lie, but it wasn’t meant to be. Feng struck with lightning speed, grasping the man’s wrist and twisting it with so much force that bones cracked.

BOOK: The Prisoner's Gold (The Hunters 3)
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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