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Peeling back the layers of deception, Pendergast realizes that the conspiracy is deeper, goes back generations, and is more monstrous than he could have ever imagined–and everything he’s believed, everything he’s trusted, everything he’s understood . . . may be a horrific lie.
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Cairn Barrow, Scotland
AS 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.
A FAINT CLICK SOUNDED IN THE DAMP AIR.
"Christ!" Esterhazy said through clenched teeth, shooting open the bolt, ejecting the bad round and slamming a new one in place.
In a flash Pendergast leapt to his feet, scooping up his rifle and leveling it at Esterhazy. "Your not-so-clever stratagem failed. I've suspected it since your ham-handed letter asking which firearms I'd be bringing with me. I'm afraid the ammunition in your rifle is doctored. And so the thing goes full circle: from the blanks you put in Helen's rifle to the blanks now in your own."
Esterhazy kept working the bolt, frantically ejecting the bad rounds with one hand while delving into his musette bag with another, scooping out fresh rounds.
"Stop or I'll kill you," said Pendergast.
Ignoring him, Esterhazy ejected the last round and rammed a fresh one into the receiver, then slammed the bolt into place.
"Very well. This one's for Helen." Pendergast pulled the trigger.
A dull thunk sounded.
Instantly realizing the situation, Pendergast threw himself back, diving for cover behind an outcropping of rock as Esterhazy fired. The live shot ricocheted off the outcropping, spraying chips. Pendergast rolled farther behind cover, ditching his rifle and pulling out the Colt .32 he had brought as a backup. He rose, aimed, and fired, but Esterhazy had already taken cover himself around the other side of the small hill, and his return fire smacked into the rocks just in front of Pendergast.
Now they were both behind cover, on either side of the tor. Esterhazy's laugh once again cut across the land. "Looks like your not-so-clever stratagem has also failed. Did you think I'd let you out here with a working rifle? Sorry, old boy, I removed the firing pin."
Pendergast lay on his side, hugging the rock, breathing hard. It was a standoff—they were on either side of the same small hill. That meant whoever got to the top first…
Leaping to his feet, Pendergast scrambled spider-like up the side of the tor. He arrived at the summit at the very moment as Esterhazy did and they came together in a violent embrace, grappling on the high point of the hill before toppling off, rolling down the rocky face in a desperate clinch. Shoving Esterhazy back, Pendergast swung his .32 around, but Esterhazy slashed at it with the barrel of his rifle, the two weapons clashing like swords, both going off simultaneously. Pendergast seized the barrel of Esterhazy's rifle with one hand and they struggled over it, Pendergast dropping his pistol in an attempt to wrest away Esterhazy's weapon with both hands.
The mano a mano continued, all four hands on the same rifle, twisting and thrashing, each trying to shake the other off. Pendergast bent forward and sank his teeth into Esterhazy's hand, ripping into the flesh. With a roar Esterhazy head-butted him, knocking the FBI agent back, and kicked him fiercely in his side. The clash brought both of them down onto the frost-split rocks again, their camouflage ripping and tearing.
Getting his hand on the trigger, yanking and twisting, Pendergast fired it again and again to empty the magazine. He let go and drove his fist into Esterhazy's skull just as the man swung the rifle around, club-like, slamming Pendergast in the chest. Seizing the stock, Pendergast tried to wrench it free again but in a surprise move Esterhazy jerked the agent forward while delivering a savage kick to his face, almost breaking his nose in the process. Blood spurted everywhere and Pendergast fell back, shaking his head, trying to clear it as Esterhazy fell on top of him, slamming his face again with the rifle stock. Through the fog and blood he could see Esterhazy scrabbling fresh rounds out of his bag, shoving them into the rifle.
He kicked up the muzzle and threw himself sideways as a shot rang out, seized his own handgun from where he had dropped it, rolled and returned fire. But Esterhazy had already scrambled for cover behind the tor.
Taking advantage of the temporary lull, Pendergast leapt up and raced down the hill, turning to fire several times, keeping Esterhazy pinned down while he sprinted away. Reaching the bottom of the hill, he darted into the Mire, heading for a hollow, where he was quickly enveloped in a swirl of dense fog.
There he paused, surrounded by quaking mud. The ground under his feet shook strangely, like gelatin. He probed ahead with the toe of his boot, locating firmer ground, and headed deeper into the Foulmire, stepping from hillock to hillock, stone to stone, trying to keep clear of the sucking pools of quicksand while putting as much distance as possible between himself and Esterhazy. As he moved, he heard a series of shots from the direction of the tor, but they went wild; Esterhazy was firing at shadows.
Making a thirty-degree turn, Pendergast slackened his pace. There was little cover on the Mire beyond the odd tumulus of broken rock; the fog would be his only protection. That meant keeping low.
He continued on, moving as swiftly as prudence would allow, often pausing to probe with his foot. He knew Esterhazy would be following; the man had no choice. And he was a superb tracker, perhaps even superior to Pendergast himself. As he walked, he slipped a kerchief out of his bag and pressed it to his nose, trying to stem the flow of blood. He could feel the grating of a broken rib in his chest, a result of the fierce struggle. He silently reproached himself for not checking his rifle immediately before their departure. The rifles had been locked in the lodge's gun room, as the rules required; Esterhazy must have used some ploy to get at his weapon. It only took a minute or two to remove a firing pin. He had underestimated his adversary; he would not do so again.
Suddenly he paused, examining the ground: there, in a gravelly patch, was the track of the stag they had spooked. He listened intently, peering behind from whence he had come. The mists were rising from the Mire in tattered columns, momentarily obscuring and disclosing views of the endless moors and distant mountains. The tor on which they had fought was wreathed in mist, and his pursuer was nowhere to be seen. A deep gray light lay over all, with a darkness looming to the north, occasionally shot through with flickers of lightning—an approaching storm.
Reloading his Colt, Pendergast headed still deeper into the Mire, following the faint track of the stag as it picked its way along an invisible path known only to itself, threading ingeniously between quaking bogs and sucking pools.
It wasn't over. Esterhazy was in hot pursuit. There could be only one outcome: one of them would not return.
PENDERGAST FOLLOWED THE FAINT TRACK of the stag as it meandered through the shivering fens of the Mire, keeping to firm ground. As the storm moved in, the sky grew darker and distant thunder rolled over the moors. He moved swiftly, pausing only long enough to examine the ground for signs of the stag's passage. The Mire was especially treacherous this time of year, when the long summer had allowed green grass to overspread many of the pools of quaking bog, leaving a deceptive crust that would break under the weight of a man.
Lightning flashed and rain started down, heavy drops whirling out of the leaden sky. The wind rose, rustling over the heather, carrying up a miasmic smell from the Inish Marshes to the west: a vast, sheeted surface of water covered with patches of reeds and cattails, swaying in the wind. For more than a mile, he followed the stag's trail. It gradually led to higher and firmer ground, and then—through a sudden gap in the mists—Pendergast spied a ruin ahead. Silhouetted against the sky at the top of a rise stood an old stone corral and shepherd's hut, fitfully illuminated by the flickering lightning. Beyond the hill lay the ragged edges of the marshes. Examining the broken furze, Pendergast noted that the stag had passed through the ruins and continued toward the vast swamp on the far side.
He mounted the hill and quickly explored the ruin. The hut was unroofed, the stone walls broken and covered with lichen, the wind moaning and whistling through the tumbled remains. Beyond, the hill fell away to a swamp that lay hidden in a murk of rising vapors.
The ruin, commanding the high ground, offered an ideal defensible position, with unobstructed views in all directions: a perfect place from which to ambush a pursuer or stand against an attack. For those reasons, Pendergast passed it by and continued down the hill toward the Inish Marshes. Again he picked up the track of the stag and was momentarily puzzled; the stag seemed to be heading into a dead end. The animal must have felt harried by Pendergast's pursuit.
Circling back along the verge of the marsh, Pendergast came to an area of thick reeds where an esker of cobbled ground ambled out into water. A string of glaciated rocks provided a small but obvious cover; he paused, removed a white handkerchief, wrapped it around a stone, and placed it in a precise location behind the boulders. He then passed by. Beyond the finger of cobbled ground, he found what he had been looking for: a flattish rock just under the surface of the water, surrounded by reeds. He could see that the stag had also gone this way, heading into the marshes.
The natural blind was an unlikely place to take cover and an even more unlikely place to attempt a defense. For those reasons, it would suffice.
Wading out to the stone, being careful to avoid the morass on either side, Pendergast took a position among the reeds, well hidden from view. There he crouched, waiting. A spur of lightning split the sky, followed by the crash of thunder; more fog came rolling in from the marshes, temporarily obscuring the ruins on top of the hill. No doubt Esterhazy would arrive soon. The end was in sight.
Judson Esterhazy paused to examine the ground, reaching down and fingering some gravel that had been pushed aside by the passage of the stag. Pendergast's footprint was much less obvious, but he could see it in the form of pressed earth and flattened stems of grass nearby. The man was taking no chances, continuing to follow the stag on its winding course through the Foulmire. Clever. No one would dare venture in here without a guide, but a stag was as good a guide as any. As the storm rolled in, the fogs thickened; it became dark enough that he was glad to have the flashlight—carefully shielded—to examine the trail.
Pendergast clearly intended to lure Esterhazy out into the Mire to kill him. For all his pretensions to southern gentility, Pendergast was the most implacable man he had ever met, and a dirty bastard of a fighter.
A bolt of lightning illuminated the desolate moors and he saw, through a break in the mist, the ragged outline of a ruin standing on a rise a quarter mile away. He paused. That would be a logical place for Pendergast to go to ground and await his arrival. He would approach the ruin accordingly; ambush the ambusher… But even as his practiced eye roamed over the site, he considered that Pendergast was too subtle a man to take the obvious course of action.
Esterhazy could assume nothing.
There was very little cover in this barren landscape, but by timing his movements he could take advantage of the heavy fogs coming in from the marshes to provide the cover he needed. As if on cue, a new bank of mist rolled in and he was enveloped in a colorless world of nothing. He scurried up the hill toward the ruins, able to move fast on the harder ground. About a hundred yards below the summit, he circled the hill so as to approach from an unexpected direction. The rain came down, heavier now, while the rumblings of thunder marched away over the moors.
He crouched and took cover as the fogs cleared for a moment, allowing him a glimpse of the ruins above. No sign of Pendergast. As the fog rolled back in he moved up the side of the hill, rifle in hand, until he reached the stone wall surrounding an old corral. He moved along it, keeping low, until another break in the mist allowed him to peer through a gap in the rocks.
The corral was vacant. But beyond it stood the roofless hut.
He approached the structure from along the perimeter of the corral, keeping below the wall. In a moment he had flattened himself against its rear wall. Creeping up to a broken window, he waited for another gap in the fog. The wind picked up, sighing through the stones and covering the faint sounds of his own movement as he readied himself: and then, as the air cleared a little, he swung around into the window and swept his rifle across the inside of the hut, covering it from corner to corner.
Vaulting over the sill, he crouched inside the hut, thinking furiously. As he suspected, Pendergast had avoided the obvious. He had not occupied the strategic high ground. But where had he gone? He muttered a curse; with Pendergast, only the unexpected could be expected.
Another bank of fog rolled in and Esterhazy took the opportunity to examine the area around the hut, looking for Pendergast's track. He found it with difficulty: it was quickly disappearing in the heavy rains. Continuing down the far side of the hill toward the marshlands below, he could glimpse the lay of the land through gaps in the mists. It was a dead end of sorts—beyond lay only the Inish Marshes. So Pendergast must have taken cover somewhere along the marsh edge. He felt a low-grade panic take hold. Through the breaking mists, he scanned the area; surely the man wouldn't be hiding in the reeds or cattails. But there was a finger of land that extended into the marshes; he pulled out his spyglass and noted a scattering of glacial boulders that provided just enough cover to hide a man. And by God, there he was: a patch of white, just visible behind one of the rocks.
That was it, then: he had taken the only cover there was, and was waiting in ambush for Esterhazy to pass as he followed Pendergast's trail along the edge of the marsh.
Once again: the unobvious thing. And Esterhazy saw just the way to thwart him.
The welcoming fog returned; he started down the hill and was soon back among the treacherous bogs of the Mire, following the double track of Pendergast and the stag. As he approached the verge of the marshes, he found himself stepping from one hillock to another over quivering sheets of morass. He regained firmer ground, moving off the trail, toward a position where he would have a clear line of fire to the area behind the rocks concealing Pendergast. Taking up a position, he crouched behind a hillock, waiting for the mists to part so he could take a shot.
A minute passed; a gap appeared in the mists. He could see the little bit of white from Pendergast's hidden position; it appeared to be part of his shirt and it offered enough of a view to accept a bullet. He raised his rifle…
"Stand up ever so slowly," came the disembodied voice from behind him, almost as if from the marsh water itself.
ESTERHAZY FROZE AT THE SOUND OF THE VOICE.
"As you rise, hold your rifle in your left hand, extended away from your body."
Still, Esterhazy found himself unable to move. How was it possible?
Whing! The round smacked into the ground between his feet, kicking up a spray of dirt. "I won't ask again."
Holding his rifle out by his left hand, Esterhazy stood up.
"Drop the rifle and turn around."
- On Sale
- Aug 2, 2011
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing