With Andrew Holmes
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Lightning-fast stories by James Patterson
- Novels you can devour in a few hours
- Impossible to stop reading
- All original content from James Patterson
Two men trod carefully through the trees in search of their prey. Bluebells and wild garlic were underfoot, beech and Douglas firs on all sides, tendrils of early morning fog still clinging to the damp slopes. Somewhere in this wood was the quarry.
The man in front, feeling brave thanks to the morning sherry, his bolt-action Purdey, and the security man covering his back, was Lord Oakleigh. A Queen’s Counsel lawyer of impeccable education, he had an impressive listing in Debrett’s and his peer’s robes were tailored by Ede & Ravenscroft. Oakleigh had long ago decided that these accomplishments paled in comparison to the way he felt now—this particular mix of adrenaline and fear, this feeling of being so close to death.
This, he had decided, was life. And he was going to live it.
The car had collected him at 4:00 a.m. He’d taken the eye mask he was given, relaxed in the back of the Bentley, and used the opportunity for sleep. In a couple of hours he arrived at the estate. He recognized some of his fellow hunters, but not all—there were a couple of Americans and a Japanese gentleman he’d never seen before. Nods were exchanged. Curtis and Boyd of The Quarry Co. made brief introductions. All weapons were checked to ensure they were smart-modified, then they were networked and synced to a central hub.
The tweed-wearing English contingent watched, bemused, as the Japanese gentleman’s valet helped him into what looked like tailored disruptive-pattern clothing. Meanwhile the shoot security admired the M600 TrackingPoint precision-guided rifle he carried. Like women fussing over a new baby, they all wanted a hold.
As hunt time approached, the players fell silent. Technicians wearing headphones unloaded observation drones from an operations van. Sherry on silver platters was brought around by blank-faced men in tailcoats. Curtis and Boyd toasted the hunters and, in his absence, the quarry. Lastly, players were assigned their security—Oakleigh was given Alan, his regular man—before a distant report indicated that the hunt had begun and the players moved off along the lawns to the treeline, bristling with weaponry and quivering with expectation.
Now deep in the woods, Oakleigh heard the distant chug of Land Rover engines and quad bikes drift in on a light breeze. From overhead came the occasional buzz of a drone, but otherwise it was mostly silent, even more so the farther into the woods they ventured and the more dense it became. It was just the way he liked it. Just him and his prey.
“Ahead, sir,” came Alan’s voice, urgent enough that Oakleigh dropped to one knee and brought the Purdey to his shoulder in one slightly panicked movement. The woods loomed large in his crosshairs, the undergrowth keeping secrets.
“Nothing visible,” he called back over his shoulder, then cleared his throat and tried again, this time with less shaking in his voice. “Nothing up ahead.”
“Just hold it there a moment or so, sir, if you would,” replied Alan, and Oakleigh heard him drop his assault rifle to its strap and reach for his walkie-talkie. “This is red team. Request status report…”
“Anything, Alan?” Oakleigh asked over his shoulder.
“No, sir. No visuals from the drones. None of the players report any activity.”
“Then our boy is still hiding.”
“It would seem that way, sir.”
“Why is he not trying to make his way to the perimeter? That’s what they usually do.”
“The first rule of combat is to do the opposite of what the enemy expects, sir.”
“But this isn’t combat. This is a hunt.”
“And it isn’t much of a hunt if the quarry’s hiding, is it?” Oakleigh heard the note of indignation in his voice and knew it sounded less like genuine outrage and more like fear, so he put his eye back to the scope and swept the rifle barrel from left to right, trying to keep a lid on his nerves. He wanted a challenge. But he didn’t want to die.
Don’t be stupid. You’re not going to die.
But then came the crackle of distant gunfire, quickly followed by a squall of static.
“Quarry spotted. Repeat: quarry spotted.”
Oakleigh’s heart jackhammered, and he found himself of two minds. On the one hand, he wanted to be in the thick of the action. Last night he’d even entertained thoughts of being the winning player, imagining the admiration of his fellow hunters, ripples that would extend outwards to London and the corridors of power, the private members’ clubs of the Strand, and chambers of Parliament.
On the other hand, now that the quarry had shown himself capable of evading the hunters and drones for so long, he felt differently.
From behind came a rustling sound and then a thump. Alan made a gurgling sound.
Oakleigh realized too late that something was wrong and wheeled around, fumbling with the rifle.
A shot rang out and Alan’s walkie-talkie squawked.
“Red team, report! Repeat: red team, report!”
Cookie had been hiding in the lower branches of a beech. From the tree he’d torn a decent-sized stick, not snapping it, but twisting so it came away with a jagged end. Not exactly sharp. But not blunt, either. It was better than nothing.
He’d watched the player and his bodyguard below, waiting for the right moment to strike.
Forget the nervous old guy. He had a beautiful Purdey, but he was shaking like a shitting dog. The bodyguard was dangerous, but the moment Cookie saw him drop his rifle to its strap, he knew the guy was dead meat.
Sure enough, the guard never knew what hit him. Neither of the hunters had bothered looking up, supreme predators though they were, and Cookie dropped silently behind Alan, bare feet on the cool woodland floor. As his left arm encircled Alan’s neck, his elbow angled so that his target’s carotid artery was fat, his right arm plunged the stick into the exposed flesh.
But the years of drugs and booze and sleeping rough had taken their toll, and even as he let Alan slide to the ground to bleed out in seconds, the old guy was spinning around and leveling his hunting rifle. And where once Cookie’s reactions had been as fast as his brain, now the two were out of alignment.
Oakleigh pulled the trigger. Cookie had already seen that he was left-handed and knew how the weapon would pull, and so he twisted in the opposite direction. But even so, he was too slow.
He heard tree bark crack and saw splinters fly a microsecond before he heard the shot. A second later, pain flared along his side and he felt blood pool in the waistband of his jeans.
The stick was still in his hand, so he stepped forward and rammed it into the old guy’s throat, cursing him for a coward, as Oakleigh folded to the ground with the stick protruding from his neck.
“Red team, report! Red team, report!” wailed the walkie-talkie. But even though Cookie knew others would be arriving soon, he needed a moment to compose himself, so he leaned against a tree, pressing his palm to the spot where the bullet had grazed him. He pulled up his sweater to inspect the wound. It looked bad, but he knew from painful experience it was nothing to worry about. Blood loss and the fact that he’d be easier to track were the worst of it.
He took stock. The old guy was still twitching. Alan was dead. Cookie reached for the security guard’s assault rifle, but when he inspected the grip, he found it inset with some kind of sensor. His heart sank as he tried to operate the safety and found it unresponsive, knowing what the sensor meant: smart technology. Linked to the user’s palm print. And if his guess was correct…
Fuck! The old guy’s Purdey was equipped with the same. He tossed it away. From Alan he took a hunting knife. The old guy had a sidearm, also smart-protected and also useless.
The hunting knife would have to do. But now it was time to find out if these Quarry Co. guys were going to fulfill their part of the bargain. He put a hand to his side and started running. Leaves stung his eyes. Twigs lashed him. He stumbled over roots bubbling on the ground and reached to push branches aside as he hurtled forwards in search of sanctuary.
From behind came the crash of gunfire. Overhead, the sound of the drones intensified. They’d spotted him now. The time for stealth was over. He just had to hope he’d given them enough to think about in the meantime, and that the two casualties would slow them down.
Teeth bared, hatred in his bones, he kept running. The trees were thinning. Ahead of him was a peat-covered slope, and he hit it fast. Scrambling to the top, he was painfully aware that he’d made himself a visible target, but he was close now. Close to the perimeter.
“If you reach the road you win. The money’s yours.”
“No matter who I have to kill along the way?”
“Our players expect danger, Mr. Cook. What is the roulette wheel without the risk of losing?”
He’d believed them and, fuck it, why not?
And there it was—the road. It bisected a further stretch of woodland, but this was definitely it. An observation drone buzzed a few feet above him. To his left he heard the sound of approaching engines and saw a Land Rover Defender leaning into the bend, approaching fast. Two men in the front.
They didn’t look like they were about to celebrate his victory. He tensed. At his rear the noise of the approaching hunting party was getting louder.
The Defender roared up to his position, passenger door flapping as it drew to a halt. A security guy wielding the same Heckler & Koch assault rifle carried by Alan stepped out and took up position behind the door.
“Where’s my money?” called Cookie, with a glance back down into the basin of the woods. He could see the blurry outlines of players and their security among the trees, the crackle of comms. “You said if I reached the road I win,” he pressed.
Ignoring him, the passenger had braced his rifle on the sill of his window and was speaking into a walkie-talkie, saying something Cookie couldn’t hear. Receiving orders.
“Come on, you bastards. I reached the fucking road, now where’s my money?”
The passenger had finished on the walkie-talkie, and Cookie had been shot at enough times to know the signs of it happening again. There was no prize money. No winning. No survival. There were just hunters and prey. Just an old fool and a man about to gun him down.
The passenger squeezed off bullets that zinged over Cookie’s head as he tucked in and let himself roll back to the bottom of the slope.
I can do this, he thought. He’d fought in Afghanistan. He’d fought with the best, against the best. He could go up against a bunch of rich geriatric thrill-seekers and come out on top—security or no security. Yes. He was going to get out of this and then he was going to make the fuckers pay.
He could do it. Who dares, wins.
Then a bullet ripped the top of Cookie’s head off—a bullet fired from a TrackingPoint precision-guided bolt-action rifle.
“Oh, good shot, Mr. Miyake,” said the players as they emerged from the undergrowth in order to survey the kill.
They were already looking forward to the post-hunt meal.
It was dark and Shelley was ground down after fruitless hours in various London shitholes, when trouble leaned on the bar.
It was the last place he’d intended to visit that day: the Two Dogs on Exmouth Market, a pub that was always open and always gloomy inside, forbidding to all but the early morning traders, afternoon postal workers from nearby Mount Pleasant Mail Center, and gangs of rail-link laborers who descended at nighttime.
Shelley had cast an eye across the gathered throng with a sinking heart, sensing he’d get no joy from this lot. Most were already half in the bag. They were likely to give him the runaround, just for the hell of it.
So, a wasted day. The only thing to say for it was that Lucy would be proud. They’d both known there was a danger he’d simply dig in at the first pub he visited, emerging a day later with a hangover and a bad case of drinker’s guilt. But no. All temptation and even the odd invitation had been resisted. He’d done the rounds as sober as a judge. A man on a mission.
Word of which had evidently got around, if the guy leaning on the bar was anything to go by.
“You’re looking for somebody, I hear?” he said now, with a voice that sounded like a cement mixer.
Shelley stared into rheumy, drink-sodden eyes and knew a shakedown when he saw one. After all, with his black woolen overcoat and baker-boy cap tilted rakishly, Shelley knew he stood out. That was the plan. But the same presence that made him a serious customer also made him a target for shakedowns and, from the looks of things, matey-boy here had in mind something more ambitious than a drink in return for yet more useless information. There was the knife he was wearing, for one thing.
- On Sale
- Sep 6, 2016
- Page Count
- 144 pages