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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Child Lincoln, Preston Douglas
 

«Cold Vengeance», Douglas Preston и др.

Lincoln Child dedicates this book to his daughter, Veronica

Douglas Preston dedicates this book to Marguerite, Laura, and Oliver Preston

CHAPTER 1

 

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.”


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