Authors: Jeff Abbott
“This is the part where I tell you to go to hell, I think,” she said.
“Hell is crowded,” he answered. He clicked on the laptop, opened a video chat file.
The screen kicked to life. It showed a young man in his late twenties, bound to a chair, mouth gagged. His eyes were blackened, as though he had been beaten already, a dried trickle of blood inching down his chin, past the gag. He blinked into the camera, flinching at the harsh light on his face.
“He used to be Antonio De La Pena,” Hector said. “Ex-CIA field operative, missing and presumed dead after a botched job against narco-terrorists in Colombia. His cover was blown and he had nowhere to go except witness protection, but you made him a better offer. He’s worked under about three different aliases for you, most recently in Mexico City.” Hector leaned closer to Teach. “You’re going to cooperate, or he pays.”
“Cooperate.” She said the word as though she were testing its taste in her mouth.
“You’re going to come to work for me, Teach. You and everyone in the Cellar. You’ll follow my orders without question. You will not let any of your agents know that there has been a change in leadership. If you do not cooperate, I will expose your entire illegal operation. The government will disavow you like you’re lepers and probably most of your people will end up in those lovely foreign prisons in those delightful countries where you’ve made so much mischief over the years.”
Teach did not tense her shoulders; she did not tremble.
“Tell me the ten you know,” she said.
Hector rattled off a list of names. Teach closed her eyes, bit her lip. She nodded toward the screen. “Why grab him?”
“He’s the youngest and most inexperienced. If I have to kill one to prove a point, he’s the most expendable.” Hector shrugged. “Purely a business decision.”
“I take my orders from very few people,” she said. “I can’t fool them by taking orders from another source.”
“Let me guess. The president.”
She shook her head. “No. The president never knows about us to preserve deniability. A senior cadre of career officers within the Agency—they give me direction.”
“You’ll continue to take their direction and will report to me all the orders you receive from Washington. But you will work for me. Not them.”
“And if I decline?”
“De La Pena dies. After I’ve killed his whole family.” Hector crossed his arms. “He has a mother, two sisters with husbands, who have five children between them.” He glanced at Jackie. “Jackie, could you kill a kid?”
“I don’t much like kids,” Jackie said. “I’d be game. Probably pays less, though, since they’re easier.”
“I’d give you a family rate.” Hector turned back to Teach. “None of your people want to be exposed, want to go to prison, want to be disavowed and prosecuted by the government they serve. But they certainly don’t want the people they cared about in their previous lives to be dead because of them. You either work for me, or I’ll gut the Cellar.”
She said nothing, watching De La Pena on the screen. The man closed his eyes above the gag.
“We’ll tell De La Pena that this was a training exercise. I’ll let you live, and a lot of innocent people keep breathing.”
Teach was silent and Hector seemed willing to wait her out. Finally she said: “What do you get out of this arrangement?”
“I’m a firm believer that private firms are more effective than government agencies,” Hector said.
“Not in our line of work,” she said.
“Spoken like a true bureaucrat.” He opened a folder. “Two months ago you had a chance to kill a leading terrorist in Istanbul. But you missed. Three weeks ago you flub an opportunity to destroy a narco-terrorism cell in Ecuador. Not inspiring.”
Anger reddened her face. “Those failures had nothing to do with the skills of my people.”
“Under my guidance, you won’t make so many mistakes.”
“Who hired you?” she asked and Jackie thought,
Ah, now that’s a million-dollarquestion.
Her laugh was brittle. “Contractors don’t work for free.”
“I’m making an investment in my company’s future. And I’m going to pay you and your people, Teach, better than the government ever did.” He knelt close to her, lifted her chin with his fingertips. “The fact you recruited and maintained an off-the-books organization for so long is brilliant. You have the Cellar’s collective history in that librarian’s head of yours. You know every detail of every agent, of every job. I need you. We can do great, great work for our country together. I don’t want to destroy your group. I want to give it new life.”
“You tried to kill Pilgrim.”
Sam Hector smiled at Jackie. “He got too close to Adam Reynolds. It was nothing personal.” And Jackie saw that yes it certainly was personal, a flash in the man’s eyes as he turned away from Teach. Interesting.
“Let’s not leave your poor guy in suspense, Teach,” Hector said. “Does his family live or die?”
“Live,” she said. She cupped her hand on her forehead, as though a migraine bloomed behind the bone. “I’ll cooperate.”
“Good. Jackie, Mr. De La Pena is in the next room. Would you please untie him from the chair and bring him in here. You can tell him this kidnapping was a field exercise, one that he failed.” He watched Teach for a reaction.
“I have a job for him and for Teach, and several other agents.” He leaned close to Teach. “You have an agent in Denver. Get him to Dallas by early morning tomorrow. Then we need to select at least six others for another project. You tell him or your people anything, they and their families are dead.”
“Project,” she said.
“The Cellar’s going to kill a group of very bad guys for me,” he said. “In New Orleans.”
Khaled’s Report—New Orleans
There are six of us now in New Orleans—preparing for our moments of glory.
Six of us passed the first test, to enter America without being caught. I suppose our bosses could have easily snuck us in across the Mexican border in the dead of night, but they clearly want to weed out those who lack daring or are ineffective.
The unspoken deal is if I’m caught, I’m on my own. No one will help me.
Two months ago, I followed the instructions in a phone call and in a locker I found a ticket, a thousand euros, and a French passport in a new name for me. I boarded a flight in Beirut to Frankfurt. In Frankfurt a man walked past me and slipped a new ticket and passport into my coat pocket.
First real problem. One does not want to walk around in a Western airport with an Arabic face and multiple passports. I destroyed the first passport by ripping it to bits and flushing the torn strips down the toilet. I used the new Belgian passport and the ticket, flew to Geneva, then to Rome. I picked up a paged message left for me at the airline counter—to meet J at a hotel not far from St. Peter’s Square.
I took a roundabout route to the hotel, thinking I could lose any tracker in the crowds and expanse of the massive square. I was wrong. At the hotel I was told by the fellow they called J—he has the bearing of a math teacher, if you ask me, and I am sure he is reading this—that four men shadowed me, following in a cascade so I would not notice, one moving ahead of me and then picking me up again, an invisible dance as I moved through the streets of Rome. J advised me of ways to circumvent such techniques; I will practice more in America, J tells me.
One must move without leaving a shadow, J says, and I quite like that phrase, that idea. Because the alternative is to be caught and to die.
J let me keep my Belgian passport with its French first name and Lebanese last name and provided me a rental car to drive to Paris. In Paris I flew to Miami. My seatmate was one of those tiresome boors who take a simple nod of hello as an invitation to interrogate you about every aspect of your life: where you went to school, where you live, what you do, what you like—and then must bury your every answer under his opinions. I am sure such people simply cannot abide the sound of silence or the shallowness of their own thoughts, but then I realized I need people like that—they give information. Information is power. This is my job now.
I was frightened for a moment that either this inquisitor was not an innocent nosy passenger, but rather either friend or enemy determined to catch me in a lie seven miles up, either to teach me a lesson or to unmask me. He told me that he sells enterprise software to large financial institutions and I decided he was telling the truth. I learned some important basics about banks and their operations; this might be useful to me one day, in selecting a target, in interpreting data.
At immigration they looked hard—without trying to seem so—at my Arabic face and they asked for my reasons to come to the United States. I explained I was here on business, as the sales representative of a start-up software company based in Brussels. J had given me brochures and I had memorized the product features. They asked their useless questions and I sailed through.
What would have happened, though, if I had been caught in a lie? Would I have been abandoned? I suppose I very well might have been; secret warriors can never be acknowledged. It would have been a harsh lesson.
From Miami, a seductive jewel of a city, I flew to New Orleans, a seductive ruin.
I expected that I would be followed at the airport—them trailing me to see if I had been trailed, to avoid a repeat of my Roman debacle, when I thought myself so clever. A necessary precaution. I spotted one man following me, but I am sure more lurked in my wake, and I’m not going to claim a victory I did not earn. Following J’s instructions, I took a cab first to the Audubon Zoo, trying to lose any shadows in the milling crowds, then I walked to Tulane, eyeing anyone who might be following, then took another cab to the Superdome. I walked through a hotel, checked into a room using my false name, but never set foot in it, walking through the back of the hotel, grabbing a final cab to a chain hotel in the suburb of Metairie.
New Orleans is a strange half city now. It reminds me of a once-treasured plaything abandoned by a child. Entire stretches of the city remain utterly devastated—here in a country that prides itself, incessantly, on its wealth, its ambition, and its (shall I be frank?) superiority. Yet here is this blister on America’s soul. The neighborhoods that have returned to a semblance of normalcy still give the sense of lives lived on an edge, of a hope tempered by the possibility that the city will never regain its former life.
I know how New Orleans feels. It is the way I feel.
And so, I arrived two months ago, and we started our work. Because it is a city where people are constantly coming and going, staying, leaving—no one will notice us here in the ruins.
I had no instructions at the final hotel. How was I to find my new colleagues? Adrift, I thought perhaps I would show initiative. I went for a walk, heading toward a local mall, and they grabbed me shortly after I arrived at the mall, escorting me into a dark Lincoln Navigator. I wasn’t afraid. We exchanged assigned code phrases, ones J gave me in Rome. They drove me to a large home outside the city proper—near a swath of a wealthy neighborhood ruined by floodwaters, close to Lake Pontchartrain—and to a large house, which had fresh paint, a new roof, a sense of restored solidity. The neighborhood remains mostly abandoned; those who can afford nice houses can afford to leave.
The leader here is Mr. Night. Is he reading my words? If you are, Mr. Night, you must admit, your name is the definition of pretentious. But it suits him: dark, unknowable, yet somehow comforting. If we listen to him, we’ll stay alive as we go to battle.
I am honing my skills. I am learning how to travel and lose someone if followed, how to follow someone without him knowing, how to encode information so I can pass it undetected, how to communicate back to my network without being discovered or found, how to identify people who need to die, how to get close to them.
And they will teach me how to kill. Not simply the techniques of murder. But they will teach me not to hesitate. J said this is the secret to killing. You cannot hesitate.
In three days, on Sunday, the holy day here, we will head out into the world, us six, to do our duty without a moment’s hesitation.
The motel was old and clean, owned by a smiling Pakistani couple. Ben signed Pilgrim’s counterfeit charge card (in the name of James Woodward) with lip-biting care, trying to make it identical to the tight scrawling signature on the card. Ben asked for a room on the side of the motel away from the highway. He drove the car around to the back and half-carried, half-walked Pilgrim into the room and onto one of the twin beds.
He’d found a Target store near Georgetown, a small city north of Austin, and purchased clean clothes, towels, a duffel bag, snack food, a large bottle of antiseptic, bottled water, boxes of bandages and Coban medical wrap, saline solution, peroxide, and the most elaborate first aid kit offered. He also bought a pair of forceps in the pharmacy section, thinking,
As if I’m really going to dig metal out of him.
Down the street was a grocery store and he bought two bottles of cheap Chianti.
He peeled the blue shirt and khaki pants off the groggy Pilgrim and dumped the bloodied clothes on the floor. Hard strength wired Pilgrim’s body; not gym or tennis muscles like Ben’s. A scar wandered like a river on a map across Pilgrim’s stomach; another seam of healed tissue bisected his shoulder. It was as if the story of a life lived in shadows was burnt into his skin. Now a neat puckering wound marred the other shoulder. An awful purpling continent of a bruise extended from hip to knee on the leg. A tear across the forearm revealed where a bullet had pierced and exited. Ben gently inspected Pilgrim’s legs and arms, testing for broken bones. All seemed whole.
“Bullet’s still in my shoulder,” Pilgrim said. “Gonna tell you what to do. Trusting you, Ben.”
“If I screw up, I’m sorry.”
“You’ll do great.”
Ben followed Pilgrim’s directions: He eased Pilgrim to the tub, irrigated the wound with water, disinfected both wound and forceps. Then, back on the bed, towels beneath the shoulder, Ben probed gently with the forceps into the wound.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, so it’s going to hurt like a bitch,” he said.
Pilgrim never screamed. In the meat of his flesh the forceps touched, then closed on a slug of metal. Ben inched the bullet free, holding his own breath along with Pilgrim. Ben dropped the bullet on the side table with a plunk, swallowing a trickle of bile that rose into his throat.
“Okay,” Pilgrim mumbled. “Irrigate it. With force. Hard.”
Ben helped him back to the tub and chugged water over the wound, emptying several bottles, then pouring saline, then rinsing with peroxide. Pilgrim gritted his teeth. Ben smeared a generous spread of antibiotic ointment on gauze for the bandage. He applied pressure with the bandage, and then secured the pad with stretchy self-adhesive medical wrap, colored bright blue.
He opened one of the screw-cap bottles of cheap-jug Chianti he’d bought for Pilgrim to kill the pain and Pilgrim took a giant swig of the red wine. Then Ben cleaned, disinfected, and wrapped the forearm wound.
Pilgrim let out a long sigh. “Okay, doctor, you’re done. Thank you.”
Ben went to the sink. Blood speckled his hands, the new beach towels he had bought, his pants he’d slipped on when he got home, back when his life was normal. His hands stayed steady, though, and he stuck them under the jetting water.
“I’m gonna down more of this premium vintage.” He inspected the label. “Did you get you some wine, Ben?”
“I never drink before surgery.” Ben noticed Pilgrim had gulped down a third of the bottle. Pilgrim closed his eyes, breathing through the pain.
Ben collected Pilgrim’s torn and bloody clothes. He felt a weight in the pockets, both front and back. The front pocket held a small black notebook, which tumbled to the floor as Ben laid the pants on the chair.
He picked it up and opened it. The notebook’s pages were unlined, and half of them were filled with delicate ink and pencil drawings.
A range of images were carefully inscribed on the ivory pages: a baby swaddled in a father’s strong arms; a toddler, dancing in a garden of roses, her pudgy hands reaching toward a fleeing butterfly; a teenage girl, bent reading a book on a park bench, shaded by a wall of pine trees, pushing a hank of dark hair from her face. A gentleness pervaded the drawings—the way that light captured the expressions of serenity and joy and concentration on the girl’s face.
“That’s mine,” Pilgrim said, opening his eyes.
Ben handed the notebook to Pilgrim, embarrassed, as though he’d stepped into another person’s dream. He could feel another weight in the back pocket—where Pilgrim had drawn the credit card from—but Pilgrim’s stare scored his back and he dropped the pants back on the floor. “You didn’t strike me as the artistic type. Those are really well done.”
“I’m not artistic.” Pilgrim closed the notebook, kept it in his grip, close to his chest. “It’s just good to have an eye for detail. See things as they really are.”
“So. Really. How are things right now?” Ben went to the medical kit, poured six ibuprofen into Pilgrim’s hand, watched him swallow them with sips of the Chianti.
“You got questions. I hate questions.”
“I got questions.”
“Get a glass. I don’t want to drink alone,” Pilgrim said.
Ben didn’t want a drink but he got a glass. If Pilgrim drank to kill the pain, it might loosen his tongue. Better to be sociable, to get him talking. Ben found a clean plastic cup in the bathroom, dumped an inch of wine in it.
“Life changes fast, doesn’t it?” Pilgrim said.
“Yes.” He thought of the moment when his life divided, married one second, widowed the next, the echo of the shattering window.
“I killed seven people in the past four hours. I’m like a goddamn serial killer, all in one day.” Pilgrim downed more of the Chianti. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and Ben saw his hand tremble.
“You need some food.” Ben heated water with the room’s tiny coffeemaker, poured the hot liquid into a ramen noodle cup, watched while Pilgrim ate the spongy mass of noodles, studded with chunky dried vegetables.
“So your questions.”
“Your boss, you, this secret group. Who are you?”
A long pause. “Teach is the general,” Pilgrim said, “and she’s the only one who knows the troop strength, the battle plans.”
Ben decided to let Pilgrim tell this his own way, to let the answers unfurl, because he could guess from Pilgrim’s grimace that he was unused to discussing his life. “And the bad guys want to know what you and Teach and this group do. Or keep you from doing your work.”
Pilgrim emptied the cup in an unsteady slop and reached again for the wine jug. Ben didn’t stop him. Pilgrim gulped more Chianti, didn’t look at Ben. For the first time the intense gaze in his eyes dimmed, as though he were tired of glaring at the world.
Ben decided to prod him. “The credit card was for James Woodward. Is that your real name?”
“Promise me you won’t freak out.”
“I don’t have a lot of freak-out left in me.”
“I could tell you were thinking of going through my wallet. I know you’ll do it as soon as I’m asleep. Go ahead.”
Ben went to the pocket, dug out the wallet. Opened it.
A Texas driver’s license lay under a plastic window. Pilgrim’s face on it. The name read “FORSBERG, BENJAMIN LARS.”
Ben thumbed through the rest of the wallet. Visa, American Express, health club membership: each one in Ben’s name. A business card that was a match of his own. Tucked into the wallet was an American passport: Pilgrim’s face, Ben’s name.
His breathing grew ragged and a slow rage rose in his chest. He threw the wallet at Pilgrim, who caught it one-handed.
“I’m you, Ben,” Pilgrim said. “I’ve been you for the past three days.”
“You’re the reason . . . Homeland thinks I’m guilty,” Ben said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with
or my life . . .”
“It has everything to do with your life,” Pilgrim said. “You were framed as much as I was.”
“You stole my identity.”
“No. Your identity was given to me by a traitor. He set me up to be you because someone wants us both destroyed.”
“You could have told me this immediately . . . back in the car . . .”
“I couldn’t have. I needed your help. And earlier I was too busy saving your life. Sit down. Drink your wine.”
“Don’t expect me to thank you.” Ben went and picked up Pilgrim’s gun off the table.
“I don’t think you’re a fool. You and I both got played, both got nailed with a single shot. We’ve got a common enemy.” He paused. “I’m not your enemy. If I were, you’d be dead. I would have grabbed you when you were checking the last of the bandages and broken your neck. I didn’t.”
“Wow. Thank you.” Ben put the gun back on the table. “Tell me why you’re pretending to be me.”
The silence stretched between them like a wire drawn tight. The only noise was the distant ripple of highway traffic and the drone of cicadas in the trees. “You told me you trusted me before I dug that bullet out. Prove it.”
Pilgrim cleared his throat. “The group I’m with does the dirty work that is necessary at times to identify and neutralize threats and protect the country.”
“The activities the other agencies are legally blocked from doing.”
“You do the jobs no one can take credit for or be blamed for.”
Pilgrim blinked. “Excellent description.”
“Where’s your budget hidden—FBI? CIA?”
Pilgrim looked at him with a bit more respect. “Only Teach knows for sure, but I think the budget’s hidden inside the CIA, cobbled together from miscellaneous funding. We’re a back corner. A forgotten room.” He paused. “It’s called the Cellar.”
“And you routinely hijack other people’s identities.”
“No. At least never before. A little shit named Barker created my legends—my identities—when I’m on a job. Normally he spun them out of thin air, invented a name, a history, a financial background. He gave me your identity; I had no idea you really existed. He also betrayed me and Teach; he worked with her kidnappers. Which means his boss—whoever that is—gave him your name to use.” He paused. “I didn’t know you were real.”
“But why me?”
“I’d say whoever Barker worked for hates your guts.”
“No one hates me.”
“Or you’re a huge threat to someone. You just don’t know it.”
Ben rubbed his forehead. “What was your job where you needed my name?”
“To investigate Adam Reynolds.” He took another long sip of the Chianti. “Over the past few weeks, every alias or false identity used by myself or one of my Cellar colleagues was being tracked. Credit checks were run against the fake names, inquiries were being made, our aliases brought to the attention of police in New York, London, Atlanta, other cities. When we’re done with a job we walk away from the aliases—but we keep an eye on them for a while after the job is done, in case someone tries to track us through the false identities.”
“Adam Reynolds tracked you.”
“He was a software designer, so he had to be using technology to find and discover our activities. But we have no idea how he did it.”
“And you dragged my name in.”
“We needed to find out why he was after us and who funded him. Teach got an old CIA contact to tell Adam Reynolds a contractor consultant named Ben Forsberg might be able to help him land funding for a start-up software company, to build products based on his ideas. But I thought Ben Forsberg was just an identity Barker made up along with a history.”
“Barker bought the cell phones in my name. Opened the credit accounts. Rented the office space.” Ben shook his head. “Sparta Consulting, that’s what he used as a cover.”
“Sparta’s a front company for the Cellar, a way to camouflage our financial dealings.” Pilgrim coughed, winced at the pain. “I got three meetings with Adam and I told him I represented a bunch of government contractors interested in backing his software ideas. I could help him set up his own company, fund the work, share the profits. Of course all I wanted to do was find out how he’d found us and who’d paid him to hunt us down.”
“You wrote the business proposal, with my name on it, that Kidwell and Vochek found in his office,” Ben said. Nausea clawed into his guts.
“I wanted to learn how he found our aliases, see who his business contacts were, find who funded his search for the Cellar.”
“So why did he get killed?”
“He knew this afternoon that I wasn’t Ben Forsberg. I tried to make him understand I could protect him, but he told me he’d called Homeland. But I don’t think he worked for Homeland in trying to find the Cellar.”
“Homeland Security doesn’t hire Arab gunmen to kidnap people. They’re not into assassination. And they have no reason to frame you.”
“So his boss is who?”
“No idea. And if his boss knew Adam was bolting . . . clearly he didn’t want Adam talking about his search for us.”
“And the Cellar is the threat to national security he described to Kidwell?”
“Clearly he viewed us as a threat.”
Ben got up from the bed, walked to the window. “So Nicky Lynch killed him and you killed Lynch. You put my business card in Lynch’s pocket.” The rage swelled in his chest, held its breath, and then was gone; replaced by a exhausting realization of how bad his situation was. He couldn’t afford the distraction of anger. He shivered as he stood by the window, even though the room was warm.
“Ben, listen, I didn’t know you were a real person . . . my cover had been blown. I thought I was leaving a nonexistent man as the fall guy, an empty trail for the police to follow.” He shook his head. “I didn’t know I would be pointing a finger at you.”
Ben sat down on his bed. “If Nicky Lynch killed you and Adam, it would come out quick enough that you weren’t me. So I’m not convinced that, whoever your enemy is, he’s also mine. Your guy Barker could have just decided to use my name since I’m in the line of work you needed for your cover story.”
Pilgrim refilled his cup with wine. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I’m in Austin, pretending to be you, you’re out of town. Who knew you were gone?”
Ben hesitated. “My clients. I told them so they would know I wouldn’t be answering phone calls or e-mails.”