Authors: Jeff Abbott
“But do you understand the price?” Pilgrim was silent for several seconds. “Once, I made my biggest mistake. I tried to destroy a terror cell in Indonesia. Years ago. I failed miserably. I lost . . . everything.”
For the first time Ben saw a tremble touch Pilgrim’s hands.
“I guess you don’t want to talk about it,” Ben said.
Pilgrim didn’t answer; Ben heard only the passing of traffic on the nearby road, the soft hiss of the tires on pavement.
“I don’t need a friend, Ben. I just need your help to stop these people.”
“I’m thinking . . . we’re missing the obvious. Adam is hunting terrorists and the sniper who takes him down has terrorist ties. What if the reason Adam died is because the terrorists found out about what he was doing? Maybe they were watching him and they saw me and they learned what Teach and I are. Maybe this mess is way more about Adam than you and me.”
Ben was silent.
“Terrorists operating on American soil, with serious resources, targeting the people who could expose them or bring them down. This fight could be much more important than getting Teach back, or saving the Cellar, or clearing your name,” Pilgrim said. “Do you understand that?”
Ben nodded. “Maybe he really found terrorists here, and the Arabs in Austin were part of it . . .”
Pilgrim stood. “We have to find who’s behind this McKeen company.”
“Wait. You said you lost everything. Did you lose the kid in your drawings?”
Pilgrim shuffled feet on the grimy carpet. “Don’t, Ben.”
“Is she your daughter?”
“Please. Do I look like a family man?”
“Not now. Maybe before you were a guy like you.”
“Leave it alone, Ben. You don’t hear me asking you about your wife.” He took a deep breath. “All right, business consultant, what do you need to find out about McKeen as a company?”
“A laptop and an Internet connection.”
Pilgrim pulled a red matchbook from his pocket and tossed it on the table. Ben picked it up. Blarney’s Steakhouse.
“Very popular with the imported gunman crowd,” Pilgrim said. “And look there.” He pointed at a line below the phone number: “FREE WI-FI 24/7.”
“A crowded restaurant? Absolutely not. My face is all over television,” Ben said.
“Not the face I’m going to give you.”
Ben barely recognized himself. He wore a fake dental front to make his teeth seem bigger; and slightly tinted glasses from Pilgrim’s cache of goodies that made his blue eyes appear brown. His blond hair went under a baseball cap.
Blarney’s Steakhouse—the original of the regional chain—sat in the prime corner of a major thoroughfare in Frisco. Behind its giant shamrock sign was a glass building, where the shamrock was reproduced again, albeit smaller. The restaurant, when it had gone chain and started a slow expansion across the South, had needed an actual headquarters and had moved to the building behind it.
Blarney’s had taken everything good about Ireland and made it cheap. Badly produced Irish folk tunes warbled from speakers, the singing muffled so that patrons wouldn’t be distracted by the poetry of the lyrics. The en-trees were given names such as Dubliner Chicken and Leprechaun Lamb Chops and Erin Go Blossom, a huge fried onion appetizer. Walls were covered with obscure faux Irish sporting memorabilia, framed pages from Joyce and Yeats, reproduction street signs from towns all around Ireland.
The large bar (made to resemble an American’s ideal of the interior of an Irish castle) attached to the main restaurant was full of people watching basketball, the Dallas Mavericks rallying from behind, a win nearly in their grasp.
Ben took Pilgrim’s laptop and sat at a corner booth. He felt incredibly nervous about being out in public again—but Pilgrim said, “Hide in plain sight, you’d be surprised how few people notice anything going on around them.” Most of the bar’s patrons seemed entirely focused on their own conversations or on the close game being waged on the hardwood. “Who’s gonna look at you? They got
to watch, and basketball brackets to bet on, and cell phones pressed to their ears.”
Pilgrim ordered martinis made with expensive vodka and two hefty appetizers, to keep the waitress happy, so she wouldn’t care about them staying awhile.
Ben started digging. McKeen’s Web site simply showed a banner apologizing for technical difficulties; the Web site was down. Odd. But perhaps McKeen might be suffering from media shyness after the Austin gun battle on its property. He jumped to a series of business intelligence sites where he maintained subscriptions. It was a risk to enter his password, in case people who knew his habits were hunting for him, but he had to take the chance.
McKeen was privately held, so there was scant financial data to be found other than analyst projections.
The martinis and the badly named Casey quesadillas and the Armagh artichoke dip arrived. Ben drank a hard sip of his martini. Pilgrim ate, watched the data spill across Ben’s screen in silence.
Ben read and clicked through a long march of analyst reports, news releases, and forum discussions on McKeen. Not a lot. McKeen started off as a construction company, divested into retail and office properties about ten years ago, mostly in the South. They started doing specialized construction for the government, restoring facilities in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.
“More contractors,” Pilgrim said.
The expansion continued: McKeen landed a large reconstruction contract in Tikrit, but had to pull out due to the insurgency; bought out a few regional construction companies in Texas and New England; bought Blarney’s Steakhouse.
“Wow. McKeen owns Blarney’s,” Ben said.
“I’m going to go scout out the corporate headquarters behind the restaurant,” Pilgrim said.
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
“Just sit here and keep getting smart,” Pilgrim said. He got up and left.
Ben read further: McKeen was bought by a private equity group, MLS Limited, two years ago June 15. Two months after Emily died.
My God, how different would life be if she had not died? They might be planning to have a child. They might be sitting on the couch at home, watching this same basketball game. She would be full of the energy and love and life that had so defined her personality, and he wouldn’t be wearing a disguise in a bar, trying to find out who was trying to kill him.
He started tapping again, buying and reading and mining through analyst reports, now hunting for information on MLS Limited. It was in turn owned by another three-initial firm, headquartered in Bermuda. That company, in turn, was a subsidiary of another practically invisible company, one Ben couldn’t find a detail on. He’d hit a roadblock. Ben’s head began to spin. Someone was hiding behind an entire, meaningless maze of names.
He wasn’t going to be able to find the name behind McKeen, not with what was available on the Web. Frustration made him feel sick. He drank the martini, ate the olive. He ate half of the too-chewy quesadilla and nibbled at the clover-green artichoke dip.
He had another idea. There was a discussion board devoted to security contractors. He surfed to it, wanted to see if he could find anyone who had done contracts for the Office of Strategic Initiatives. He started paging through the “threads,” the discussions of topics. There was one called
He clicked on it.
It was about him. A few executives at his smaller clients had ventured to his defense, but a number of others were gutting him. Ben Forsberg was no longer considered a kidnapping victim: According to news reports, he had been identified by the housekeeper and the manager of the motel near the LBJ Freeway, he’d been identified by a sales associate at a department store. He scanned the words:
Two contractors died and this son of a bitch ran—he better hope the cops
find him before one of us does . . . It had to be a crooked deal he was settingup . . . He probably screwed the dead guy on a contract and had him killed
. . . The venom and the conjecture went on. Each poster used a fake name on the board, so he could not know who was savaging his reputation, but the momentum was on their side. His few defenders were shouted down by the righteous. He had an account on the board and wanted to post,
You idiots don’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about
. It was a business that based much of its appeal on loyalty, but little loyalty was being shown to him. He went to the site’s search bar and entered
Office of Strategic Initiatives
No results. If someone had done a contract with Kidwell’s group, it was not being broadcast or discussed.
The basketball game went into its final minutes and still Pilgrim did not return. He watched the Mavericks win, then the screen switched to a West Coast game. He drank Pilgrim’s martini. His bullet wound began to throb, his head felt fuzzy. Bad idea. They were making scant progress and getting drunk was not an option.
Pilgrim walked into the bar and Ben could see his face was ashen. He sat across from Ben, noticed the two empty martini glasses at Ben’s elbow, gestured to the waitress for another round. He gritted his jaw in cold fury.
“What?” Ben said. “What’s wrong?”
Pilgrim said nothing until the waitress brought two more martinis. He watched her leave, then drank one down and chewed the olives. “I broke into the offices.”
“Jesus, Ben, it doesn’t matter. I have my ways. I wanted to access the CEO’s computer, see if there was any data relating to McKeen. But much more interesting was this picture, hanging on the CEO’s wall.” Pilgrim pulled a newspaper clipping from his pocket. It looked like it had been cut from a picture frame, a newspaper article celebrating the original launch of Blarney’s. The caption under the picture listed the people at the ribbon-cutting: the owner, a couple of his investors, the mayor of Frisco.
“Is this Sam Hector? Is this your wonderful friend?” Pilgrim tapped the man at the far side of the photo, smiling thinly, with his intense eyes. Pilgrim’s finger trembled as he pointed at the man’s face.
“Yeah, that’s Sam. I didn’t know he was an original investor in Blarney’s.”
“There’s a hell of a lot you don’t know about your friend. His name’s not Sam Hector, at least to me.”
“That man destroyed my life ten years ago,” Pilgrim said.
Indonesia, Ten Years Ago
The hunt for the Dragon’s killers took Choate into the rain-slick streets, into trash-reeking alleys, smoke-clouded restaurants, a gritty airport hangar. Information flowed at the point of a gun or with the folding of bills into a grimy palm. The info he’d found in the bank was next to useless; those aliases and accounts vanished. But he found people who were family and friends of the Dragon’s murdered informants; they gave him slim threads of hope and rumor to follow. He stayed out of sight; the CIA and the BIN knew he hadn’t bothered to set foot on the plane back to Virginia. His colleagues were searching for him.
Three days of careful and constant tracking brought him to the end; he stood in a darkened upstairs hallway, gun in hand. Waiting to kill. Gumalar would be arriving at this house within a few minutes. Then the score would be settled, his family’s safety assured.
The house was a grand mansion in Jakarta’s wealthy Pondok Indah neighborhood. Outside, distant traffic hummed like a swarm of insects. The breeze smelled of the soft jasmine blossoms of melati. On the floor below him, Choate heard the terrorist leader complain to the drug lord: “Inconsiderate bastard, always running late.”
Yes, Mr. Gumalar, please hurry up and get here,
Choate thought. Tonight Gumalar was coming to deliver a laundered two million dollars to the Blood of Fire cell that wished to undermine the Indonesian government. The house belonged to a drug lord who had a vested interest in a weakened government and was providing a neutral, secure location for his two friends to conduct their business.
The men chatted like a pair of old widows, gossiping about television and mutual friends, as though their business was not the devastation of human lives.
Choate checked his watch. Gumalar was late; there had been a change of plans, one of Choate’s new contacts told him in a whispered phone call, moving the meeting to here from the city of Bandung, a hundred miles away. Choate had raced back to Jakarta, driving like a madman, frantic he’d gotten bad information—but here the terrorist leader and the drug lord waited. Choate wondered if the men were simply being cautious in altering their plans, or if they suspected they were being hunted since his escape from his prison.
Because someone—perhaps even someone in the CIA—had betrayed him and the Dragon to Gumalar. Someone might have also told his prey that he hadn’t left the country.
Choate glanced at his watch and prayed for Gumalar to keep the meeting. Tamara was having her birthday party in three days, and if he did the kill tonight and walked back into the Agency, he’d be back home in Virginia in plenty of time to help decorate the house, help Tamara bake her own cake. He knew if he got this impossible job done so that neither he nor the CIA could be blamed, he’d be forgiven for leaving the hospital and continuing the operation.
A downstairs door opened. He caught his breath. He heard a chorus of greetings, the drug lord speaking in Indonesian, saying “Hello” and “Well all right, if you had to bring him,” sounding a bit surprised. Men’s voices, speaking quietly. An answering murmur from Gumalar. Then the drug lord said, “Yes, well, upstairs and to your right.”
Someone was getting directions to the bathroom.
Perfect, Choate thought, if it was Gumalar’s bodyguard—he could take the man out immediately, charge down the steps, kill the other guard, kill the drug lord. The drug lord was a heavyset man of sixty; Choate did not think he would be a problem. Gumalar was in his forties and had no fighting skills. The guards were the main threat, and if he could eliminate them separately the job would be smooth.
Maybe he could even catch an earlier flight back to the States.
He heard the soft tread of footsteps on the marbled stairs. Approaching him.
Choate aimed the gun with a leisurely, practiced stretch of his arm. A single shot to the throat. He was ten feet from the stairs and as the man stepped up the flight Choate would wait for the guard to turn, his eyes adjusting to the darkness of the landing, lit only by the faint glow of lamps from downstairs, not seeing Choate.
A child stepped onto the landing from the stairs.
Choate froze. The boy was maybe ten, thin, dressed in jeans and a T-SHIRT that celebrated a Japanese trading card game, and wore high-top red sneakers. He glanced over at the corner where Choate stood and he froze.
Choate held the gun and his finger lay ready on the trigger and the boy’s throat was in his sight. The boy’s gaze locked on Choate’s face, as though looking at the gun was too horrible.
Decision. Kill the boy so he could kill everyone in the house.
Choate froze. Unable to fire. Unwilling to fire.
The boy screamed.
Choate ran into a bedroom and went through the open window. He hit the roof. He skidded down its sharp slant, grabbed at the roof’s edge, seized it, slowed his fall, dropped off the overhang. He landed on the first-floor roof, jumped from it to a metal patio table by the mansion’s pool.
He hit the ground, drawing both guns, and he saw an armed man— Gumalar’s thug, the one who’d tortured him—rounding the corner, firing, and Choate blasted rounds. The man went down, his chest a bloody ruin.
Choate turned and, through the window, saw four men standing in a room: the drug lord. The terrorist leader. Gumalar.
And the Dragon.
Alive, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a suit, his shaved head covered by a dark wig. He still had both his hands. One of them quickly raised a Glock, centered its aim on Choate.
“Son of a bitch!” Choate yelled and emptied his clip, the window shattering, the drug lord and the terrorist leader each taking a round in the throat, Gumalar collapsing, clutching torn guts. The Dragon dove behind the heavy desk, one of Choate’s bullets announcing its accuracy with a spray of his blood against the wallpaper.
Choate ran. He scraped through the thick bamboo privacy thatch at the edge of the estate, plunged into the street. He dodged a BMW that was barreling down the road, ran north. The homes on the street were large and well lit; he had few places to hide. He had a motorcycle stashed a block away, in a darkened part of the driveway in an unoccupied house that was for sale.
He sprinted into the house’s yard. Tried to kick the motorcycle into life. It wouldn’t start.
He heard police sirens rising. He ran to the next house; an older but well-maintained Audi sat in the driveway. He broke the driver’s window, opened the door, cracked open the console underside, hotwired the car. He revved the car hard into the street just as three police cruisers tore into the road, closing in on him. He floored the car, took a hard right, putting a map of central Jakarta in his head.
I can lose them if I can get to Mentang, get to the Agency safe house
They chased him for a half mile, enough time for him to think,
That damn Dragon was the traitor,
and then another police car barreled right in front of him and he swerved to miss it, crashing the car into a storefront. He hit the steering wheel hard and his last thought was
I’m going to miss my baby’s party
When he woke up he was in the infirmary in an Indonesian jail. The CIA said they had never heard of him.