Authors: Jeff Abbott
He needed a distraction. Nothing at hand but the table, the chair . . . He noticed the chair had wheels on its bottom. He readied his pistols, left the rifle on the floor.
The hardwood floor was a minefield, and one wrong creak would tip the gunmen to his position. He slowly opened the window over the porch roof, directly above where the gunmen had entered. He fed the chair through the window, carefully, and propped it on the windowsill, half-in and half-out, the wheels positioned against the lip of the frame. He picked up the Glocks and slid quiet as a cat across the hardwood to the head of the stairs.
The gunmen and Barker still weren’t standing on the stairs waiting for him. Cowards, he thought.
Pilgrim held the two Glocks, lifted one, aimed, and fired.
The bullet smacked into the chair’s back. The force propelled the barely balanced wheeled chair out the window. It made a rattling descent down the shingled, sloping porch roof. The noise was huge. He heard a downstairs yell, imagined the gunmen turning toward the window, believing he scrabbled across the shingles in a desperate escape attempt.
Pilgrim threw himself down the stairs, his hair brushing the ceiling, ignoring the coming agony of impact. In the flash of the fall he saw a skinny gunman at the window, whirling back toward him with surprise as the chair bounced on the lawn. Barker huddled at the window, cupping his damaged wrist. A second gunman crouched with his semi at the ready, but aimed at the stairs themselves, a foot or two lower than Pilgrim’s falling path. The second gunman fired and the edge of the stairs erupted into splinters.
Pilgrim fired three times with the two guns in the scant seconds before he crashed into the floor. The first bullet caught the skinny gunman in the face, the second pierced Barker’s forehead, the last winged the second gunman in the leg. Pilgrim hit the floor, his left shoulder taking the brunt, debris flying around him.
The second gunman, pain twisting his face, stumbled and tried to aim again.
Pilgrim ignored the agony and fired, catching the gunman in the throat. He jerked backward, and his last spray of bullets dotted the wall above Pilgrim. The gunman collapsed.
Pilgrim’s whole body hurt.
Get up, they’re kidnapping her, get up.
He had just taken a full-story jump to a tile floor. His left arm raged in pain, but a good shake told him it wasn’t broken. He staggered to his feet, testing the weight. The skinny gunman and Barker were dead; the other gunman still breathed, gurgled, stared up at him with confused eyes.
Pilgrim reeled out of the house. He loped along the path the kidnappers had taken into the dense growth of oaks and cedar. How much time since they took her? A minute? Two? He heard a car start, tires tickle gravel, an engine accelerate. He couldn’t see the car. He lurched onto a back road and saw a silver van blast from the roadside.
He ran back to the house.
He aimed his gun at the dying gunman. “Where do they take her?” he asked in Arabic.
The dying man spat saliva and blood at him.
“I’ll get you to a doctor—you can live. See your family again. Where do they take her?”
The man’s eyes went sightless.
Pilgrim frantically searched the body. Just a matchbook and a crushed pack of American cigarettes. The matchbook was silver and red, with the words
in silver print, with an address in Frisco, Texas, and a phone number. Frisco, he remembered, was north of Dallas, a fast-growing suburb.
He hurried over to Barker’s body. Stupid, stupid kid; but he wished he hadn’t killed him in the flurry of shots. Barker could have answered all his questions. But you couldn’t always shoot to wound. He found a cell phone and wallet with driver’s license in Barker’s pocket and he took both—maybe he could crack open a trail to whoever had induced Barker to turn traitor. He found nothing on the skinny gunman except a wallet containing a well-handled picture of an equally skinny woman and two small skinny children, shy smiles on their faces. He dropped the picture on the floor, nausea braiding his stomach.
You really shouldn’t have a family in this business.
Pilgrim ran. He would clean up the mess later, if he lived, but if Teach was gone the Cellar was gone as well, so what did it matter what the police found? Dead men in an empty, rented-for-cash dump of a lakeside house, a laptop wiped clean, guns, no explanations, no clues.
He dragged himself to his car and roared down the driveway.
Only one road threaded through the lakeside neighborhood. Lake Travis was a sprawling stretch of water a stone’s throw from Austin, its edges lined with homes, condos, and marinas. This neighborhood was fairly quiet; several of the homes were rentals that weren’t always occupied during the week. The car had four minutes on him, maybe. He nearly careened through a stop sign that fed onto Highway 620, a major, curving road that connected the northwest and the southwest edges of the city.
Which way had the kidnappers gone?
To his right, toward the bottom of a curve, a red light caught several cars. One was a silver van.
A horrible, treacherous thought occurred to him. He wanted to resign. He could just turn left, drive the opposite direction. Fewer retirement opportunities were more decisive and clear. Have a normal life, a life outside the shadow, a life in sunlight. With no one shooting at his head.
He could almost taste the beer. He had not been drunk in ten years, not out of a dedication to sobriety but because drunk meant slow and he could never afford to be slow, to be anything but constantly aware of every movement around him. No more. He would go to the airport, toss his guns in the trash, buy a ticket, pick the furthest destination from the Austin airport, get drunk on the miniature vodkas they served on the plane.
Maybe he could even try to have his old life back. No. He dismissed the thought as soon it came to him. That was an impossibility.
So just turn left. Drive away. This whole job was a trap, a trap to draw you and Teach out of the shadows. It freaking worked. They got her. So get out. Now. He had made enough sacrifices.
The light flashed green. The silver van rumbled into motion.
He remembered the first time he saw Teach. He lay on a cold stone floor in Indonesia, cursing at the stupidity of his mistake, his ineptness at getting caught. He’d been beaten with rubber batons, off and on, for a week. He’d glanced up and she stood at the bars. He first thought: Why has a librarian come to see me? The guard opened the cell door for her and then, greased with money, he walked away. She stepped inside the cell and inspected it with a frown. She knelt by him and said: “Listen. You say yes or no, nothing more, when I’m done. To the CIA, you’re nothing; they aren’t ever going to acknowledge you exist. I was in the same mess myself once that you are. I was in a prison in Moldova. The food appears to be halfway edible here. Lucky you.”
He tried to speak but his mouth wouldn’t work. She said, “You can either stay in prison or you can work for me. Hardest work you’ll ever do. Probably will get you killed. But it’s all for good. The most difficult good we can do. But everything about you must change. Nothing of the man you were will remain.”
He held his breath. It was a hallucination, an offer out of here. It couldn’t be. She reached and touched his face so he would know she was real.
She waited to see if he understood what her offer meant, the price he’d pay.
“Or you can stay who you are and enjoy this lovely cell for the rest of your life. Yes or no.”
He watched her for ten silent seconds. Decision of a lifetime. He decided to believe her and whispered, “Yes.”
“Then I’ll have to get you out of here,” she said. “Be patient. I’ll come see you tomorrow. I’ll have to negotiate a number of bribes. And we’ll have to fake your death.” She made this outrageous statement as though it were simply the final humdrum errand on a long list. To his surprise, she brushed the matted, dirty hair from his eyes, a caress that was kind and gentle. She got up and left the cell and vanished down the dank stone corridor and he blinked, as though she had been a dream.
But everything she promised, she did.
Shame at his doubt turned his stomach. Necessary, she’d said. You always did what was necessary.
Another decision of a lifetime to make, he thought, right now.
Ten seconds later Pilgrim turned right, easing eight cars behind the kidnappers’ van as it rumbled toward Austin.
Vochek drove the car with Kidwell, Ben, and the two guards toward downtown. Traffic thickened; a set of streets to the north had been closed by police—Ben remembered hearing the tidbit on the radio about a shooting—and the area between Austin’s high-end Second Street and the restaurant-and-club-heavy Warehouse District thronged with concertgoers for a blues-focused music festival.
Off Second Street Vochek pulled up in a lot next to an abandoned, squat brick hotel called the Waterloo Arms. Every other building on the block had been redone or undone in the latest spasm of urban gentrification. An early evening crowd of well-heeled music lovers and drinkers wandered among the bars, restaurants, and music venues along the streets. A wire fence blocked the lot of the hotel, a sign announcing that the Waterloo Arms was being remodeled into premier office and restaurant space.
A thousand words crowded the back of Ben’s throat, arguments in defense of his good name, but he decided to keep his mouth shut. Say nothing more until he got a lawyer. Silence was the refuge of the calm and the innocent. As they neared the Waterloo, Joanna Vochek’s eyes met his in the rearview and he wasn’t sure what he saw in her brown eyes: pity or confusion or disgust.
The guards tucked their guns into holsters under dark jackets.
Kidwell turned to face Ben. “We’re going to get out of the car now. We’re walking into the building. No one else is inside. If you run, if you scream, I will hit you so hard in the spinal juncture in your neck that I might very well paralyze you for life. Do you understand me?”
Ben saw Vochek’s gaze flash again in the mirror, as though Kidwell were crossing a line, but she said nothing.
“Yes.” Ben saw the shine of ambition in Kidwell’s eyes. Of course. A high-profile case like this was a rocket to ride. A friend who’d made a personal plea for Kidwell’s aid; a man who helps companies score highly lucrative contracts; and a notorious assassin linking the two together. The possibilities smacked of deep and headline-screeching scandal. And bringing that scandal to light was an ideal career booster for Kidwell.
They got out of the car. Vochek and Kidwell walked on each side of Ben as the guards unlocked the gates. The group walked under the haloes of concertina wire to keep out the vandals and the curious. The two men in suits peeled off from them, taking stations at the fence.
No one was inside the Waterloo; it looked nearly ready for office tenants. Kidwell, Vochek, and Ben took an elevator up five flights to a remodeled floor. They walked down a short corridor and into a windowless room. It held a table and three chairs. A palm-sized digital recorder sat on the table.
“Sit down,” Kidwell said and Ben obeyed.
Kidwell turned on the recorder, gave the date, the time, and stated that Ben was speaking willingly. Kidwell began to pace, hands behind his back. Vochek stood in the corner. Not looking at Ben.
“Outline your dealings with Adam Reynolds,” Kidwell said.
Ben leaned close to the recorder. “This is Ben Forsberg and I protest at how I’ve been treated. I’m innocent, I’ve been denied a call to legal counsel—”
Kidwell hit Ben. Once. From behind, a closed fist impacting behind his ear and Ben’s face slammed down into the desk. Kidwell erased the recording, gave his intro again, stopped the recorder.
“Kidwell . . .” Vochek offered Ben a handkerchief for his bloodied nose.
“We’re breaking him, Agent Vochek.” Kidwell said it as a statement of fact. “Now.”
“You don’t need to assault him,” she said. “Our mandate—”
“Our mandate says do the job, ask for forgiveness later.”
Vochek stayed in the corner, her expression unchanged, but Ben saw a creeping of color, of anger, touch her cheeks.
Kidwell leaned close to Ben. “Ben, how much you help me is how much I help you. I’m going to turn on the recorder and you’re going to talk, talk till your throat’s raw, or I’m going to turn off the recorder again and I’ll get one of those tough young guys downstairs and let him beat the shit out of you. I bet you’ve never truly been beaten, Ben. I bet you don’t really know how much a solid fifteen minutes of fist against flesh will hurt.” He turned on the digital recorder again. “The victim, Adam Reynolds, phoned you at home to confirm a business meeting. Describe the nature of the meeting.”
“You are threatening the wrong guy,” Ben said. His clients were important people; they would be his allies in clearing up this nightmare. “Sam Hector is my biggest client. He runs Hector Global in Dallas.”
“I know who Sam Hector is,” Kidwell said.
“He does millions of dollars’ worth of contracting for Homeland Security. He’ll vouch for me. He’s a longtime friend.”
“You’re right, Homeland Security does a great deal of business with Mr. Hector. So if I call him, and tell him to drop you as a consultant, he will.” Kidwell glanced at Vochek. “Joanna, get Mr. Hector’s number for me. We’ll call him on Ben’s own phone.”
“I think we could learn more by asking Ben . . .”
“Do as I ask, please.”
“Yes . . . sir.” She started to navigate through the numbers on Ben’s smartphone, a frown on her face.
“Your biggest client, you’re going to lose him, Ben. I promise Hector will pick us over you. Tell me about your meeting with Adam.”
“If I could help you I would. God knows I would.” A hot tickle caught in Ben’s throat.
“I’m going to call every firm that contracts with Homeland Security and tell them you’re under suspicion of consorting with a known terrorist. You’ll be blackballed. You’ll never work in this business again.”
“I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
“I’m also going to freeze your bank accounts. Your savings accounts. You won’t be able to pay your bills. Pay your mortgage.” Kidwell crossed his arms. “You’ll be out on the street. You have a girlfriend?”
“No.” Emily’s face swam up in front of him and he blinked.
“I’m going to find someone you love. Someone you care about. Lover, aunt, uncle, neighbor, college roommate, best friend. I’m going to freeze their accounts as well.”
Rage flooded Ben, surged past the fear he felt. “You can’t. Absolutely you cannot.”
“Whatever I do, it will be on your head.” Kidwell raised his hands in mock surrender.
Ben turned to Vochek. “You seem reasonable, Agent Vochek. Please. You can’t endorse what he’s doing.”
“I don’t endorse what you’re doing, Ben, which is stonewalling us. Tell him what he wants to know.” She held the phone out to Kidwell. “I found Sam Hector’s number. Are we calling him?”
Kidwell smiled. “Are we, Ben?”
Ben swallowed. “I’d like to know if there’s any other evidence against me.”
Kidwell stopped his pacing and pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “You have three other cellular accounts.”
“No.” Ben shook his head.
Kidwell read off three numbers, all with 512 area codes in Austin. “Those aren’t my phone numbers.”
“They were opened in your name a week ago.”
“Tell me which branch opened the accounts. I want someone to ID me as the guy who conducted the transaction.”
“You rented office space last week, off North Lamar.” Kidwell read an address off the paper.
“The office was rented through an agent. Sparta Consulting.”
“Never heard of them. I never hired an agent. Maybe this is a case of identity theft.”
Vochek said, “People who steal IDs buy TVs and golf clubs and diamond rings, not rent office space.”
“Does your report tell you I have new credit card accounts, too?”
Kidwell nodded. “Three. In the past week.”
“Great. Examine my credit history. I don’t open new accounts. I have one credit card I’ve had for six years, and I pay it off each month.” He looked again at Vochek. “I have no motive for wanting Reynolds dead.”
“Talk to me, not her,” Kidwell said.
“Talking to you is like talking to brick.”
A dark scowl crossed Kidwell’s face.
“Do any of these new phone numbers point to Adam Reynolds or Nicky Lynch?” Ben asked. He had to keep them, he thought, on the defensive, force them to acknowledge a weakness in their case. Because they were wrong.
To Kidwell, Vochek said, “We just got the records faxed over to us. Adam Reynolds only made calls today to Ben’s new cell number and home, to your office in Houston, and several calls to a number in Dallas.” Vochek showed Kidwell two printouts. “Ben’s new cell phone number has several calls to Reynolds’s office.”
“Fantastic,” Ben said. “I want to know the time of all those calls I supposedly made. Because I’m betting I can prove I didn’t make them.” Vochek started to bring him the sheets and Kidwell stopped her.
“No. Show him nothing.”
Ben spoke to Vochek, meeting her gaze with his own. “Before you start threatening me or bullying my clients, you better check your evidence more closely. You better have it be watertight. Because Sam Hector’s a mover-and-shaker in DC, and I doubt you want to be accusing his friends. Especially me. I helped make him a wealthy man. A powerful man.”
Kidwell’s lips went tight. Ben wanted the heat of the exchange to pass; he wanted to let Kidwell save face, for his own sake.
“May I please go to the bathroom?” Ben said. Kidwell switched off the recorder and nodded his assent, as if he welcomed a few minutes of quiet thought.
Vochek escorted him down the hall. Ben washed his face twice, cleaning the blood from his nose. The ache faded to a dull throb. At least it wasn’t broken. He went back out into the hallway. Vochek stood with arms crossed.
“Is this when you pretend to be the good cop?”
“You can’t be worse than Kidwell. You know he’s breaking the law in how he’s dealing with me. I can’t imagine this is how Homeland Security operates. I know too many good and dedicated people who work there to believe Kidwell’s typical.” He shook his head. “Office of Strategic Initiatives. I don’t recall ever seeing that name on a Homeland org chart. Who exactly are you people?”
She crossed her arms.
“Fine, you won’t tell me. Why should I help you?”
“To help yourself.”
“You’ve got it backwards. I’m owed basic rights as a citizen, I’m presumed innocent,” he said. “Until I get counsel I’m unsure why I should help Kidwell steamroll me.” He shook his head. “I thought I could reason with you. I saw how you looked at him when he went nuclear on me.”
“Ben . . .” But she went silent and Ben walked away from her. They went back into the room.
“Sit your ass down,” Kidwell said.
Ben sat. He looked again at Vochek, who lingered in the doorway.
“I’ll check what you say. But you consider what’s going to happen to you if you’ve lied to me. Think long and hard about it, Ben. Knock on the door if there’s anything else you want to share to save us time.”
Kidwell got up and turned out the lights and walked out. Vochek gave Ben a backward glance. The door clanged shut behind them, killing the soft envelope of light from the hallway, and Ben sat in total darkness.
"He’s soft,” Kidwell said as Vochek sat down at the laptop. “He’ll do exactly what we expect. Deny, plead for a lawyer, but when he gets confronted with more evidence, he’ll crack.”
“I’m not so sure,” she said.
“Here’s the hole in all this mess. Ben strikes me as an intelligent guy, and he barely tried to cover his tracks.”
“People are idiots. Or so arrogant they think they won’t get caught,” Kidwell said. “I want to find every link between him and Adam Reynolds. Find this Sparta Consulting that rented the office for him, see how Forsberg’s tied to it. I want to know everything Forsberg’s done or bought or who he’s talked to in the past few days.”
She opened her laptop, saw a new e-mail from their office in Houston titled “FORSBERG REPORT.” She opened it and scanned it and said, “Norman. Read this.” Her throat went dry.
Norman Kidwell leaned close, read the e-mail, and smiled. “Goodness. Mr. Innocent here left out a key detail.”