Authors: Jeff Abbott
The kidnappers’ van suddenly powered into high speed along FM Road 2222, a winding snake of pavement cut into the side of limestone cliffs.
They spotted me,
The van dipped and wove through traffic, rocketing along the curving road.
Pilgrim stayed with them, whipping around a minivan and a Porsche to narrow his distance from the van. The kidnappers had not waited to see how their compatriots had fared after the barrage of gunshots at the lake house. Which meant they either assumed Pilgrim was a dead man or they had orders not to look back. Getting Teach away must be their priority.
If he could grab her back, he could end this nightmare.
His eyes stung—blood running into his eyebrow and eye. His body ached like he’d been beaten with pipes.
Cars peeled out of the pathway of the van as the driver rode the horn, powering through a red light, missing by inches a honking Lexus, sideswiping a BMW, sending it into a spin. Pilgrim dodged both of the cars, stayed close to the van.
The van roared up the incline, sparks flying from a swipe against the guardrail. The van overcompensated, veering into oncoming traffic and then easing back just in time to avoid a head-on with a pickup truck full of high school students. Pilgrim could see the teenagers’ O-shaped mouths, their faces contorted in screams as the van missed them by a hair.
End this now. Pilgrim powered his BMW up close to the passenger side.
The spiky-haired blond leaned out the passenger window and opened fire with a shotgun; Pilgrim dropped back. The hail of pellets pocked the windshield.
The van skittered back into the wrong lane and wove like a drunken dancer to avoid three cars. Pilgrim saw the disbelieving faces of the drivers, all heading back to suburban comfort after an extra-long day of pushing paper or making phone calls or chained to e-mails, death suddenly inches from them, as he tried to give the van room to maneuver.
An empty stretch of road lay ahead; there must be a red light on the other side of the hill, stopping the flow of cars. Pilgrim thumbed down the passenger window, floored the BMW past the van, spun across the empty asphalt so he straddled the lanes. He aimed his gun at the van’s front tires and fired through the open window. Flashes of bullets sparking against the tire cover and bumper told him he’d missed. He was hurting, his arm wasn’t steady.
The van plowed past him, the spiky blond leaning past the driver and leveling fire into the front of the BMW. Pilgrim ducked as the windshield shattered. He sat up as the van passed and floored the car, trying to catch up, but he felt one of the damaged tires part from the rim and he overcorrected as the road curved. The crippled BMW smashed through a railing onto a sharply sloping hill, sliding thirty feet downward in a dust of limestone scrabble and hammering into the cedars lining a landscaped backyard.
He blinked. Broken glass littered his hair and his lap; the passenger door was crumpled by a tree. The engine died. He opened his door, clambered to his feet.
He was unhurt, but the BMW was undriveable.
Pilgrim stumbled, then found his footing on the scrabble. He ran into the backyard’s house, kicking open the back door. A family stood by a dinner table that faced onto the yard: a dad, a mom, two teenage girls. They all stared at him over their pot roast, salad, and potatoes au gratin. Dinner smelled delicious. He raised the gun, aimed it at the dad.
“Pardon the intrusion,” he said. “I need your car.”
The mom retreated back to the kitchen counter, tossed him the keys. Pilgrim caught them with one hand and said, “Thanks.” He hated the next part. He ordered the family into a utility room without an exit. Closed the door, shoved a chair up hard against the knob. “You sit here for the next two hours. I’ve got a cop radio, so you call the cops, I’m back and you do not want me coming back here,” he yelled through the door. He needed them scared to the bone, he needed them to give him enough time to vanish. He could hear the parents comforting the girls with whispers.
The keys were to a maroon-colored Volvo station wagon. He roared out of the driveway, turned back onto FM Road 2222. A police car stood where the BMW had peeled through the railing, and he drove by at the speed limit and didn’t glance over at the officers, who would probably find and free the family in the next ten minutes. He topped the next hill and floored the station wagon. The van was long gone. He drove a couple of miles, hoping he’d winged a tire, given the van a flat. But they were gone. He headed right as FM Road 2222 came to an end and forked into two separate streets, headed down a side road, pulled into a Chinese restaurant’s parking lot, tried to marshal his brain. Where would they take Teach and who could help him?
He had no one to call. That was the beauty of the Cellar—you never knew the other operatives’ real names or how to reach them. Barker had a real name that wasn’t Barker and probably had two or three other names he operated under. Pilgrim was just the name Pilgrim used in the Cellar, as he lived through a series of false names. No one could betray you.
Except Teach, who was the only person who knew every detail of every job.
Her brain was the prize. Her brain could break the Cellar, put every operative in the group in prison or in crosshairs.
It was an unusual opponent, he thought, who could hire an ex-IRA assassin and a group of Arab gunmen to come to Texas to do dirty work. And Barker had claimed to find nothing unusual in Adam Reynolds’s bank accounts or e-mail records—but since Barker had been in the enemy’s pocket, then he would have lied and destroyed any evidence linking Adam Reynolds and himself back to the enemy.
Pilgrim thumbed through the call log on Barker’s cell phone. If Barker’s day was to end with Teach kidnapped and Pilgrim dead, then the traitorous young man didn’t have to be overly careful in erasing his tracks. The call log held what was to be expected as they’d worked their job on Reynolds over the three days: calls to Teach, calls to Pilgrim’s phone. But there was a call to an Austin local number Pilgrim didn’t recognize.
Pilgrim drove toward central Austin. On Koenig Lane he saw what he wanted: a small coffee house with a sign in its window offering free Internet access. He went inside; early evening, the shop wasn’t busy. A row of three sleek computers sat on a far counter and he sat at one and launched a browser. It opened onto a news page and he saw a scattering of headlines: Senate committee demands CIA develop more human intelligence resources in the Mideast for the War on Terror; a football star enters rehab; a sniper shooting in Austin, Texas.
He scanned the news report. No naming of the dead men, yet. No mention of a man seen leaving the scene.
“Sir? Are you all right?”
He glanced at the barista behind the counter and then realized he must look like he’d crawled out of a train wreck. She was a pretty woman of college age and she pointed at his cut forehead. “You’re bleeding.”
“Oh, am I?” He went to the coffee stand and grabbed napkins, dabbed at his forehead. Blood flecked the paper. “I took a fall. I’m okay.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“I’m fine. A medium latte, please, that’s what’ll fix me up.” He tested a smile.
The barista nodded to him and returned to the machine. He sat, Googled the Austin phone number he’d found on Barker’s cell.
He waited for the barista to call that his latte was ready, but she brought it to him. “On the house,” she said as he stood to reach for his wallet.
“No, really . . .”
“Sir,” the barista said, “I’m guessing you’ve had a crappy day. It’s on the house.”
Kindness was a stranger and for a moment he didn’t know what to do. “Thank you,” he said. “Thanks a lot.”
She smiled and went back to the coffee bar. He sipped the latte—it was energy and stimulant and calories, all of which he needed. The door jingled, a man and his teenage daughter coming inside, the girl smoothing her auburn hair against a gust of damp wind. He watched them laugh and debate what to order, a heaviness filling his gut and his chest.
That should be you,
Maybe it can be. When this mess is done.
He turned back to the computer.
He used the browser to access an online database for the government, where the phone companies, both cell and landline, were required to list every issued number. He logged in, using a password Teach had stolen from a CIA officer and given to him, and searched for the number.
The database did not give him the phone’s location, but it told him that the phone belonged to McKeen Property Company and the billing address was on Second Street in downtown Austin. He jumped back to Google Maps and searched for the address.
He finished the latte and hurried to his stolen car, not looking at the father and the daughter laughing over their coffees.
Jackie Lynch sat hunched at the bar, the granite cool under his palms. He had stumbled along the downtown streets when he realized he was going to have to call the boss, explain the job was an unmitigated disaster, Nicky dead.
He’d seen a neon harp advertising Guinness in a bar window and he’d lurched inside, ordered a pint in a hoarse whisper. Drank it down fast, took a long breath, told himself not to cry. Ordered a second pint because, as his father often said, no bird flies home on one wing.
Home. He had lost his brother and his mentor. Nicky was the brains of the business; Jackie barely knew how to deal with dangerous clients, assessing contracts and their risks, devising escape routes, managing money in numbered accounts. Now they’d failed a job for a very powerful man. He stared down at the counter.
He still clutched the sealed envelope. He was supposed to have dumped it on Adam Reynolds’s desk after Nicky killed the targets, but in the shock of only one corpse in the office instead of two, he had simply turned and run out the door.
He left his half-finished pint of Guinness and edged over to the bar’s window. A few blocks away, the streets around the parking garage and Reynolds’s office building were closed in a police cordon. If they hadn’t already, he knew, the cops would discover Nicky’s modified Heckler & Koch PSG1 rifle in the trunk. Someone would see the bullet-holed window in the building or find Reynolds’s body, put the evidence together.
No way he could plant the envelope now. Impossible. The client would just have to understand.
A band in the corner began to tune up on a small stage, a guitarist and a piano player, playing riffs of one of his favorite Johnny Cash songs, “The Tennessee Stud.” He loved music nearly as much as he loved his brother, and for a moment he was tempted to not call the client, to vanish. Go back to Belfast, listen to his records and curl up in bed.
But no. That was selfish, running away meant Nicky’s killer walked. Jackie was the family business now; he had to be a man. Nicky had always been the grown-up, but those days were nothing but mist. Music was nothing compared to blood.
He moved to a corner table, far from potential listeners, and punched the number he and Nicky were supposed to call to confirm the job was done. The phone had been left for them in their hotel room and they were supposed to call only once. The number had a 972 area code and Jackie knew it was Dallas; he’d looked it up, out of curiosity, in the Yellow Pages at the hotel the night before.
It rang three times, then a man answered. “Yes?”
At first he couldn’t speak. Then he said: “It went bad. Nicky’s dead.” He explained.
He could sense a simmering anger building on the other side of the phone. “If you had called earlier, I would have been able to warn my other team.”
Jackie bit his lip. “Other team?”
“The first man you all were supposed to kill is called Pilgrim. The job had a second component, the kidnapping of a woman who is Pilgrim’s boss. Missing Pilgrim meant he killed four more of my men after he killed your brother.”
You’re going to whine and my brother’s dead,
No, sir, not today.
“Not my problem,” he snapped. “You don’t tell me the big picture, then don’t hold me accountable for it. That’s your mistake, not mine.” He tried to put the iron in his voice he’d heard Nicky use with a troublesome client. It was never a good idea to piss off an assassin, no matter who you were.
A painful stretch of silence. Jackie thought,
First hand you play alone and you screw up.
“Did you deliver the package to Reynolds’s office?” The client’s voice was ice.
“Deliver the package.” Now the rage was clear.
“Absolutely not,” Jackie said. “Cops are crawling over that office like goddamned fleas.” Best to simply assert what was undoubtedly true. “I can see them from here.”
The duo began to play a plaintive Willie Nelson song, and the voice said. “Where are you?”
“Uh, a bar.”
“A bar.” Disbelief and fury, crammed into two words.
“I’m not drinking.”
“The surviving members of the other team will pick you up. You miss the rendezvous and I’ll tell them your mistake is the reason why half their team is dead. I’m not sure what they’ll cut off first—your tongue or your hand.”
Jackie swallowed the rock in his throat. “And then what?”
“You help them finish the job of killing Pilgrim.”
Jackie wasn’t eager to face a man who’d defied Nicky’s bullet and killed five men today. But he had no choice, he told himself. The job wasn’t about the payment, it was about payback. Nicky would have hunted this Pilgrim bastard night and day to avenge Jackie.
Jackie tried to put steel in his voice. “Where do I meet your men?”
Sam Hector sat at his desk, five cell phones spread before him, waiting for the call that would change his life.
With one hand he clicked an antique Chinese abacus. He owned a sizeable collection of abaci from around the world: ivory counters from Africa, jade calculators from China, a prized set from India that had once tallied the household accounts of a maharajah. He loved the soft feel of the beads, the click of their collisions on the rods. Ben Forsberg had given him the one he played with now, a souvenir from a trip to Beijing Ben and his poor dead wife, Emily, had taken before their marriage. It was his favorite.
With the other hand Sam Hector paged through his e-mail inbox. The list was long and from every hotspot of the world. Communiqués from Iraq, where he had close to a thousand military contractors working security details from Kirkuk to Basra. From Ethiopia, where a select team of his employees offered advice to the regime on dealing with an insurrection in the south. From Afghanistan, where his teams provided protection for both Afghan and coalition dignitaries and had helped stop a suicide bombing at a school—one of the contractors had shot the bomber dead, unfortunately also killing a local guard who’d grappled with the bomber. Regrettable. He forwarded a note to his Afghan operations director, encouraging him to provide a bit of money for the hapless guard’s family. Anonymously of course; Hector Global couldn’t be held liable for doing their job. War was full of tragic accidents, and the work that Hector Global did was all for the common good. Not just America’s, Sam thought, but for the world’s.
The next e-mail made him frown: a manager in Baghdad, saying that many of the security workers were expressing unhappiness with their tours and the level of violence they faced. If they didn’t like working for Hector Global, they could get on a flight home, Sam believed. Aisle or window, chicken or pasta, pick your seat, he thought. But it had been a rough couple of weeks; he’d lost five men in three separate incidents. It was a relief he did not have to pay medical benefits or life insurance; the contractors were responsible for their own.
Worse, he’d lost the past seven contracts he’d bid on for Iraq work, and the contracts for domestic security were starting to dry up. He had three thousand employees on the payroll; he needed every deal he could land.
He put aside the abacus and typed an e-mail to the Smith woman at the State Department who’d shown the more-than-professional interest in Ben:
Sure that Ben will call you tomorrow, he’s back from his getaway I believe today. I’m sure we’ll be able to come to agreement. Best, Sam
. He sent it and thought: God, if Ben would have just bedded the idiotic bitch from State when she’d dropped her first hint, that contract would be signed and he’d have several million he desperately needed on the books.
But Ben wasn’t going to be bedding anyone.
The last e-mail in his inbox was from New Orleans and contained a link to a Google Map image. He studied the map for several long, silent moments. The map was the first key to his future. He committed it to memory, felt a little thrill of excitement.
One of the five phones rang; he blinked at the number display. “Hello?”
“Homeland Security has taken Ben Forsberg into custody. Evidence linked him to a dead foreign assassin killed today in Austin.”
But . . . Jackie hadn’t delivered the envelope. The frame of Ben was incomplete. But he was not going to argue with a sweet twist of fate. “Where is Ben now?”
“At the new Homeland facility downtown, at the old Waterloo Arms. They’re questioning him.”
“You’ve earned a bonus,” he said and hung up. It was useful to have people sprinkled throughout the government who were willing to give you information for a price.
Sam Hector stood and went to his window. He had not killed in years; he was done with dirtying his hands, he thought, but if the Lynches and the team from Lebanon all failed to kill Pilgrim, well, then it was time to sharpen his skills. A tremble of warmth touched his skin, made his face flush. It would be good to be back in the game.
Another phone rang and he scooped it off the desk.
“It’s Jackie, sir.”
“I hooked up with your other crew and we caught us a break.” Jackie sounded almost joyful. “That Pilgrim bastard is two streets over from the hotel you picked as the rendezvous point.”
“You’re sure it’s him?”
“In a Volvo station wagon, cruising, like he was checking out the property. We’re ready to take him down.”
Pilgrim had managed to trace a connection back to the Waterloo Arms. Smart boy.
He considered. And then Sam Hector saw a solution—an unpleasant one—but one that would serve more than a single purpose. He examined the idea quickly, from every angle, testing its strengths and weaknesses and risks. Ben Forsberg and Homeland Security were inside the Waterloo. Pilgrim wanted inside the Waterloo to find how it connected back to Teach’s kidnapping.
“Jackie. You let Pilgrim get inside the building. Then you follow him in and you kill everyone. Everyone. Do you understand?”
“One of you stays with Teach. When everyone inside is dead, you call me back. You’ll each be paid a hundred thousand more. Except you, Jackie, as you haven’t completed your original assignment. Plus, no money can motivate you more than avenging your brother.”
Message clear: Don’t complain. Or I’ll tell them it was you not warning them that got their friends killed.
Jackie stayed silent.
Sam Hector hung up. He started to breathe again, feeling like he’d just ordered an army to launch a devastating assault, nearly dizzy with the idea of the carnage he’d unleashed. He had just ordered a mass murder. But it was required. It was the only choice.
It was a very small sacrifice, for a very big gain—an incalculably huge gain—that was going to change everything for him.
He let the smile come onto his face while he waited.
Jackie and the three gunmen listened to Sam Hector’s instructions on how to get into the Waterloo and then Jackie closed his phone. The three men in the van stared at Jackie, two with blank expressions, one with clear disapproval. Jackie glanced down at the old woman—Teach, Hector called her—the men had kidnapped, unconscious, hands bound in front of her, sleeping off an injection designed to keep her out for a few more hours.
“You heard the man,” Jackie said. “An extra hundred thou for each of you.” He announced it with casual arrogance, as if he were disbursing the funds himself.
The Arab leader was unimpressed. “You, Irish, you stay with lady.” A large mole marred his chin. He prodded the unconscious woman with his foot. The other two shifted on the balls of their feet. One had a wild thatch of hair, streaked white and black; the other wore wraparound sunglasses. They all looked like freaks to him.
“No,” Jackie said. “Pilgrim killed my brother. I kill him.”
“No. We are used to working together as a team. Not with you.”
“I’m going with you.”
The leader shook his head. “Three of us, one of you.”
He could let these dumb oafs do the dangerous work. As long as Pilgrim died, did it really matter who killed him? The thought shamed him. He started again to stand.
The leader produced a smile of slightly crooked teeth and a Beretta aimed at Jackie’s chest. “Plenty of hate for this Pilgrim. He’ll die badly. I promise. You guard the woman.” Jackie could hear the sting of an implied insult in the words, as though Jackie were capable of nothing more than watching an unconscious fifty-year-old.
The gunman with the wraparound sunglasses took pity on him, squeezed Jackie’s shoulder. “We’ll give this Pilgrim a bullet for your brother.”
Jackie swallowed his rage and he nodded. Let them go do the work. He didn’t like that they’d seen his face or ordered him about like he was beneath them. He still had the knife strapped to his pants leg and he was hungry now to use it. He thought how the knife’s handle might shine, buried in their throats.
He kept the smile and shook their hands to wish them luck.