Authors: Jeff Abbott
The Waterloo Arms presented a tactical nightmare. Fences, guards, in the middle of an urban setting. Pilgrim drove past the renovated building three times and stowed the Volvo in a nearby parking garage off Second Street. Barhoppers and music lovers crowded the evening streets. Stages, with bands playing blues music, towered in two intersections. More music spilled out from nearly every bar. Pilgrim wished he could go into one of the bars, order a cold Shiner Bock, let the heat of the music flow over him, and not dwell for a moment on violence or guns, unless it was inside the lyrics of a jealous lover’s song. Instead he found a vantage point, a table at an outside jazz bar, and drank a Coke. An older woman who was attired as though for church, complete with floral dress and pink hat, pounded the piano’s keys with vigor and precision and sang about a no-good man that she couldn’t give up, necessary as air.
He took a sip of soda. He wore a burnt-orange University of Texas Long-horns cap and a windbreaker he’d found in the stolen Volvo. The cap was pulled low on his head; the jacket was too roomy for his lanky form, but it hid his gun.
He studied the hotel lot. He didn’t even know for sure that Teach was inside. A sign on the fence said this was a McKeen property, soon to be the Waterloo Arms Court, with several thousand square feet of office and retail space and a Blarney’s Steakhouse. All opening in about two more months.
Blarney’s. The name of the same Dallas steakhouse he’d found on a matchbook in one of the dead gunmen’s pockets. Couldn’t be coincidence.
He’d watched two men in suits circling the fence, one always staying in visual range of the building’s back entrance. On guard.
The suits didn’t look like the other kidnappers. These two were Anglos, tall, heavy-built, military burr haircuts, wearing jackets that were no doubt hiding rigs. They looked like high-end rent-a-cops.
The two guards didn’t wander as a pair. One took a clockwise orbit around the chain-link lot; the other headed in the opposite direction. They roamed out of each other’s sight for at least a minute, on the edge of the fence. The south side of the empty building fronted the busier Second Street; the east abutted a jewelry store and design firms; the north side was Third Street, and the west faced another construction site, also fenced. A narrow passageway cut between the construction sites.
He flipped Barker’s phone to his ear—he didn’t turn it on—and started a pretend conversation with an imaginary friend, pacing back and forth, just another guy in a self-made cellular bubble.
“Yeah, absolutely I’m gonna kill the bastards,” he said to himself. “Then I’m gonna make Teach buy me a steak dinner and accept my letter of resignation. Yeah, yeah.”
He nodded, holding the silent phone, and watched the guards continue their orbit. He could not shoot either of them on the street; too many people around. And if they were reporting back into the hotel via phone or wire, taking them out might alert the others inside. So he had to get past them.
The wooden fence on the adjoining lot wasn’t concertina-wired. It was the route of least resistance. He waited until the walking guard closest to him rounded a corner. Pilgrim hurried to the fence of the stripped lot. The fence loomed, and he tucked the phone in his pocket, got a running start, and took a leap. His fingers just caught the tip of the fence, and he grunted hard as he pulled himself up and over, his arms aching with the effort. He slid down on the other side of the fence and ran to the east side. He stopped to listen.
Pilgrim heard a guard amble along the fence line. At first he thought the guy was talking to himself, but then he realized the first guard was using an earpiece communicator:
“Yeah,” the guard said. “It’s a hell of a lot better than Baghdad. I made ninety thou but the wife bitched incessantly, cried herself to sleep every night. I only want to do domestic now, or maybe Africa except for Somalia, those people are crazy. Yeah . . .”
Pilgrim checked his watch. Listened for either the approach of the next guard or the return of the one he’d heard. They held true to their schedule, once a minute, give or take ten seconds.
Those ten seconds might be life or death to him.
He surveyed the empty lot. A trailer sat on one side, near the middle of the lot. A forklift squatted next to it like a stout guard. He took a lockpick from his pocket and had the trailer open in five seconds. No alarm sounded.
The office was cluttered. He spotted the keys to the forklift hanging on a hook by a desk.
He listened for the clockwork steps of the guard, and as they passed he ran to the forklift, lurched it into life, aimed it at the sweet spot in the fence that bordered the hotel lot. Stopped it short and killed the engine. The music festival drowned out the noise he’d made. He checked his watch; ten seconds to spare.
Twenty seconds later he heard the guard pass.
Pilgrim clambered onto the forklift’s roof, lying flat on his stomach. He peered over the fence, which was now about two feet higher than the minilift’s roof. He saw the guard walking away from him.
Four feet separated the two fences. He powered himself over the gap.
Just enough and his feet cleared the wire of the hotel fence. He slammed into the ground and sprinted for the closest door, which stood in a shaded alcove.
He tried the door. Unlocked.
He opened the door, gun ready. He stepped into a service hallway, lit only with the faint gleam of fluorescent lights dangling in a straight row from the ceiling.
He closed the door. He listened to the silence. No sound of an alarm.
He tested doorknobs. The third door opened into a stairwell’s ghostly light. Halfway up the concrete stairs, he heard the footfall behind him. He spun, and one of the suits, thick-necked, stood in the hallway, leveling a gun at him. “Freeze!”
I’m not going to be taken down by a rental cop.
“May I raise my hands?”
“Lock fingers together, palms up. Off the stairs, to the ground.” The rental cop didn’t sound like a rental. A bite of authority lay in his tone.
Pilgrim stepped off the stairs. “Where is Teach?”
“On the ground. On your knees. Last warning. Then I shoot.”
Definitely not a rental cop. Pilgrim started to kneel. He bent his knee until he had the right amount of leverage, and then barreled hard into the man, gunning his head straight into the guy’s stomach as they slammed into the concrete wall.
The guy was solid muscle. He hammered Pilgrim’s chin using a short, sharp blow derived from Muay Thai, a martial art. Pilgrim was surprised, and he ducked the second punch, slammed a fist into the man’s temple, once, twice, and then caught him in the back of the head with a pistol butt. The guy staggered, for one moment, all that Pilgrim needed. The man collapsed, and Pilgrim whipped him again with the pistol butt to keep him down. But when he saw the guy’s ear, cupping an earpiece, he knew that the other guard would hear and respond. He frisked the guy for a second gun. He found only flat plastic in the guard’s pocket. An ID card: Hector Global Security.
He dropped the card on the unconscious man’s chest.
Wait for the second guard to respond or go? He pressed his back against the wall, flicked off the light.
Ten seconds later the door flew open and the second guard bolted into the hallway. Pilgrim launched a kick at the back of the man’s head.
The lights flickered to life, and after the coffinlike darkness Ben blinked hard against the harsh dazzle. He’d sat in the darkness, perfectly still, trying to steel himself against what might come next.
“Nice to have quiet and time to think.” Kidwell shut the door behind him.
“Sitting in the dark didn’t make me smarter.”
“Didn’t it? I thought you might be ready to talk about Emily.”
Ben felt a slow rage fill him. He said nothing. Ten seconds. Thirty seconds.
Kidwell didn’t blink. “You got a real ugly streak inside you. I see it now.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“It’s just fascinating”—he pointed his fingers into little guns—“to me that, you know, your wife was shot to death two years ago, case never solved, and today your business card’s in a sniper’s pocket. Because I don’t believe in coincidence.”
Ben stared at the floor.
“Is that why you kept mewling for a lawyer, Forsberg? You didn’t want to talk about the way your wife died? Surely you weren’t stupid enough to think we wouldn’t make the connection.”
Ben stood up from the chair.
“Sit your ass down.” Kidwell snapped fingers, pointed at the chair.
The finger snap pushed him in a way that the threats had not. “Shut your mouth,” Ben said. “You don’t talk about Emily.”
“I see the nerve remains raw.”
“I’m done here. My wife was killed in a random shooting, the police exonerated me. You haven’t arrested me and I’m not saying another word to you. I’m leaving and I’m going to hire a lawyer and I’m going to sue you personally so that your bank account’s emptier than your brain.”
Kidwell lifted his gun in a slow, lazy motion. He aimed it at Ben’s chest. “I told you to sit your ass down. I’m going to call the police in Maui and the FBI office and inform them that I’ve got a new development in your wife’s murder.”
“Or I’ll leave it alone. Just tell me how you and Reynolds and Nicky Lynch all connect.”
“We don’t connect.” Ben tested the doorknob; it was locked. He turned back to Kidwell and the gun went against his forehead.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
Ben was too angry to be scared. “I’m tired of your threats and your insinuations. Fine. You call the cops. Because they’ll make sure I get a lawyer.”
Kidwell slammed the pistol into the side of Ben’s head and Ben collapsed into the chair.
“You had her killed, didn’t you, and it’s caught up with you.”
“You had Lynch kill your wife two years ago, then you had him kill Adam Reynolds today.”
“No.” Ben stood. “Shut your mouth!”
A wife-killer, Vochek thought. Ben didn’t seem the type, although a sociopath could camouflage himself beautifully in normal society, show guilt and remorse enough to convince the gullible. She’d made herself look stupid, defending the bastard, before she’d seen the report that his wife had died very much like the way Adam Reynolds died.
She glanced through the police report again. A number of windows had been shot out in properties near Lahaina in a forty-minute period, a prank gone horribly wrong when Emily Forsberg took a bullet in the head. No arrests ever made, no gun ever found.
Nicky Lynch having Ben’s business card pretty much made her sure Emily’s shooting wasn’t an accident.
Vochek hunched over her laptop, quilting together information, determined to see if she could poke holes in Ben Forsberg’s story and find more links between him and Adam Reynolds. She had access, via Homeland Security, to a major credit-tracking database. A phone call resulted in a list of charges on all accounts for Ben Forsberg being e-mailed to her computer. Ben’s credit cards did show two flashes of activity in Marble Falls, where he had claimed to be; both in the evenings, purchases at a liquor store and a grocery. But they also showed activity in Austin in the past three days. She compared the times; one of the Marble Falls charges was at 7:15 P.M., one of the Austin charges was at 7:46 P.M., which also coincided with a dinner appointment with Ben on Adam Reynolds’s calendar. You couldn’t get from Marble Falls to Austin in less than an hour.
So one charge could well be fraudulent.
Kidwell was not going to be happy.
She opened her cell phone, scanned the phone company printouts, looking at Adam Reynolds’s call log. He’d dialed one number four times. She dialed the number. The answering machine said, “Hello, it’s the moon base, not here, you know the drill.”
Moon base? She summoned a government database of phone numbers. The phone number belonged to Delia Moon. She Googled the name— nothing. Did a criminal check. Nothing. Found Delia Moon’s driver’s license photo on the Texas Department of Public Safety database. Twenty-eight, five-ten, attractive, with an address in Frisco, a Dallas suburb. So who was this woman to Adam Reynolds?
Vochek left a message, introducing herself and asking Delia Moon to call her back, that it was important. She flipped the phone closed. She could hear the mutterings of the guards below on a radio monitor and she turned it low and dialed her phone. Her mother should be home now.
“Mom?” she said. “Hi. Listen, I had to come to Austin quick, on a job, I can’t do dinner tonight, I’m really sorry.”
“Oh, honey. Okay. Well, maybe this weekend, will you be back?” Mom sniffed, a reminder that her allergies had been a constant burden this spring. Piling the firewood of guilt on the flames.
“I don’t know yet.”
Her mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hide the disappointment in her voice. “Well, then. All right . . .”
“I know it’s hard, Mom.” Her mother had moved to Houston from Long Island, where Vochek had grown up, to be close to her only child. Houston had been a difficult adjustment. It was a friendly city, but her mother had not quite found her footing. Couldn’t or wouldn’t, Vochek thought again. “I’m really sorry to miss the dinner you made.”
“Well, I won’t go hungry.” Mom tried a laugh, brittle and forced. “Will you call me when you know if you’ll be back? I won’t make plans until I know.”
“Well, maybe you should,” Vochek said, and she realized, with a drop in her stomach, that she sounded thoughtless. “I just mean, Mom, if there’s something you want to do, go. Go to the movies, or the museum, or shopping. Don’t wait on me.”
Find a friend. Make an effort. Don’t let your life just slide by, Mom.
“I don’t mind waiting.” And then Mom launched into a summary of her gripes about Houston: the humidity, the traffic, the lack of a good New York-style pizza, missing her friends back in Oyster Bay. Vochek gave her two minutes of free daughter-guilting and said, “Love you, Mom. I’m sorry. I got to go. Okay, bye.”
She turned back toward the door and a pistol was in her face. A big-built man stood behind the gun.
“That’s nice that you love your mama.”
Vochek didn’t speak. She clutched her phone tighter.
“I don’t want Mama picking out a casket for you,” the man said. “Where is Teach?”
The gun in her face made it hard to talk, but she managed. “I’m a federal officer. Lower your weapon.”
“Nice bluff, but I saw the soldiers downstairs are hired. Where is she?” the man repeated.
“I’m the only she here. I’m a Homeland Security agent. Lower your weapon. Please.” She knew she shouldn’t say please; she needed the edge of authority in her tone, but the word slipped out before she thought. The gun was an inch from her face and she thought:
If he shoots me this close, Mom won’t even recognize my face.
A telescoping baton lay next to her purse; she’d kept it in case Ben Forsberg had to be subdued without deadly force. Her purse blocked the weapon from the man’s view. No way she could go for her gun, in the rig under her jacket.
“My badge is in my purse,” she said. “May I get it? It should convince you.”
“No. Lock your hands on your head.” The man reached under her jacket, liberated Vochek’s service piece, stepped back. Both hands holding guns.
She threw her phone at his face.
The phone nailed him in the forehead but he ignored it. He clubbed her with the pistol, hitting her shoulder. She lurched hard against the table. And grabbed the baton.
It snapped into its two-foot length with a click, and she spun, whipping it at his face. He dodged. She swung the baton back, nearly catching the top of his head as he ducked. He hit her wrist hard and the pain bolted along her bone like flame. The baton fell nervelessly from her fingers.
Oh, God, she thought. He took her down without even having to fire either gun. An unexpected bolt of humiliation cut through the fear and the hurt.
The man tucked her gun into the back of his pants. He stepped back several paces from Vochek, still keeping his gun leveled at her head. “Don’t blame you for trying.”
“I’m Homeland Security,” she repeated. “Kill me and the penalty doubles.”
“Shoot me in the back. Nice.” Vochek’s chin lifted in defiance. “I won’t turn around.”
“Don’t make this worse.” The man gestured with the gun.
Vochek turned. She didn’t want to show fear, but as she turned to face the wall her lips twisted, her throat tightened. She thought of her mother and never having another dinner with her.
“Sorry,” he said, and she thought:
My God, he’s really going to shoot me. This is how it ends.
The blow, direct into the nerve juncture at her neck, crumpled her to her knees.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. Then blackness folded over her eyes as the tile of the floor rushed toward her.
Pilgrim fished the ID out of the unconscious woman’s purse.
Department of Homeland Security. Office of Strategic Initiatives. Joanna Vochek.
It was either a very good fake or she was telling the truth. Pilgrim dropped the ID onto her stomach. He picked up her phone, turned it off, and tucked it into his pocket; phones could be useful sources of information. If Homeland was attacking the Cellar, then the situation was far worse; because he would then be fighting the resources of the American government.
Which meant his battle was against a far more dangerous and powerful enemy than a bunch of gun-toting kidnappers with a grudge against the Cellar. The thought dried his mouth.
He dragged the unconscious Vochek into a storage closet and locked her inside. One less person to worry about.
He returned to the hallway and closed the door behind him. He hurried down the hall, gun straight out, listening.
Pilgrim heard voices, arguing, from behind a door.