Authors: Jeff Abbott
Jackie Lynch’s throat ached from singing. The van’s broken radio hissed static and he couldn’t bear the silence so he sang, slow and low, the entirety of Johnny Cash’s
At Folsom Prison
album. The rereleased version had been his and Nicky’s favorite. He’d started with “Folsom Prison Blues,” then sung his way through the poetry of the other eighteen songs. He knew every lyric, but on Nicky’s favorites it was a struggle to finish, to link the words together. He sang the album in an hour, listened to the quiet again for five minutes, then started singing it again, like he was a busted music box doomed to spill the same notes for eternity. His stomach began to growl as he reached the small city of Hillsboro, ninety minutes south of Dallas. Hillsboro boasted a huge outlet mall and a large collection of fast-food chains and gas stations. He figured no one would remember him in the constantly changing crowd. Jackie hated the necessity of his hunger; it reminded him he was alive, and Nicky wasn’t.
He bought his dinner at a McDonald’s drive-through, keeping an eye on the prone form of Teach lying bound in the back of the van. He regarded her with a cordial hatred. He bought her no food in case she awoke—the bitch could starve, for all he cared.
He pulled over at the far edge of the parking lot to eat his hamburger and fries. He sipped hard on a soda to cool his throat and bit into the burger. He couldn’t shake off memories of Nicky. They should be eating lobsters and steaks, drinking a fancy wine, savoring a kill that would have made their reputations even more sterling; now he’d be eating alone all the time, with Nicky dead, and the realization made his face ache.
Jackie set the burger and fries on the passenger seat. The tears came hot and hard and he bent his head over the steering wheel, happy images swimming before his eyes. Nicky teaching him how to ride a bike because Da was always busy with his interrogations and his meetings; Nicky showing him how to kick a football, how to shoot a semiautomatic, how to cut with a blade so you opened the carotid on the first try. His brother shouldn’t be, couldn’t be, dead. He used his napkins to mop up the tears and the snot and then he used his sleeve and, looking up, he saw the boys laughing at him.
Three of them, a shade younger than him, nineteen or so. They stood four parking slots away, getting into an old, weathered sedan, but they’d seen him crying like a babe and one acted embarrassed and the other two smiled, amused at his pain.
Behind him, the woman stirred and groaned. He glanced back at her; she lay still again.
Now two of the three boys had gotten into their car but one stood there and mock-rubbed his cupped hand on his cheek, wiping away pretend tears.
Jackie opened the van’s door and stepped out into the cool. The hum of the highway made a throaty murmur and the night sky spilled stars across the darkness. His fist felt primed to hit, his feet ready to kick. He didn’t need a gun. Or the knife.
“What’s your problem?” Jackie asked.
The boy kept his smile locked in place and said, with a twang, “Buy some pride, dude.”
“My brother died today.” He walked faster toward the smiling boy, whose grin faded. “Maybe I should laugh? Do a freaking jig?”
The boy ducked back into the car, started shutting the door.
Jackie caught the door handle. Fury made him strong and he reached in and dragged the boy onto the pavement. The boy twisted and hollered. Jackie punched the mouth hard; the teeth in the vanished smile cracked under his fist.
The two other boys spilled from the other side of the car. One was bigger than Jackie, with the bearing of an athlete, but Jackie didn’t see muscle and speed, he saw only weaknesses borne from overconfidence: a throat left unprotected, a crotch to be kicked, an eye to be gouged. He slid across the trunk to engage the athlete. Take the biggest first, Nicky told him. Jackie nailed him with a hard kick in the guts. The athlete doubled over and Jackie slammed him into the side of the car. The car door stood open and Jackie shoved the athlete’s head into the opening, knocked the door hard against him. The athlete folded, bleeding from both ears.
“See,” Jackie said to the last kid, rounding the car to come at him. “That’s pride, asshole.”
He bounced while the last kid threw a reckless punch; he stepped under it and delivered three close-in blows, to groin, stomach, and jaw. Nicky had taught him the moves. The last kid folded, mouth wide in a gasp. The athlete lay unconscious on the asphalt. Jackie ran around the car and found the once-smiling boy, dazed, trying to crawl into the driver’s seat, blood dripping from his mouth and chin.
Jackie yanked the boy out of the car. He grabbed the keys from the ignition, knocked the boy to the ground.
“Cry,” Jackie said.
“Don’t, please!” The boy’s tears welled, real ones of stark terror.
He pressed the boy’s head to the pavement, jabbed the ignition key into the soft corner of the eye. The boy screamed his own throat raw. Jackie’s grief vanished in the flame of his rage.
Blind him, he thought. Do the other eye. But he glanced up, noticed a couple of people gaping at him in shock from their cars in the drive-through line.
Time to go. He turned and the van was gone.
He dropped the keys and forgot to breathe. Then he saw the van, creaking along toward the exit, the woman driving but weaving. Like the drugs still hobbled her mind, like she hadn’t figured out the relationship between accelerator and escape.
Jackie ran, leaving the boy screaming and writhing on the pavement. The van was thirty feet from careening onto a thoroughfare that bisected the highway. Thirty feet for him to catch her and God don’t let her gun the gas. He cut across to the van’s right side, trying to remember if he’d locked the passenger door. Hoping that she, dazed with drugs, hadn’t.
The van jolted up onto the curb, flattened the spring grass, lurched out of the McDonald’s lot and onto the road.
Ten feet. He ran out into the street and reached the passenger-side door, caught the handle. The van surged out into traffic. He fumbled at the handle, clicked open the door as the woman veered the van back toward him, trying to knock him down and nearly planting him on the pavement. He jumped through the door, landing on his abandoned dinner, a slick of meat and lettuce and pickle.
Now Teach hit the accelerator, ignoring the cavalcade of honks as she dodged through traffic. She veered into the wrong lane, screeched past another car. Jackie grabbed her arms with one hand, seized the steering wheel with the other. Her head bobbed as if she were only half-awake.
He slammed his door shut. “Lady, no.” Jackie grabbed the wheel from her, steered a clear path to the road’s shoulder. He hit her, hard and precise. She went limp. He yanked her from the seat, shoved her into the back of the van. He eased into the driver’s seat, roared back into traffic.
Idiot, he told himself. No control. Why did he care if small-town jerks saw him crying? His bad judgment had gotten him noticed, cut, and bruised, and nearly lost him Teach. He zoomed back onto I-35. He’d have to find another car, dump the van, steal another car, fast. Oh, damn. He imagined Nicky’s ghost crouched on his shoulder, thumping Jackie’s head in disappointment. No more stupidity. It would get him in jail or dead.
The first mistake, he decided, was in feeling grief. Not again. From now on he would simply cause it for others. Gouging the boy’s eye had eased his pain. That was the way to deal with grief: Lose yourself in your work.
Two hours later, Jackie parked a different van at a shopping center on the edge of the growing Dallas suburb of Frisco. He’d abandoned the gunmen’s van and stolen a new one from an apartment complex in Waxahachie, between Hillsboro and Dallas. The stolen van reeked of weed, and this gave Jackie his first, borderline hysterical laugh of the day. A joint didn’t sound bad at all, but then he reminded himself he was running the family business and CEOs should remain sober.
Especially when facing a very irritated customer.
So maybe it would be responsible and smart—both aspects of being the mature and executive-minded Jackie, he told himself—to have a bit of leverage over Mr. Sam Hector.
He pulled into a corner of the lot, far from the few other shoppers, far from the lights. Teach lay on the floor of the dirty van, half-watching him. He stared at her and she closed her eyes. But he could tell from the focus he’d seen in her eyes that the drugs were wearing off.
“Most old ladies been kidnapped, they would have run screaming from the van. Shrieking their throat raw for help. But you wanted to slip away, unseen, unheard.”
Now Teach opened her eyes. Under the gag, under the wicked bruise on her face, the merest trace of a smile appeared. Then wavered and was gone. He went back to the rear of the van and lowered the gag.
“What are you, lady? What’s your line of work?”
“I’ll make you a deal,” she whispered. “A million dollars if you let me go.”
He laughed. “A million. Handsome offer. But my brother’s dead. So money’s not my reason for the game now, sorry.”
“The offer expires in one minute.”
She was used to hardball, he thought. “I don’t need ten seconds to tell you no.”
“All right,” she said. Almost respectfully. It impressed him that she didn’t beg.
“This Pilgrim fellow’s a friend of yours.”
Teach opened her eyes. “He’s going to kill you. It’s guaranteed.”
“I shot him and he fell from a parking garage, and so odds are he’s dead.” Better if she had no hope.
“A man thought he’d killed him this afternoon. He hadn’t.”
Jackie put his mouth close to her ear. “If he’s not dead, I’m going to kill him, and when I’m done, if you’re still alive, I’ll bring you his head and you can kiss him good-bye.”
“Where are the guys who grabbed me?” she asked.
Jackie’s mouth went thin; he didn’t answer, and the absolute bitch shook her head.
“Let me guess. Pilgrim’s killed everyone you work with today. Do you really want to take him on, little boy?”
Quite the ballsy whore. He ignored the bolt of anger and decided not to kick her teeth down her throat. Hector wanted her unhurt. He went back to the driver’s seat and she asked, “Where are you taking me?”
“I hope to a highly painful death.”
In the rearview, he saw her eyes widen, very slightly. Yeah, he thought. Telling her that was better than giving her a kick in the face.
A grand place the man’s house was, Jackie thought. The complex covered rolling farmland west of Prosper, a small town on the verge of great growth, but still rural enough that you had space to breathe. Jackie had driven through the iron gates—a long stone fence ran along the whole perimeter of the acreage. There were stables, a private airstrip with a hangar and Learjet, a three-story manor of Tuscan lines and arches, a seven-car garage at the end of a winding driveway, not visible from the road.
Sam Hector and Jackie stood in the garage. The back of the van was open, and Hector stood staring at Teach.
Sam Hector wasn’t what Jackie had expected. Hector was taller than Jackie, a solid six-five, fiftyish, graying hair trimmed close to his scalp, a hard body shaped by weight lifting, a craggy face. His eyes reminded Jackie of gray clouds right after lightning flashes against them. It was the sort of face that made Jackie want to defend himself.
“I nearly got Pilgrim and the other—”
“Ben Forsberg.” Sam Hector’s voice was low and quiet.
“Forsberg. But they got away. Pilgrim’s hurt bad.” Pride inched back into his tone.
“The envelope, please.”
Jackie handed it to him. Hector glanced at the seal, to be sure it was undisturbed.
“I wouldn’t boast about your competence. How hard is it to leave an envelope behind?” Hector said. “The only thing you’ve done right is get her here to me.”
An odd itch in the back of Jackie’s brain made him say, “Yes, sir, but she’s here and we could use her as bait for this Pilgrim asshole.”
Teach didn’t look at him.
“That’s true, Jackie.” Hector gave him a cold smile. “Pilgrim will come after her.”
“I hope he does.” Jackie lit a cigarette and focused so his hand didn’t tremble. “I want to kill the bastard.”
“I already killed Pilgrim once,” Hector said. “I’m sure we can do it again. If you’d carry her into the house, I’d appreciate it. Just follow me.”
Jackie carried Teach, dangling over his shoulder, and dropped her into a chair in a conference room. The table was smooth granite, with a state-of-the-art presentation system hooked into the table, a giant plasma screen on the wall.
Jackie turned to leave.
“No, Jackie, stay,” Hector said. “You’ll find my sales pitch interesting.”
Jackie wanted to go be by himself, clean up his torn and soiled clothing— although he realized he had nothing to wear, his suitcase in Nicky’s trunk— but he stopped and stood behind Teach’s chair.
Hector sat on the edge of the granite table.
“I want to make a deal with you,” Hector said.
“You’ve cost me a great deal today,” Hector said. “In money, in blood, in risk.”
“Perhaps you should reconsider your investments,” she said evenly.
“I’m not going to contact your people and demand ransom. I’m going to contact your people and demand loyalty. You’re going to help me.”
“Adam Reynolds, he’s found ten of your people. I’d like to know how many of them you have total. I’m guessing twenty to thirty. Former and discredited CIAs, maybe a few former KGBs who want to live and work in Europe and Asia, a hacker and a thief thrown in for good measure that you’ve recruited.”
She watched the tabletop.
“I could torture you,” he said, “but, God, it’s just so distasteful and ineffective. And I’d probably end up killing you—you’d lead me down several false paths, I’m sure, and I know my own temper well enough to know I’d kill you in a rage.” He offered her a smile that reminded Jackie of a fracture in a window.
“What do you want?” she said finally.
“I want the names and details of everyone who works for you in your private little CIA, Teach. Every account you have. Every resource you have.”