By Jeff Abbott
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"Pilgrim" is a former CIA agent who is weary from the long years of living in the shadows.
When Ben's business card turns up in the pocket of a dead hit man, Ben and Pilgrim, two complete strangers, realize that they've been framed in an elaborate setup. Unsure who to trust–and pursued by a brutal and vengeful killer–the unlikely partners have no choice but to work together to discover who's targeted them for elimination–and why. But with everything at stake, Ben has no idea that Pilgrim is harboring some shocking secrets of his own–secrets that will soon force Ben to confront the blurred line between best friends and bitter enemies.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Downfall
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TWO YEARS AGO
END OF THE HONEYMOON," Emily said. "You tired of me yet?"
"Absolutely." Ben Forsberg watched her standing at the sink at the rental house's kitchen, smiled as the light from the Maui sun played across her face. "I've already called several divorce lawyers. Probably be best if we didn't sit together on the flight home."
"And I thought it was just me." She gave him a glance over her shoulder, bit at her lip, fought down the grin. "This marriage was a huge mistake."
"I'm consumed with regret."
She flicked water at him and came to the kitchen table where he sat. She slid into his lap and he took her in his arms. He gave her a long, slow, unhurried kiss. She kissed him back, ran her foot along his calf, and then stood.
"I was kidding," he said.
"I know, Einstein. Go shower. You smell like golf."
"What does golf smell like?"
"Sweat, grass, sunshine, and frustration. Usually in that order."
"What's the smell of frustration?" he asked, starting to laugh.
"You'll soon know," Emily said, "if you don't go shower. You'll be one highly frustrated new husband." She gave him a small, chaste kiss and a light pat on his rump as he stood.
"I love it when you threaten me," Ben said, kissing her again.
"Not a threat, sweetie, go get cleaned up. It's my turn to fix us lunch. Then we'll have dessert before we have to go to the airport." She touched his lips with her finger and smiled.
"I don't want to go home," he said. "I'm not ready for you to turn back into the Queen of Spreadsheets."
"Or you to be the King of Contracts," she said. "We could just stay here and never go back to work."
"Be poor and homeless in Maui. Brilliant idea." He leaned back from her. "Work is overrated."
"Except for bringing us together. Speaking of which, I need to call Sam before we leave for the airport."
"Remember? No work calls. I've kept my side of the deal."
"Yes, well, I'll keep my marriage vows to you but everything else is negotiable. Go shower." She kissed his finger with its new band of gold. "I like you in nothing but your wedding ring."
He headed for the shower, glancing back at her as she finished washing her hands. His wife. He smiled big but he turned his head so she wouldn't see his grin. She'd think he was being silly.
He showered fast, trying not to think of the real world that awaited back in Dallas. He toweled off, hearing her wrap up a conversation with their boss, laughter in her tone. He heard her hang up, then water jet into the kitchen sink. He slipped on his simple gold wedding ring, its slight weight welcome on his finger, and pulled the towel around his waist. She'd mentioned dessert with a twinkle in her eye. Maybe they'd have a treat before lunch, make love in the kitchen, the sort of crazy out-of-bounds thing two normally proper workaholics did in their honeymoon's last hours.
He smoothed his hair flat in the mirror. He heard the glass shatter, a loud tinkle. "Babe?" He remembered her toes tickling his calf when they kissed. If she'd dropped a glass, she'd be risking those bare feet. "Babe? You drop something?" He slid his feet into his sandals.
Ben hurried into the kitchen. Emily lay sprawled on the tiles, as though a hand had slammed through the window and shoved her to the floor, leaving a wet, red, huge fingerprint on her forehead.
"Emily." Ben knelt by her, his voice soft as prayer. Calm, not screaming, because this couldn't be. They had to make love, eat lunch, get to the airport. "Emily. Please. Wake up—"
NICKY LYNCH LAY LOW on the building's roof, steadying the sniper's rifle, watching the two targets arguing out the last moments of their lives. He stared through the crosshairs, waiting for the shot when he could take both the geek and the big guy in rapid fire. Rush jobs made him nervous; he hadn't had enough time to prepare. His body was still on Belfast time, six hours ahead of Austin, Texas. He blinked. Stay focused, he told himself.
"You going to shoot today?" Jackie's voice whispered into his earpiece. His brother waited in the lobby of the office building across the street, anxious for Nicky to work his double-shot magic so Jackie could go inside Adam Reynolds's office and finish the job.
"Radio silence," Nicky said into his mouthpiece.
"Any day now." Jackie's impatient sigh made an electronic crackle in Nicky's ear.
"Silence," Nicky repeated into his microphone, keeping his annoyance in check. Killing took only a second, but precautions, so that the job went cleanly, took time. Jackie was too restless; he had the impatience of a fever.
Nicky put his mind back to the kills. The angle into the office where the two men argued wasn't ideal, but the client had been quite specific in how he wanted the job done. The big guy, standing near the window, wasn't quite close enough… and Nicky had to complete the hit with the first shot. Jackie would be in the office less than a minute after the two men were dead, and he did not want either man breathing when his brother stepped inside to plant the goods. Especially the big guy. Nicky didn't want Jackie within ten meters of that man.
If the two would just stop moving. The honking, stop-and-start traffic of downtown Austin jerked on the street nine stories below him. A distant rumble touched the sky; a spring storm deciding whether to grant a cooling rain. He tuned out the noise, because the prime chance for the kill shot might come at any second. The office was large, its narrow windows divided by white limestone. He was at the same height as the targets, but he had to hide close to a roof air-conditioning unit and the angle was awkward.
He frowned. Best if the two stood in the same slender window frame, close together, but the pair stood off from each other like wary lions. The geek wore a scared frown, as though he were shoving aside all the numbers and facts in his oversized brain and searching for unused courage. The geek should be scared, Nicky thought. He had read the notes about the big guy with a mix of admiration and shock. It wasn't every day you got to kill such an interesting man. Nicky had killed thirty-six people but none so… accomplished. He almost wished he could have bought the big guy a pint, chatted with him, learned from him, soaked in his exploits. But the very best ones, he thought, always kept their secrets.
Now the big guy laughed—Nicky wondered what was so funny—and he moved halfway into one window's frame. But not far enough for a certain shot.
And then the geek pulled a gun from his desk and aimed it at the big guy. Nicky held his breath. Maybe they'd do his job for him, kill each other, and he could just watch.
"Stay back," Adam Reynolds said. The gun made for an unfamiliar weight in his hand—he had purchased it only three days before, a necessary precaution. He had spent five hours on the Internet researching the right pistol. But he hadn't spent nearly enough time practicing how to shoot. Adam's lungs tightened with fear, his back prickled with heat, his tongue seemed coated with sand.
This was what happened when you went hunting for dangerous people. Sometimes they found you instead. Just keep him at bay, Adam thought. Help was on its way.
The gun did not seem to make the big man standing near the window nervous. "Give me that before you shoot off a toe or finger or something even more valuable, Adam."
"No," Adam said. He flicked the man's business card off his desk and tossed a bound proposal at the man's feet. "Take back your stage props. You're nothing but a con man."
The big man shrugged. "So I lied to you. You're a liar, too. Let's stop lying."
"You first. What's your real name?"
The big man laughed. "I'm nobody."
"No, the problem is you're too many different people, mister." Adam straightened the gun, steadied his grip. "You've got more names than a cat's got fleas. I found them all. Every alias you've used in the past few months. I want to know who you really are."
The big man's gaze narrowed. He took a step away from the window, a step toward Adam. He kept his hands at his side. "Deal, Adam. I'll tell you who I really am and who I work for, if you tell me who hired you to hunt me down."
"I have the gun, so I will ask the questions and you will answer them."
"Yes, Adam, you do indeed have the gun," the big man said, as though that fact didn't really matter to him.
Adam swallowed. "What's your real name?"
"My name's unimportant. What matters is why you're searching for me, who paid you to look for me. That's the only reason I arrived on your doorstep, Adam, because you were looking for me." He crossed his arms. "Did it occur to you that maybe I'm one of the good guys?"
"I… I know what you are." Adam's voice broke. "You're a terrorist. Or you're connected to a terror group."
"You could not be more mistaken," the big man said. He laughed. "You're kind of book smart and street dumb all at once, aren't you?"
Adam shook his head. Put both hands on the pistol's grip to fix his aim.
"Adam, this is why you're in trouble. You had to break a number of laws to find me and all my aliases: banking laws, privacy laws, federal statutes protecting classified material. All that data you used to find me scattered among databases where you have no clearance or access. Someone gave you that access. Tell me who, and I promise you'll be safe and protected."
"Sit on the floor, put your hands on your head," Adam said. "I've already called a friend of mine in Homeland Security. They're on their way here, so if you hurt me—"
"Hurt you?" The big man frowned. "Doubtful. You have the gun." He took a step forward. "Brilliant computer programmers don't just suddenly start finding people who never want to be found. Who do you work for?"
"I'll shoot. Please. Stop." Adam didn't sound convincing, even to himself. "Please."
The big man risked another step toward Adam. "You're way too nice a guy to shoot me, and I'm not going to hurt you. So give me the gun, genius, and let's talk."
Nicky watched through the crosshairs. The big guy was moving forward, slowly, and the geek was suffering the tortures of the weak, not wanting to shoot a fellow human being. Then a thought occurred to Nicky: What if the geek did shoot the big guy? Will I get paid if I don't shoot them and one kills the other?
The thought panicked him. He glued his eye to the scope. Take the shot, leave no wiggle room for the client to argue the fee or debate whether or not services were rendered. He needed the money.
The big guy came forward, moving toward the geek, calm. The geek lowered the gun a fraction of an inch.
Both men in the same window now. The big man reaching for the wobbling gun. Don't wait.
In two seconds, Nicky Lynch calculated the ramifications of the choppy wind gusting hard from the bend of Lady Bird Lake that hugged Austin's downtown, did the math for the deflection of the glass, touched his tongue to the roof of his mouth, and fired.
The big guy dropped. Nicky pivoted the barrel a fraction, fired, saw the geek jerk and fall. Stillness in the room, twin holes in the window. He watched for ten seconds, then pulled back from the lip of the office building's roof. Below him people hurried on their late afternoon errands, unaware of death in their midst: suited men and women walking toward the Texas state capitol, most with cell phones grafted to their ears; a street musician braying a Bob Dylan song, strumming a guitar in front of a case dotted with spare change; a huddle of workers awaiting a bus. No one looked up at the muffled sounds of the shots.
It had gone all right, for two such difficult shots. He ducked behind the air-conditioning unit, wiped his hands on the maintenance uniform he wore. He dismantled the rifle with practiced grace. He tucked the rifle's parts into a duffel bag and headed for the roof stairs. "You're clear," he said into the mouthpiece to Jackie.
"Heading in," Jackie said. "Going silent."
"Silent." Nicky signed off. Jackie tended to chatter, and Nicky didn't want him distracted.
A boom of thunder crackled, the waiting storm starting to rise, the breeze electric with the sudden shift.
Bizarre requirements, Nicky thought, but the client specifically wanted the job done this way: murder the targets from a safe distance and then leave a manila envelope on the geek's desk. The money was caviar-and-champagne good, enough to keep him in liquor and books for a stretch of several months in St. Bart's. He needed a vacation. Jackie would use his share of the money for hunting down rare Johnny Cash vinyl recordings and spend time scribbling more bad songs. Jackie and his music. Waste of time. Maybe Nicky'd talk his brother out of frittering away his cash, get him to come drink in the Caribbean sun. You wanted warmth after you killed, Nicky thought as he reached the street.
In his earpiece, Jackie got the all-clear from Nicky and summoned the elevator. A crowd of pinstriped lawyers walked in from the street, pooling around him, chatting, waiting for the elevator doors to open.
He didn't want to be remembered, so he let the lawyers crowd the first elevator that came. He thumbed the Up button again and waited an extra ninety seconds for an empty elevator. He rose to the top floor alone. The hallway was empty. No one had heard the silenced shots—no one, at least, had emerged from the neighboring offices in panic to crowd the hallways. Good—no one would remember his face as he completed his errand. This assignment, although a rush job, was big; the targets were important. Do it right, he thought, and you'll shut up Nicky's carping.
Jackie approached the suite; the sign read Reynolds Data Consulting. The office door was locked, and he opened it with a lockpick in under ten seconds. He pulled his steel blade free from his coat, just in case either man was spasming out the last of his life. But he wasn't going to stab unless necessary. Not even for fun. A knife wound would confuse the police.
He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. The office was silent. Jackie put the large envelope under his arm. The geek lay in sprawled surprise beside the desk, blood spreading from his head, mouth slack, eyes finally vacant of brainstorms.
Orders were to leave the sealed envelope on the desk. But first Jackie stepped around the desk to take a peek at the big guy.
Across the street, Nicky Lynch shouldered past a crowd of techies spilling out from the parking garage ramp, heading for early drinks in the Warehouse District. He walked up the ramp and took a left. He pressed the remote for his Mercedes, beeped open the trunk. He put the rifle case inside and slammed the trunk closed. As he slid behind the wheel and started the engine his earpiece crackled, Jackie yelling, not making sense. "He's gone!"
Nicky glanced into the rearview just in time to see the big guy running up behind the car, drawing a gun from underneath a jacket. For a half second, shock seized him. Then he ducked for the loaded Glock he kept under the seat and closed his fingers around it. The driver's window exploded; agony lanced his shoulder.
This was not happening. Impossible. The shot had been true…
"Who sent you?" the big guy asked.
Nicky's mouth worked; his arm didn't. He fumbled for the gun with his good hand.
"Last chance. Answer me," the big guy said.
Nicky lifted the gun with an angry grunt. The answering barrage sprayed his life's blood across the dashboard and the front windshield.
Jackie, run, Nicky thought, staring at the red mist, then died.
The big guy stood at the shattered window and fired four neat, tidy shots for insurance into Nicky Lynch's chest and head. Adam Reynolds's gun went warm in his hand.
"Always make sure, mister," the big guy said. He swallowed the bile in his throat. Today had gone all wrong. Time to walk away from the whole mess. Wrap up the package for the cops.
Let the police chase a nobody. He took a business card from his pocket and tucked it into Nicky Lynch's bloodied jacket. He wouldn't need it anymore. He hurried away from the car, hiding his gun under his light jacket, taking the staircase. Someone would spot the bullet-riddled car within minutes.
He walked out onto the sidewalk as a light, gentle rain began to drop from the marble-gray sky.
One street over, Jackie ran in a panicked pell-mell from the building, sprinted hard toward the garage, dodging traffic and old-lady shoppers and coffee-swilling lobbyists. Cars slammed on brakes, honks jeered him as he sprinted into the street. He slipped his knife into his jacket pocket, his hand closing hard around the Glock under his windbreaker, scanning the faces behind him, scared. He kept the folder of photographs clutched under his arm. He heard a woman shriek as he hurried up the ramp. He braked on his heels and peered around the concrete pillar. A woman and two men huddled around the Mercedes, a smear of red on the windshield. One of the men was on his cell phone, calling 911. The woman had her hand clamped over her mouth as though repressing a scream.
Jackie stepped close enough to see there was nothing he could do.
Nicky was dead.
Jackie's throat closed on itself. He remembered to breathe. He turned away, stumbled down the ramp. The police would be here within moments. He fought every urge to go to his brother and fold him into his arms, swallowed the need to drop to his knees and cry.
The big guy wasn't dead.
But, Jackie thought with a hot rage in his heart and tears crowding his eyes, he soon would be.
WE'RE IN DEEP TROUBLE," Sam Hector said. "Ten-million-dollar contract choked this morning."
"I'm sorry, Sam," Ben Forsberg said into his cell phone.
"It's a deal with the UK government to provide additional security for their embassies in four east African countries," Hector said. "I can't lose another big contract, Ben. I've sent you the details and I want you to go through the information tonight. All vacations must end."
"Sure." Ben was close to home, the top up on his BMW, because as he approached Austin the spring sky clouded with rain. He wished that Sam hadn't called it a vacation. Ben no longer took vacations; he had alone time, away time. He'd been away for only six days. "I'm ready to go back to work."
"Good, because the deals are drying up," Hector said. "I wish you would come back to work for me full-time. I need you."
"How's the negotiation with the State Department coming?" Ben wasn't interested in rehashing that conversation; he liked working freelance now and living in Austin. The Dallas office reminded him too much of Emily.
"Another precarious situation. We're in disagreement on five or six points. Undersecretary Smith is being intractable on the level of training that our security personnel have to have for the next Congo assignment, while not wanting to pay a commensurate price. Which is ridiculous. Congo is amazingly dangerous right now. They need us and she's being obstinate, thinking she can handle it with regular government personnel."
"I'll talk to her." Ben didn't expect the negotiations to be prolonged; the security situation in Congo was deteriorating, terrorism on the rise; the State Department personnel stationed there needed a greater level of protection, and a contract with the professional soldiers of Hector Global was the cheap and fast answer. Hector Global did several million dollars' worth of business with the State Department each year, providing armed security for its employees; a new rising conflict in Congo was a tragedy, but an opportunity as well. Someone had to protect the diplomats, and no one could do a better job than Hector Global. "If the situation there deteriorates, it might help us close the deal—she'll get scared."
"I like scared people, because we're in the business of making fear go away," Hector said.
"You still want to use that as a motto," Ben laughed. "Fear is not a good slogan."
"Whatever. I also suspect she's stalling so she can get you back up to Washington again."
Ben moved into another lane, headed north on MoPac, the major north-south artery for west Austin. He exited into the suburb of West Lake Hills so that he could take back roads home to central Austin; the infamously slow Austin traffic had already begun its daily dragging shuffle.
"Ben? Did you hear me?"
"Sam. Don't kid, you know I'm not ready for—"
"You cannot live in this bubble you've created for yourself." Now Sam Hector sounded less like a client and more like a chiding father. "You just spent five days alone, Ben, at a resort known for catering to people twice your age. Emily would not want you isolating yourself."
Ben said nothing. He had found it best to endure this kind of advice in polite silence.
"Ms. Smith has asked me about your interests, how often you come to Washington, what food you like to eat. As soon as our negotiations are done, I suspect she'll ask you out the next time you're in D.C."
"Does she know I'm a widower?"
"I told her. But not every detail. That's up to you."
"E-mail me Smith's concerns on the contract and I'll craft our response."
Sam Hector was silent for a moment on the other end of the line. "Forgive me. I'm only trying to be helpful. We all worry about you…"
"Sam, I'm really fine. And I'll talk to you tomorrow morning."
"Take care, Ben." Sam clicked off the phone.
No woman had asked him out in the two years since Emily died, and he had no plans to ask out any woman. He tried to imagine how he'd react to an invitation. He had nothing to give, nothing to share, nothing to say. A slight cold terror touched his skin. He lowered the car's window, let fresh air wash over his face as he turned off the highway toward home. He clicked on the radio: "A bizarre shooting in downtown Austin today left two dead…" the announcer said, and Ben switched off the radio. He did not like to hear about shootings. Two years after his wife's death, the very word twisted a knife in his spine, brought back the horrible memory of Emily sprawled dead on the kitchen floor, a bullet hole marring her forehead.
Random, pointless, for no reason, some unknown idiot firing rounds at empty houses. He eased his grip on the steering wheel, tried not to remember.
Ben lived in Tarrytown, an older and expensive neighborhood on the west side of Austin. His house was small by the neighborhood's increasingly grandiose standards—Tarrytown had been invaded by megamansions, towering over the original houses on the cramped lots—but the limestone bungalow suited him. He pulled into his garage just as the simmering storm broke into soft rain. His flower beds needed springtime tending and the yard could use a mowing.
Ben went inside his house and set his duffel bag on the kitchen floor. He grabbed a soda from the refrigerator and headed back into his office. He cracked open the laptop and downloaded five days' worth of e-mail. Most of his clients knew he was gone this week, so there was less than normal. He saw an encrypted note containing the specifics of Sam's hot UK deal. He frowned at a couple of messages: a request from a business magazine reporter to respond to allegations of security contractor malfeasance involving a company he'd never worked with; three e-mails from people he didn't know, protesting the use of private security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; and e-mails from six people with military and security backgrounds, looking for work with Hector, asking him for advice and help.
Where there were millions at stake, and guns involved, controversy always loomed. He understood people's concerns about private contractors being used in war, but the reality was that the government was offering big-dollar contracts, and people of both dubious and high integrity went after them. Hector Global was one of three hundred private companies offering security and training services in Iraq alone. Ben was careful to work only with the contractors with good records and highly professional staffs. Many of them, other than his biggest client, were new, staffed by former soldiers and unused to navigating government deals. His guidance made it easier for them to win favorable terms.
There were well over a hundred thousand private security contractors on the ground in Iraq, training security forces and police, protecting facilities and dignitaries. The money was excellent. Ben had helped Sam Hector grow his company into a three-thousand-employee behemoth in the security world, with thousands more independent contractors on call, to provide everything from security to computer expertise to food services.
A soft red 6 glowed on his answering machine's readout. He decided to deal with the rest of the real world after he took a shower. Technically, he was still on his alone time, he told himself.
Ben showered and rubbed a towel hard across his skin. The mirror showed a bit of early spring sunburn on his nose and cheeks from his lake walks; he was of Swedish descent, and the sun wasn't always gentle on his pale, slightly freckled skin. He smoothed out his thick thatch of blond hair with a comb of his fingers, brushed his teeth, and decided not to shave over the sunburn. He dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, and a long-sleeved polo shirt. He reached for the soda he'd left on the counter and then the doorbell rang, a low, long, almost mournful chime.
Two people stood on his bricked porch. Ben had been around enough government agents in his work to recognize them as such—the stance, the careful neutral expressions. One was a petite, dark-haired woman in her early thirties, wearing an expensive, tailored gray suit. She had brown eyes and a mouth set in a frown, and when Ben opened the door, her gaze was so fierce that he nearly took a step backward. The man next to her was thin and silver-haired, expressionless.
Behind them, Ben saw a car, with two thick-necked men in suits and sunglasses standing at attention near the passenger door.
"Mr. Forsberg?" the man said.
Both showed photo IDs. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Strategic Initiatives. It wasn't a division at Homeland Ben recognized from his consulting work, like FEMA or the Secret Service. "I'm Agent Norman Kidwell. This is Agent Joanna Vochek. We'd like to speak with you."
Ben blinked at the badges. Kidwell was in his forties, with a hardscrabble face that was alien territory for a smile, dark eyes that gave a glance more calculated than kind, a suggestion of granite under the skin of his jaw.
"Okay. About what?" Ben asked.
"It would be better if we could talk inside, sir," Kidwell said.
"Uh, sure." He wondered if one of his clients had messed up, gotten cute with a contract with Homeland. But they couldn't just call him? He opened the door wider. The two agents stepped inside.
- "Quentin Tarantino mets Die Hard as the lives of two men literally collide in Abbott's latest riveting action thriller. . .the action never lets up as they go on a seemingly futile quest. Abbott has always been a terrific writer, but this is his best to date. The twists are shocking, and the characters are all too real."—Library Journal
- "Collision is the best evidence yet that Jeff Abbott is one of the finest thriller writers working today. Electric with action and lightning-paced, I literally could not put it down. Don't miss it."—Harlan Coben
- "Collision is a powerhouse tale of good bad guys, bad good guys, and every shade in between. Jeff Abbott delivers a frenzy of action in this race-against-the-clock thriller about an ordinary guy arrested for murder whose only hope lies in trusting the very man who framed him."—Lisa Gardner
- On Sale
- Jun 25, 2013
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Grand Central Publishing