Hard Fall


By Ridley Pearson

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 14, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

The tragic bombing of EuroTours Flight 1023 was big news. To FBI Agent Cam Daggett it was more than that. It was personal. His parents and son were on that plane. And for two years he’s been after the killer who did it. All he has to go on is a name: Anthony Kort . . . and the knowledge that Kort is in the United States with a detonator no airport security can detect. HE MUST BE STOPPED. Daggett’s colleagues at the Bureau and his girlfriend tell him his vendetta has become an obsession. They suggest he leave the investigation to other agents, in order to keep it objective. But having painstakingly constructed a portrait of the terrorist, Daggett believes he’s now the only one with any chance of predicting Kort’s next target.

A novel of madness and revenge, Hard Fall begs readers to fasten their seatbelts.



Cam Daggett shook his watch, questioning its accuracy, and glanced a quarter-mile ahead at the dirty, exhaust-encrusted sign that indicated the lane change for National Airport. Heat waves rose in fluid sheets from the pavement, distorting the distance, carrying gray exhaust into the canopy of smog. Given this traffic, they would never make it in time.

News radio explained that the congestion was the result of a three-car pileup with injury. Daggett checked the rearview mirror, wondering if he could pull some stunt with the car. He feared that if he didn't, there might be a hell of a lot more injury to come. And it wouldn't be a few cars on a highway; it would be the burning hulk of an airliner spread over several acres.

"What about a helicopter? We could call for a helicopter."

The big man on the seat next to him mopped his forehead and said nothing. Daggett's anxiety threatened again. He felt boxed in. By the traffic. By this obese man sitting next to him. He could feel his hair turning gray.

A yellow hamburger wrapper replete with golden arches fluttered like a bird with a broken wing and dove into traffic, adhering to the side of a Mercedes where it smeared catsup across the side panel doors like blood from an open wound.

He felt wounded, too, if pride could be wounded. Marcel Bernard had escaped FBI surveillance six days earlier in Los Angeles.

Now, through a fluke, a stroke of luck, they had the man in their sights once more. Daggett had no intention of losing him again. Bernard built bombs for a living. He was one of the best, or one of the worst, depending on which side of the interrogation table you sat. The interrogation. Impatience gnawed at Daggett like a stray dog at the mailman's heel. A bulging file back in his office at Buzzard Point contained a grainy black-and-white photograph of what had proved to be a portion of Bernard's thumbprint. Laboratory evidence. As good as a noose around the neck. Hopefully, the gallows might be traded for information vital to Daggett's continuing investigation into the downing of EuroTours flight 1023. The man who built the bomb was one thing; but the man who planted the bomb—he was the real killer.

Up ahead, a driver climbed out of his car and popped the hood. The August heat and humidity had claimed another victim.

"Twenty-two minutes," he announced through clenched teeth to the overweight Bob Backman, enthroned in the seat next to him. Behind his back, they called him Falstaff because of his enormous gut. Coat off, wheezing like an asthmatic, Backman was soaked through in a sweat. "That plane goes in twenty-two minutes," Daggett repeated.

Backman attempted to appear calm. He was a bad actor. Perhaps he intended to part the traffic, a fat Moses at the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Daggett had the leathery features of a major league first baseman. He had a hard brow, dark, intimidating eyes, and a prominent nose. His lips didn't move much when he spoke, a holdover from wearing braces during his adolescence. He was soft-spoken—a family trait—though by his build one might have expected more of a growl.

"Why exactly did you come along?" Daggett asked Backman.

"I wondered when we would get to that," Backman admitted, blotting a drip of sweat from his double chin. Backman was a bookish man, with a receding hairline and chapped lips. He tended toward shirt collars a size too big and suits a size too small. "You're not debriefing him. I am."

Backman conduct an interrogation? Impossible. It was like asking Ty Cobb back into the batter's box. Daggett gripped the wheel tightly in frustration. His Casio read: MON 8–13.

Backman said, "I suppose you think I'm trying to steal your thunder. You do all the legwork, I do the debriefing and take the credit. That's not how it is." He struck a pose, imagining himself a heavy, but this attempt also failed.

Daggett was thinking: To come all this way—to within a mile or two of finally interrogating Bernard—and now this loaf taps me on the shoulder and steals the dance. Again.

He and Backman had long since parted ways. Trust formed the cornerstone of any relationship, especially FBI agents working the same case; Daggett would never trust Backman again. A year earlier, Backman had pilfered a file from Daggett's desk, hand-carried it to the Special-Agent-in-Charge, and claimed credit for its authorship—a file that connected Bernard with the little-known West German terrorist group Der Grund. In that one move, he had effectively stolen eighteen months of Daggett's life. Afraid it might backfire on him, Daggett had not attempted to correct the injustice—authorship of such files was difficult, if not impossible, to prove.

As a direct result of this stolen credit, Backman had been promoted to chief of the foreign counterterrorism squad. The man was nothing but a lazy, unimaginative parasite who grew fat on the hard work of others. Over the past twelve months, he had developed this into something of an art. Everyone in the C-3 bullpen now took their files home with them out of habit.

When the chief of C-3 had climbed into his car thirty minutes earlier, Daggett had experienced an immediate déjà vu. The more things change, he thought. How many times had they ridden together like this? It seemed like ages ago. Despite his assertion to the contrary, Backman was here for only one reason: to claim credit for the apprehension of Bernard and any information gleaned through interrogation. Daggett plotted a way around this while Backman wheezed in the seat next to him, and lived up to his reputation as the human pork belly.

Backman knew little, if anything, about Bernard, and hadn't conducted an interrogation in at least a year, maybe longer.

"Nineteen minutes," Daggett said bluntly, wanting some action. "Neither of us is going to debrief him if we don't get him off that plane." He yanked on the door handle. He could run a mile in seven or eight minutes. He ran every morning of his life. He could escape on foot and conduct the interrogation himself. He had no intention of watching Bernard's plane take off overhead while he sat trapped in a car breathing in Backman's body odor.

"You wouldn't want to miss a chance to get Kort, would you?" the fat man asked.

Daggett pulled his foot back inside and shut the door. The dome light went off. He felt chilled.

"You're the one who gave us Bernard. You deserve to hear this." He nodded at Daggett with something like respect. The heat was obviously getting to him. Fat people had more trouble than most with the heat. "The Germans raided Der Grund last night." Daggett felt wounded: this was not the schedule he had hoped for. This had been his investigation, and now it was running away from him.

"They didn't get Kort," Backman added in a voice filled with regret and failure, yet tinged with a hint of apology.

Daggett nodded and coughed up nervous laughter, and along with it, a bitter taste at the back of his throat. Blood or bile; all the same. Nothing could hurt him now; he had gone numb. He tugged at his shirt collar. The button popped loose. It slid down his shirt and rolled down his leg. He grabbed for the button but missed, which held significance for him.

His pursuit of Bernard, his passing of information about Der Grund on to the Germans—the last two years of his life—had all been directed at but one aim: to apprehend Anthony Kort. The carrot at the end of the stick that had kept him going. And now …

Backman interrupted his thoughts. Backman always interrupted. "Are you following this, Michigan?"

Daggett nodded, annoyed that Backman felt free to use the nickname. They called him that because of the college-letter jacket he lived in. It was a lucky jacket. If one looked real closely at the right-hand pocket, a small gather of thread about the size of a bullet stuck out there. There had been no Bible carried in Cam Daggett's pocket on the day he had been shot at, but instead an autographed baseball he had intended to present to his son on the boy's fifth birthday. The baseball now resided on Duncan's shelf, the hollow-point slug lodged deeply within it, and Duncan wore the jacket whenever possible. Daggett's friends called him Michigan, not people like Backman.

"If you think Bernard can get you Kort, you're dreaming," Daggett said. "The Germans shouldn't have gone ahead with the bust. How many times did we discuss that with them? Kort would have shown up sooner or later. ... There would have been a lead of some sort. We're fucked. We'll never get him now."


"Bernard won't know squat about Kort. We don't know squat about Kort. A name, that's all. What else do we have? No face to attach to it, no file. Just the name from an untrustworthy squeal. We put too much faith in that in the first place. Who knows if there even is an Anthony Kort?" Depression caved in on him. The air in the car had gone impossibly stale.

"Of course Kort exists," Backman said angrily. "You know that as well as I." But you could hear in his voice that he didn't believe it.

"He's a starting point," Backman insisted, grasping at straws. "In all likelihood, Bernard built a detonator in his Los Angeles hotel room. Right? And now, thanks to you, we have no idea where that detonator is! If we did, we might find Kort yet."

The Los Angeles Field Office had fouled up the Bernard surveillance, not Daggett. As the case-agent-in-charge, he was only indirectly responsible. It was a cheap shot and both men knew it.

Daggett argued, "We don't know that Bernard built a detonator. We don't know shit. And if you think he's just going to offer up the information—"

"It's my interrogation, Michigan. Mine, and mine alone. Got it?"

Bernard was Daggett's only hope. At all costs, Backman had to be prevented from conducting the interrogation. He reopened the car door, overwhelmed once again by the fumes. "Sixteen minutes." He still had a chance.

Attempting to sound calm, Backman said, "The Airport Police are on notice to keep that plane on the ground. The passengers will be told the delay is for mechanical reasons. Don't worry about it."

"You think a stunt like that will fool Bernard? You think the Airport Police can handle Bernard?" He slapped the car keys into Backman's damp, pudgy hand. "I'm going on foot."

"You're what?"

He hurried from the car before Backman could object.

To his complete surprise, only seconds into his run, he heard the heavy thump of a car door behind him, and knew without looking it was Backman. So it was going to be a race, was it? He lengthened his stride, lifted his chin, and pushed on toward the exit, far in the shimmering distance.

As Daggett ran, his body fell into the familiar rhythm, and his anger lifted. Running had a way of cleansing him, even in the heat and smog of Washington in August. Running to the airport, to an interrogation—how was that for dedication to the job? If the boys in the bullpen ever found out, he was sure to be razzed. At least he was running away from Backman—that much was in his favor.

His gun thumped at his waist annoyingly. A dozen sea gulls flew overhead, in search of landfill to plunder. Maybe one of them would shit on Backman.

Soaking wet with perspiration, Daggett reached the dingy Airport Police office on the ground floor of Terminal One, where he was greeted by two men in permanent-press suits who introduced themselves as detectives. Airport Police, a private company, had no legitimate connection to the metropolitan police force. These men were not detectives.

The security at any major airport consisted of a cruel assortment of various levels of authority. Metropolitan Police—real cops—had the power to arrest; their presence was typically small, confined to a half-dozen cars and twice that many men; city budgets didn't allow for the policing of airports on a large scale. That task was passed on to Airport Police, a private company that had the authority and necessary licenses for their patrolmen to carry arms, though these patrolmen could only detain individuals for later arrest by the proper metropolitan boys. Airport Police ran about a hundred men and women. Security, the people in blazers at X-ray machines, represented yet another private contract. They had virtually no authority, other than to search personal property; they passed their problem passengers into the hands of Airport Police, who then passed them on to Metropolitan Police. Communication between these various private and public organizations was as good as could be expected. That bad.

The FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and a half-dozen other investigative agencies fit into this command structure somewhere so difficult to define that they were viewed both suspiciously and often with a good deal of contempt by the private companies. Daggett felt this fully as he reached out his hand, and the two men facing him shook it reluctantly.

Following these uncomfortable introductions, they all headed off at a brisk pace toward the gate. By the sound of his voice and the color of his teeth, the taller of the two was a smoker. He didn't offer a name. Daggett sensed immediately that these guys carried chips on their shoulders. They acted nervous and falsely overconfident. The Smoker was gravel-voiced and rough-skinned; he moved frantically, gesticulating wildly, the kind of man who probably ground his teeth in his sleep.

His sidekick—Daggett thought he heard the name as Henderson but wasn't sure—looked like an Italian version of the Leakey ape. He was hard-featured and stood firmly planted in well-worn shoes. He had almost no hair. Daggett saw him not as Henderson, but as Hairless. He had the look of a veteran field agent, stoic and inquisitive, the kind to ask questions, not answer them.

The airport was old. The basement corridor connecting the terminals was walled with a red carpet wainscoting. The ceiling was yellowing acoustical tile, the floor linoleum. A few brightly lit and recently remodeled concession areas seemed incongruous with their surroundings.

They climbed the unmoving steps of a broken escalator and approached the security check. "You're going to have to leave your piece with one of our boys at the security check. It takes a fucking mountain of paperwork to carry past the checks." The Smoker pointed to an armed cop in uniform who stood off to the side, intentionally distancing himself from the people who ran the X-ray machines and conveyor belt. "He's ours," the Smoker said, as if Daggett cared. All Daggett could think of was Bernard on that plane. "The blue coats are Security," he added distastefully. Daggett handed the cop his weapon, and the three hurried on.

The Smoker explained in his sandpaper voice, "We've got both the terminal and the plane covered. Six people in place: two women as flight attendants, a passenger in row nineteen, two maintenance guys, and a baggage handler." He paused. Daggett was thinking: And a partridge in a pear tree. This guy was full of self-importance. "Bernard's in eighteen-B—window exit to his left. We're told he bought both seats. I suppose that window exit is his way out if he needs one." He paused. "Don't worry; we got it covered."

The gate drew closer. Daggett's throat was dry and his heart was still pounding hard from the run. A commotion erupted behind them. It was Bob Backman. He looked as if he'd been swimming with his clothes on. He was refusing to surrender his gun.

Daggett said, "He's ours," mimicking the Smoker's expression, but in a tone of voice that disowned Backman.

The Smoker returned to Security to straighten it out.

Hairless spoke for the first time. "Security don't like us much. The feeling is mutual."

Backman reluctantly surrendered his weapon. Hairless, who didn't seem to miss much, was the first to spot Backman's wing tips. He nudged the Smoker and pointed out the shoes, which instantly reestablished the chain of command. Only desk jocks wore wing tips. Daggett wore a pair of scuffed Rockports. "Let's go," Backman said anxiously, taking the lead position. A fat duck in a drenched pinstripe.

The Smoker flashed his badge at the gate. They went down the hot jetway at something close to a run, Backman wheezing.

Daggett ducked through the plane's entry hatch, fourth in line behind Hairless. They hurried past a nervous steward. "We'll be out of your way in a minute," Backman said, trying to sound in control, but he was clearly uncomfortable here.

As a group, they quickly moved down the aisle. Inquisitive faces rose to greet them, some sensing excitement, others expressing a mixture of curiosity and sudden fright.

To Daggett they were the faces of the innocent, faces with lives behind them—and hopefully ahead of them. Faces of people like his parents and his boy.

With their approach, a man in row 19 rose and stepped into the aisle, blocking it. A flight attendant, a woman with hard eyes and gray-flecked hair, came up the aisle immediately behind him. Two of the Smoker's people, Daggett assumed. Bernard was now at the center of a well-executed squeeze play with nowhere to go. The emergency exit to the wing was effectively blocked by two "maintenance mechanics." Beautiful—like when the shortstop stepped up to take over second base in time to trap the steal. Daggett loved to see runners pinned; the "pickle" was one of his favorite plays of the game.

The Smoker's calm was impressive. Daggett heard some soft talking and saw Bernard's upraised palms as he was carefully drawn from the seat, patted down and advised to cooperate. Hairless quickly extricated his hardshell carry-on briefcase. Everyone's attention was fixed on the scene, heads craned.

Suddenly, Bernard's eyes caught Daggett's and their gazes locked. Daggett thought this must be the sensation a hunter feels as the animal lifts its head, suddenly alert to the hunter's presence.

Daggett knew this face all too well: he had lived with it for months. Bernard was dark-haired, with gray eyes, not quite handsome, just the kind of unremarkable countenance easily forgotten by even those who prided themselves on being observant. A vein pulsed strongly in his forehead. His occupation had cost him: His left hand was missing two fingers. But it wasn't the man's face, or his missing fingers that Daggett remembered. It was the black-and-white photographs of his work—the demolished restaurants, the aircraft, a half-dozen vehicles. A body count in the hundreds.

A monster.

The group filed out in professional silence. Daggett and Backman had their handguns returned to them at the security check.

The five men rode in the back of a Marriott food service van to a dull green building that seemed abandoned. A narrow hallway that smelled of grease and sweat led them to a windowless room that the Smoker had chosen for the interrogation. Daggett had a bad feeling about this room. Something terrible was about to happen.

Gunmetal desks in various states of disrepair, stacked three high, occupied most of the small room. A black, oily residue crusted the dysfunctional ventilation grate. The stale, dead air and the thick dust that rose with each footstep hazed the room in a curtain of gray, increasing Daggett's sense of claustrophobia. His throat went powder dry. The stifling heat prickled his skin and scalp, and he longed to be anywhere but here.

A handcuffed Bernard was seated in a chair in the center of the room. Hairless, the Smoker, and Daggett pulled a desk from the corner and used it as a bench, like fans in the bleachers. Backman wormed his sweaty hands together and glowered, pacing in front of Bernard like a man attempting a stage audition. He looked more suited for the role of headwaiter than cop.

"We've read you your rights. You're lucky to have them. Officially, you're being detained under the Terrorism Act of 1988. It gives us some rather broad powers, Bernard. Perhaps you're familiar with it?" He added, "You seem like a reasonable man."

Daggett cringed with the line. The Smoker lit a cigarette and exhaled toward the grate. The smoke mushroomed into an enormous cone and seemed to hang in the air. Hairless cleaned his impeccably clean nails with a penknife.

Backman tried again. "I can see what you're thinking. You're thinking that maybe it's not so bad you were caught here in the United States. After all, we guarantee due process even to international terrorists. You're thinking that on the federal level we haven't used the death penalty in decades, that if you remain silent and wait me out, some crafty attorney may take your case just for the publicity. What the fuck? Maybe somebody'll turn you into a TV movie, right?" It was true. Bernard displayed a disturbing confidence. Where did such monsters come from? Justice for a man like Bernard came at the end of a weapon. No jury. No trial. Two or three randomly placed shots and the excuse the man had tried to escape.

"Don't even think about it," Hairless whispered. He went back to his nails like an old lady at the hair salon.

Daggett realized that his hand was on his weapon. It was as if that hand didn't belong to him. He withdrew it, leaving the gun in the holster, and nodded as if he understood; but he didn't. Who was he becoming? What had this investigation done to him?

Backman continued, "What you probably aren't aware of is that two years ago Scotland Yard lifted a partial print from EuroTours flight ten twenty-three. A piece of your handiwork."

Daggett cringed. This was just the kind of technical information they should protectively guard at all costs. You tell a person like Bernard this, and if he should get word to his people, no one in Der Grund will ever make this same mistake again. In point of fact, the tiny partial print in question had required four weeks of sifting through rubble to locate, another ten months to identify, an identification that, because the print was only a partial, would not be considered hard evidence by any court of law, but was nonetheless one those in law enforcement felt could be trusted. Backman had stupidly volunteered this information. "Sir," Daggett interrupted, quickly silenced by Backman's harsh expression.

Backman continued, "We know what you were up to in your Los Angeles hotel room."

That snapped Bernard's head. He was losing his confidence. His eyes began blinking quickly.

Backman paced. "One thing you don't know," he said, "is that Daggett's parents and little boy were on flight ten twenty-three." The Smoker and Hairless looked over and stared at Daggett in disbelief.

Bernard also glanced at him, but showed no remorse whatsoever.

"I could leave you and Daggett alone for a few minutes," Backman suggested, his implication obvious but again ineffective. There would be no rough play in a dingy room at National Airport. It just wasn't done that way.

"You have an offer to make?" Bernard asked Backman a little too quickly, a little too hopefully.

Backman asked, "What if there is no deal? What if we're merely awaiting the papers to deport you? Ten-twenty-three was British. You realize that, don't you?"

The roar of a jet taking off made it feel hotter. Daggett loosened his tie further.

"You want that again?" Backman asked with an authority he had previously lacked. Daggett sensed the man's rebound. Backman, it suddenly seemed, was not weak but merely soft. Out of practice. He seized the moment effectively by asking the Smoker for a cigarette, as if he had all the time in the world. He didn't smoke, but Bernard didn't know this.

Bernard repeated, "There is or is not an offer?"

A sharp knock on the door shattered the resulting silence. The Smoker rose and opened it, spoke to an unseen person in a hushed voice, and then pulled the man's briefcase through. He closed the door. Daggett came off the table as the Smoker placed the briefcase at Bernard's feet. Backman said, "Your briefcase. Shall we have a look-see?"

They knew what was inside: deutsche marks. But to what purpose? A payoff? Financing? This briefcase had been a vital part of their investigation. What was Backman doing?

"You are not going to open that," Daggett stated. "Are you forgetting this man's occupation?"

"It was X-rayed," the Smoker said. "Twice. No sign of any wiring. No explosives. It's been cleared: we have nothing to worry about."

"Has it been sniffed? Has it been checked with ultrasound? That bag should be handled by the bomb squad. That bag has been on the move since—" He caught himself before making the same mistakes Backman had made. He dried his palms on his pants legs. He was terrified. His eyes jumped between that bag and Bernard.

"Put yourself in his position," Daggett said, stepping close to Backman. "What if the suitcase is rigged? Unless he cuts himself one hell of a deal, he faces life imprisonment, at best. But what if he could take out the chief of C-three and the investigator responsible for ten twenty-three all in one move? What kind of a hero would that make him?"

"A dead hero," Backman said, unimpressed. "No one kills himself over principles anymore, Daggett. Use your head." He bent down toward the bag and released one of its two latches.

Daggett jumped forward and pushed him away from the bag. Backman slipped, reached for purchase, but fell to the dirty floor. His weight gave him trouble getting back to his feet. It was a pitiful attempt. Daggett offered his hand, but Backman refused any help. It took him several, embarrassingly long, seconds to return to his feet. "Get out of here, both of you," Daggett shouted at the two others.

When the Smoker didn't move, Daggett added, "Now!" his focus still on the briefcase. Hairless pushed his friend quickly out the door.

Backman mopped his face with his handkerchief. "That was a stupid thing to do, Michigan. Really fucking stupid. That's going to cost you, big time."

Bernard said nothing. His attention remained fixed on the briefcase with its one open latch.

"You can order me to leave this room with you. Right? You can report me. Christ, you can probably get me fired."

"Damn right I can."

"So do it! Come on, let's go. Your only witnesses are getting away."

Backman pouted his lips and nodded. "Okay, I guess you're right." He took a step toward the door. Then, abandoning his ruse, he threw his weight into Daggett and knocked him off his feet.

Daggett hit the floor hard, slid, and careened into the door.

Backman lumbered back to the briefcase and struggled with the other latch.

Bernard glanced up hotly and looked at Daggett with dark, wet eyes.


On Sale
Aug 14, 2012
Page Count
416 pages
Hachette Books

Ridley Pearson

About the Author

Ridley Pearson is the award-winning co-author, along with Dave Barry, of Peter and the Starcatchers, Peter and the Shadow Thieves, Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, Peter and the Sword of Mercy, Escape From the Carnivale, Cave of the Dark Wind, Blood Tide, and Science Fair. In addition to Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark, Kingdom Keepers: Disney at Dawn, Kingdom Keepers: Disney in Shadow, and Kingdom Keepers: Power Play, he is also the author of the young adult thrillers Steel Trapp: The Challenge and Steel Trapp: The Academy. He has written more than twenty best-selling crime novels, including Killer View and Killer Weekend. He was the first American to be awarded the Raymond Chandler/Fulbright Fellowship in Detective Fiction at Oxford University.

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