For the members of International Thriller Writers
NORMALLY, I’M NOT MUCH OF a joiner. But back in 2005, when I was asked to be part of a fledging group of writers who were forming a new association, I immediately said yes. It was called International Thriller Writers (ITW), and the whole idea intrigued me. Finally, an organization devoted entirely to the thriller genre. I signed up, becoming a founding member. I was so onboard I accepted a position on the first board of directors, then, a few years after that, served as copresident. I have to say, I’ve enjoyed every minute of my involvement. So when I was asked to be the editor of this anthology, I jumped at the chance.
Everything about ITW is different. Its motto is a warning to itself. When we imitate we fail. One of the organization’s greatest innovations was the elimination of dues to its members. Full membership (available to working thriller writers) has long been free. To support itself, ITW publishes anthologies. It began with Thriller (2006), edited by James Patterson, the first collection of thriller short stories ever, now regarded as one of the largest-selling anthologies of all time. Thriller 2 came in 2009, edited by Clive Cussler, then Love Is Murder in 2012, edited by Sandra Brown. In between those was a young-adult volume Fear (2010), spearheaded by R. L. Stine. ITW also made a name for itself in audio with The Chopin Manuscript (2007), edited by Jeffery Deaver, which won the Best Audio of the Year, and The Copper Bracelet released in 2009.
Then came FaceOff.
The pairing of branded writers, along with their iconic characters, in the same story. Twenty-three contributors, eleven adventures. Published in 2014, FaceOff became a New York Times bestseller. The idea was so popular that we try it again with eleven new pairs of branded writers, together with their iconic characters.
Only this time it’s male versus female.
And what fun.
The following pages are filled with some wonderfully unique tales. Once-in-a-lifetime pairings. Where else would Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone enter the magical world of Diana Gabaldon? Or my character, Jack Reacher, square off with Kathy Reich’s incomparable Temperance Brennan? Then there’s Lisa Scottoline’s feisty Philadelphia lawyer, Bennie Rosato’s, chance encounter with Nelson DeMille’s former-NYPD homicide detective, John Corey.
Eleven unique tales.
All a joy to read.
Each is preceded by an intro where I detail the process the team went through in melding their different characters. Many of the teams had never met each other before. None had ever written together. This is truly a novel experience—for both the writers and the readers. At the end are bios on the contributors, a chance for you to learn more about these amazingly talented individuals.
So settle in.
SANDRA BROWN AND C. J. BOX
SANDRA BROWN BEGAN WRITING IN 1981. Before that she worked as a model and in television, including weathercasting and feature reporting on the nationally syndicated program PM Magazine. And though she’s published over seventy novels, with over eighty million copies in print worldwide, she admits to one handicap.
She’s short story challenged.
“It’s just not something I’ve written a whole lot of,” she says.
Luckily, C. J. Box does not suffer from that affliction, which made him the perfect partner for Sandra. Chuck is a Wyoming native and has worked as a ranch hand, surveyor, fishing guide, and small-town newspaper reporter, and he’s even owned an international tourism marketing firm. He has over twenty novels to his credit, and short stories are not unfamiliar. He also has a character, Joe Pickett, so the idea was to connect Sandra’s Lee Coburn with Pickett. By a stroke of great luck, at the end of Sandra’s 2011 novel Lethal, Coburn ended up in, of all places, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Which is Joe Pickett country.
Talk about fate.
Everything just got easier after that.
Together, Sandra and Chuck plotted the story. Then Chuck wrote the first draft and sent it to Sandra for an edit and rewrite. They went back and forth, until both were pleased with the outcome. Chuck’s comment summed it all up.
“Sandra was a dream to work with it.”
You’re going to like this unexpected encounter between two of the most rugged protagonists out there today. Both harken back to another time, and the story’s title poses an interesting question.
Honor & . . .
HONOR & . . .
WHEN JOE PICKETT SET OUT that morning, he hadn’t anticipated coming face-to-face with a killing machine.
It was an unseasonably warm late-September day. As a favor to another game warden, Joe was scouting the western slope of the Gros Ventre Range above Jackson Hole, deep in the black timber.
When he heard the staccato series of high snapping sounds in the distance, he reined his gelding Rojo to a stop and leaned forward in the saddle to listen with his head turned slightly to the southeast, the direction from which he thought the sounds had come.
For a time all Joe heard were Rojo’s snuffles and snorts as he caught his breath after their hard climb. Then, two heavy booms rolled through the trees at ground level, and Joe realized that what had started out as a routine day had turned potentially dangerous—for three reasons.
First, the sounds weren’t natural. It was a popular misconception that the mountain forests were silent because there were few people in them. Fact was, the wilderness was a riot of noise. Elk, moose, and grizzly and black bears broke through tree limbs and sometimes knocked over dead trees, not so much walking through the brush as crashing through it. Add to their racket chattering squirrels, shrieking hawks, and wolves and coyotes howling at a pitch that seemed designed to curdle human blood, and the mountains became damned noisy.
But there was a natural rhythm to the cacophony.
What Joe had heard intruded on that natural rhythm in a way that set his senses on high alert.
Second, the source of the sounds was curious. He was nearly sure he’d heard a flurry of semiautomatic gunshots from multiple weapons fired at once, followed by a pause. Then came the two heavy, high-caliber shots.
It didn’t compute.
He was well schooled on the firing sequences of hunters after big game. True sportsmen prided themselves on expending as few bullets as possible. It was about the hunt, and accuracy, not raking an animal with gunfire that would spoil the meat. Besides that, the opening of elk season on this particular mountain range was a week away.
Last, the area was remote and without roads. Down in the valley were thousands of rental cabins, camping sites, and hotels, all easily accessible. But it took an effort to get up here, this high in the mountains, and no one would go to the trouble without good reason.
The lawman in him wondered what that reason could be.
Of course, he could just leave it alone. This wasn’t even his district. The only reason he was in Teton County was because the local game warden, Bill Long, had asked him to help check on remote elk hunting camps because he couldn’t get to all of them before opening day.
Joe was granting the favor, partially in order to give his family—wife, Marybeth, and teenage daughters, Sheridan, Lucy, and April—a minivacation. Gauging by the number of shopping bags that were piling up in the corner of their hotel room, Joe figured he would lose money on the deal rather than make a little extra, but there were so few perks for his family in his line of work that if he could treat them to a few days in Jackson Hole, he was happy to do it.
He could report hearing the distant gunfire to
Bill Long, who might even know who was responsible for it and have a logical explanation.
Or maybe not.
But Bill definitely wouldn’t want him to wade into a potentially dangerous situation on an unfamiliar mountain without backup or local support. So maybe he should—
Another heavy shot.
And it came with the abrupt, brutal, closed-in point-blank sound of a bullet hitting flesh, which carried a completely different sound than a miss.
It was a game changer.
He turned his horse toward the southeast, did a mental inventory of his shotgun in its saddle scabbard and handgun in its holster, clicked his tongue, and said, “Let’s go, Rojo.”
He could smell the camp before he could see it. Clinging to the brush and evergreen boughs was the stale odor of grease from cooking fires mixed with the sweat of dirty men.
That, and the smell of gunpowder.
It was the smell of a hundred elk camps Joe had entered over the years.
Without warning Rojo snorted and balked. The horse detected something ahead that Joe hadn’t noticed.
He urged him on.
Entering a wilderness campsite for the first time was always fraught with tension. Small, bonded groups enjoyed getting away from it all. Inside the camp were guns, alcohol, and as often as not, clouds of testosterone. The last thing hunters wanted to see was a representative of the Game and Fish Department asking them questions and checking licenses and permits. And the last thing Joe wanted to do was surprise them or appear threatening, because he was always outnumbered and outgunned.
It was part of the job.
“Hello, there,” he called out. “Just your friendly neighborhood game warden here.”
There was no response, although Joe thought he heard footfalls through the brush on the far side of the camp. Someone running away?
“Hello?” he called out again.
Rojo walked forward, taking halting steps. Joe sat tall in the saddle and didn’t look down as he untied a leather string that secured the butt of his shotgun in its scabbard. He hoped he wouldn’t have to pull it out.
He pushed through the trees into a rough clearing and took it in all at once. Four dirty wall tents, stumps where trees had been cut down, camp chairs for sitting, a large blackened fire ring that was still smoldering, and trash strewn everywhere. It was a crude and dirty camp, he thought, something out of the Gold Rush days or built by mountain men just before the winter roared in. He decided he didn’t much like the people in the camp. They had little respect for the wilderness and practiced poor camp hygiene.
Walls of trees surrounded the clearing. Beyond them the mountains rose vertically in three directions to their treeless summits. Granite outcroppings pierced through the trees like knuckles, a few of them topped with massive eagle nests. Just inside the tree line were a small mountain of coolers and cartons of canned food. A yellow Gadsden DON’T TREAD ON ME flag with a coiled rattlesnake hung from a crooked flagpole made of a bark-stripped lodgepole pine. On the far side of the clearing was the framing and half walls of a large log building still under construction. The walls were no more than four feet high. It looked like a crude open shoebox. Hand tools—axes, saws—leaned against the outside of the structure.
What appeared to be a bundle of dirty clothing was lying half in, half out of the open framed door of the log building. Only when he rode closer did he realize it was the body of a bearded man with wide-open eyes and a bullet hole in the center of his forehead.
The body was twitching in what might be death throes, and the smell of gunpowder hung bitter in the still air.
The fatal wound was that recent—the kill shot Joe had heard.
He tried to keep his heart from racing by placing his right hand over his breast pocket and pressing.
It didn’t help.
He cleared the shotgun from the scabbard before dismounting and walked Rojo across the opening to tie the gelding up to a dead tree. Rojo was understandably spooked and he wanted his horse to stay put. Before calling in the incident to dispatch on the handheld radio or the satellite phone—both of which he’d left back in his saddlebag on the horse—Joe wanted to check on the condition of the victim in the doorway.
He took a deep breath and raised his gaze up above the treetops as he walked across the clearing toward the fallen man. The hair on the back of his neck was standing up. He could see no movement on the mountainsides or even an eaglet poking its head up in one of the nests. But he had the feeling—and it was only a feeling—that he was being observed from above.
Maybe whoever had shot the man and run off had come back?
He leaned his shotgun against the log wall and squatted next to the gunshot victim. He was grateful to be low and out of sight, on the other side of the building.
He reached out and pressed his fingertips to the man’s dirty neck. No pulse. The victim was indeed dead now and completely still. His gray eyes were staring but unseeing, and a single black trail of blood from the bullet hole had congealed on his face next to his nose. Joe wanted to close the man’s eyes but not badly enough to touch him again.
The dead man stank as if he’d been wearing the same clothes—greasy jeans, heavy boots, layers of undershirts, shirts, and Dickies denim jacket—for weeks. His skin was ashen and his beard was long and unkempt. He studied the body and noticed the glint of a steel rifle muzzle protruding an inch from beneath the man’s shoulder. Obviously, he’d fallen on top of his weapon and it was pinned beneath him.
The muzzle was equipped with a tubular conical guard. A military feature used to reduce the flash of a shot, not an accessory needed by hunters. Just like the camp didn’t look or feel like a typical elk camp, the victim didn’t appear to have been an ordinary hunter.
Joe had never run across hunters who erected log buildings or raised flags.
What was going on here?
He knew he shouldn’t move the body before he photographed it or before a Teton County forensics tech arrived. He couldn’t determine if the man had been murdered while standing in the doorway and collapsed on his rifle, or some other scenario. And he wondered if the rifle pinned below the body had been the one he’d heard firing multiple times before the three heavy booms. It certainly looked like the kind of military-style black rifle chambered-in .223 that would make the snapping sound he’d heard.
Maybe, he thought, he’d been mistaken about the number of guns firing prior to the heavy booms. Maybe the dead man had fired his rifle as fast as he could pull the trigger and the shots had echoed around on top of one another until it sounded like multiple shooters.
But who was the victim shooting at?
And who had put a bullet hole through his head?
As he grasped the log wall to push himself back to his feet, Rojo suddenly snorted and reared behind him. He wheeled around to see his horse pull back in sudden fright and with enough momentum to pull the dead tree it was tied to on top of him. The trunk largely missed Rojo but several spindly branches raked the horse’s haunches as it fell. Rojo, white-eyed with terror, bolted across the clearing in the direction from which they’d come.
“Stop,” Joe yelled.
He watched helplessly as his horse—stirrups flapping on the sides and reins dancing in the air behind its mane—vanished into the northern wall of trees. He took a few steps toward where Rojo had gone, but pulled up short. He’d never run down his gelding. He could only hope that the horse wouldn’t go far and that he could catch him later.
That’s when he felt a presence on his left, an anomaly set against the dark of the trees.
A man had emerged from the timber.