Echo Burningpart #5 of Jack Reacher Series by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime
There were three watchers, two men and a boy. They were using telescopes, not field glasses. It was a question of distance. They were almost a mile from their target area, because of the terrain. There was no closer cover. It was low, undulating country, burned khaki by the sun, grass and rock and sandy soil alike. The nearest safe concealment was the broad dip they were in, a bone-dry gulch scraped out a million years ago by a different climate, when there had been rain and ferns and rushing rivers.
The men lay prone in the dust with the early heat on their backs, their telescopes at their eyes. The boy scuttled around on his knees, fetching water from the cooler, watching for waking rattlesnakes, logging comments in a notebook. They had arrived before first light in a dusty pick-up truck, the long way around, across the empty land from the west. They had thrown a dirty tarpaulin over the truck and held it down with rocks. They had eased forward to the rim of the dip and settled in, raising their telescopes as the low morning sun dawned to the east behind the red house almost a mile away. This was Friday, their fifth consecutive morning, and they were low on conversation.
"Time?" one of the men asked. His voice was nasal, the effect of keeping one eye open and the other eye shut.
The boy checked his watch.
"Six-fifty," he answered.
"Any moment now," the man with the telescope said.
The boy opened his book and prepared to make the same notes he had made four times before.
"Kitchen light on," the man said.
The boy wrote it down. 6:50, kitchen light on. The kitchen faced them, looking west away from the morning sun, so it stayed dark even after dawn.
"On her own?" the boy asked.
"Same as always," the second man said, squinting.
Maid prepares breakfast, the boy wrote. Target still in bed. The sun rose, inch by inch. It jacked itself higher into the sky and pulled the shadows shorter and shorter. The red house had a tall chimney coming out of the kitchen wing like the finger on a sundial. The shadow it made swung and shortened and the heat on the watchers' shoulders built higher. Seven o'clock in the morning, and it was already hot. By eight, it would be burning. By nine, it would be fearsome. And they were there all day, until dark, when they could slip away unseen.
"Bedroom drapes opening," the second man said. "She's up and about. "
The boy wrote it down. 7:04, bedroom drapes open.
"Now listen," the first man said.
They heard the well pump kick in, faintly from almost a mile away. A quiet mechanical click, and then a steady low drone.
"She's showering," the man said.
The boy wrote it down. 7:06, target starts to shower.
The men rested their eyes. Nothing was going to happen while she was in the shower. How could it? They lowered their telescopes and blinked against the brassy sun in their eyes. The well pump clicked off after six minutes. The silence sounded louder than the faint noise had. The boy wrote: 7:12, target out of shower. The men raised their telescopes again.
"She's dressing, I guess," the first man said.
The boy giggled. "Can you see her naked?"
The second man was triangulated twenty feet to the south. He had the better view of the back of the house, where her bedroom window was.
"You're disgusting," he said. "You know that?"
The boy wrote: 7:15, probably dressing. Then: 7:20, probably downstairs, probably eating breakfast.
"She'll go back up, brush her teeth," he said.
The man on the left shifted on his elbows. "For sure," he said. "Prissy little thing like that. "
"She's closing her drapes again," the man on the right said.
It was standard practice in the west of Texas, in the summer, especially if your bedroom faced south, like this one did. Unless you wanted to sleep the next night in a room hotter than a pizza oven.
"Stand by," the man said. "A buck gets ten she goes out to the barn now. " It was a wager that nobody took, because so far four times out of four she had done exactly that, and watchers are paid to notice patterns. "Kitchen door's open. " The boy wrote: 7:27, kitchen door opens. "Here she comes. "
She came out, dressed in a blue gingham dress that reached to her knees and left her shoulders bare. Her hair was tied back behind her head. It was still damp from the shower.
"What do you call that sort of a dress?" the boy asked.
"Halter," the man on the left said.
7:28, comes out, blue halter dress, goes to barn, the boy wrote. She walked across the yard, short hesitant steps against the uneven ruts in the baked earth, maybe seventy yards. She heaved the barn door open and disappeared in the gloom inside.
The boy wrote: 7:29, target in barn. "How hot is it?" the man on the left asked.
"Maybe a hundred degrees," the boy said. "There'll be a storm soon. Heat like this, there has to be. "
"Here comes her ride," the man on the right said.
Miles to the south, there was a dust cloud on the road. A vehicle, making slow and steady progress north.
"She's coming back," the man on the right said. 7'32, target comes out of barn, the boy wrote. "Maid's at the door," the man said.
The target stopped at the kitchen door and took her lunch box from the maid. It was bright blue plastic with a cartoon picture on the side. She paused for a second. Her skin was pink and damp from the heat. She leaned down to adjust her socks and then trotted out to the gate, through the gate, to the shoulder of the road. The school bus slowed and stopped and the door opened with a sound the watchers heard clearly over the faint rattle of the idling engine. The chrome handrails flashed once in the sun. The diesel exhaust hung and drifted in the hot still air. The target heaved her lunch box onto the step and grasped the bright rails and clambered up after it. The door closed again and the watchers saw her corn-colored head bobbing along level with the base of the windows. Then the engine noise deepened and the gears caught and the bus moved away with a new cone of dust kicking up behind it.
7:36, target on bus to school, the boy wrote.
The road north was dead straight and he turned his head and watched the bus all the way until the heat on the horizon broke it up into a shimmering yellow mirage. Then he closed his notebook and secured it with a rubber band. Back at the red house, the maid stepped inside and closed the kitchen door. Nearly a mile away, the watchers lowered their telescopes and turned their collars up for protection from the sun.
Seven thirty-seven, Friday morning.
* * *
Seven thirty-nine, more than three hundred miles to the north and east, Jack Reacher climbed out of his motel room window. One minute earlier, he had been in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. One minute before that, he had opened the door of his room to check the morning temperature. He had left it open, and the closet just inside the entrance passageway was faced with mirrored glass, and there was a shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm, and by a freak of optical chance he caught sight of four men getting out of a car and walking toward the motel office. Pure luck, but a guy as vigilant as Jack Reacher gets lucky more times than the average.
The car was a police cruiser. It had a shield on the door, and because of the bright sunlight and the double reflection he could read it clearly. At the top it said CITY POLICE, and then there was a fancy medallion in the middle with LUB-BOCK, TEXAS written underneath. All four men who got out were in uniform. They had bulky belts with guns and radios and nightsticks and handcuffs. Three of the men he had never seen before, but the fourth guy was familiar. The fourth guy was a tall heavyweight with a gelled blond brush-cut above a meaty red face. This morning the meaty red face was partially obscured by a glinting aluminum splint carefully taped over a shattered nose. His right hand was similarly bound up with a splint and bandages protecting a broken forefinger.
The guy had neither injury the night before. And Reacher had no idea the guy was a cop. He just looked like some idiot in a bar. Reacher had gone there because he heard the music was good, but it wasn't, so he had backed away from the band and ended up on a bar stool watching ESPN on a muted television fixed high on a wall. The place was crowded and noisy, and he was wedged in a space with a woman on his right and the heavyweight guy with the brush-cut on his left. He got bored with the sports and turned around to watch the room. As he turned, he saw how the guy was eating.
The guy was wearing a white tank-top shirt and he was eating chicken wings. The wings were greasy and the guy was a slob. He was dripping chicken fat off his chin and off his fingers onto his shirt. There was a dark teardrop shape right between his pecs. It was growing and spreading into an impressive stain. But the best barroom etiquette doesn't let you linger on such a sight, and the guy caught Reacher staring.
"Who you looking at?" he said.
It was said low and aggressively, but Reacher ignored it.
"Who you looking at?" the guy said again.
Reacher's experience was, they say it once, maybe nothing's going to happen. But they say it twice, then trouble's on the way. Fundamental problem is, they take a lack of response as evidence that you're worried. That they're winning. But then, they won't let you answer, anyway.
"You looking at me?" the guy said.
"No," Reacher answered.
"Don't you be looking at me, boy," the guy said.
The way he said boy made Reacher think he was maybe a foreman in a lumber mill or a cotton operation. Whatever muscle work was done around Lub-bock. Some kind of a traditional trade passed down through the generations. Certainly the word cop never came to his mind. But then, he was relatively new to Texas.
"Don't you look at me," the guy said.
Reacher turned his head and looked at him. Not really to antagonize the guy. Just to size him up. Life is endlessly capable of surprises, so he knew one day he would come face to face with his physical equal. With somebody who might worry him. But he looked and saw this wasn't the day. So he just smiled and looked away again.
Then the guy jabbed him with his finger.
"I told you not to look at me," he said, and jabbed.
It was a meaty forefinger and it was covered in grease. It left a definite mark on Reacher's shirt.
"Don't do that," Reacher said.
The guy jabbed again.
"Or what?" he said. "You want to make something out of it?"
Reacher looked down. Now there were two marks. The guy jabbed again. Three jabs, three marks. Reacher clamped his teeth. What were three greasy marks on a shirt? He started a slow count to ten. Then the guy jabbed again, before he even reached eight.
"You deaf?" Reacher said. "I told you not to do that. "
"You want to do something about it?"
"No," Reacher said. "I really don't. I just want you to stop doing it, is all. "
The guy smiled. "Then you're a yellow-bellied piece of shit. "
"Whatever," Reacher said. "Just keep your hands off me. "
"Or what? What you going to do?"
Reacher restarted his count. Eight, nine.
"You want to take this outside?" the guy asked.
"Touch me again and you'll find out," Reacher said. "I warned you four times. "
The guy paused a second. Then, of course, he went for it again. Reacher caught the finger on the way in and snapped it at the first knuckle. Just folded it upward like he was turning a door handle. Then because he was irritated he leaned forward and headbutted the guy full in the face. It was a smooth move, well delivered, but it was backed off to maybe a half of what it might have been. No need to put a guy in a coma, over four grease marks on a shirt. He moved a pace to give the man room to fall, and backed into the woman on his right.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he said.
The woman nodded vaguely, disoriented by the noise, concentrating on her drink, unaware of what was happening. The big guy thumped silently on the floorboards and Reacher used the sole of his shoe to roll him half onto his front. Then he nudged him under the chin with his toe to pull his head back and straighten his airway. The recovery position, paramedics call it. Stops you choking while you're out.
Then he paid for his drinks and walked back to his motel, and didn't give the guy another thought until he was at the bathroom mirror and saw him out and about in a cop's uniform. Then he thought hard, and as fast as he could.
He spent the first second calculating reflected angles and figuring if I can see him, does that mean he can see me? The answer was yes, of course he can. If he was looking the right way, which he wasn't yet. He spent the next second mad at himself. He should have picked up the signs. They had been there. Who else would be poking at a guy built like him, except somebody with some kind of protected status? Some kind of imagined invulnerability? He should have picked up on it.
So what to do? The guy was a cop on his own turf. And Reacher was an easily recognizable target. Apart from anything else he still had the four grease spots on his shirt, and a brand-new bruise on his forehead. There were probably forensics people who could match its shape to the bones in the guy's nose.
So what to do? An angry cop bent on revenge could cause trouble. A lot of trouble. A noisy public arrest, for sure, maybe some wild gunshots, definitely some four-on-one fun and games in an empty out-of-the-way cell down at the station house, where you can't fight back without multiplying your original legal problem. Then all kinds of difficult questions, because Reacher habitually carried no ID and nothing else at all except his toothbrush and a couple of thousand dollars cash in his pants pocket. So he would be regarded as a suspicious character. Almost certainly he'd be charged with attacking a law officer. That was probably a big deal in Texas. All kinds of witnesses would materialize to swear it was malicious and completely unprovoked. He could end up convicted and in the penitentiary, easy as anything. He could end up with seven-to-ten in some tough establishment. Which was definitely not number one on his wish list.
So discretion was going to be the better part of valor. He put his toothbrush in his pocket and walked through the room and opened the window. Undipped the screen and dropped it to the ground. Climbed out and closed the window and rested the screen back in its frame and walked away across a vacant lot to the nearest street. Turned right and kept on walking until he was hidden by a low building. He looked for buses. There weren't any. He looked for taxis. Nothing doing. So he stuck out his thumb. He figured he had ten minutes to find a ride before they finished at the motel and started cruising the streets. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen at the outside.
Which meant it wasn't going to work. It couldn't work. Seven thirty-nine in the morning, the temperature was already over a hundred degrees. It was going to be impossible to get a ride at all. In heat like that no driver on the planet would open their door long enough for him to slide right in, never mind for any long prior discussions about destinations. So finding a getaway in time was going to be impossible. Absolutely impossible. He started planning alternatives, because he was so sure of it. But it turned out he was wrong. It turned out his whole day was a series of surprises.
* * *
There were three killers, two men and a woman. They were an out-of-state professional crew, based in Los Angeles, contactable through an intermediary in Dallas and a second cut-out in Vegas. They had been in business ten years, and they were very good at what they did, which was take care of problems anywhere in the Southwest and survive to get paid and do it over again as many times as anybody asked them to. Ten years, and never once a hint of a problem. A good team. Meticulous, inventive, perfectionist. As good as it gets, in their strange little world. And perfectly suited to it. They were bland, forgettable, white, anonymous. To see them together, they looked like the branch office of a photocopier company on its way to a sales convention.
Not that they were ever seen together, except by their victims. They traveled separately. One always drove, and the other two flew, always by different routes. The driver was one of the men, because invisibility was their aim, and a woman driving a long distance alone was still slightly more memorable than a man. The car was always rented, always at LAX arrivals, which had the busiest rental counters in the world. It was always a generic family sedan, a mud-colored nothing car. The license and the credit card used to obtain it were always real, properly issued in a distant state to a person who had never existed. The driver would wait on the sidewalk and then line up when a busy flight was spilling out into baggage claim when he would be just one face among a hundred. He was small and dark and had a rolling duffel and a carry-on and a harassed expression, same as everybody else.
He did the paperwork at the counter and rode the bus to the rental compound and found his allotted car. He dumped his bags in the trunk, waited at the exit check, and drove out into the glare. He spent forty minutes on the freeways, driving a wide aimless circle around the whole of the metropolitan area, making sure he wasn't followed. Then he ducked off into West Hollywood and stopped at a lock-up garage in an alley behind a lingerie salon. He left the motor running and opened the garage door and opened the trunk and swapped his rolling duffel and his carry-on for two big valises made of thick black nylon. One of them was very heavy. The heavy valise was the reason he was driving, not flying. It contained things best kept away from airport scanners.
He closed up the garage and rolled east on Santa Monica Boulevard and turned south on 101 and hooked east again on 10. Squirmed in his seat and settled in for the two-day drive all the way out to Texas. He wasn't a smoker, but he lit numerous cigarettes and held them between his fingers and flicked ash on the carpets, on the dash, on the wheel. He let the cigarettes burn out and crushed the butts in the ashtray. That way, the rental company would have to vacuum the car very thoroughly, and spray it with air freshener, and wipe down the vinyl with detailing fluid. That would eliminate every trace of him later, including his fingerprints.
The second man was on the move, too. He was taller and heavier and fairer, but there was nothing memorable about him. He joined the end-of-the-work-day crush at LAX and bought a. ticket to Atlanta. When he got there, he swapped his wallet for one of the five spares in his carry-on and a completely different man bought another ticket for Dallas-Fort Worth.
The woman traveled a day later. That was her privilege, because she was the team leader. She was closing in on middle age, medium-sized, medium-blond. Nothing at all special about her, except she killed people for a living. She left her car in the LAX long-term parking, which wasn't dangerous because her car was registered to a Pasadena infant who had died of the measles thirty years previously. She rode the shuttle bus to the terminal and used a forged MasterCard to buy her ticket, and a genuine New York driver's license for photo ID at the gate. She boarded her plane about the time the driver was starting his second day on the road.
After his second stop for gas on the first day, he had made a detour into the New Mexico hills and found a quiet dusty shoulder where he squatted in the cool thin air and changed the car's California plates for Arizona plates, which he took from the heavier valise. He wound his way back to the highway and drove another hour, then pulled off the road and found a motel. He paid cash, used a Tucson address, and let the desk clerk copy the Arizona plate number onto the registration form.
He slept six hours with the room air on low and was back on the road early. Made it to Dallas-Fort Worth at the end of the second day and parked in the airport long-term lot. Took his valises with him and used the shuttle bus to departures. Took the moving stairs straight down to arrivals and lined up at the Hertz counter. Hertz, because they rent Fords, and he needed a Crown Victoria.
He did the paperwork, with Illinois ID. Rode the bus to the Hertz lot and found his car. It was the plain-jane Crown Vic, in steel blue metallic, neither light nor dark. He was happy with it. He heaved his bags into the trunk and drove to a motel near the new ballpark on the road from Fort Worth to Dallas. Checked in with the same Illinois ID, ate, and slept a few hours. He woke early and met his two partners in the fierce morning heat outside the motel at exactly the same moment Jack Reacher first stuck out his thumb, more than four hundred miles away in Lubbock.
* * *
Second surprise after the cop showing up was he got a ride within three minutes. He wasn't even sweating yet. His shirt was still dry. Third surprise was the driver who stopped for him was a woman. Fourth and biggest surprise of all was the direction their subsequent conversation took.
He had been hitching rides for the best part of twenty-five years, in more countries than he could easily recall, and three minutes was about the shortest interval between sticking out his thumb and climbing into a car he could remember. As a mode of transportation, hitching rides was dying out. That was his conclusion, based on a lot of experience. Commercial drivers had insurance problems with it, and private citizens were getting worried about it. Because who knew what kind of a psycho you were? And in Reacher's case, it was worse than the average, especially right then. He wasn't some dapper little guy, neat and inoffensive. He was a giant, six-five, heavily built, close to two hundred and fifty pounds. Up close, he was usually scruffy, usually unshaven, and his hair was usually a mess. People worried about him. They stayed away from him. And now he had the fresh new bruise on his forehead. Which was why he was surprised about the three minutes.
And why he was surprised about the woman driver. There's usually a pecking order, based on some kind of subconscious assessment of risk. Top of the list, a young girl will get a ride from an older man easiest of all, because where's the threat in that? Although now, with some of the young girls turning into scam artists wanting a hundred bucks in exchange for dropping fake molestation claims, even that is getting harder. And whatever, right down there at the bottom of the list is a big scruffy guy getting a ride from a neat slender woman in an expensive coupe. But it happened. Within three minutes.
He was hurrying south and west of the motel strip, stunned by the heat, hard to see in the jagged morning shadows, his left thumb jammed out urgently, when she pulled over at his side with the wet hiss of wide tires on hot pavement. It was a big white car and the sun on the hood dazzled him. He turned blindly and she buzzed her far window down. Seven forty-two, Friday morning.
"Where to?" she called, like she was a cab driver, not a private citizen.
"Anywhere," he said.
He regretted it, instantly. It was a dumb thing to say, because to have no specific destination usually makes things worse. They think you're some kind of an aimless drifter, which makes them suspicious, and makes them worried they might never get rid of you. Makes them worried you'll want to ride all the way home with them. But this woman just nodded.
"O. K. ," she said. "I'm headed down past Pecos. "
He paused a beat, surprised. Her head was ducked down, her face tilted up, looking out at him through the window.
"Great," he said.
He stepped off the curb and opened the door and slid inside. The interior was freezing cold. She had the air roaring on maximum and the seat was leather and it felt like a block of ice. She buzzed the window up again with the button on her side as he swung the door shut behind him.
"Thanks," he said. "You don't know how much I appreciate this. "
She said nothing. Just made some kind of all-purpose dismissive gesture away from him as she craned to look over her shoulder at the traffic stream behind her. People have their reasons for giving rides, all of them different. Maybe they hitched a lot when they were younger and now they're settled and comfortable they want to put back what they took out. Like a circular thing. Maybe they have charitable natures. Or maybe they're just lonely and want a little conversation.
But if this woman wanted conversation she was in no kind of a hurry to get it started. She just waited for a couple of trucks to labor past and pulled out behind them without a word. Reacher glanced around inside the car. It was a Cadillac, two doors, but as long as a boat, and very fancy. Maybe a couple of years old, but as clean as a whistle. The leather was the color of old bones and the glass was tinted like an empty bottle of French wine. There was a pocketbook and a small briefcase thrown on the back seat. The pocketbook was anonymous and black, maybe plastic. The briefcase was made from weathered cowhide, the sort of thing that already looks old when you buy it. It was zipped open and there was a lot of folded paper stuffed in it, the sort of thing you see in a lawyer's office.
"Move the seat back, if you want," the woman said. "Give yourself room. "
"Thanks," he said again.
He found switches on the door shaped like seat cushions. He fiddled with them and quiet motors eased him rearward and reclined his backrest. Then he lowered the seat, to make himself inconspicuous from outside. The motors whirred. It was like being in a dentist's chair.
"That looks better," she said. "More comfortable for you. "
Her own chair was tight up to the wheel, because she was small. He twisted in his seat so he could look her over without staring straight at her. She was short and slim, dark-skinned, fine-boned. Altogether a small person. Maybe a hundred pounds, maybe thirty years old. Long black wavy hair, dark eyes, small white teeth visible behind a tense half-smile. Mexican, he guessed, but not the type of Mexican who swims the Rio Grande looking for a better life. This woman's ancestors had enjoyed a better life for hundreds of years. That was pretty clear. It was in her genes. She looked like some kind of Aztec royalty. She was wearing a simple cotton dress, printed with a pale pattern. Not much to it, but it looked expensive. It was sleeveless and finished above her knees. Her arms and legs were dark and smooth, like they had been polished.
"So, where are you headed?" she asked. Then she paused and smiled wider. "No, I already asked you that. You didn't seem very clear about where you want to go. "
Her accent was pure American, maybe more western than southern. She was steering two-handed, and he could see rings on her fingers. There was a slim wedding band, and a platinum thing with a big diamond.
"Anywhere," Reacher said. "Anywhere I end up, that's where I want to go. "
She paused and smiled again. "Are you running away from something? Have I picked up a dangerous fugitive?"
Her smile meant it wasn't a serious question, but he found himself thinking maybe it ought to have been. It wasn't too far-fetched, in the circumstances. She was taking a risk. The sort of risk that was killing the art of hitching rides, as a mode of transportation.
"I'm exploring," he said.
"Exploring Texas? They already discovered it. "
"Like a tourist," he said.
"But you don't look like a tourist. The tourists we get wear polyester leisure suits and come in a bus. "
She smiled again as she said it. She looked good when she smiled. She looked assured and self-possessed, and refined to the point of elegance. An elegant Mexican woman, wearing an expensive dress, clearly comfortable with talking. Driving a Cadillac. He was suddenly aware of his short answers, and his hair and his stubble and his stained shirt and his creased khaki pants. And the big bruise on his forehead.
"You live around here?" he asked, because she'd said the tourists we get, and he felt he needed something to say.
"I live south of Pecos," she said. "More than three hundred miles from here. I told you, that's where I'm headed. "
"Never been there," he said.
She went quiet and waited at a light. Took off again through a wide junction and hugged the right lane. He watched her thigh move as she pressed on the gas pedal. Her bottom lip was caught between her teeth. Her eyes were narrowed. She was tense about something, but she had it under control.
"So, did you explore Lubbock?" she asked.
"I saw the Buddy Holly statue. "
He saw her glance down at the radio, like she was thinking this guy likes music, maybe I should, put some on.
"You like Buddy Holly?" she asked.
"Not really," Reacher said. "Too tame for me. "
She nodded at the wheel. "I agree. I think Ritchie Valens was better. He was from Lubbock, too. "
He nodded back. "I saw him in the Walk of Fame. "
"How long were you in Lubbock?"
"A day. "
"And now you're moving on. "
"That's the plan. "
"To wherever," she said.
"That's the plan," he said again.
They passed the city limit. There was a small metal sign on a pole on the sidewalk. He smiled to himself. CITY POLICE, the shield on the cop car had said. He turned his head and watched danger disappear behind him.
* * *
The two men sat in the front of the Crown Victoria, with the tall fair man driving to give the small dark man a break. The woman sat in the back. They rolled out of the motel lot and picked up speed on I-20, heading west, toward Fort Worth, away from Dallas. Nobody spoke. Thinking about the vast interior of Texas was oppressing them. The woman had read a guidebook in preparation for the mission that pointed out that the state makes up fully seven percent of America's land mass and is bigger than most European countries. That didn't impress her. Everybody knew all that standard-issue Texas-is-real-big bullshit. Everybody always has. But the guide book also pointed out that side-to-side Texas is wider than the distance between New York and Chicago. That information had some impact. And it underlined why they were facing such a long drive, just to get from one nowhere interior location to another.
But the car was quiet and cool and comfortable, and it was as good a place to relax as any motel room would be. They had a little time to kill, after all.
* * *
The woman slowed and made a shallow right, toward New Mexico, then a mile later a left, straight south, toward old Mexico. Her dress was creased across the middle, like maybe she was wearing it a second day. Her perfume was subtle, mixed into the freezing air from the dashboard vents.
"So is Pecan worth seeing?" Reacher asked, in the silence.
"Pecos," she said.
"Right, Pecos. "
"I like it," she said. "It's mostly Mexican, so I'm comfortable there. "
Her right hand tensed on the wheel. He saw tendons shifting under the skin.
"You like Mexican people?" she asked.
He shrugged back. "As much as I like any people, I guess. "
"You don't like people?"
"It varies. "
"You like cantaloupe?"
"As much as I like any fruit. "
"Pecos grows the sweetest cantaloupe in the whole of Texas," she said. "And therefore, in their opinion, in the whole of the world. Also there's a rodeo there in July, but you've missed it for this year. And just north of Pecos is Loving County. You ever heard of Loving County?"
He shook his head. "Never been here before. "
"It's the least-populated county in the whole of the United States," she said. "Well, if you leave out some of the places in Alaska, I guess. But also the richest, per capita. Population is a hundred and ten souls, but there are four hundred and twenty oil leases active. "
He nodded. "So let me out in Pecos. It sounds like a fun place. "
"It was the real Wild West," she said. "A long time ago, of course. The Texas and Pacific Railroad put a stop there. So there were saloons and all. Used to be a bad place. It was a word, too, as well as a town. A verb, and also a place. To pecos somebody meant to shoot them and throw them in the Pecos River. "
"They still do that?"
She smiled again. A different smile. This smile traded some elegance for some mischief. It eased her tension. It made her appealing.
"No, they don't do that so much, now," she said.
"Your family from Pecos?"
"No, California," she said. "I came to Texas when I got married. "
Keep talking, he thought. She saved your ass.
"Been married long?" he asked.
"Just under seven years. "
"Your family been in California long?"
She paused and smiled again.
"Longer than any Californian, that's for sure," she said.
They were in flat empty country and she eased the silent car faster down a dead-straight road. The hot sky was tinted bottle-green by the windshield. The instrumentation on her dashboard showed it was a hundred and ten degrees outside and sixty inside.
"You a lawyer?" he asked.
She was puzzled for a moment, and then she made the connection and craned to glance at her briefcase in the mirror.
"No," she said. "I'm a lawyer's client. "
The conversation went dead again. She seemed nervous, and he felt awkward about it.
"And what else are you?" he asked.
She paused a beat.
"Somebody's wife and mother," she said. "And somebody's daughter and sister, I guess. And I keep a few horses. That's all. What are you?"
"Nothing in particular," Reacher said.
"You have to be something," she said.
"Well, I used to be things," he said. "I was somebody's son, and somebody's brother, and somebody's boyfriend. "
"My parents died, my brother died, my girlfriend left me. "
Not a great line, he thought. She said nothing back.
"And I don't have any horses," he added.
"I'm very sorry," she said.
"That I don't have horses?"
"No, that you're all alone in the world. "
"Water under the bridge," he said. "It's not as bad as it sounds. "
"You're not lonely?"
He shrugged. "I like being alone. "
She paused. "Why did your girlfriend leave you?"
"She went to work in Europe. "
"And you couldn't go with her?"
"She didn't really want me to go with her. "
"I see," she said. "Did you want to go with her?"
He was quiet for a beat.
"Not really, I guess," he said. "Too much like settling down. "
"And you don't want to settle down?"
He shook his head. "Two nights in the same motel gives me the creeps. "
"Hence one day in Lubbock," she said.
"And the next day in Pecos," he said.
"And after that?"
"After that, I have no idea," he said. "And that's the way I like it. "
She drove on, silent as the car.
"So you are running away from something," she said. "Maybe you had a very settled life before and you want to escape from that particular feeling. "
He shook his head again. "No, the exact opposite, really. I was in the army all my life, which is very settled, and I grew to like the feeling. "
"I see," she said. "You became habituated to chaos, maybe. "
"I guess so. "
She paused. "How is a person in the army all his life?"
"My father was in, too. So I grew up on military bases all over the world, and then I stayed in afterward. "
"But now you're out. "
He nodded. "All trained up and nowhere to go. "
He saw her thinking about his answer. He saw her tension come back. She started stepping harder on the gas, maybe without realizing it, maybe like an involuntary reflex. He had the feeling her interest in him was quickening, like the car.
* * *
Ford builds Crown Victorias at its plant up in St. Thomas, Canada, tens of thousands a year, and almost all of them without exception are sold to police departments, taxicab companies, or rental fleets. Almost none of them are sold to private citizens. Full-size turnpike cruisers no longer earn much of a market share, and for those die-hards who still want one from the Ford Motor Company, the Mercury Grand Marquis is the same car in fancier clothes for about the same money, so it mops up the private sales. Which makes private Crown Vics rarer than red Rolls-Royces, so the subliminal response when you see one that isn't taxicab yellow or black and white with Police all over the doors is to think it's an unmarked detective's car. Or government issue of some other kind, maybe U. S. Marshals, or FBI, or Secret Service, or a courtesy vehicle given to a medical examiner or a big-city fire chief.
That's the subliminal impression, and there are ways to enhance it a little.
In the empty country halfway to Abilene, the tall fair man pulled off the highway and headed through vast fields and past dense woodlands until he found a dusty turn-out probably ten miles from the nearest human being. He stopped there and turned off the motor and popped the trunk. The small dark man heaved the heavy valise out and laid it on the ground. The woman zipped it open and handed a pair of Virginia plates to the tall fair man. He took a screwdriver from the valise and removed the Texas plates, front and rear. Bolted the Virginia issue in their place. The small dark man pulled the plastic covers off all four wheels, leaving the cheap black steel rims showing. He stacked the wheel covers like plates and pitched them into the trunk. The woman took radio antennas from the valise, four of them, CB whips and cellular telephone items bought cheap at a Radio Shack in L. A. The cellular antennas stuck to the rear window with self-adhesive pads. She waited until the trunk was closed again and placed the CB antennas on the lid. They had magnetic bases. They weren't wired up to anything. They were just for show.
Then the small dark man took his rightful place behind the wheel and U-turned through the dust and headed back to the highway, cruising easily. A Crown Vic, plain steel wheels, a forest of antennas, Virginia plates. Maybe an FBI pool car, three agents inside, maybe on urgent business.
* * *
What did you do in the army?" the woman asked, very casually.
"I was a cop," Reacher said.
"They have cops in the army?"
"Sure they do," he said. "Military police. Like cops, inside the service. "
"I didn't know that," she said.
She went quiet again. She was thinking hard. She seemed excited.
"Would you mind if I asked you some questions?" she said.
He shrugged. "You're giving me a ride. "
She nodded. "I wouldn't want to offend you. "
"That would be hard to do, in the circumstances. Hundred and ten degrees out there, sixty in here. "
"There'll be a storm soon. There has to be, with a temperature like this. "
He glanced ahead at the sky. It was tinted bottle-green by the windshield glass, and it was blindingly clear.
"I don't see any sign of it," he said.
She smiled again, briefly. "May I ask where you live?"
"I don't live anywhere," he said. "I move around. "
"You don't have a home somewhere?"
He shook his head. "What you see is what I've got. "
"You travel light," she said.
"Light as I can. "
She paused for a fast mile.
"Are you out of work?" she asked.
He nodded. "Usually. "
"Were you a good cop? In the army?"
"Good enough, I guess. They made me a major, gave me some medals. "
She paused. "So why did you leave?"
It felt like an interview. For a loan, or for a job.
"They downsized me out of there," he said. "End of the Cold War, they wanted a smaller army, not so many people in it, so they didn't need so many cops to look after them. "
She nodded. "Like a town. If the population gets smaller, the police department gets smaller, too. Something to do with appropriations. Taxes, or something. "
He said nothing.
"I live in a very small town," she said. "Echo, south of Pecos, like I told you. It's a lonely place. That's why they named it Echo. Not because it's echoey, like an empty room. It's from ancient Greek mythology. Echo was a young girl in love with Narcissus. But he loved himself, not her, so she pined away until just her voice was left. So that's why it's called Echo. Not many inhabitants. But it's a county, too. A county and a township. Not as empty as Loving County, but there's no police department at all. Just the county sheriff, on his own. "
Something in her voice.
"Is that a problem?" he asked.
"It's a very white county," she said. "Not like Pecos at all. "
"So one feels there might be a problem, if push came to shove. "
"And has push come to shove?"
She smiled, awkwardly.
"I can tell you were a cop," she said. "You ask so many questions. And it's me who wanted to ask all the questions. "
She fell silent for a spell and just drove, slim dark hands light on the wheel, going fast but not hurrying. He used the cushion-shaped buttons again and laid his seat back another fraction. Watched her in the corner of his eye. She was pretty, but she was troubled. Ten years from now, she was going to have some excellent frown lines.
"What was life like in the army?" she asked.
"Different," he said. "Different from life outside the army. "
"Different rules, different situations. It was a world of its own. It was very regulated, but it was kind of lawless. Kind of rough and uncivilized. "
"Like the Wild West," she said.
"I guess," he said back. "A million people trained first and foremost to do what needed doing. The rules came afterward. "
"Like the Wild West," she said again. "I think you liked it. "
He nodded. "Some of it. "
She paused. "May I ask you a personal question?"
"Go ahead," he said.
"What's your name?"
"Reacher," he said.
"Is that your first name? Or your last?"
"People just call me Reacher," he said.
She paused again. "May I ask you another personal question?"
"Have you killed people, Reacher? In the army?"
He nodded again. "Some. "
"That's what the army is all about, fundamentally, isn't it?" she said.
"I guess so," he said. "Fundamentally. "
She went quiet again. Like she was struggling with a decision.
"There's a museum in Pecos," she said. "A real Wild West museum. It's partly in an old saloon, and partly in the old hotel next door. Out back is the site of Clay Allison's grave. You ever heard of Clay Allison?"
Reacher shook his head.
"They called him the Gentleman Gunfighter," she said. "He retired, actually, but then he fell under the wheels of a grain cart and he died from his injuries. They buried him there. There's a nice headstone, with 'Robert Clay Allison, 1840-1887' on it. I've seen it. And an inscription. The inscription says, 'He never killed a man that did not need killing. ' What do you think of that?"
"I think it's a fine inscription," Reacher said.
"There's an old newspaper, too," she said. "In a glass case. From Kansas City, I think, with his obituary in it. It says, 'Certain it is that many of his stern deeds were for the right as he understood that right to be. '"
The Cadillac sped on south.
"A fine obituary," Reacher said.
"You think so?"
He nodded. "As good as you can get, probably. "
"Would you like an obituary like that?"
"Well, not just yet," Reacher said.
She smiled again, apologetically.
"No," she said. "I guess not. But do you think you would like to qualify for an obituary like that? I mean, eventually?"
"I can think of worse things," he said.
She said nothing.
"You want to tell me where this is heading?" he asked.
"This road?" she said, nervously.
"No, this conversation. "
She drove on for a spell, and then she lifted her foot off the gas pedal and coasted. The car slowed and she pulled off onto the dusty shoulder. The shoulder fell away into a dry irrigation ditch and it put the car at a crazy angle, tilted way down on his side. She put the transmission in park with a small delicate motion of her wrist, and she left the engine idling and the air roaring.
"My name is Carmen Greer," she said. "And I need your help. "