Never go back, p.12
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       Never Go Back, p.12
 

         Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  first guard-shack barrier.

  The first of three.

  TWENTY

  THE FIRST BARRIER was easy. Act like you’re supposed to be there. Turner collected Reacher’s borrowed ID from him, and held it with hers, fanned in her hand like a pair of threes, and she slowed to a walk, and buzzed her window down, and popped the trunk as she eased to a stop, the whole performance a natural, flowing sequence, as if she did it every single day of her life.

  And the sentry in the shack responded to the performance perfectly, like Reacher guessed she hoped he would. He spent less than a second glancing at the fanned IDs, and less than a second glancing into the open trunk, and less than a second slamming it shut for them.

  Turner nudged the gas, and rolled forward.

  And breathed out.

  Reacher said, ‘Edmonds has to be inside by now.’

  ‘Got any bright ideas?’

  ‘Any sign of a problem, just hit the gas. Straight through the barrier. Busting up a piece of metal with stripes on it can’t get us in much more trouble.’

  ‘We might run over a sentry.’

  ‘He’ll jump out the way. Sentries are human, like anyone else.’

  ‘We’ll dent an army car.’

  ‘I already dented an army car. Last night. With two guys’ heads.’

  ‘You seem to have a thing about denting army property with heads,’ she said. Warm, husky, breathy, intimate. ‘Like the desk in my office.’

  He nodded. He had told her the story on the phone. From South Dakota. An old investigation, and a little resulting frustration. A short story, made long. Just to keep her talking. Just to hear more of her voice.

  She asked, ‘Who were the two guys from last night?’

  ‘Complicated,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you later.’

  ‘I hope you’ll be able to,’ she said.

  They rolled towards the second checkpoint. Where blasting through turned out not to be an available option. It was just after five in the afternoon. Rush hour, military style. There was a modest queue of vehicles waiting to get out, and a modest queue waiting to get in. Already two cars were in line in the exit lane, and three in the entrance lane. There were two guys on duty in the shack. One was darting left and right, letting one vehicle in, then letting one vehicle out, back and forth in strict rotation.

  The other guy was inside the shack.

  On the phone. Listening intently.

  Turner eased to a stop, third car in line, in a narrowing lane, with the guard shack ahead on her left, and an unbroken row of concrete dragons’ teeth on her right, each one of them a squat, truncated pyramid about three feet tall, each one of them no doubt built on a rebar armature and socketed deep below grade.

  The second guy was still on the phone.

  In the other lane the barrier went up and a car drove in. The first guy ducked across and checked ID, and checked a trunk, and hit a button, and the exit barrier went up, and a car drove out. Reacher said, ‘Maybe rush hour is our friend. It’s all kind of cursory.’

  Turner said, ‘Depends what that phone call is.’

  Reacher pictured Tracy Edmonds in his mind, walking in the main door of the guardhouse, and stepping into the front office, and finding the duty captain absent. Some clerk would nod and shuffle. How patient would Edmonds be? How patient would the clerk be? Rank would play its part. Edmonds was a captain too. Same as the duty guy. An officer of equal rank. She would cut the guy some slack. She wouldn’t get instantly all up on her high horse, like a major or a colonel would. And certainly the clerk would be slow to intervene.

  Inside the guard shack the second guy was still on the phone. Outside the guard shack the first guy was still darting side to side. A second car drove in, and a second car drove out. Turner rolled forward and stopped, now first in line to leave, but also completely boxed in, on the left and the right, with two cars behind her, and the striped metal barrier in front of her. She took a breath, and popped the trunk, and fanned the IDs, and buzzed her window down.

  The second guy got off the phone. He put the instrument down and looked straight at the exit lane. He scanned it, front to back, and back to front, starting with Turner and finishing with Turner. He came out of the shack and stepped to her window.

  He said, ‘Sorry for the delay.’

  He glanced at the fanned IDs, and stepped back and glanced at the trunk, and closed it for them, and hit the button on the side of the shack, and the barrier went up, and Turner rolled forward.

  And breathed out.

  Reacher said, ‘One more. And good things come in threes.’

  ‘You really believe that?’

  ‘No, not really. The chances of three yes-or-no propositions working out right are about twelve in a hundred.’

  Up ahead the third guard shack looked to be an exact repeat of the second. The same queue of the same three cars, a matching queue on the entrance side, two guys on duty, one of them outside ducking back and forth, and one of them inside on the phone.

  Listening intently.

  Turner said, ‘These phone calls have to be important, right? I mean, these guys have got better things to do right now. There’s a whole bunch of senior officers getting delayed here. And some of them must be Marines. They don’t like that kind of stuff.’

  ‘And we do?’

  ‘Not like the Marines don’t. We’re not always on standby to save the world.’

  ‘My dad was a Marine.’

  ‘Did he save the world?’

  ‘He wasn’t a very senior officer.’

  ‘I wish I knew who was on the phone.’

  Reacher thought back to when he had been a captain. How long would he have waited for another captain to finish up his business? Not too long, probably. But maybe Edmonds was a nicer person. More patient. Or maybe she felt out of her depth, in a guardhouse environment. Although she was a lawyer. She must have seen plenty of guardhouses. Unless she was mostly a desk person. A paperwork lawyer. Which she might have been. She was assigned to HRC, after all. That had to mean something. How much of HRC’s work was done in the cells?

  He said, ‘This is a big base. Those calls aren’t necessarily coming from the guardhouse.’

  ‘What else would be so important?’

  ‘Maybe they have to clear the way for a general. Or maybe they’re ordering pizza delivery. Or telling their girlfriends they’ll be home soon.’

  ‘Let’s hope so,’ Turner said. ‘One of the above. Or all of them.’

  In the opposite lane the barrier went up and a car drove in. The guy on the outside ducked across to the exit lane and checked ID, and checked a trunk, and raised the barrier, and a car drove out. Turner rolled forward one place. The inside guy was still on the phone.

  Still listening hard.

  Turner said, ‘They don’t even need a phone call. I’m not wearing my tapes or my tags. They were taken away from me. I look exactly like an escaping prisoner.’

  ‘Or a Special Forces hardass. Undercover and anonymous. Look on the bright side. Just don’t let them see your boots.’

  Another car drove in, and another car drove out. Turner rolled forward to the head of the line. She popped the trunk, and fanned the IDs, and buzzed her window down. The inside guy was still on the phone. The outside guy was occupied in the other lane. Up ahead beyond the last barrier the dragons’ teeth stopped and the exit road widened out and became just a regular Virginia street.

  There was an Arlington County police cruiser parked on it.

  Turner said, ‘Still want me to bust out?’

  ‘Only if we have to,’ Reacher said.

  The outside guy finished up checking and raised the entrance barrier. The inside guy finished up listening and put the phone down. He came out and bent down and looked at the IDs in Turner’s hand. Not just a glance. His eyes flicked from the photos to the faces. Reacher looked away and stared ahead through the windshield. He stayed low in his seat and tried to look middle-aged and medium-sized. The guy at the w
indow stepped back to the trunk. More than a glance. And then he put his palm on the lid and eased it back down and gently latched it shut.

  Then he stepped away to the side of the shack.

  And hit the exit button.

  The barrier rose up high, and Turner nudged the gas, and the car rolled forward, under the barrier, and past the last of the dragons’ teeth, and out into the neat suburban street, all wide and prosperous and tree-lined, and then onward, past the parked Arlington cruiser, and away.

  Reacher thought: Captain Tracy Edmonds must be one hell of a patient woman.

  TWENTY-ONE

  SUSAN TURNER SEEMED to know the local roads. She made a left and a right and skirted the northern edge of the cemetery, and then she turned again and drove partway down its eastern flank. She said, ‘I assume we’re heading for Union Station. To dump the car and make them think we took a train.’

  ‘Works for me,’ Reacher said.

  ‘How do you want to get there?’

  ‘What’s the dumbest route?’

  ‘At this time of day?’ she said. ‘Surface streets, I guess. Constitution Avenue, for sure. We’d be slow and visible, all the way.’

  ‘Then that’s what we’ll do. They’ll expect something different.’

  So Turner got in position and lined up to cross the river. Traffic was bad. It was rush hour in the civilian world, too. Nose to tail, like a moving parking lot. She drummed her fingers on the wheel, and watched her mirror, looking to jink from lane to lane, trying to find a tiny advantage.

  ‘Relax,’ Reacher said. ‘Rush hour is definitely our friend now. There’s no chance of pursuit.’

  ‘Unless they use a helicopter.’

  ‘Which they won’t. Not here. They’d be too worried about crashing and killing a Congressman. Which would do their budget no good at all.’

  They crept on to the bridge, slowly, and they moved out over the water, and they left Arlington County behind. Turner said, ‘Talking of budgets, I have no money. They took all my stuff and put it in a plastic bag.’

  ‘Me too. But I borrowed thirty bucks from my lawyer.’

  ‘Why would she lend you money?’

  ‘She doesn’t know she did. Not yet. But she’ll find out soon enough. I left her an IOU.’

  ‘We’re going to need more than thirty bucks. I need street clothes, for a start.’

  ‘And I need boot laces,’ Reacher said. ‘We’ll have to find an ATM.’

  ‘We don’t have cards.’

  ‘There’s more than one kind of ATM.’

  They came off the bridge, slowly, stopping and starting, into the District of Columbia itself. Metro PD territory. And immediately Reacher saw two Metro cruisers up ahead. They were parked nose to nose on the kerb behind the Lincoln Memorial. Their motors were running, and they had about a dozen radio antennas between them. Each car held one cop, all warm and comfortable. A standard security measure, Reacher hoped. Turner changed lanes and rolled past them on the blind side of a stalled line of nose-to-tail traffic. They didn’t react at all.

  They drove onward, through the gathering dark, slow and halting, anonymous among a glacial pack of fifty thousand vehicles crowding the same few miles of streets. They went north on 23rd, the same block Reacher had walked the day before, and then they made the right on to Constitution Avenue, which ran on ahead of them, seemingly for ever, straight and long, an unending river of red tail lights.

  Turner said, ‘Tell me about the two guys from last night.’

  Reacher said, ‘I came in on the bus and went straight to Rock Creek. I was going to ask you out to dinner. But you weren’t there, obviously. And the guy who was sitting in for you told me about some bullshit assault charge lodged against my file. Some gangbanger we had looked at all of sixteen years ago. I wasn’t impressed, so he pulled some Title 10 thing and recalled me to service.’

  ‘What, you’re back in the army?’

  ‘As of yesterday evening.’

  ‘Outstanding.’

  ‘Doesn’t feel that way. Not so far.’

  ‘Who is sitting in for me?’

  ‘A light colonel named Morgan. A management guy, by the look of him. He quartered me in a motel north and west of the building, and about five minutes after I checked in, two guys showed up in a car. NCOs for sure, late twenties, full of piss and wind about how I had brought the unit into disrepute, and how I should get out of town, to spare them the embarrassment of a court martial, and how they were going to kick my ass if I didn’t. So I banged their heads against the side of their car.’

  ‘Who the hell were they? Did you get names? I don’t want people like that in my unit.’

  ‘They weren’t from the 110th. That was totally clear. Their car was warm inside. It had been driven a lot farther than a mile from Rock Creek. Plus their combat skills were severely substandard. They weren’t your people. I know that for sure, because I did a kind of unofficial headcount back at the building. I wandered all over, and checked all the rooms. Those guys weren’t there.’

  ‘So who were they?’

  ‘They were two small parts of a big jigsaw puzzle.’

  ‘What’s the picture on the box?’

  ‘I don’t know, but I saw them again today. Only from a distance. They were at the motel, with reinforcements. Two other guys, for a total of four. I guess they were checking if I was gone yet, or else aiming to speed up my decision.’

  ‘If they weren’t from the 110th, why would they want you gone?’

  ‘Exactly,’ Reacher said. ‘They didn’t even know me yet. Usually people don’t want me gone until later.’

  They crept onward, past the Vietnam Wall. There was another Metro car there. Engine running, bristling with antennas. Reacher said, ‘We should assume the shit has hit the fan by now, right?’

  ‘Unless your Captain Edmonds fell asleep waiting,’ Turner said.

  They crawled past the parked cruiser, close enough for Reacher to see the cop inside. He was a tall black man, thin, like a blade. He could have been the duty captain’s brother, from Dyer. Which would have been unfortunate.

  Turner asked, ‘What was the assault charge from sixteen years ago?’

  Reacher said, ‘Some LA gangbanger selling black-market ordnance, from the Desert Storm drawdown. A big fat idiot who called himself Dog. I remember talking to him. Hard to forget, actually. He was about the size of a house. He just died, apparently. Leaving behind an affidavit with my name all over it. But I didn’t hit him. Not a glove. Hard to see how I could, really. I would have been elbow-deep in lard before I connected with anything solid.’

  ‘So what’s the story?’

  ‘My guess is some disgruntled customer showed up with a bunch of pals and a rack of baseball bats. And some time later the fat guy started to think about how he could get compensated. You know, something for nothing, in our litigious society. So he went to some ambulance chaser, who saw no point in going after the guys with the bats. But maybe the fat guy mentioned the visit from the army, and the lawyer figured Uncle Sam had plenty of money, so they cooked up a bullshit claim. Of which there must be hundreds of thousands, over the years. Our files must be stiff with them. And quite rightly they’re all looked at and laughed at and put away in a drawer and ignored for ever. Except this one was hauled out again into the light of day.’

  ‘Because?’

  ‘It’s another piece of the jigsaw. Morgan told me my file had a flag on it. He said it malfunctioned when you pulled it, but triggered when you sent it back. I don’t believe that. Our bureaucrats are better than that. I don’t think there was a flag at all. I think there was a whole lot of last-minute scrambling going on. Someone got in a big panic.’

  ‘About you?’

  Reacher shook his head. ‘No, about you, initially. You and Afghanistan.’

  Then he stopped talking, because the car filled with blue and red light. Through the mirrors. A cop car, behind them, forcing its way through. Its siren was going, cycling through all the di
gital variants it had, fast and urgent. The whooping, the manic cackling, the plaintive two-tone horn. Reacher turned in his seat. The cruiser was about twenty cars back. Ahead of it traffic was diving for the kerb, scattering, trying to squeeze an extra lane out of the jammed roadway.

  Turner glanced back, too. She said, ‘Relax. That’s a Metro car. The army will hunt us itself. We don’t use Metro for anything. The FBI, maybe, but not those clowns.’

 
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