Never go back, p.15
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       Never Go Back, p.15
 

         Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  confrontation for one of them. Reacher was happy with those odds, but he wasn’t sure about Turner. She was half his size, literally, and she was unarmed. No gun, no knife.

  He said, ‘We should wait here. We should let them come to us.’

  But they didn’t come. Reacher and Turner stood in the shadows, for five long minutes, and nothing happened. Turner moved a little, to let the light play along the flank of the car. She whispered, ‘Those are pretty good dents.’

  Reacher said back, ‘How long does it take to check out a damn restaurant?’

  ‘Maybe they got sent on somewhere else. Maybe there’s a bar with hamburgers. Or a couple of them. Which don’t count as restaurants, with the motel guy.’

  ‘I don’t hear any bars.’

  ‘How do you hear a bar?’

  ‘Hubbub, glasses, bottles, extractor fans. It’s a distinctive sound.’

  ‘Could be too far away to hear.’

  ‘In which case they’d have come back for their car.’

  ‘They have to be somewhere.’

  ‘Maybe they’re eating at the grill,’ Reacher said. ‘Maybe they got a table. A last-minute decision. We were hungry, they could be hungry too.’

  ‘I’m still hungry.’

  ‘It might be easier to take them inside a restaurant. Crowded quarters, a little inhibition on their part. Plus knives on the tables. Then we could eat their dinners. They must have ordered by now. Steak, ideally.’

  ‘The waiter would call the cops.’

  Reacher checked the cross street on the right. Nothing doing. He checked the cross street on the left. Empty. He walked back to where Turner was waiting. She said, ‘They’re eating. They have to be. What else could they be doing? They could have searched the whole of Berryville by now. Twice over. So they’re in the restaurant. They could be another hour. And we can’t stay here much longer. We’re loitering on private property. And I’m sure Berryville has laws. And a police department. The motel guy could be on the phone two minutes from now.’

  ‘OK,’ Reacher said. ‘Let’s go check it out.’

  ‘Left or right?’

  ‘Left,’ Reacher said.

  They were cautious at the corner. But the left-hand cross street was still empty. It was more of an alley than a street. It had the motel’s wooden fence on one side, and the blank flank of a brick-built general store on the other. A hundred yards later it was crossed by a wider street that ran parallel with West Main. The second block was shorter and more varied, with some stand-alone buildings, and some narrow vacant lots, and then up ahead were the rear elevations of the buildings that stood on the next parallel street, including one on the right, which had a tall metal kitchen chimney, which was blowing steam, pretty hard. The Berryville Grill, for sure, doing some serious mid-evening business.

  Turner said, ‘Back door or front door?’

  ‘Front window,’ Reacher said. ‘Reconnaissance is everything.’

  They turned right out of the cross street and got cautious again. First came a dark storefront that could have been a flower shop. Then came the restaurant, second in line. It was a big place, but deeper than it was wide. It had four front windows, separated into two pairs by a central door. The windows came all the way down to the floor. Maybe they opened up, for the summer. Maybe they put tables on the sidewalk.

  Reacher kept close to the wall and moved towards the near edge of the first window. From that angle he could see about a third of the interior space. Which was considerable. And well filled. The tables were small and close together. It was a family-style restaurant. Nothing fancy. The wait staff looked to be all girls, about high-school age. The tables were plain wood. About half of them were occupied. By couples, and threesomes, and by family groups. Old people and their adult children, some of them having fun, some of them a little strained and quiet.

  But none of the tables was occupied by four men. Not in the part of the restaurant Reacher could see. He backed off. She leapfrogged past him and walked briskly along the restaurant frontage, looking away, and she stopped beyond the last window. He watched the door. No reaction. No one came out. She hugged the wall and crept back and looked inside from the far edge of the last window. Reacher figured from there she could see a symmetrical one-third, the same as he had, but on the other side of the room. Which would leave a central wedge unexamined.

  She shook her head. He set off, and she set off, and they met at the door. He pulled it, and she went in first. The central wedge had plenty of tables. But none of them was occupied by four men. There was no maître d’ lectern. No hostess station, either. Just empty floor inside the door. A young woman bustled over. A girl, really. Seventeen, maybe. The designated greeter. She was wearing black pants, and a black polo shirt with short sleeves and an embroidered Berryville Grill logo on the front. She had a livid red birthmark on her forearm. She said, ‘Two for dinner?’

  Turner said, ‘We’re looking for some people. They might have been asking for us.’

  The girl went quiet. She looked from Turner to Reacher, suddenly understanding: a man and a woman.

  ‘Were they here?’ Reacher asked. ‘Four men, three of them big, and one of them bigger?’

  The girl nodded, and rubbed her forearm, subconsciously. Or nervously. Reacher glanced down.

  It wasn’t a birthmark.

  It was changing shape. And changing colour.

  It was a bruise.

  He said, ‘Did they do that?’

  The girl nodded.

  ‘The big one,’ she said.

  ‘With the shaved head and the small ears?’

  ‘Yes,’ the girl said. ‘He squeezed my arm.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘He wanted to know where else you could be. And I couldn’t tell him.’

  It was a big mark. From a big hand. More than six inches across.

  The girl said, ‘He really scared me. He has cruel eyes.’

  Reacher asked, ‘When were they here?’

  ‘About ten minutes ago.’

  ‘Where did they go?’

  ‘I don’t know. I couldn’t tell them where to look.’

  ‘No bars, no hamburger joints?’

  ‘That’s exactly what he asked. But there’s nothing like that here.’

  The girl was close to tears.

  Reacher said, ‘They won’t be coming back.’

  It was all he could think of to say.

  They left the girl standing there, rubbing her arm, and they used the cross street they hadn’t used before. It was a similar thoroughfare, narrow, unlit, raggedy at first, and then firming up on the second block, with the motel’s fence on the right. They took the corner cautiously, and scanned ahead before moving out.

  The motel lot was empty.

  The car with the dented doors was gone.

  TWENTY-SIX

  THREE HUNDRED YARDS later Reacher and Turner hit Berryville’s city limit, and West Main became plain old State Route 7. Turner said, ‘If those guys could figure out where we went, we have to assume the army could too. The FBI as well, even.’

  Which made hitchhiking a nightmare. It was pitch dark. A winter night, in the middle of nowhere. A long straight road. Oncoming headlights would be visible a mile away, but there would be no way of knowing what lay behind those headlights. Who was at the wheel. Civilian or not? Friend or foe?

  Too big of a risk to take a gamble.

  So they compromised, in a win-some, lose-some kind of way that Reacher felt came out about equal in terms of drawbacks and benefits. They retraced their steps, and Turner waited on the shoulder about fifty yards ahead of the last lit-up town block, and Reacher kept on going, to where he could lean on the corner of a building, half in and half out of a cross-street alley, where there was some light spill on the blacktop. A bad idea, in the sense that any car turning west beyond them was a lost opportunity in terms of a potential ride, but a good idea in the sense that Reacher could make a quick and dirty evaluation of the through-town driver
s, as and when they appeared. They agreed he should err on the side of caution, but if he felt it was OK, he would step out and signal to Turner, who would then step up to the kerb and jam her thumb out.

  Which overall, he thought at the beginning, was maybe more win-some than lose-some. Because by accident their improvised system would imitate a very old hitchhiking trick. A pretty girl sticks out her thumb, a driver stops, full of enthusiasm, and then the big ugly boyfriend jogs up and gets in too.

  But thirty minutes later Reacher was seeing it as more lose-some than win-some. Traffic was light, and he was getting no time at all to make a judgement. He would see headlights coming, he would wait, then the car would flash past in a split second, and his brain would process, sedan, domestic, model year, specification, and long before he got to a conclusion the car was already well past Turner and speeding onward.

  So he switched to a pre-screening approach. He decided to reject all sedans, and all SUVs younger than five years, and to approve all pick-up trucks, and all older SUVs. He had never known the army to hunt in pick-up trucks, and he guessed all army road vehicles would be swapped out before they got to be five years old. Same for the FBI, surely. The remaining risk was off-duty local deputies, joining in the fun in their POVs. But some risk had to be taken, otherwise they would be there all night long, which would end up the same as sleeping in a D.C. park. They would get busted at first light tomorrow, instead of last light today.

  He waited. For a minute he saw nothing, and then he saw headlights, coming in from the east, not real fast, just a good, safe city speed. He leaned out from his corner. He waited. He saw a shape flash past.

  A sedan.

  Reject.

  He settled back against the building.

  He waited again. Five minutes. Then seven. Then eight. Then: more headlights. He leaned out. He saw a pick-up truck.

  He stepped out to the sidewalk in its wake and jammed his left fist high in the air and fifty yards away Turner jumped to the kerb and stuck out her thumb. Total precision. Like a perfect post-season bang-bang double play, fast and crisp and decisive in the cold night air. The pick-up’s headlight beams washed over Turner’s immobile form like she’d been there all along.

  The pick-up didn’t stop.

  Shit, Reacher thought.

  The next viable candidate was an elderly Ford Bronco, and it didn’t stop, either. Neither did a middle-aged F150, or a new Dodge Ram. Then the road went quiet again. The clock in Reacher’s head ticked around to ten thirty in the evening. The air grew colder. He had on two T-shirts and his jacket, with its miracle layer. He started to worry about Turner. She had one T-shirt and one regular shirt. And her T-shirt had looked thin from laundering. I was born in Montana, she had said. I’m never cold. He hoped she was telling the truth.

  For five more minutes nothing came in from the east. Then, more headlights, wide-spaced and low, tracking the road’s rise and fall with a rubbery, well-damped motion. A sedan, probably. He leaned out just a fraction, already pessimistic.

  Then he ducked back in, fast. It was a sedan, swift and sleek, a Ford Crown Victoria, shiny and dark in colour, with black windows and antennas on the trunk lid. MPs, possibly, or the FBI, or Federal Marshals, or the Virginia state cops. Or not. Maybe another agency altogether, on an unconnected mission. He leaned out again and watched it go. It missed Turner in the shadows and blasted onward into the distance.

  He waited. One more minute. Then two. Nothing but darkness.

  Then more headlights, way back, maybe still on East Main, before the downtown crossroads, coming on steadily, now on West Main for sure, getting closer. They were yellow and weak. Old-fashioned and faint. Nothing modern. Not halogen. Reacher leaned out from his corner. The headlights kept on coming, slow and steady. They flashed past.

  A pick-up truck.

  The same double play. His left fist, her thumb.

  The pick-up slowed right down.

  It stopped.

  Turner stepped off the kerb and leaned in at its passenger window and started talking, and Reacher started jogging the fifty yards towards her.

  This time Juliet called Romeo, which was unusual. Mostly Romeo had the breaking news. But their labours were divided, and so sometimes Juliet had the new information.

  He said, ‘No sign of them, all the way to Winchester.’

  Romeo said, ‘Are they sure?’

  ‘They checked very carefully.’

  ‘OK, but keep them in the area. That bus line is our best option.’

  ‘Will do.’

  Reacher arrived a little out of breath, and saw the pick-up was an old Chevrolet, plain and basic, built and bought for utility, not show, and the driver looked to be a wily old boy of about seventy, all skin and bone and sparse white hair. Turner introduced him by saying, ‘This gentleman is heading for Mineral County in West Virginia. Near a place called Keyser, not too far from the Maryland line.’

  Which all meant nothing to Reacher, except that West Virginia sounded one step better than regular Virginia. He leaned in at the window next to Turner and said, ‘Sir, we’d really appreciate the ride.’

  The old guy said, ‘Then hop right in and let’s go.’

  There was a bench seat, but the cab was narrow. Turner got in first, and if Reacher pressed hard against the door there was just about room for her between him and the old guy. But the seat was soft and the cab was warm. And the truck motored along OK. It was happy to do sixty. It felt like it could roll down the road for ever.

  The old guy asked, ‘So where are you folks headed ultimately?’

  ‘We’re looking for work,’ Reacher said, thinking of the young couple in Ohio, in the red crew-cab Silverado, with the shedding dog. ‘So pretty much any place will do.’

  ‘And what kind of work are you looking for?’

  And so began a completely typical hitchhiking conversation, with every party spinning yarns based on half truths and inflated experiences. Reacher had been out of the service for a long time, and when he had to he worked whatever job he could get. He had worked the doors in night clubs, and he had dug swimming pools, and stacked lumber, and demolished buildings, and picked apples, and loaded boxes into trucks, and he made it sound like those kinds of things had been his lifelong occupations. Turner talked about waiting tables, and working in offices, and selling kitchenwares door to door, all of which Reacher guessed was based on her evening and weekend experiences through high school and college. The old guy talked about tobacco farming in the Carolinas, and horses in Kentucky, and hauling coal in West Virginia, in eighteen-wheel trucks.

  They drove through Winchester, crossing I-81 twice, and then onward towards the state line, into Appalachian country, on the last northern foothills of Shenandoah Mountain, the road rising and twisting towards Georges Peak, the motor straining, the weak yellow headlights jerking from side to side on the sharp turns. Then at midnight they were in West Virginia, still elevated in wild country, rolling through wooded passes towards the Alleghenies in the far distance.

  Then Reacher saw a fire, far ahead in the west, on a wooded hillside a little south of the road. A yellow and orange glow, against the black sky, like a bonfire or a warning beacon. They rolled through a sleeping town called Capon Bridge, and the fire got closer. A mile or more away, but then suddenly less, because the road turned towards it.

  Reacher said, ‘Sir, you could let us out here, if you wouldn’t mind.’

  The old guy said, ‘Here?’

  ‘It’s a good spot.’

  ‘For what?’

  ‘I think it will meet our needs.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘We’d appreciate it very much.’

  The old guy grumbled something, dubious, not understanding at all, but he took his foot off the gas and the truck slowed down. Turner wasn’t understanding, either. She was looking at Reacher like he was crazy. The truck came to a halt, on a random stretch of mountain blacktop, woods to the left, woods to the right, nothing ahead, and not
hing behind. Reacher opened his door, and unfolded himself out, and Turner slid out beside him, and they thanked the old man very much and waved him away. Then they stood together in the pitch dark and the dead quiet and the cold night air, and Turner said, ‘You want to tell me exactly why we just got out of a warm truck in the middle of nowhere?’

  Reacher pointed, ahead and to the left, at the fire.

  ‘See that?’ he said. ‘That’s an ATM.’

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  THEY WALKED ON, following the curve of the road, west and a little south, getting closer to the fire all the time, until it was level with them, about two hundred yards into the hilly woods. Ten yards later, on
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