Never go back, p.16
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       Never Go Back, p.16

         Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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  the left shoulder, there was the mouth of a stony track. A driveway, of sorts. It ran uphill, between the trees. Turner wrapped Reacher’s shirt tight around her and said, ‘That’s just some kind of random brush fire.’

  ‘Wrong season,’ Reacher said. ‘Wrong place. They don’t get brush fires here.’

  ‘So what is it?’

  ‘Where are we?’

  ‘West Virginia.’

  ‘Correct. Miles from anywhere, in backwoods country. That fire is what we’ve been waiting for. But be quiet as you can. There could be someone up there.’

  ‘Firefighters, probably.’

  ‘That’s one thing there won’t be,’ Reacher said. ‘I can guarantee that.’

  They started up the stony path. It was loose and noisy underfoot. Hard going. Better driven than walked. On both sides the trees crowded in, some of them pines, some of them deciduous and bare. The track snaked right, and then left again, rising all the way, with a final wide curve up ahead, with the fire waiting for them beyond it. They could already feel heat in the air, and they could hear a vague roar, with loud cracks and bangs mixed in.

  ‘Real quiet now,’ Reacher said.

  They rounded the final curve, and found a clearing hacked out of the woods. Dead ahead was a tumbledown old barn-like structure, and to their left was a tumbledown old cabin, both buildings made of wooden boards alternately baked and rotted by a century of weather. To their far right was the fire, raging in and around and above a wide, low rectangular structure with wheels. Yellow and blue and orange flames blazed up and out, and the trees burned and smouldered near them. Thick grey smoke boiled and swirled and eddied, and then caught the up-draught and whipped away into the darkness above.

  ‘What is it?’ Turner asked again, in a whisper.

  ‘Like that old joke,’ Reacher whispered back. ‘How is a fire in a meth lab the same as a redneck divorce?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Someone’s gonna lose a trailer.’

  ‘This is a meth lab?’

  ‘Was,’ Reacher said.

  ‘Hence no firefighters,’ Turner said. ‘Illegal operation. They couldn’t call it in.’

  ‘Firefighters wouldn’t come anyway,’ Reacher said. ‘If they came to every meth lab that caught on fire, they wouldn’t have time for anything else. Meth labs are accidents waiting to happen.’

  ‘Where are the people?’

  ‘Probably just one person. Somewhere around.’

  They moved into the clearing, towards the cabin, away from the fire, staying close to the trees. Smoke drifted and light and shadow danced all around them, pagan and elemental. The fire roared on, fifty yards away, undisturbed. The cabin was a simple one-storey affair, with an outhouse in the back. Both unoccupied. No one there. The barn was wide enough for two vehicles, and it had two vehicles in it, a big red Dodge pick-up truck with huge tyres and acres of bulging chrome, brand new, and a red convertible sports car, a Chevrolet Corvette, waxed and gleaming, with tail pipes as big as Reacher’s fists. Also brand new, or close to it.

  Reacher said, ‘This country boy is doing well.’

  ‘No,’ Turner said. ‘Not so well.’

  She pointed towards the fire.

  The skeleton of the trailer was still visible, twisting and dancing in the flames, and there was burning debris all around it, spilled and fallen, but changing the basic rectangular shape was a flat protrusion on the ground in front of it, like a tongue hanging out of a mouth, something low and rounded and very much on fire, with flames of a different colour and a different intensity. The kind of flames you see if you leave a lamb chop on the grill too long, but a hundred times bigger.

  ‘I guess he tried to save it,’ Reacher said. ‘Which was dumb. Always better to let it burn.’

  ‘What are we going to do?’ Turner said.

  ‘We’re going to make a withdrawal,’ Reacher said. ‘From the ATM. It was a decent-sized lab, and he had a couple of nice cars, so my guess is our credit limit is going to be pretty handsome.’

  ‘We’re going to take a dead man’s money?’

  ‘He doesn’t need it any more. And we have eighty cents.’

  ‘It’s a crime.’

  ‘It was already a crime. The guy was a dope dealer. And if we don’t take it, the cops will. When they get here tomorrow. Or the day after.’

  ‘Where is it?’

  ‘That’s the fun part,’ Reacher said. ‘Finding it.’

  ‘You’ve done this before, haven’t you?’

  ‘Usually while they’re still alive. I was planning to take a walk behind Union Station. Think of it like the IRS. We’re government employees, after all.’

  ‘That’s terrible.’

  ‘You want to sleep in a bed tonight? You want to eat tomorrow?’

  ‘Jesus,’ Turner said.

  But she searched just as hard as Reacher did. They started in the cabin. The air was stale. There was nothing hidden in the kitchen. No false backs in the cupboards, no fake tins of beans, nothing buried in flour canisters, no voids behind the wall boards. There was nothing in the living room. No trapdoors in the floor, no hollowed-out books, nothing in the sofa cushions, nothing up the chimney. There was nothing in the bedroom, either. No slits in the mattress, no locked drawers in the night table, nothing on top of the wardrobe, and no boxes under the bed.

  Turner said, ‘Where next?’

  Reacher said, ‘I should have thought of it before.’

  ‘Where?’

  ‘Where did this guy feel real private?’

  ‘This whole place feels real private. It’s a million miles from anywhere.’

  ‘But where most of all?’

  She got it. She nodded. She said, ‘The outhouse.’

  It was in the outhouse ceiling. There was a false panel right above the toilet, which Reacher unlatched and handed to Turner. Then he put his arm in the void and felt around and found a plastic tub. He hauled it out. It was the kind of thing he had seen in houseware stores. In it was about four thousand dollars in bricked twenties, and spare keys for the Dodge and the Corvette, and a deed for the property, and a birth certificate for a male child named William Robert Claughton, born in the state of West Virginia forty-seven years previously.

  ‘Billy Bob,’ Turner said. ‘Rest in peace.’

  Reacher bounced the keys in his hand and said, ‘The truck or the sports car?’

  ‘We’re going to steal his car as well?’

  ‘They’re already stolen,’ Reacher said. ‘No titles in the box. Probably some tweaker, boosting cars, paying off a debt. And the alternative is walking.’

  Turner was quiet a second more, like it was going to be a bridge too far, but then she shook her head and shrugged and said, ‘The sports car, of course.’

  So they kept the money and the Corvette key and put the rest of the stuff back in the outhouse ceiling. They hiked over to the barn, and dumped the money in the Corvette’s load space. On the edge of the clearing the fire was still going strong. Reacher tossed the car key to Turner and climbed in the passenger seat. Turner started the engine, and found the headlight switch, and clipped her belt low and tight.

  And a minute later they were back on the road, heading west in the dead of night, fast, warm, comfortable, and rich.

  TWENTY-EIGHT

  TURNER TOOK A mile to get settled in and then she upped her speed and found a perfect rhythm through the curves. The car felt big and low and hard and brutal. It threw long super-white headlight beams far ahead, and trailed loud V8 burble far behind. She said, ‘We should turn off soon. We can’t stay on this road much longer. One of those cars that came through Berryville was FBI, I think. Did you see it?’

  ‘The Crown Vic?’ Reacher said.

  ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘So we need to get away from any logical extension of that bus route. Especially because that old guy in the truck could tell them exactly where he let us out. He won’t forget that stop in a hurry.’

  ‘He won’t tal
k to the cops. He hauled coal in West Virginia.’

  ‘He might talk to the guys in the dented car. They might scare him. Or they might give him money.’

  ‘OK, go south,’ Reacher said. ‘South is always good in the wintertime.’

  She upped the speed a little more, and the tail pipes got louder. It was a fine car, Reacher thought. Maybe the best in the world for American roads. Which was logical, because it was an American car. He smiled suddenly and said, ‘Let’s turn the heater way up and put the top down.’

  Turner said, ‘You’re actually enjoying this, aren’t you?’

  ‘Why wouldn’t I? It’s like a rock-and-roll song on the radio. A fast car, some money in my pocket, and a little company for once.’

  So Turner put the heater dial all the way in the red, and she slowed to a stop at the side of the road, and they figured out the latches and the switches, and the top folded itself down into a well behind them. The night air flooded in, cold and fresh. They wriggled lower in their seats, and took off again. All the driving sensations were doubled. The speed, the lights, the noise. Reacher smiled and said, ‘This is the life.’

  Turner said, ‘I might get used to it. But I would like a choice.’

  ‘You might get one.’

  ‘How? There’s nothing to work with.’

  ‘Not exactly nothing,’ Reacher said. ‘We have an apparent anomaly, and we have a definite piece of procedural information. Which together might suggest a preliminary conclusion.’

  ‘Like what?’

  ‘Weeks and Edwards were murdered in Afghanistan, but you weren’t murdered here, and I wasn’t, and Moorcroft wasn’t. And he could have been. A drive-by shooting in southeast D.C. would have been just as plausible as a beating. And I could have been, because who was ever going to notice? And you could have been. A training accident, or carelessness handling your weapon. But they chose not to go down that road. Therefore there’s a kind of timidity on the D.C. end. Which is suggestive, when you combine it with the other thing.’

  ‘Which is what?’

  ‘Would you know how to open a bank account in the Cayman Islands?’

  ‘I could find out.’

  ‘Exactly. You’d search on the computer, and you’d make some calls, and you’d get whatever it was you needed, and you’d get it done. But how long would it take?’

  ‘Maybe a week.’

  ‘But these guys did it in less than a day. In an hour, probably. Your account was open by ten in the morning. Which has to imply an existing relationship. They told the bank what they wanted, and it was done right away, immediately, with no questions asked. Which makes them premium clients, with a lot of money. But we know that anyway, because they were prepared to burn a hundred grand, just to nail you. Which is a big sum of money, but they didn’t care. They went right ahead and dumped it in your account, and there’s no guarantee they’ll ever get it back. It might be impounded as evidence. And even if it isn’t, I don’t see how they can turn around afterwards and say, oh by the way, that hundred grand was ours all along and we want it returned to us.’

  ‘So who are they?’ Turner asked.

  ‘They’re very correct people, running a scam that generates a lot of money, prepared to order all kinds of mayhem eight thousand miles away in Afghanistan, but wanting things clean and tidy on their own doorstep. On first-name terms with offshore bankers, able to get financial things done in an hour, not a week, able to search and manipulate ancient files in any branch of the service they want, with fairly efficient muscle watching their backs. They’re senior staff officers in D.C., almost certainly.’

  Turner hung a left just after a town called Romney, on a small road that took them south but kept them in the hills. Safer that way, they thought. They didn’t want to get close to the I-79 corridor. Too heavily patrolled, even at night. Too many local PDs looking to boost their municipal revenues with speed traps. The only small-road negative was the complete lack of civilized infrastructure. No gas, no coffee. No diners. No motels. And they were hungry and thirsty and tired. And the car had a giant motor, with no kind of good miles-per-gallon figures. A lone road sign at the turn had promised some kind of a town, twenty miles ahead. About half an hour, at small-road speeds.

  Turner said, ‘I’d kill for a shower and a meal.’

  ‘You’ll probably have to,’ Reacher said. ‘It won’t be the city that doesn’t sleep. More likely the one-horse crossroads that never wakes up.’

  They never found out. They didn’t get there. Because a minute later they ran into another kind of small-road problem.

  TWENTY-NINE

  TURNER TOOK A curve and then had to brake hard, because there was a red road flare spiked in the blacktop directly ahead. Beyond it in the distance was another, and beyond that were headlight beams pointing in odd directions, one pair straight up vertically into the night-time sky, and another horizontal but at right angles to the traffic flow.

  Turner threaded left and right between the two spiked flares, and then she coasted to a stop, with the tail pipes popping and burbling behind them. The vertical headlights were from a pickup truck that had gone off the road ass-first into a ditch. It was standing more or less upright on its tailgate. Its whole underside was visible, all complicated and dirty.

  The horizontal headlights were from another pick-up truck, a sturdy half-ton crew-cab, which had turned and backed up until it was parked across the road at a right angle. It had a short and heavy chain hooked up to its tow hitch. The chain was stretched tight at a steep upward angle, and its other end was wrapped around a front suspension member on the vertical truck. Reacher guessed the idea was to pull the vertical truck over, back on to its wheels, like a falling tree, and then to drag it out of the ditch. But the geometry was going to be difficult. The chain had to be short, because the road was narrow. But the shortness of the chain meant that the front of the falling truck would hit the back of the half-ton, unless the half-ton kept on moving just right and inched out of the way. All without driving itself into the opposite ditch. It was going to be an intricate automotive ballet.

  There were three men on the scene. One was sitting dazed on the shoulder, with his elbows on his knees, and his head down. He was the driver of the vertical truck, Reacher guessed, stunned by the accident, and maybe still drunk or high, or both. The other two men were his rescuers. One was in the half-ton’s cab, looking back, elbow on the door, and the other was walking side to side, getting ready to direct operations.

  An everyday story, Reacher figured. Or an every-night story. Too many beers, or too many pipes, or too many of both, and then a dark winding road, and a corner taken too fast, and panicked braking, and locked rear wheels under an empty load bed, maybe some wintertime ice, and a spin, and the ditch. And then the weird climb out of the tipped-up seat, and the long slide down the vertical flank, and the cell phone call, and the wait for the willing friends with the big truck.

  No big deal, from anyone’s point of view. Practically routine. The locals looked like they knew what they were doing, despite the geometric difficulties. Maybe they had done it before, possibly many times. Reacher and Turner were going to be delayed five minutes. Maybe ten. That was all.

  And then that wasn’t all.

  The dazed guy on the shoulder became slowly aware of the bright new lights, and he raised his head, and he squinted down the road, and he looked away again.

  Then he looked back.

  He struggled up and got to his feet, and he took a step.

  He said, ‘That’s Billy Bob’s car.’

  He took another step, and another, and he glared at them, at Turner first, then at Reacher, and he stamped his foot and swung his right arm as if batting away immense clouds of flying insects, and he roared, ‘What are you doing in it?’

  Which sounded like Whut chew doon an at, maybe due to bad teeth, or booze, or befuddlement, or all of the above. Reacher wasn’t sure. Then the guy who was ready to direct operations got interested too, and the guy a
t the wheel of the half-ton crew-cab got out, and all three guys formed up in a raggedy little semicircle about ten feet ahead of the Corvette’s front fender. They were all wiry and worn down. They were all in sleeveless plaid work shirts over no-colour sweatshirts, and blue jeans, and boots. They all had woollen watch caps on their heads. The dazed guy was maybe five-eight, and the director of operations was maybe five-ten, and the half-ton driver was about six feet. Like small, medium and large in a country-clothing catalogue. From the low end of the market.

  ‘Run them over,’ Reacher said.

  Turner didn’t.

  The guy from the crew-cab said, ‘That’s Billy Bob’s car.’

  The dazed guy roared, ‘I already said that.’

  Are ready sud at.

  Real loud.

 
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