Die trying, p.17
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       Die Trying, p.17

         Part #2 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Seventeen

  HOLLY WAS SITTING up on the mattress, one knee under her chin, the injured leg straight out. Reacher was sitting up beside her, hunched forward, worried, one hand fighting the bounce of the truck and the other hand plunged into his hair.

  "What about your mother?" he asked.

  "Was your father famous?" Holly asked him back.

  Reacher shook his head.

  "Hardly," he said. "Guys in his unit knew who he was, I guess. "

  "So you don't know what it's like," she said. "Every damn thing you do, it happens because of your father. I got straight A's in school, I went to Yale and Harvard, went to Wall Street, but it wasn't me doing it, it was this weird other person called General Johnson's daughter doing it. It's been just the same with the Bureau. Everybody assumes I made it because of my father, and ever since I got there half the people are still treating me especially nice, and the other half are still treating me especially tough just to prove how much they're not impressed. "

  Reacher nodded. Thought about it. He was a guy who had done better than his father. Forged ahead, in the traditional way. Left the old man behind. But he'd known guys with famous parents. The sons of great soldiers. Even the grandsons. However bright they burned, their light was always lost in the glow.

  "OK, so it's tough," he said. "And the rest of your life you can try to ignore it, but right now it needs dealing with. It opens up a whole new can of worms. "

  She nodded. Blew an exasperated sigh. Reacher glanced at her in the gloom.

  "How long ago did you figure it out?" he asked.

  "Immediately, I guess," she said. "Like I told you, it's a habit. Everybody assumes everything happens because of my father. Me too. "

  "Well, thanks for telling me so soon," Reacher said.

  She didn't reply to that. They lapsed into silence. The air was stifling and the heat was somehow mixing with the relentless drone of the noise. The dark and the temperature and the sound were like a thick soup inside the truck. Reacher felt like he was drowning in it. But it was the uncertainty that was doing it to him. Many times he'd traveled thirty hours at a stretch in transport planes, worse conditions than these. It was the huge new dimension of uncertainty that was unsettling him.

  "So what about your mother?" he asked her again.

  She shook her head.

  "She died," she said. "I was twenty, in school. Some weird cancer. "

  "I'm sorry," he said. Paused, nervously. "Brothers and sisters?"

  She shook her head again.

  "Just me," she said.

  He nodded, reluctantly.

  "I was afraid of that," he said. "I was kind of hoping this could be about something else, you know, maybe your mother was a judge or you had a brother or a sister who was a congressman or something. "

  "Forget it," she said. "There's just me. Me and Dad. This is about Dad. "

  "But what about him?" he said. "What the hell is this supposed to achieve? Ransom? Forget about it. Your old man's a big deal, but he's just a soldier, been clawing his way up the Army pay scales all his life. Faster than most guys, I agree, but I know those pay scales. I was on those scales thirteen years. Didn't make me rich and they won't have made him rich. Not rich enough for anybody to be thinking about a ransom. Somebody wanted a ransom out of kidnapping somebody's daughter, there are a million people ahead of you in Chicago alone. "

  Holly nodded.

  "This is about influence," she said. "He's responsible for two million people and two hundred billion dollars a year. Scope for influence there, right?"

  Reacher shook his head.

  "No," he said. "That's the problem. I can't see what this is liable to achieve. "

  He got to his knees and crawled forward along the mattresses.

  "Hell are you doing?" Holly asked him.

  "We got to talk to them," he said. "Before we get where we're going. "

  He lifted his big fist and started pounding on the bulkhead. Hard as he could. Right behind where he figured the driver's head must be. He kept on pounding until he got what he wanted. Took a while. Several minutes. His fist got sore. But the truck lurched off the pavement and started slowing. He felt the front wheels washing into gravel. The brakes bit in. He was pressed up against the bulkhead by the momentum. Holly rolled a couple of feet along the mattress. Gasped in pain as her knee twisted against the motion.

  "Pulled off the highway," Reacher said. "Middle of nowhere. "

  "This is a big mistake, Reacher," Holly said.

  He shrugged and took her hand and helped her into a sitting position, back against the bulkhead. Then he slid forward and put himself between her and the rear doors. He heard the three guys getting out of the cab. Doors slammed. He heard their footsteps crunching over the gravel. Two coming down the right flank, one down the left. He heard the key sliding into the lock. The handle turned.

  The left-hand rear door opened two inches. First thing into the truck was the muzzle of the shotgun. Beyond it, Reacher saw a meaningless sliver of sky. Bright blue, small white clouds. Could have been anywhere in the hemisphere. Second thing into the truck was a Glock 17. Then a wrist. The cuff of a cotton shirt. The Glock was rock-steady. Loder.

  "This better be good, bitch," he called.

  Hostile. A lot of tension in the voice.

  "We need to talk," Reacher called back.

  The second Glock appeared in the narrow gap. Shaking slightly.

  "Talk about what, asshole?" Loder called.

  Reacher listened to the stress in the guy's voice and watched the second Glock trembling through its random zigzags.

  "This isn't going to work, guys," he said. "Whoever told you to do this, he isn't thinking straight. Maybe it felt like some kind of a smart move, but it's all wrong. It isn't going to achieve anything. It's just going to get you guys in a shitload of trouble. "

  There was silence at the rear of the truck. Just for a second. But long enough to tell Reacher that Holly was right. Long enough to know he'd made a bad mistake. The steady Glock snapped back out of sight. The shotgun jerked, like it had just changed ownership. Reacher flung himself forward and smashed Holly down flat on the mattress. The shotgun barrel tipped upward. Reacher heard the small click of the trigger a tiny fraction before an enormous explosion. The shotgun fired into the roof. A huge blast. A hundred tiny holes appeared in the metal. A hundred tiny points of blue light. Spent shot rattled and bounced down and ricocheted around the truck like hail. Then the sound of the gun faded into the hum of temporary deafness.

  Reacher felt the slam of the door. The sliver of daylight cut off. He felt the rock of the vehicle as the three men climbed back into the cab. He felt the shake as the rough diesel caught. Then a forward lurch and a yaw to the left as the truck pulled back onto the highway.

  FIRST THING REACHER heard as his hearing came back was a quiet keening as the air whistled out through the hundred pellet holes in the roof. It grew louder as the miles rolled by. A hundred high-pitched whistles, all grouped together a couple of semitones apart, fighting and warbling like some kind of demented birdsong.

  "Insane, right?" Holly said.

  "Me or them?" he said.

  He nodded an apology. She nodded back and struggled up to a sitting position. Used both hands to straighten her knee. The holes in the roof were letting light through. Enough light that Reacher could see her face clearly. He could interpret her expression. He could see the flicker of pain. Like a blind coming down in her eyes, then snapping back up. He knelt and swept the spent pellets off the mattress. They rattled across the metal floor.

  "Now you've got to get out," she said. "You'll get yourself killed soon. "

  The highlights in her hair flashed under the random bright illumination.

  "I mean it," she said. "Qualified or not, I can't let you stay. "

  "I know you can't," he said.

  He used his discarded shirt to sweep the pell
ets into a pile near the doors. Then he straightened the mattresses and lay back down. Rocked gently with the motion. Stared at the holes in the sheet metal above him. They were like a map of some distant galaxy.

  "My father would do what it takes to get me back," Holly said.

  Talking was harder than it had been before. The drone of the motor and the rumble of the road were complicated by the high-pitched whistle from the roof. A full spectrum of noise. Holly lay down next to Reacher. She put her head next to his. Her hair fanned out and brushed his cheek and fell to his neck. She squirmed her hips and straightened her leg. There was still space between their bodies. The decorous V shape was still there. But the angle was a little tighter than it had been before.

  "But what can he do?" Reacher said. "Talk me through it. "

  "They're going to make some kind of demand," she said. "You know, do this or do that, or we hurt your girl. "

  She spoke slowly and there was a tremor in her voice. Reacher let his hand drop into the space between them and found hers. He took it and squeezed gently.

  "Doesn't make any sense," he said. "Think about it. What does your father do? He implements long-term policy, and he's responsible for short-term readiness. Congress and the President and the Defense Secretary thrash out the long-term policy, right? So if the Joint Chairman tried to stand in their way, they'd just replace him. Especially if they know he's under this kind of pressure, right?"

  "What about short-term readiness?" she said.

  "Same sort of a thing," Reacher said. "He's only chairman of a committee. The individual Chiefs of Staff are in there, too. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. If they're all singing a different song from what your father is reporting upward, that's not going to stay a secret for long, is it? They'll just replace him. Take him out of the equation altogether. "

  Holly turned her head. Looked straight at him.

  "Are you sure?" she said. "Suppose these guys are working for Iraq or something? Suppose Saddam wants Kuwait again. But he doesn't want another Desert Storm. So he has me kidnapped, and my father says sorry, can't be done, for all kinds of invented reasons?"

  Reacher shrugged.

  "The answer's right there in the words you used," he said. "The reasons would be invented. Fact is, we could do Desert Storm again, if we had to. No problem. Everybody knows that. So if your father started denying it, everybody would know he was bullshitting, and everybody would know why. They'd just sideline him. The military is a tough place, Holly, no room for sentiment. If that's the strategy these guys are pursuing, they're wasting their time. It can't work. "

  She was quiet for a long moment.

  "Then maybe this is about revenge," she said slowly. "Maybe somebody is punishing him for something in the past. Maybe I'm going to Iraq. Maybe they want to make him apologize for Desert Storm. Or Panama, or Grenada, or lots of things. "

  Reacher lay on his back and rocked with the motion. He could feel slight breaths of air stirring, because of the holes in the roof. He realized the truck was now a lot cooler, because of the new ventilation. Or because of his new mood.

  "Too arcane," he said. "You'd have to be a pretty acute analyst to blame the Joint Chairman for all that stuff. There's a string of more obvious targets. Higher-profile people, right? The President, the Defense Secretary, Foreign Service people, field generals. If Baghdad was looking for a public humiliation, they'd pick somebody their people could identify, not some paper shuffler from the Pentagon. "

  "So what the hell is this about?" Holly said.

  Reacher shrugged again.

  "Ultimately, nothing," he said. "They haven't thought it through properly. That's what makes them so dangerous. They're competent, but they're stupid. "

  THE TRUCK DRONED on another six hours. Another three hundred and fifty miles, according to Reacher's guess. The inside temperature had cooled, but Reacher wasn't trying to estimate their direction by the temperature anymore. The pellet holes in the roof had upset that calculation. He was relying on dead reckoning instead. A total of eight hundred miles from Chicago, he figured, and not in an easterly direction. That left a big spread of possibilities. He trawled clockwise around the map in his head. Could be in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. Could be in Texas, Oklahoma, the southwest corner of Kansas. Probably no farther west than that. Reacher's mental map had brown shading there, showing the eastern slopes of the mountains, and the truck wasn't laboring up any grades. Could be in Nebraska or South Dakota. Maybe he was going to pass right by Mount Rushmore, second time in his life. Could have kept on past Minneapolis, into North Dakota. Eight hundred miles from Chicago, anywhere along a giant arc drawn across the continent.

  THE LIGHT COMING in through the pellet holes had been gone for hours when the truck slowed and steered right. Up a ramp. Holly stirred and turned her head. Looked straight at Reacher. Questions in her eyes. Reacher shrugged back and waited. The truck paused and swung a right. Cruised down a straight road, then hung a left, a right, and continued on straight, slower. Reacher sat up and found his shirt. Shrugged himself into it. Holly sat up.

  "Another hideout," she said. "This is a well-planned operation, Reacher. "

  This time it was a horse farm. The truck bumped down a long track and turned. Backed up. Reacher heard one of the guys getting out. His door slammed. The truck lurched backward into another building. Reacher heard the exhaust noise beat against the walls. Holly smelled horse smell. The engine died. The other two guys got out. Reacher heard the three of them grouping at the rear of the truck. Their key slid into the lock. The door cracked open. The shotgun poked in through the gap. This time, not pointing upward. Pointing level.

  "Out," Loder called. "The bitch first. On its own. "

  Holly froze. Then she shrugged at Reacher and slid across the mattresses. The door snapped wide open and two pairs of hands seized her and dragged her out. The driver moved into view, aiming the shotgun straight in at Reacher. His finger was tight on the trigger.

  "Do something, asshole," he said. "Please, just give me a damn excuse. "

  Reacher stared at him. Waited five long minutes. Then the shotgun jabbed forward. A Glock appeared next to it. Loder gestured. Reacher moved slowly forward toward the two muzzles. Loder leaned in and snapped a handcuff onto his wrist. Looped the chain into the free half and locked it. Used the chain to drag him out of the truck by the arm. They were in a horse barn. It was a wooden structure. Much smaller than the cow barn at their previous location. Much older. It came from a different generation of agriculture. There were two rows of stalls flanking an aisle. The floor was some kind of cobbled stone. Green with moss.

  The central aisle was wide enough for horses, but not wide enough for the truck. It was backed just inside the door. Reacher saw a frame of sky around the rear of the vehicle. A big, dark sky. Could have been anywhere. He was led like a horse down the cobbled aisle. Loder was holding the chain. Stevie was walking sideways next to Reacher. His Glock was jammed high up against Reacher's temple. The driver was following, with the shotgun pressed hard into Reacher's kidney. It bumped with every step. They stopped at the end stall, farthest from the door. Holly was chained up in the space opposite. She was wearing a handcuff, right wrist, chain looped through the spare half into an iron ring bolted into the back wall of the stall.

  The two guys with the guns fanned out in a loose arc and Loder shoved Reacher into his stall. Opened the cuff with the key. Looped the chain through the iron ring bolted into the timber on the back wall, looped it again, twice, and relocked it into the cuff. He pulled at it and shook it to confirm it was secure.

  "Mattresses," Reacher said. "Bring us the mattresses out of the truck. "

  Loder shook his head, but the driver smiled and nodded.

  "OK," he said. "Good idea, asshole. "

  He stepped up inside and dragged the queen-size out. Struggled with it all the way down the aisle and flopped it into Holly's stall. Kicked it straight.
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  "The bitch gets one," he said. "You don't. "

  He started laughing and the other two joined in. They strolled away down the aisle. The driver pulled the truck forward out of the barn and the heavy doors creaked shut behind it. Reacher heard a heavy crossbeam slamming down into its retaining brackets on the outside and the rattle of another chain and a padlock. He glanced across at Holly. Then he looked down at the damp stone floor.

  REACHER WAS SQUATTED down, jammed into the far angle of the stall's wooden walls. He was waiting for the three guys to come back with dinner. They arrived after an hour. With one Glock and the shotgun. And one metal messtin. Stevie walked in with it. The driver took it from him and handed it to Holly. He stood there leering at her for a second and then turned to face Reacher. Pointed the shotgun at him.

  "Bitch eats," he said. "You don't. "

  Reacher didn't get up. He just shrugged through the gloom.

  "That's a loss I can just about survive," he said.

  Nobody replied to that. They just strolled back out. Pushed the heavy wooden doors shut. Dropped the crossbeam into place and chained it up. Reacher listened to their footsteps fade away and turned to Holly.

  "What is it?" he asked.

  She shrugged across the distance at him.

  "Some sort of a thin stew," she said. "Or a thick soup, I guess. One or the other. You want some?"

  "They give you a fork?" he asked.

  "No, a spoon," she said.

  "Shit," he said. "Can't do anything with a damn spoon. "

  "You want some?" she asked again.

  "Can you reach?" he said.

  She spent some time eating, then she stretched out. One arm tight against the chain, the other pushing the messtin across the floor. Then she swiveled and used her good foot to slide the tin farther across the stone. Reacher slid forward, feet first, as far as his chain would let him go. He figured if he could stretch far enough, he could hook his foot around the tin and drag it in toward him. But it was hopeless. He was six five, and his arms were about the longest the Army tailors had ever seen, but even so he came up four feet short. He and Holly were stretched out in a perfect straight line, as near together as their chains would let them get, but the messtin was still way out of his reach.

  "Forget it," he said. "Get it back while you can. "

  She hooked her own foot around the tin and pulled it back.

  "Sorry," she said. "You're going to be hungry. "

  "I'll survive," he said. "Probably awful, anyway. "

  "Right," she said. "It's shit. Tastes like dog food. "

  Reacher stared through the dark at her. He was suddenly worried.

  HOLLY LAY DOWN apologetically on her mattress and calmly went to sleep, but Reacher stayed awake. Not because of the stone floor. It was cold and damp, and hard. The cobblestones were wickedly lumpy. But that was not the reason. He was waiting for something. He was ticking off the minutes in his head, and he was waiting. His guess was it would be about three hours, maybe four. Way into the small hours, when resistance is low and patience runs out.

  A long wait. The thirteen-thousand-seven-hundred-and-sixty-first night of his life, way down there in the bottom third of the scale, lying awake and waiting for something to happen. Something bad. Something he maybe had no chance of preventing. It was coming. He was certain of that. He'd seen the signs. He lay and waited for it, ticking off the minutes. Three hours, maybe four.

  IT HAPPENED AFTER three hours and thirty-four minutes. The nameless driver came back into the barn. Wide awake and alone. Reacher heard his soft footsteps on the track outside. He heard the rattle of the padlock and the chain. He heard him lift the heavy crossbar out of its brackets. The barn door opened. A bar of bright moonlight fell across the floor. The driver stepped through it. Reacher saw a flash of his pink pig's face. The guy hurried down the aisle. No weapon in his hand.

  "I'm watching you," Reacher said, quietly. "You back off, or you're a dead man. "

  The guy stopped opposite. He wasn't a complete moron. He stayed well out of range. His bright eyes traveled up from the handcuff on Reacher's wrist, along the chain, and rested on the iron ring in the wall. Then he smiled.

  "You watch if you want to," he said. "I don't mind an audience. And you might learn something. "

  Holly stirred and woke up. Raised her head and glanced around, blinking in the dark.

  "What's going on?" she said.

  The driver turned to her. Reacher couldn't see his face. It was turned away. But he could see Holly's.

  "We're going to have us a little fun, bitch," the driver said. "Just you and me, with your asshole friend here, watching and learning. "

  He put his hands down to his waist and unbuckled his belt. Holly stared at him. Started to sit up.

  "Got to be joking," she said. "You come near me, I'll kill you. "

  "You wouldn't do that," the driver said. "Now would you? After I gave you a mattress and all? Just so we could be comfortable while we're doing it?"

  Reacher stood up in his stall. His chain clanked loudly in the silent night.

  "I'll kill you," he called. "You touch her, you're a dead man. "

  He said it once, and then he said it again. But it was like the guy wasn't hearing him. Like he was deaf. Reacher was hit with a clang of fear. If the guy wasn't going to listen to him, there was nothing he could do. He shook his chain. It rattled loudly through the silence of the night. It had no effect. The guy was just ignoring him.

  "You come near me, I'll kill you," Holly said again.

  Her leg was slowing her down. She was trapped in an awkward struggle to stand up. The driver darted into her stall. Raised his foot and stamped it down on her knee. She screamed in agony and collapsed and curled into a ball.

  "You do what I tell you, bitch," the driver said. "Exactly what I tell you, or you'll never walk again. "

  Holly's scream died into a sob. The driver pulled his foot back and carefully kicked her knee like he was aiming for a field goal right at the end of the last quarter. She screamed again.

  "You're a dead man," Reacher yelled.

  The driver turned around and faced him. Smiled a wide smile.

  "You keep your mouth tight shut," he said. "One more squeak out of you, it'll be harder on the bitch, OK?"

  The ends of his belt were hanging down. He balled his fists and propped them on his hips. His big vivid face was glowing. His hair was bushed up like he'd just washed it and combed it back. He turned his head and spoke to Holly over his shoulder.

  "You wearing anything under that suit?" he asked her.

  Holly didn't speak. Silence in the barn. The guy turned to face her. Reacher saw her tracking his movements.

  "I asked you a question, bitch," he said. "You want another kick?"

  She didn't reply. She was breathing hard. Fighting the pain. The driver unzipped his pants. The sound of the zip was loud. It fought with the rasping of three people breathing hard.

  "You see this?" he asked. "You know what this is?"

  "Sort of," Holly muttered. "It looks a little like a penis, only smaller. "

  He stared at her, blankly. Then he bellowed in rage and rushed into her stall, swinging his foot. Holly dodged away. His short wide leg swung and connected with nothing. He staggered off balance. Holly's eyes narrowed in a gleam of triumph. She dodged back and smashed her elbow into his stomach. She did it right. Used his own momentum against him, used all her weight like she wanted to punch his spine right out through his back. Caught him with a solid blow. The guy gasped and spun away.

  Reacher whooped in admiration. And relief. He thought: couldn't have done it better myself, kid. The guy was heaving. Reacher saw his face, crumpled in pain. Holly was snarling in triumph. She scrambled on one knee after him. Going for his groin. Reacher willed her on. She launched herself at him. The guy turned and took it on the thigh. Holly had planned for that. It left his throat ope
n to her elbow. Reacher saw it. Holly saw it. She lined it up. The killing blow. A vicious arcing curve. It was going to rip his head off. She swung it in. Then her chain snapped tight and stopped her short. It clanked hard against the iron ring and jerked her backward.

  Reacher's grin froze on his face. The guy staggered out of range. Stooped and panted and caught his breath. Then he straightened up and hitched his belt higher. Holly faced him, one-handed. Her chain was tight against the wall, vibrating with the tension she had on it.

  "I like a fighter," the guy gasped. "Makes it more interesting for me. But make sure you save yourself some energy for later. I don't want you just lying there. "

  Holly glared at him, breathing hard. Crackling with aggression. But she was one-handed. The guy stepped in again and she swung a stinging punch. Fast and low. He crowded left and blocked it. She couldn't deliver the follow-up. Her other arm was pinned back. He raised his foot and kicked for her stomach. She arched around it. He kicked out again and stumbled straight into an elbow, hard against his ear. It was the wrong elbow, with no force behind it because of her impossible position. A poor blow. It left her off balance. The driver stepped close and kicked her in the gut. She went down. He kicked out again and caught her knee. Reacher heard it crunch. She screamed in agony. Collapsed on the mattress. The driver breathed fast and stood there.

  "I asked you a damn question," he said.

  Holly was deathly white and trembling. She was writhing around on the mattress, one arm pinned behind her, gasping with the pain. Reacher saw her face, flashing through the bar of bright moonlight.

  "I'm waiting, bitch," the guy said.

  Reacher saw her face again. Saw she was beaten. The fight was out of her.

  "Want another kicking?" the driver said.

  There was silence in the barn again.

  "I'm waiting for an answer," the guy said.

  Reacher stared over, waiting. There was still silence. Just the rasping of three people breathing hard in the quiet. Then Holly spoke.

  "What was the question?" she said quietly.

  The guy smiled down at her.

  "You wearing anything under that suit?" he said.

  Holly nodded. Didn't speak.

  "OK, what?" the guy said to her.

  "Underwear," she said, quietly.

  The guy cupped a hand behind his ear.

  "Can't hear you, bitch," he said.

  "I'm wearing, underwear, you bastard," she said, louder.

  The guy shook his head.

  "Bad name," he said. "I'm going to need an apology for that. "

  "Screw you," Holly said.

  "I'll kick you again," the guy said. "In the knee. I do that, you'll never walk without a stick, the whole rest of your life, you bitch. "

  Holly looked away.

  "Your choice, bitch," the guy said.

  He raised his foot. Holly stared down at her mattress.

  "OK, I apologize," she said. "I'm sorry. "

  The guy nodded, happily.

  "Describe your underwear to me," he said. "Lots of detail. "

  She shrugged. Turned her face away and spoke to the wooden wall.

  "Bra and pants," she said. " Victoria 's Secret. Dark peach. "

  "Skimpy?" the driver asked.

  She shrugged again, miserably, like she knew for sure what the next question was going to be.

  "I guess," she said.

  "Want to show it to me?" the guy said.

  "No," she said.

  The driver took a step closer.

  "So you do want another kicking?" he said.

  She didn't speak. The guy cupped his hand behind his ear again.

  "Can't hear you, bitch," he said.

  "What was the question?" Holly muttered.

  "You want another kicking?" the guy said.

  Holly shook her head.

  "No," she said again.

  "OK," he said. "Show me your underwear, and you won't get one. "

  He raised his foot. Holly raised her hand. It went to the top button on her suit. Reacher watched her. There were five buttons down the front of the suit. Reacher willed her to undo each of them slowly and rhythmically. He needed her to do that. It was vital. Slowly and rhythmically, Holly, he pleaded silently. He gripped his chain with both hands. Four feet from where it looped into the iron ring on the back wall. He tightened his hands around it.

  She undid the top button. Reacher counted: one. The driver leered down. Her hand slid to the next button. Reacher tightened his grip again. She undid the second button. Reacher counted: two. Her hand slid down to the third button. Reacher turned square-on to face the rear wall of his stall and took a deep breath. Turned his head and watched over his shoulder. Holly undid the third button. Her breasts swelled out. Dark peach brassiere. Skimpy and lacy. The driver shuffled from foot to foot. Reacher counted: three. He exhaled right from the bottom of his lungs. Holly's hand slid down to the fourth button. Reacher took a deep breath, the deepest breath of his life. He tightened his hold on the chain until his knuckles shone white. Holly undid the fourth button. Reacher counted: four. Her hand slid down. Paused a beat. Waited. Undid the fifth button. Her suit fell open. The driver leered down and made a small sound. Reacher jerked back and smashed his foot into the wall. Right under the iron ring. He smashed his weight backward against the chain, two hundred and twenty pounds of coiled fury exploding against the force of his kick. Splinters of damp wood burst out of the wall. The old planks shattered. The bolts tore right out of the timber. Reacher was hurled backward. He swarmed up to his feet, his chain whipping and flailing angrily behind him.

  "Five!" he screamed.

  He seized the driver by the arm and hurled him into his stall. Threw him against the back wall. The guy smashed into it and hung like a broken doll. He staggered forward and Reacher kicked him in the stomach. The guy jackknifed in the air, feet right off the ground, and smashed flat on his face on the cobblestones. Reacher doubled his chain and swung it through the air. Aimed the lethal length at the guy's head like a giant metal whip. The iron ring centrifuged out like an old medieval weapon. But at the last second Reacher changed his mind. Wrenched the chain out of its trajectory and let it smash and spark into the stones on the floor. He grabbed the driver, one hand on his collar and one hand in his hair. Lifted him bodily across the aisle to Holly's mattress. Jammed his ugly face down into the softness and leaned on him until he suffocated. The guy bucked and thrashed, but Reacher just planted a giant hand flat on the back of his skull and waited patiently until he died.

  HOLLY WAS STARING at the corpse and Reacher was sitting next to her, panting. He was spent and limp from the explosive force of tearing the iron ring out of the wall. It felt like a lifetime of physical effort had gone into one split second. A lifetime supply of adrenaline was boiling through him. The clock inside his head had stopped. He had no idea how long they had been sitting there. He shook himself and staggered to his feet. Dragged the body away and left it in the aisle, up near the open door. Then he wandered back and squatted next to Holly. His fingers were bruised from his desperate grip on the chain, but he forced them to be delicate. He did up all her buttons, one by one, right to the top. She was taking quick short breaths. Then she flung her arms round his neck and held on tight. Her breathing sucked and blew against his shirt.

  They held each other for a long moment. He felt the fury drain out of her. They let each other go and sat side by side on the mattress, staring into the gloom. She turned to him and put her small hand lightly on top of his.

  "Now I guess I owe you," she said.

  "My pleasure," Reacher said. "Hey, believe me. "

  "I needed help," she said quietly. "I've been fooling myself. "

  He flipped his hand over and closed it around hers.

  "Bullshit, Holly," he said, gently. "Time to time, we all need help. Don't feel bad about it. If you were fit, you'd have
slaughtered him. I could see that. One arm and one leg, you were nearly there. It's just your knee. Pain like that, you've got no chance. Believe me, I know what it's like. After the Beirut thing, I couldn't have taken candy from a baby, best part of a year. "

  She smiled a slight smile and squeezed his hand. The clock inside his head started up again. Getting close to dawn.

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