61 hours, p.17
61 Hours, p.17Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
‘But he could have gone anywhere for that. Waco, Dallas, Abilene, even.’
‘No, he made a careful choice. Abilene is too far and too small. And Waco and Dallas are too patriotic. He thinks that TV and radio there might sit on the espionage angle. What is he, Fourth Infantry? Audiences in Waco and Dallas don’t want to hear about a Fourth Infantry captain going bad. He knows that. But Austin is much more liberal. And it’s the state capital, so the news stations are a little looser. He needs the real skinny, and he knows that Austin is where he’s going to get it.’
‘You said Georgetown.’
‘He’s afraid of the actual city. Too many cops, too much going on. He didn’t drive, did he? Too afraid of cops on the highway. His car is still on the post, right?’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘So he took the bus from Hood and stopped short. Georgetown is right there, close to Austin, but not too close. He watched out the window, all the way in. One motel after another. He mapped them in his head. He got out at the depot and walked back the way he came. Didn’t want unfamiliar territory. Didn’t want to walk too far, either. Too exposed. Too vulnerable. But even so he didn’t like the place nearest the depot. It felt too obvious. So he picked the second place. He’s there right now, in his room with the chain on, watching all the local channels.’
The voice didn’t answer.
Reacher said, ‘Wait one.’ He laid the phone gently on the table and got up. Checked the kitchen, checked the library. Nothing doing. He checked the parlour. Janet Salter was still on her feet, rock solid, deep in the shadows.
Nothing to see on the street.
No one coming.
Reacher went back to the hallway and sat down again in the chair and picked up the phone. The voice asked, ‘Anything else?’
‘Not that it matters, but he sat in the front third of the bus.’
‘You’re full of shit.’
‘It was a kind of camouflage. He didn’t want to give himself away as a fugitive. He thinks bad boys sit in back. He’s a Fourth Infantry captain. Probably a strait-laced kind of a guy. He remembers his school bus. The greasers sat in back. He didn’t.’
No answer. ‘Georgetown,’ Reacher said. ‘Second motel north of the bus depot. Check it out.’
Reacher asked, ‘Where are your nearest people?’
‘I have people at Hood.’
‘So send them down. It’s about fifty miles. What can it cost you?’
Reacher said, ‘And don’t forget, I need my information by tomorrow.’
He hung up. He put the chair back where it was supposed to be and stepped across the hallway and into the parlour. He checked the window.
Nothing to see.
No one coming.
Five to ten in the evening.
Thirty hours to go.
The clock ticked on. Reacher took every completed minute to be a small victory. A prison riot could not last for ever. Its initial phase would be relatively short. Hostages would be taken, territory would be seized, a standoff would ensue. Tactical adjustments would be made. The corrections officers would regroup. The cops would be released from duty. Reacher knew that.
Therefore the guy knew that, too.
Reacher didn’t understand why he didn’t come. His target was an old woman in a house. What was he waiting for?
At half past ten Janet Salter volunteered to make coffee. Reacher wouldn’t let her. Maybe that was what the guy was waiting for. The percolator needed water. Water came from the faucet. The faucet was over the sink. The sink was under the window. A preoccupied grey head two feet the other side of the glass might be a tempting target. So he made the coffee himself, after a duly cautious inspection of the vicinity. An unnecessary inspection, as it turned out. He stepped out the back door without coat, gloves, or hat. The cold hit him like a fist. It was raging. It was searching. It stunned him. Way below zero. Too far below to even guess at a number.
He stepped back in. Nobody was waiting out there for a target of opportunity. Impossible. After a minute you would be shaking too hard to see, let alone shoot. After an hour you would be in a coma. After two, you would be dead.
Which thoughts clarified things a little. There would be no long stealthy approach on foot through the snow. The danger would come from the front. The guy would have to drive up, jump out, and move fast. So after the percolator finished gulping and hissing Reacher poured two mugs and carried them back to the parlour, where he told Janet Salter they would alternate spells at the window, ten minutes on, ten minutes off, all through the next hour.
The next hour passed slowly. No one approached the house. The world outside was dead. Deep frozen. Nothing was moving, except the wind. It was blowing steadily out of the west. It was scouring powder into small stunted drifts and exposing ridges of ice that glittered blue in the moonlight. A spectral, elemental scene. Janet Salter did something with a dial on a wall and turned the heat up. Not good, in Reacher’s opinion. Warmth made people sleepy. But he didn’t want her to freeze. He had read about old folks, dead in their homes, overcome by hypothermia.
She asked, ‘Have you ever been here in winter before?’
He said, ‘I’ve never been here in any season.’
‘North Dakota, perhaps?’
‘I’ve been in the Dakota Building in New York City.’
‘Which was named for here,’ she said. ‘At the time it was built, the city didn’t extend much past 34th Street. It seemed lunatic to build fancy apartments all the way up on 72nd Street, and on the West Side, too. People said, you might as well put them in the Dakota Territory. The name stuck. The man who built it owned part of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which brings us full circle, really, doesn’t it, back to that can of oil.’
She was talking for the sake of talking. Reacher let her. He kept his eye on the street and filtered most of it out. She got into a long disquisition on the state’s history. Explorers and traders, Lewis and Clark, the Sioux Nation, Fort Pierre, sodbusters and pioneers, the gold rush, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Custer, the Black Hills, Wounded Knee, the Dust Bowl, some guy called Brokaw she claimed had been on network TV.
Five to eleven in the evening.
Twenty-nine hours to go.
Reacher completed his eighth circuit of the interior perimeter. He saw nothing to get concerned about. Nothing to see from any window except frozen moonlit emptiness. Nothing to hear except the rush of water in the heating pipes and a faint creaking as the ice outside got colder. It was clamping down. The earth was in its grip. He thought back to the sodbusters and the pioneers that Janet Salter had talked about. Why the hell had they stayed?
He was on his way back down the stairs when she called out.
She said, ‘Someone’s coming.’
She spoke loud and clear. But she added no information. No numbers, no location, no direction, no description. He stepped into the parlour and eased past her to the window. Saw a guy approaching on foot in the middle of the road, from the left. He was small, but swaddled in an enormous coat with a hood. He had a ski mask on. Plus a muffler, plus gloves, plus boots. Nothing in his hands. His hands were held out to the sides, for balance, and they were empty.
The guy moved on, slowly, tentatively, unsure of his footing. He stopped directly opposite the end of Janet Salter’s driveway. Just stood there.
Reacher asked, ‘Do you know who he is?’
She said, ‘Wait.’
The guy turned around, a stiff and ungainly half-circle, and faced the other way. A dog trotted up to him. A big white thing. Lots of fur. The guy turned around again, and man and dog walked on.
Janet Salter said, ‘A neighbour. A she, actually. Mrs Lowell. But it was hard to be sure, the way she was dressed.’
Reacher breathed out and said, ‘Is she the cop’s wife?’
‘Ex-wife. Officer Lowell moved out a year ago. There was some kind of unpleasantness.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I saw Lowell today. Peterson called him an odd duck. Said he read books.’
‘He does. He comes over and borrows some of mine from time to time. My family and his go way back.’
‘Do you know his partner?’
‘Officer Kapler? I’ve met him, certainly.’
‘He moved here from Florida. Which struck me as odd.’
‘Me too,’ Reacher said. He stayed at the window and watched Mrs Lowell and her dog round a curve and move out of sight.
They didn’t speak again for thirty minutes. The clock in Reacher’s head ticked on towards midnight. He asked, ‘Are you tired?’
Janet Salter said, ‘I haven’t really thought about it.’
‘You could go to bed, if you like. I can take care of things down here.’
‘Would you take care of things standing up? So if you fell asleep I would hear you fall down?’
Reacher smiled. ‘I won’t fall asleep.’
‘And I won’t go to bed. This is my responsibility. I shouldn’t be involving you at all.’
‘A problem shared is a problem halved.’
‘You could be killed.’
She asked, ‘Are you married?’
Reacher kept his eyes on the window and said, ‘No.’
‘Were you ever?’
‘Were you an only child?’
‘I had a brother two years older. He worked for the Treasury Department. He was killed in the line of duty.’
‘Not your fault.’
‘Do you always deflect sympathy that way?’
‘So you’re the last of your family’s line.’
‘I suppose so. But it wasn’t much of a line in the first place.’
‘Just like me. Scoundrels, all of them.’
‘Where were your gold mines?’
‘The Black Hills. Why?’
‘Peterson thinks the army place west of here could be mostly underground. I was wondering if there were old workings they could have used.’
‘No mines here. Just prairie topsoil and rock.’
‘Were your parents alive when you went off to college?’
‘Because if they were, they probably wrote you with all the local news. Maybe rumour and gossip, too. They must have told you something about that place. Maybe not exact enough for your scholarly mind to pass on as fact, but you must have heard some little thing.’
‘Nothing worth repeating.’
‘All I know is that it was built and never used. Apparently because its purpose was too revolting. There was a minor scandal about it.’
‘What was its purpose?’
‘I don’t know. No one spoke of it to me.’
Five minutes to midnight.
Twenty-eight hours to go.
A thousand miles away down in Texas two fast cars covered the fifty miles south from Hood in less than forty minutes. Six men in the cars, all warrant officers working for the 110th Special Unit, all currently W3s, all wanting to be W4s, all well aware that this kind of assignment could get them their promotions. They pulled off the main drag south and wheeled through the centre of Georgetown and found the bus depot. It was middle-of-the-night quiet. Cool air, trash, the stink of spilled diesel. Nothing coming in, nothing going out. They parked their cars a block farther on next to pawn shops and bail bond offices and hustled back the way they had come. They counted the motels. The first was a brick place behind a parking lot that was covered with broken blacktop. The second was right next to it, set end-on to the street, made of red wood, twelve rooms, a sign on a pole advertising free cable and free breakfast and no vacancies.
An office, first door on the left.
A clerk in the office, half awake.
A pass key, in the desk drawer.
The six W3s split up, three to the rear, three to the front. One of the front guys stood back, ready for anything. The other two entered every room, bold as you like, guns drawn, for close-up in-their-face flashlight examinations of the somnolent forms they found.
All twelve rooms.
Their man wasn’t there.
Reacher prowled through Janet Salter’s house one more time. By that point he was totally accustomed to its sounds. The creak of the boards, the creak of the stairs, an occluded right-angle joint in a steam pipe that hissed louder than all the others, a window sash that trembled a little in its frame because of the freshening wind. The smell of the air was changing. Tiny eddying draughts were stirring odours out of the rugs and the drapes. They were not unpleasant. Just old. Dyed wool, dusty velvet, mothballs, beeswax furniture polish, cigar smoke, pipe tobacco. Ancient, deep aromas, like an olfactory portrait of how prosperous frontier families used to live. Reacher sensed them behind the local mineral smell from the new oil on the gun he was carrying with him everywhere.
He came back to the parlour. Janet Salter’s gun was still in her pocket. Her hand was still resting on its butt. He asked her, ‘You still OK?’
She said with great formality, ‘I have reached the conclusion that I am privileged.’
‘In what way?’
‘I’m experiencing the chance to live out my principles. I believe that ordinary citizens must confront wickedness. But I believe in due process, too. I believe in an accused’s right to a fair trial and I believe in his right to confront the witnesses against him. But it’s so easy to talk the talk, isn’t it? Not everyone gets the opportunity to walk the walk. But now I am.’
‘You’re doing great,’ Reacher said.
He eased past her to the window.
Saw the wild bounce of headlight beams on the street.
A car, coming on fast.
IT WAS PETERSON, LEADING WHAT LOOKED LIKE MOST OF THE BOLTON PD. Six cars, seven, eight. Then a ninth. They jammed and slid and crunched to a stop all over the road. Twelve cops spilled out, then thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. They drew their weapons and formed up for an approach driven partly by desperate haste and partly by extreme caution. Because they had no idea what they were going to find.
Either tranquillity, or a double homicide.
Reacher stepped out to the hallway and lined up on the hinge side of the front door. He flung it open and stayed well out of sight. He didn’t want to get fired on by mistake. Fifteen nervous cops made for an unpredictable situation.
He called, ‘Peterson? This is Reacher. We’re all clear.’
He tried again. ‘Peterson?’
Icy air flooded in. Peterson’s voice came with it. ‘Reacher?’
Reacher called back, ‘All clear in here. Holster your weapons and come on in.’
They came in at a run, all fifteen of them, Peterson first, then the four women, then the three guys from the stake-out cars, then seven more bodies Reacher didn’t know. They brought gusts and billows of freezing air in with them. They all had red, chapped faces. The warm inside air hit them and they all started wrenching open their parkas and pulling the
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes