Never go back, p.17
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       Never Go Back, p.17
 

         Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  Maybe his hearing had been damaged by the wreck.

  The guy from the crew-cab said, ‘Why are you folks driving Billy Bob’s car?’

  Reacher said, ‘This is my car.’

  ‘No it ain’t. I recognize the plate.’

  Reacher unclipped his seat belt.

  Turner unclipped hers.

  Reacher said, ‘Why do you care who’s driving Billy Bob’s car?’

  ‘Because Billy Bob is our cousin,’ the guy said.

  ‘Really?’

  ‘You bet,’ the guy said. ‘There have been Claughtons in Hampshire County for three hundred years.’

  ‘Got a dark suit?’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because you’re going to a funeral. Billy Bob doesn’t need a car any more. His lab burned up tonight. He didn’t get out in time. We were passing by. Nothing we could do for him.’

  All three guys went quiet for a moment. They shuffled and flinched, and then shuffled some more and spat on the road. The guy from the half-ton said, ‘Nothing you could do for him but steal his car?’

  ‘Think of it as repurposing.’

  ‘Before he was even cold?’

  ‘Couldn’t wait that long. It was a hell of a fire. It’ll be a day or two before he’s cold.’

  ‘What’s your name, asshole?’

  ‘Reacher,’ Reacher said. ‘There have been Reachers in Hampshire County for about five minutes.’

  ‘You taking the mickey?’

  ‘Not really taking it. You seem to be giving it up voluntarily.’

  ‘Maybe you started the fire.’

  ‘We didn’t. Old Billy Bob was in a dangerous business. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Same with the car. Ill-gotten gains, ill gotten all over again.’

  ‘You can’t have it. We should have it.’

  Reacher opened his door. He jack-knifed his feet to the floor and stood up fast, in a second, all the way from having his butt four inches off the blacktop to his full six feet five. He stepped around the open door and walked forward and stopped, right on the spot where the ragged little semicircle was centred.

  He said, ‘Let’s not have a big discussion about inheritance rights.’

  The guy from the half-ton said, ‘What about his money?’

  ‘Possession is nine points of the law,’ Reacher said, like Espin, in the Dyer interview room.

  ‘You took his money too?’

  ‘As much as we could find.’

  Whereupon the dazed guy launched forward and swung his right fist in a violent arc. Reacher swayed backward and let the fist fizz past in front of him, harmlessly, and then he flapped his own right arm, back and forth, as if he was batting away more of the invisible insects, and the dazed guy stared at the pantomime, and Reacher cuffed him on the side of the head with his open left palm, just under the rim of his hat, like an old-time cop with a rude boy from the neighbourhood, just a tap, nothing more, but still the guy went down like his head had been blown apart by a round from a high-powered rifle. He lay still on the road, not moving at all.

  The guy from the half-ton said, ‘Is that what you do? Pick on the smallest first?’

  ‘I wasn’t picking on him,’ Reacher said. ‘He was picking on me. Are you going to make the same mistake?’

  ‘Might not be a mistake.’

  ‘It would be,’ Reacher said. Then he glanced beyond the guy, at the vertical pick-up truck. He said, ‘Shit, that thing’s going to fall over.’

  The guy didn’t turn around. Didn’t look. His eyes stayed fixed on Reacher’s.

  He said, ‘Good try. But I wasn’t born yesterday.’

  Reacher said, ‘I’m not kidding, you moron.’ And he wasn’t. Maybe the half-ton had a loose transmission. Maybe it had sagged forward six inches when the guy shut it down before he got out. But whatever, there was new tension in the chain. It was rigid. It was practically humming. And the vertical truck was teetering right on the point of balance, an inch away from falling forward like a tree. A breath of wind would have done it.

  And then a breath of wind went right ahead and did it.

  The branches all around sighed and moved gently, just once, and the vertical truck’s tailgate scraped over small stones trapped beneath it, and the chain went slack, and the truck started to topple forward, almost imperceptibly, one degree at a time, and then it hit the point of no return, and then it was falling faster, and faster, and then it was a giant sledgehammer smashing down into the half-ton’s load bed, the weight of its iron engine block striking a mighty blow on the corrugated floor, breaking the axle below it, the half-ton’s wheels suddenly canting out at the bottom and in at the top, like knock knees, or puppy feet, the smaller truck’s wheels folding the other way, on broken steering rods. The chain rattled to the ground, and competing suspensions settled, and the smaller truck came to rest, up at an angle, partly on top of the larger truck, both of them spent and inert and still.

  ‘Looks like they were having sex,’ Reacher said. ‘Doesn’t it?’

  No one answered. The small guy was still on the floor, and the other two were staring at a whole new problem. Neither vehicle was going anywhere soon, not without a big crane and a flatbed truck. Reacher climbed down into the Corvette. The wreckage was blocking the road, from ditch to ditch, so Turner had no choice. She backed up and threaded between the two burning flares, and she headed back the way they had come.

  THIRTY

  TURNER SAID, ‘THOSE guys will drop a dime, as soon as they hear about us. They’ll be on the phone immediately. To their probation officers. They’ll be cutting all kinds of deals. They’ll use us as a get-out-of-jail card, for their next ten misdemeanours.’

  Reacher nodded. The road couldn’t stay blocked for ever. Sooner or later some other passer-by would call it in. Or the Claughton cousins would call it in themselves, having exhausted all other alternatives. And then the cops would show up, and their inevitable questions would lead to exculpatory answers, and deals, and trades, and promises, and exchanges.

  ‘Try the next road south,’ Reacher said. ‘There’s nothing else we can do.’

  ‘Still enjoying yourself?’

  ‘Never better.’

  They made the turn on to the quiet two-lane road they had quit twenty minutes earlier. It was deserted. Trees to the left, trees to the right, nothing ahead, nothing behind. They crossed a river on a bridge. The river was the Potomac, at that location narrow and unremarkable, flowing north, downhill from its distant source, before hooking east and then broadening into the lazy current it was known as at its mouth. There was no traffic on the road. Nothing going their way, nothing going the other way. No lights and no sounds, except their own.

  Reacher said, ‘If this was a movie, right about now the cowboy would scratch his cheek and say it’s too quiet.’

  ‘Not funny,’ Turner said. ‘They could have sealed this road. There could be state police around the next bend.’

  But there weren’t. Not around the next bend, or the next. But the bends kept on coming. One after the other, like separate tense questions.

  Turner said, ‘How do they know how you live?’

  ‘Who?’

  ‘The senior staff officers.’

  ‘That’s a very good question.’

  ‘Do they know how you live?’

  They couldn’t find you before. They won’t find you now. The army doesn’t use skip tracers. And no skip tracer could find you anyway.

  ‘They seem to know I didn’t buy a split-level ranch somewhere in the suburbs. They seem to know I don’t coach Little League and grow my own vegetables. They seem to know I didn’t develop a second career.’

  ‘But how do they know?’

  ‘No idea.’

  ‘I read your file. There was a lot of good stuff in it.’

  ‘A lot of bad stuff, too.’

  ‘But maybe bad is good. In the sense of being interesting to someone. In terms of personality. They were tracking you since you were six years old. You ex
hibited unique characteristics.’

  ‘Not unique.’

  ‘Rare, then. In terms of an aggressive response to danger.’

  Reacher nodded. At the age of six he had gone to a movie, on a Marine base somewhere in the Pacific. A kids’ matinee. A cheap sci-fi potboiler. All of a sudden a monster had popped up out of a slimy lagoon. The youthful audience was being filmed in secret, with a low-light camera. A psy-ops experiment. Most kids had recoiled in terror when the monster appeared. But Reacher hadn’t. He had leapt at the screen instead, ready to fight, with his switchblade already open. They said his response time had been three-quarters of a second.

  Six years old.

  They had taken his switchblade away.

  They had made him feel like a psychopath.

  Turner said, ‘And you did well at West Point. And your service years were impressive.’

  ‘If you close your eyes and squint. Personally I remember a lot of friction and shouting. I was on the carpet a lot of the time.’

  ‘But maybe bad is good. From some particular perspective. Suppose there’s a desk somewhere, in the Pentagon, maybe. Suppose someone’s sole job is to track a certain type of person, who might be useful in the future, under a certain type of circumstance. Like long-range contingency planning, for a new super-secret unit. Deniable, too. Like a list of suitable personnel. As in, when the shit hits the fan, who are you gonna call?’

  ‘Now it sounds like you who’s been watching movies.’

  ‘Nothing happens in the movies that doesn’t happen in real life. That’s one thing I’ve learned. You can’t make this stuff up.’

  ‘Speculation,’ Reacher said.

  ‘Is it impossible there’s a database somewhere, with a hundred or two hundred or a thousand names in it, of people the military wants to keep track of, just in case?’

  ‘I guess that’s not impossible.’

  ‘It would be a very secret database. For a number of obvious reasons. Which means that if these guys have seen it, thereby knowing how you live, they’re not just senior staff officers. They’re very senior staff officers. You said so yourself. They have access to files in any branch of the service they want.’

  ‘Speculation,’ Reacher said again.

  ‘But logical.’

  ‘Maybe.’

  ‘Very senior staff officers,’ Turner said again.

  Reacher nodded. Like flipping a coin. Fifty-fifty. Either true, or not true.

  The first turn they came to was Route 220, which was subtly wider than the road they were on, and flatter, and better surfaced, and straighter, and altogether more important in every way. In comparison it felt like a major artery. Not exactly a highway, but because of their heightened sensitivities it looked like a whole different proposition.

  ‘No,’ Turner said.

  ‘Agreed,’ Reacher said. There would be gas and coffee, probably, and diners and motels, but there could be police too, either state or local. Or federal. Because it was the kind of road that showed up well on a map. Reacher pictured a hasty conference somewhere, with impatient fingers jabbing paper, with urgent voices saying roadblocks here, and here, and here.

  ‘We’ll take the next one,’ he said.

  Which gave them seven more tense minutes. The road stayed empty. Trees to the left, trees to the right, nothing ahead, nothing behind. No lights, no sound. But nothing happened. And the next turn was better. On a map it would be just an insignificant grey trace, or more likely not there at all. It was a high hill road, very like the one they had already tried, narrow, lumpy, twisting and turning, with ragged shoulders and shallow rainwater ditches on both sides. They took it gratefully, and its darkness swallowed them up. Turner got her small-road rhythm going, keeping her speed appropriate, keeping her movements efficient. Reacher relaxed and watched her. She was leaning back in her seat, her arms straight out, her fingers on the wheel, sensitive to the tiny quivering messages coming up from the road. Her hair was hooked behind her ears, and he could see slim muscles in her thigh, as she worked first one pedal and then the other.

  She asked, ‘How much money did the Big Dog make?’

  ‘Plenty,’ Reacher said. ‘But not enough to drop a hundred grand on a defensive scam, if that’s what you’re thinking.’

  ‘But he was right at the end of the chain. He wasn’t the top boy. He wasn’t a mass wholesaler. He would be seeing only a small part of the profit. And it was sixteen years ago. Things have changed.’

  ‘You think this is about stolen ordnance?’

  ‘It could be. The Desert Storm drawdown then, the Afghanistan drawdown now. Similar circumstances. Similar opportunities. But different stuff. What was the Big Dog selling?’

  ‘Eleven crates of SAWs, when we heard about him.’

  ‘On the streets of LA? That’s bad.’

  ‘That was the LAPD’s problem, not mine. All I wanted was a name.’

  ‘You could sell SAWs to the Taliban.’

  ‘But for how much?’

  ‘Drones, then. Or surface-to-air missiles. Extremely highvalue items. Or MOABs. Did you have them in your day?’

  ‘You make it sound like we had bows and arrows.’

  ‘So you didn’t.’

  ‘No, but I know what they are. Massive ordnance air burst. The mother of all bombs.’

  ‘Thermobaric devices more powerful than anything except nuclear weapons. Plenty of buyers in the Middle East for things like those. No doubt about that. And those buyers have plenty of money. No doubt about that, either.’

  ‘They’re thirty feet long. Kind of hard to slip in your coat pocket.’

  ‘Stranger things have happened.’

  Then she went quiet, for a whole mile.

  Reacher said, ‘What?’

  ‘Suppose this is government policy. We might be arming one faction against another. We do that all the time.’

  Reacher said nothing.

  Turner said, ‘You don’t see it that way?’

  ‘I can’t make it work deep down. The government can do whatever it wants. So why scam you with a hundred grand? Why didn’t you just disappear? And me? And Moorcroft? Why aren’t we in Guantanamo right now? Or dead? And why were the guys who came to the motel the first night so crap? That was no kind of government wet team. I barely had to break a sweat. And why would it get to that point in the first place? They could have backed you down some other way. They could have ordered you to pull Weeks and Edwards out of there. They could have ordered you to cease and desist.’

  ‘Not without automatically raising my suspicions. It would have put a big spotlight on the whole thing. That’s a risk they wouldn’t want to take.’

  ‘Then they’d have found a better way. They would have ordered a whole countrywide strategic pull-back, all the way to the Green Zone. For some made-up political reason. To respect the Afghans’ sovereignty, or some such thing. It would have been a tsunami of bullshit. Your guys would have been caught up in it along with everyone else, and you wouldn’t have thought twice about it. It would have been just one of those things. Same old shit.’

  ‘So you’re not convinced.’

  ‘This all feels amateur to me,’ Reacher said. ‘Correct, uptight, slightly timid people, somewhat out of their depth now, and therefore relying on somewhat undistinguished muscle to cover their collective asses. Which gives us one small problem and one big opportunity. The small problem being, those four guys know they have to get to us first, before the MPs or the FBI, because we’re in deep shit now, technically, with the escape and all, so the assumption is we’ll say anything to help with our situations. And even if no one believes us, it would all be out there as a possibility or a rumour, and these guys can’t afford any kind of extra scrutiny, even if it was half-assed and by the book. So that’s the small problem. Those four guys are going to stay hard on our tails. That’s for damn sure.’

  ‘And what’s the big opportunity?’

  ‘Those same four guys,’ Reacher said. ‘Their bosses will be
lost without them. They’ll be cut off at the knees. They’ll be helpless and isolated. They’ll be ours for the taking.’

  ‘So that’s the plan?’ Turner said. ‘We’re going to let the four guys find us, and we’re going to bust them, and then we’re going to move on up from there?’

 
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