Never go back, p.18
Never Go Back,
Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
‘Except we’re not going to bust them,’ Reacher said. ‘We’re going to do to them what they were going to do to us.’
‘Which is what?’
‘We’re going to put them in the ground. And then we’re going to listen out for their bosses howling in the void. And then we’re going to explain to them carefully why it’s a very bad idea to mess with the 110th.’
THEY CROSSED THE line into Grant County, and the lonely hill road ran on unchanging, mile after mile. The speedometer was drifting between fifty and sixty, up and down, but the gas gauge was moving one way only, and fast. Then a sign on the shoulder announced the Grant County Airport twenty miles ahead, and a town named Petersburg.
Turner said, ‘A place with an airport has to have a gas station, right? And a motel. And a place with an airport and a gas station and a motel has to have a diner.’
Reacher said, ‘And a police department.’
‘Hope for the best.’
‘I always do,’ Reacher said.
They hit the town before the airport. It was mostly asleep. But not completely. They came out of the hills and merged left on to a state road that became North Main Street a hundred yards later, with built-up blocks on the left and the right. In the centre of town there was a crossroads with Route 220, which was the road they had avoided earlier. After the crossroads North Main Street became South Main Street. The airport lay to the west, not far away. There was no traffic, but some windows had lights behind them.
Turner went south, across the narrow Potomac again, and she took a right, towards the airport, which was a small place for light planes only, and was all closed up and dark. So she U-turned, kerb to kerb, and headed back, across the river again, towards the downtown crossroads.
Reacher said, ‘Go right on 220. I bet that’s where the good stuff is.’
East of the crossroads 220 was called Virginia Avenue, and for the first two hundred yards it was close-but-no-cigar. There was a sandwich shop, closed, and a pizza place, also closed. There was an out-of-business Chevron station, and two fast-food franchises, both closed for the night. There was an ancient motor court inn, boarded up, falling down, its lot choked with weeds.
‘No good stuff yet,’ Turner said.
‘Free market,’ Reacher said. ‘Someone put that Chevron out of business. And that motel. All we have to do is find out who.’
They drove on, another block, and another, past the city limit, and then they scored a perfect trifecta on the cheaper land beyond. First came a country café, open all night, on the left side of the road, behind a wide gravel lot with three trucks in it. Then there was a motel, a hundred yards later, on the right side of the road, a modern two-storey place on the edge of a field. And beyond the motel in the far distance was the red glow of an Exxon station.
All good. Except that halfway between the café and the motel was a state police barracks.
It was a pale building, long and low, made from glazed tan brick, with dishes and whip antennas on its roof. It had two cruisers parked out front, and lights behind two of its windows. A dispatcher and a desk sergeant, Reacher figured, doing their night duty in warmth and comfort.
Turner said, ‘Do they know about this car yet?’
Reacher looked at the motel. ‘Or will they before we wake up in the morning?’
‘We have to get gas, at least.’
‘OK, let’s go do that. We’ll try to get a feel for the place.’
So Turner eased on down the road, as discreet as she could be in a bright-red convertible with six hundred brake horsepower, and she pulled in at the Exxon, which was a two-island, four-pump affair, with a pay hut made of crisp, white boards. It looked like a tiny house. Except that it had antennas on its roof, too.
Turner parked near a pump, and Reacher studied the instructions, which said that without a credit card to dip, he was going to have to pre-pay in cash. He asked, ‘How many gallons?’
Turner said, ‘I don’t know how big the tank is.’
‘Pretty big, probably.’
‘Let’s say fifteen, then.’
Which was going to cost fifty-nine dollars and eighty-five cents, at the posted rate. Reacher peeled three twenties out of one of Billy Bob’s bricks and headed for the hut. Inside was a woman of about forty behind a bulletproof screen. There was a half-moon shape at counter height, for passing money through. Coming out of it were the sweet nasal melodies of an AM radio tuned to a country station, and the chatter and noise of a police scanner tuned to the emergency band.
Reacher slid his money through and the woman did something he guessed permitted the pump to serve up sixty bucks of gas, and not a drop more. One country song ended, and another started, separated only by a muted blast of static from the scanner. Reacher glanced at it and tried a weary-traveller expression and asked, ‘Anything happening tonight?’
‘All quiet so far,’ the woman said.
Reacher glanced the other way, at the AM radio. ‘Country music not enough for you?’
‘My brother owns a tow truck. And that business is all about being first on the scene. He gives me ten dollars for every wreck I get him to.’
‘So no wrecks tonight?’
‘Not a one.’
‘No excitement at all?’
The woman said, ‘That’s a nice car you’re riding in.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because I always wanted a Corvette.’
‘Did you hear about us on the scanner?’
‘Hard not to.’
‘Then you’ve been lucky. You got away with it.’
Reacher said, ‘Long may it continue,’ and he smiled what he hoped was a conspiratorial little smile, and headed back to the car. Turner was already pumping the gas. She had the nozzle hooked into the filler neck, and she was turned three-quarters away from him, with the back of one thigh against the flank of the car, and the other foot up on the kerb of the island. She had her hands behind her, and her back was arched, as if she was easing an ache. Her face was turned up to the night sky. Reacher imagined her shape, like a slender S under the big shirt.
Totally worth it.
He said, ‘The clerk is listening in on a scanner. We’re clean so far.’
‘You asked her? She’ll remember us now.’
‘She will anyway. She always wanted a Corvette.’
‘We should trade with her. We should take whatever she’s got.’
‘Then she’d remember us for ever.’
‘Maybe those hillbillies won’t call it in. Maybe their trucks were stolen too. Maybe they just vanished into the woods.’
‘Possible,’ Reacher said. ‘I don’t see why they would wait so long.’
‘We could park way in the back of the motel. Right out of sight. I think we should risk it. We really need to eat and sleep.’
The pump clicked off, just short of twelve gallons. Either the tank was smaller than they had guessed, or the gauge was pessimistic.
Turner said, ‘Now she knows it’s not our car. We’re not familiar with how much gas it takes.’
‘Will she give us the change?’
‘Maybe we should leave it.’
‘It’s twelve bucks. This is West Virginia. We’d stick out like sore thumbs.’
‘Tell her we’re heading south on 220. Tell her we’ve got a long way to go before daybreak. Then when she hears about us on the scanner she’ll call it in wrong.’
Reacher collected twelve dollars and fifty-two cents in change, and said something about trying to make it to I-64 before dawn. The AM radio murmured its tunes, and the police scanner stayed quiet. The woman looked out the window and smiled a little sadly, as if it was going to be a long time before she saw a Corvette again.
Turner picked Reacher up at the pay-hut door, and they drove back towards town, and pulled in again three hundred yards later, at the motel.
She said, ‘Check in first, and then hit the café
Reacher said, ‘Sure.’
She paused a long beat, and looked straight at him.
She said, ‘How many rooms are we going to get?’
He paused a long beat in turn, and said, ‘Let’s eat first. Then check in.’
‘There’s something I have to tell you.’
Fourteen years old.
‘After we order,’ he said. ‘It’s a long story.’
THE CAFÉ WAS a rural greasy spoon as perfect as anything Reacher had ever seen. It had a black guy in a white undershirt next to a lard-slick griddle three feet deep and six feet wide. It had battered pine tables and mismatched chairs. It smelled of old grease and fresh coffee. It had two ancient white men in seed caps, one of them sitting way to the left of the door, the other way to the right. Maybe they didn’t get along. Maybe they were victims of a feud three hundred years old.
Turner chose a table in the middle of the room, and they rattled the chairs out over the board floor, and they sat down. There were no menus. No chalkboards with handwritten lists of daily specials. It wasn’t that kind of a place. Ordering was clearly telepathic between the cook and his regular customers. For new customers, it was going to be a matter of asking out loud, plain and simple. Which the cook confirmed, by raising his chin and rotating his head a little, so that his right ear was presented to the room.
‘Omelette,’ Turner said. ‘Mushrooms, spring onions and cheddar cheese.’
No reaction from the cook.
None at all.
Turner said it again, a little louder.
Still no reaction. No movement. Just total stillness, and a raised chin, and an averted gaze, and a dignified and implacable silence, like a veteran salesman insulted by a counter-offer. Turner looked at Reacher and whispered, ‘What’s with this place?’
‘You’re a detective,’ Reacher said. ‘You see any sign of an omelette pan up there?’
‘No, I guess not. All I see is a griddle.’
‘So probably the best way to get some enthusiasm out of this guy would be to order something griddle-related.’
Turner paused a beat.
Then she said, ‘Two eggs over easy on a fried biscuit with bacon on the side.’
The cook said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’
‘Same for me,’ Reacher said. ‘And coffee.’
‘Yes, sir.’ And immediately the guy turned away and got to work with a wedge of new lard and a blade, planing the metal surface, smoothing it, three feet out and three feet back, and six feet side to side. Which made him a griddle man at heart. In Reacher’s experience such guys were either griddle men or owners, but never really both. A griddle man’s first instinct was to tend the metal, working it until it was glassy down at a molecular level, so slick it would make Teflon feel like sandpaper. Whereas an owner’s first instinct would have been to bring the coffee. Because the first cup of coffee seals the deal. A customer isn’t committed until he has consumed something. He can still get up and walk away, if he’s dissatisfied with the wait, or if he remembers an urgent appointment. But not if he’s already started in on his first cup of coffee. Because then he would have to throw some money down, and who really knows what a cup of diner coffee costs? Fifty cents? A dollar? Two dollars?
‘OK, we’ve ordered,’ Turner said. ‘So what do you have to tell me?’
‘Let’s wait for the coffee,’ Reacher said. ‘I don’t want to be interrupted.’
‘Then I have a couple of things,’ she said. ‘I want to know more about this guy Morgan, for instance. I want to know who’s got his hands on my unit.’
‘My unit too,’ Reacher said. ‘I always assumed I’d be its worstever commander, but I guess I’m not. Your guys in Afghanistan missed two consecutive radio checks, and he did nothing about it.’
‘Do we know where he’s from?’
‘Is he one of them?’
‘Hard to say. Obviously the unit needed a temporary commander. That’s not proof of guilt in itself.’
‘And how would recalling you to service fit their game plan? Surely they would want to get rid of you, not keep you close at hand.’
‘I think it was all supposed to make me run. Which I could have. I could have gone permanently AWOL. They made a big point of saying no one would come after me. No skip tracers. Like a one-two punch, with the Big Dog affidavit. A charge I can’t beat, and a mandate to stick around to face it. I think most guys in my situation would have headed for the hills at that point. I think that was their expectation, strategically. But it didn’t work.’
‘Because when a monster comes up out of the slime, you have to fight it.’
‘Or it could have been a JAG order, simple as that. There might have been a sidebar on the file, saying that if I didn’t cooperate, then I had to be nailed down. Because of some kind of political sensitivity, in the Secretary’s office. Certainly it wasn’t Morgan’s own decision. A light colonel doesn’t decide shit like that. It had to come from a higher level.’
‘From very senior staff officers.’
‘Agreed, but which ones, exactly?’
Turner didn’t answer that. The griddle man brought the coffee, finally. Two large pottery mugs, and a little pink plastic basket full of creamer pots and sugar packets, and two spoons pressed out of metal so thin they felt weightless. Reacher took a mug and sniffed the steam and tried a sip. The mug’s rim was cold and thick, but the coffee was adequate. Hot, and not too weak.
He put the mug back down on the table and linked his hands around it, as if he was protecting it, and he looked at Turner, right in the eye, and he said, ‘So.’
She said, ‘One more thing. And it’s going to be tough to say. So I’m sorry.’
‘What is it?’
‘I shouldn’t have asked about one room or two.’
‘I didn’t mind.’
‘But I did. I’m not sure I’m ready for one room yet. I feel like I owe you. For what you’ve done for me today. I don’t think that’s a good state of mind to be in, under those circumstances. The one-room type of circumstances, I mean.’
‘You don’t owe me anything. I had purely selfish motivations. I wanted to take you out to dinner. Which I’m right now in the middle of doing, I guess. In a way. Perhaps not as planned. But whatever, I got what I wanted. Anything else is collateral damage. So you don’t owe me shit.’
Turner said, ‘I feel unsettled.’
‘You just got arrested and broke out of jail. And now you’re running for your life and stealing cars and money.’
‘No, it’s because of you.’
‘You make me feel uncomfortable.’
‘Not your fault,’ she said. ‘It’s just the way you are.’
‘And what way is that?’
‘I don’t want to hurt your feelings.’
‘You can’t,’ Reacher said. ‘I’m a military cop. And a man. I have no feelings.’
‘That’s what I mean.’
‘I was kidding.’
‘No, you weren’t. Not entirely.’
Never Go Back by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on46 votes