61 hours, p.20
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       61 Hours, p.20

         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
 

  hard, hoping his chains would bite, but the Crown Vic’s onboard electronics wouldn’t allow the wheels to lock. The car rolled on with all kinds of thumping and banging coming from the brake pistons. The fuel truck kept on coming. Reacher yanked the wheel. The front tyres lost their grip and skated. The Crown Vic’s front left corner missed the back of the truck by an inch. The truck roared on, low gear, walking pace, oblivious. Reacher watched it go in his mirror. He had ended up stationary at a right angle across the old road, with his front wheels in one of the eastbound ruts and his back wheels in one of the westbound. He had to rock between Drive and Reverse and hit the gas hard to break free.

  But after that it was plain sailing all the way.

  The cop in the stake-out car at the end of Janet Salter’s street was Kapler. Better than Montgomery, from the day before. Kapler looked Reacher over very carefully and then backed up to let him by. Reacher parked nose to tail with the second stake-out car and hustled up the driveway. The day watch cop in the hallway let him in. He asked, ‘All quiet?’

  She said, ‘So far.’

  ‘Is Mrs Salter OK?’

  ‘She’s fine.’

  ‘Let me see her.’ Just like Chief Holland the night before, and just as pointless. If anything bad had happened, the cops wouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing.

  The day watch woman said, ‘She’s in the library.’

  Reacher found her there, in her usual chair. This time she was reading, an old book with no dust jacket and a title too small to read from a distance. Her gun was still in her pocket. Reacher could make out its shape. She looked up and said, ‘Kid gloves?’

  He said, ‘Plastic. Less classy than kid. But nothing to complain about.’

  ‘Did you learn anything?’

  ‘Plenty.’

  He got back in the car and headed for the police station. Found Peterson in the squad room. Reacher said, ‘Holland was right. They weren’t coming over here. They were bluffing. Or someone was bluffing on their behalf. We have no idea who actually called here. Could have been the shooter himself, trying to create time and space, trying to point you in the wrong direction.’

  ‘Well, whoever, they failed. And now we’re going to bust them all.’

  ‘Then you better do it quickly. They’re about to move out.’

  ‘They told you that?’

  ‘Think back to that call from the DEA. Have you ever sold a house?’

  ‘Once.’

  ‘You cleaned it up, right? Made it look real good?’

  ‘I painted the siding.’

  ‘They’ve got the snow all ploughed. Everything is immaculate. They’ve got their stuff in shipping boxes. They’ve run down their food supplies to nothing. Whoever owns the place is selling it out from under them.’

  ‘When are they going?’

  ‘Soon.’

  ‘Did they give you any trouble?’

  ‘Not really.’

  ‘Did they believe you were from the army?’

  ‘Not for a minute. But they’ve been told to keep their noses clean, as of right now. The place needs to be a controversy-free zone. Whoever owns the place doesn’t want the title damaged. So they didn’t give me a hard time.’

  ‘Nobody owns that place. It’s all public land.’

  ‘It makes a profit for somebody. Therefore somebody thinks he owns it. The bikers are his employees, that’s all. Worker bees. And now they’ve got their marching orders. They’re moving on to the next project.’

  ‘Plato the Mexican.’

  ‘Whoever.’

  Peterson asked, ‘Did you find a lab?’

  Reacher said, ‘I want to see the product from the restaurant parking lot.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because that’s the way my mind works. One step at a time.’ Peterson shrugged and led the way back to the corridor, around a corner, to an evidence room. There was a half-width counter outside it, unoccupied. Peterson stepped past it and took a bunch of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door.

  ‘Wait there,’ he said.

  He went in and came out ten seconds later with a clear plastic evidence bag. It was big. Stapled to it was a chain-of-custody form with four separate dates and times and locations and signatures on it. Inside it was the package that Janet Salter had described. The brick of white powder, hard and smooth under the wax paper wrap. The picture stencilled on it, the crown, the headband, the three points, the three balls representing jewels.

  Reacher asked, ‘Did you test it?’

  ‘Of course,’ Peterson said. ‘It’s meth. No question. Just short of a kilo, very high purity, almost clinical. Good stuff, if you like that kind of thing.’

  ‘Two hundred grand’s worth, right there.’

  ‘A million on the streets of Chicago, after they cut it and retail it.’

  ‘Any idea what the picture means?’

  ‘No. They always put some kind of logo on. This is a brand-conscious market.’

  ‘You got the money in there too, that the Chicago guy paid?’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘Can I see it?’

  ‘Don’t you believe me?’

  ‘I just like looking at stuff like that.’

  So Peterson ducked back in and came back out with another evidence bag. Same size. Same kind of form stapled to it. Full of bricks of bills, all banded together.

  ‘OK?’ Peterson asked.

  ‘How long would it take you to earn that much?’

  ‘After taxes? I don’t want to think about it.’

  ‘Is that really wax paper on the dope?’

  ‘No, it’s some kind of cellophane or glassine. It’s a little yellowed because it’s old stock. But it’s proper pharmaceutical quality. This is a very high-end operation.’

  ‘OK.’

  ‘So did you find their lab?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Did you see the stone building?’

  ‘Only from the outside.’

  ‘Do you know what it is?’

  ‘No, but I know what it isn’t.’

  Reacher headed for the squad room. For the desk in the back corner. He picked up the phone, dialled nine for a line, and then the number he remembered.

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘Amanda, please.’

  A click. A purr. The voice. It sounded tired. A little frustrated. It said, ‘I could be in Afghanistan right now. In fact if you don’t stop calling me I might just put in for a transfer.’

  Reacher said, ‘The food might be better. Can’t beat a goat’s eyeballs in yogurt.’

  ‘You ever been there?’

  ‘No, but I met someone who had.’

  ‘I’ve got no news for you.’

  ‘I know. You can’t see the money hitting the Department of the Army.’

  ‘I tried and failed.’

  ‘You didn’t. The money never went to the army.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’

  ‘What does that mean?’

  ‘We started with a false assumption. They told me about an army facility. A small stone building with a two-mile road. I just went out there. It’s not a road. It’s a runway. It’s an air force place, not army.’

  TWENTY-FOUR

  THE VOICE FROM VIRGINIA SAID, ‘WELL, THAT CHANGES THINGS A little.’

  Reacher said, ‘There’s another local rumour about prosthetic faces.’

  ‘Yes, I saw a note about that. There’s a file. Apparently the Pentagon got some calls from local folks in South Dakota. County and state government. But it’s bullshit. The plastic face places were always nearer the metro areas. Why put one out in the middle of nowhere?’

  ‘Why have them at all? If everyone is burned the same, why would anyone care?’

  No reply.

  Reacher asked, ‘Do you know anyone in the air force?’

  ‘Not for secrets.’

  ‘Might not be a secret. Could be entirely routine. We’re back at square one, as far as assumpti
ons are concerned.’

  ‘OK, I’ll make some calls. But first I’m going to take a nap.’

  ‘You can sleep when you’re dead. This is urgent. The runway is ploughed. Two whole miles. Nobody does that for fun. Therefore someone or something is due to show up. And I saw a fuel tanker. Maybe for the return trip. Maybe someone’s planning on some heavy lifting.’

  Silence for a beat. ‘Anything else?’

  He asked, ‘Are you married?’

  She asked, ‘Are you?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Were you ever?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Why am I not surprised?’

  She hung up.

  Five minutes to ten in the morning.

  Eighteen hours to go.

  Peterson was two desks away, hanging up on a call of his own. He said, ‘The DEA is blowing me off. Their guy wasn’t interested.’

  Reacher asked, ‘Why not?’

  ‘He said there’s no lab out there.’

  ‘How does he know?’

  ‘They have satellites and thermal imaging. They’ve reviewed the data and can’t see any heat. Therefore as far as they’re concerned it’s just a real estate deal. Until proved otherwise.’

  ‘The lab is underground.’

  ‘The DEA says not. Their imaging can see into basements. They say there’s nothing down there.’

  ‘They’re wrong.’

  ‘You didn’t see a lab.’

  ‘They have meth, they must have a lab.’

  ‘We don’t know that there’s anything under the ground at all. Not for sure.’

  ‘We do,’ Reacher said. ‘Nobody builds a two-mile runway for nothing. That’s long enough to land any kind of plane. Any kind of bomber, any kind of transport. And nobody lands bombers or transports next to a building smaller than a house. You were right. The building is a stair head. Which means there’s something under it. Probably very big and very deep.’

  ‘But what exactly?’

  Reacher pointed at his phone. ‘You’ll know when I know.’

  A half-hour later Peterson got a call to say that the highway had reopened. The weather radar was showing nothing incoming from the west except supercooled air, and all across the state the snowploughs and the salt spreaders had finished their work, and the Highway Patrol had conferred with the Department of Transportation, and traffic was flowing again. Then Jay Knox called to say he had been told the replacement bus was about three hours out. So Peterson lit up the phone tree and set up a two o’clock rendezvous for the passengers in the police station lobby. All twenty of them. The ladies with the broken bones were fit to travel. A two o’clock departure would get the group to Mount Rushmore a little less than two days late. Not bad, all in all, for South Dakota in the winter.

  Then he looked at Reacher and asked, ‘Are you going with them?’

  Reacher said, ‘I paid my money.’

  ‘So are you going?’

  ‘I’m a restless man.’

  ‘Yes or no?’

  ‘Depends what happens before two o’clock, I guess.’

  What happened before two o’clock was that Janet Salter decided to go out for a walk.

  Peterson took the call from one of the women cops in the house. Mrs Salter was going stir crazy. She had cabin fever. She felt cooped up. She was accustomed to taking walks, to the grocery, to the drugstore, to the restaurant, sometimes just for the fun of it. She had already been a prisoner in her own home for close to a week. She was taking her civic responsibilities seriously, but with responsibilities came rights, and stepping out like a free woman was one of them.

  ‘She’s crazy,’ Reacher said. ‘It’s freezing cold.’

  ‘She’s a native,’ Peterson said. ‘This is nothing to her.’

  ‘It must be twenty degrees below zero.’

  Peterson smiled, like an insider against an outsider. He said, ‘The coldest day we ever had was minus fifty-eight. Back in February of 1936. Then less than five months later in July we had the hottest day we ever had, a hundred and twenty exactly.’

  ‘Whatever, she’s still crazy.’

  ‘You want to try to talk her out of it?’

  Reacher tried. He drove over there with Peterson. Janet Salter was in her kitchen with the two day watch cops. Her percolator was all fired up. Reacher could smell fresh coffee and hot aluminum. She poured him a mug and said, ‘The officers tell me you told Mr Peterson that the bikers are preparing to leave.’

  Reacher nodded. ‘That’s how it looked to me.’

  ‘Therefore it should be safe enough to take a little stroll.’

  ‘The guy with the gun is not a biker. Never was.’

  ‘But whoever he is, he won’t be waiting outside. You said so yourself, last night. It’s too cold.’

  ‘It’s also too cold to go for a walk.’

  ‘Nonsense. If we keep up a brisk pace, we’ll enjoy it.’

  ‘We?’

  ‘I certainly hope you’ll accompany me.’

  Five to eleven in the morning.

  Seventeen hours to go.

  Peterson improvised a plan that looked a lot like the Secret Service taking the president for a walk. He deployed the three stake-out cars to the town’s southern, western, and eastern approaches, and told them to stand by to move like a rolling cordon if necessary. He and the two day watch women would be on foot, boxing in Mrs Salter at an appropriate tactical distance. Reacher would walk with her, always keeping himself between her and any passing traffic. A human shield, although Peterson didn’t put it that way.

  They all wrapped up in all the clothes they had and stepped through the door. The wind was steady out of the west. All the way from Wyoming. It was bitter. Reacher had been in Wyoming in the winter, and survived. He made a mental note never to risk it again. Peterson ranged ahead and one of the day watch women trailed behind and the other kept pace on the opposite sidewalk. Reacher stayed at Janet Salter’s shoulder. She had a scarf wrapped around the lower portion of her face. Reacher didn’t. As long as the wind was on his back, the situation was tolerable. But when they turned and headed north to town, his nose and cheeks and chin went numb and his eyes started to water. He pulled his hood forward and shielded his face as much as was prudent. He felt he needed some kind of peripheral vision. The sidewalk was humped and ridged with glazed snow. Walking on it was difficult.

  Janet Salter asked him, ‘What are you thinking about?’

  Her voice was muffled, literally. Her words came out thick and soft and then froze and whipped away on the wind.

 
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