Never go back, p.20
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       Never Go Back, p.20

         Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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  ‘OK, so not exactly simultaneous. Not two things at once, but one thing after the other. Does that make a difference?’

  ‘I think it does,’ Reacher said. ‘But first we have to step back a day. You sent Weeks and Edwards into the hills, and the reaction was instantaneous. The whole thing was over by noon the next day. How did they react so fast?’

  ‘Luck?’

  ‘Suppose it was something else.’

  ‘You think they have a mole in the 110th?’

  ‘I doubt it. Not with our kind of people. It would have been impossible in my day, and I can only imagine things have gotten better.’

  ‘Then how?’

  ‘I think your comms were penetrated.’

  ‘A tap on the Rock Creek phones? I don’t think that’s possible. We have systems in place.’

  ‘Not Rock Creek,’ Reacher said. ‘It makes no sense to tap the local ends of the network. There are too many of them. Better to concentrate on the centre of the web. Where the spider lives. I think they’re reading everything that goes in and out of Bagram. Very senior staff officers, with access to anything they want. Which back at that point was everything. Which was exactly what they got. They sifted through all the chatter, and they got the original rumour, and your orders, and your guys’ reactions, and the whole back and forth.’

  ‘Possible,’ Turner said.

  ‘Which makes a difference.’

  ‘But only as a background detail.’

  ‘No, more than that,’ Reacher said. ‘They had already stopped Weeks and Edwards, between one and nine hours previously, so why did they still go ahead and come after you?’

  ‘You know why. They thought I knew something I actually didn’t.’

  ‘But they didn’t need to think anything. Or guess, or plan for the worst. Not if they were reading stuff in and out of Bagram. No speculation was required. They knew what Weeks and Edwards told you. They knew for sure. They had it in black and white. They knew what you knew, Susan.’

  ‘But I knew nothing. Because Weeks and Edwards told me nothing.’

  ‘If that’s true, then why did they go ahead and come after you? Why would they do that? Why would they go ahead with a very complex and very expensive scam for no reason at all? Why would they risk that hundred grand?’

  ‘So what are you saying?’

  ‘I’m saying Weeks and Edwards did tell you something. I’m saying you do know something. Maybe it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, and maybe you don’t remember it now, but Weeks and Edwards gave you some little nugget, and as a result someone got his panties in a real big wad.’

  THIRTY-FIVE

  TURNER PUT HER bare feet up on the bed and leaned back on the pillow. She said, ‘I’m not senile, Reacher. I remember what they told me. We’re paying a Pashtun insider, and they met with the guy, and he told them an American officer had been seen heading north to meet with a tribal elder. But at that point the identity of the American officer was definitely not known, and the purpose of the meeting was definitely not known.’

  Reacher asked, ‘Was there a description?’

  ‘No, other than American.’

  ‘Man or woman?’

  ‘Has to be a man. Pashtun elders don’t meet with women.’

  ‘Black or white?’

  ‘Didn’t say.’

  ‘Army? Marines? Air Force?’

  ‘We all look the same to them.’

  ‘Rank? Age?’

  ‘No details at all. An American officer. That’s all we knew.’

  ‘There has to be something else.’

  ‘I know what I know, Reacher. And I know what I don’t.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘What does that even mean? This is like you and that woman in Korea. No one is aware of forgetting. Except I’m not forgetting. I remember what they said.’

  ‘How much back and forth was there?’

  ‘There was what I just told you, about the rumour, and then there were my orders, which were to go chase it. And that was all. One signal out, and one signal back.’

  ‘What about their last radio check? Did you see it?’

  ‘It was the last thing I saw, before they came for me. It was pure routine. No progress. Nothing to see here, folks, so move right along. That kind of thing.’

  ‘So it was in the original message. About the rumour. You’re going to have to try to remember it, word for word.’

  ‘An unknown American officer was seen heading north to meet with a tribal elder. For an unspecified reason. That’s it, word for word. I already remember it.’

  ‘What part of that is worth a hundred thousand dollars? And your future, and mine, and Moorcroft’s? And a bruise on a schoolgirl’s arm, in Berryville, Virginia?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ Turner said.

  They went quiet after that. No more talking. No more discussion. Turner lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling. Reacher leaned on the window sill, running her summary through his head, fourteen words, a perfect sentence, with a subject and an object and a verb, and a satisfying rhythm, and a pleasing cadence: An unknown American officer was seen heading north to meet with a tribal elder. He went over and over it, and then he broke it into thirds, and stared it down, clause by clause.

  An unknown American officer.

  Was seen heading north.

  To meet with a tribal elder.

  Twenty-three syllables. Not a haiku. Or, a little less than a haiku and a half.

  Meaning?

  Uncertain, but he sensed a tiny inconsistency between the start of the sentence and its finish, like a grain of sand in an otherwise perfect mechanism.

  An unknown American.

  A tribal elder.

  Meaning?

  He didn’t know.

  He said, ‘I’ll get going now. We’ll come back to it tomorrow. It might creep up on you in the night. That can happen. Something to do with the way the brain reacts to sleep. Memory processing, or a portal to the subconscious, or something like that. I read an article about it once, in a magazine I found on a bus.’

  ‘No,’ she said. ‘Don’t.’

  ‘Don’t what?’

  ‘Don’t get going,’ she said. ‘Stay here.’

  Reacher paused a beat.

  He said, ‘Really?’

  ‘Do you want to?’

  ‘Does the Pope sleep in the woods?’

  ‘Then take your shirt off.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Take it off, Reacher.’

  So he did. He hauled the thin stretchy cotton up over his shoulders, and then up over his head, and then he dropped it on the floor.

  ‘Thank you,’ she said.

  And then he waited, like he always did, for her to count his scars.

  ‘I was wrong,’ she said. ‘You’re not just feral. You’re an actual animal.’

  ‘We’re all animals,’ he said. ‘That’s what makes things interesting.’

  ‘How much do you work out?’

  ‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘It’s genetic.’ Which it was. Puberty had brought him many things unbidden, including height and weight and an extreme mesomorph physique, with a six-pack like a cobbled city street, and a chest like a suit of NFL armour, and biceps like basketballs, and subcutaneous fat like a Kleenex tissue. He had never messed with any of it. No diets. No weights. No gym time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, was his attitude.

  ‘Pants now,’ she said.

  ‘I’m not wearing anything underneath.’

  She smiled.

  ‘Me neither,’ she said.

  He undid his button. He dropped his zip. He pushed the canvas over his hips. He stepped out. One step closer to the bed.

  He said, ‘Your turn now.’

  She sat up.

  She smiled.

  She took her shirt off.

  She was everything he thought she would be, and she was everything he had ever wanted.

  They woke very late the next morning, warm, drowsy, deeply satiated,
roused from sleep only by the sound of automobile engines in the lot below their window. They yawned, and stretched, and kissed, long and slow and gentle.

  Turner said, ‘We wasted Billy Bob’s money. With the two-room thing. My fault entirely. I’m sorry.’

  Reacher asked, ‘What changed your mind?’

  ‘Lust, I suppose. Prison makes you think.’

  ‘Seriously.’

  ‘It was your T-shirt. I’ve never seen anything so thin. It was either very expensive or very cheap.’

  ‘Seriously.’

  ‘It was on my bucket list since we talked on the phone. I liked your voice. And I saw your photograph.’

  ‘I don’t believe you.’

  ‘You mentioned the girl in Berryville. That’s what changed my mind. With the arm. That offended you. And you’ve done nothing but chip away at my problem. You’re ignoring your own, with the Big Dog. Which is just as serious. Therefore you still care for others. Which means you can’t really be feral. I imagine caring for others is the first thing to go. And you still know right from wrong. Which all means you’re OK. Which all means my future self is OK, too. It’s not going to be so bad.’

  ‘You’re going to be a two-star general, if you want to be.’

  ‘Only two stars?’

  ‘More than that is like running for office. No fun at all.’

  She didn’t answer. There was still motor noise in the lot. It sounded like multiple vehicles were driving around and around, in a big circle. Maybe three or four of them, one after the other. Up one side of the building, and down the other. An endless loop.

  Turner asked, ‘What time is it?’

  ‘Nine minutes before noon.’

  ‘How do you know?’

  ‘I always know what time it is.’

  ‘What time is check-out?’

  Then they heard footsteps on the walkway outside, and an envelope slid under the door, and the footsteps reversed direction, and faded away.

  ‘Check-out time is noon, I guess,’ Reacher said. ‘Because I assume that envelope is our copy of the invoice, paid in full.’

  ‘That’s very formal.’

  ‘They have a computer.’

  The motor noise was still there. Reacher assumed the lizard part of his brain had already screened it for danger. Were they army vehicles? Cop cars? FBI? And apparently the lizard brain had made no comment. Correctly, in this case, because they were clearly civilian vehicles outside. All gasoline engines, including an out-of-tune V-8 with a holed muffler, and at least one weak four-cylinder cheap-finance-special-offer kind of a thing, plus crashing suspensions and rattling panels. Not military or paramilitary sounds at all.

  They got louder and faster.

  ‘What is that?’ Turner said.

  ‘Take a look,’ Reacher said.

  She padded slender and naked to the window. She made a peephole in the drapes. She looked out, and waited, to catch the whole show.

  ‘Four pick-up trucks,’ she said. ‘Various ages, sizes, and states of repair, all of them with two people aboard. They’re circling the building, over and over again.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘I have no idea.’

  ‘What town are we in?’

  ‘Petersburg, West Virginia.’

  ‘Then maybe it’s an old West Virginia folk tradition. The rites of spring, or something. Like the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Except they do it in pick-up trucks, in Petersburg.’

  ‘But it looks kind of hostile. Like those movies you mentioned, where they say it’s too quiet. The parts where the Indians ride in a circle around the wagon with the busted wheel. Faster and faster.’

  Reacher looked from her to the door.

  ‘Wait,’ he said.

  He slid out of bed and picked up the envelope. The flap was not gummed down. Inside was a piece of paper. Nothing sinister. As expected. It was a tri-folded invoice showing a zero balance. Which was correct. Room eleven, thirty bucks, less thirty bucks cash upfront.

  But.

  At the bottom of the invoice was a cheery printed thank-you-for-staying-with-us line, and below that the motel owner’s name was printed like a signature, and below that there was a piece of completely gratuitous information.

  ‘Shit,’ Reacher said.

  ‘What?’

  He met her by the bed and showed her.

  We surely appreciated you staying with us!

  John Claughton, Owner.

  There have been Claughtons in Grant County for three hundred years!

  THIRTY-SIX

  REACHER SAID, ‘I guess they’re really serious about that Corvette. They must have gotten on some kind of a phone tree last night. A council of war. A call to action. Hampshire County Claughtons, and Grant County Claughtons, and Claughtons from other counties, too, I’m sure. Probably dozens of counties. Probably vast swathes of the entire Mountain State. And if Sleeping Beauty in the office last night was a son or a nephew, then he’s also a cousin. And now he’s a made man. Because he dimed us out.’

  ‘That Corvette is more trouble than it’s worth. It was a bad choice.’

  ‘But it was fun while it lasted.’

  ‘Got any bright ideas?’

  ‘We’ll have to reason with them.’

  ‘Are you serious?’

  ‘Spread love and understanding,’ Reacher said. ‘Use force if necessary.’

  ‘Who said that?’

  ‘Leon Trotsky, I think.’

  ‘He was stabbed to death with an ice pick. In Mexico.’

 

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