Never go back, p.21
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       Never Go Back, p.21

         Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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  ‘That doesn’t invalidate his overall position. Not in and of itself.’

  ‘What was his overall position?’

  ‘Solid. He also said, if you can’t acquaint an opponent with reason, you must acquaint his head with the sidewalk. He was a man of sound instincts. In his private life, I mean. Apart from getting stabbed to death with an ice pick in Mexico, that is.’

  ‘What are we going to do?’

  ‘We should start by getting dressed, probably. Except that most of my clothes are in the other room.’

  ‘My fault,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’

  ‘Don’t make a whole big thing out of it. We’ll survive. You get dressed, and we’ll both go next door, and I’ll get dressed. Safe enough. We’ll only be out there a couple of seconds. But take a shower first. There’s no rush. They’ll wait. They won’t come in here. They won’t break down Cousin Asshole’s door. I’m sure that’s part of the Claughton family code.’

  Turner matched Reacher’s habitual shower time exactly, dead on eleven minutes, from the first hand on the faucet to stepping out the door. Which in this instance involved a long pause, spent trying to time it right, to get to the next room unseen by a circling pick-up truck, and then deciding that with four of them each moving at close to thirty miles an hour, remaining unseen was not an available option. So they went for it, and for ten of the twenty feet they were ahead of the game, until a truck came around and Reacher heard a rush under its hood, as the driver reacted instinctively to the sudden appearance of his quarry, by stamping on the gas. Chasing it, Reacher supposed. Running it down. An evolutionary mechanism, like so many things. He unlocked his door and they spilled inside. He said, ‘Now they know for sure we’re here. Not that they didn’t know already. I’m sure Cyber Boy has been giving them chapter and verse.’

  His room was undisturbed. His boots were under the window, with his socks nearby, and his underwear, and his second T-shirt on a chair, and his jacket on a hook. He said, ‘I should take a shower too. If they keep on driving circles like that, they’ll be dizzy before we come out.’

  Reacher was ready in eleven minutes. He sat on the bed and laced his boots, and he put his coat on and zipped it up. He said, ‘I’m happy to do this by myself, if you like.’

  Turner said, ‘What about the troopers across the street? We can’t afford for them to come over.’

  ‘I bet the troopers let the Claughtons do whatever they want. Because I bet the troopers are mostly Claughtons too. But I’m sure we’ll do it all out of sight, anyway. That’s what usually happens.’

  ‘I’ll come with you.’

  ‘Have you done this before?’

  ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Not too many times.’

  ‘They won’t all fight. There’ll be a congestion problem, apart from anything else. And we can kerb their enthusiasm by putting the first few down hard. The key is not to spend too much time on any one individual. The minimum, ideally. Which would be one blow, and then move on to the next. Elbows are better than hands, and kicking is better than both.’

  ‘OK.’

  ‘But I’ll talk to them first. It’s not like they don’t have a slight point.’

  They opened the door and stepped out to the walkway and the bright noon light, and as Reacher expected they saw the four trucks drawn up tight, nose-in at the bottom of the concrete staircase, like suckerfish. Eight guys were leaning against their doors and their fenders and their load beds, patiently, like they had all the time in the world, which they did, because there was no way down from the second-floor walkway other than the concrete staircase. Reacher recognized the three guys from the night before, on the hill road, small, medium and large, the latter two looking more or less the same as they had before, and the small guy looking much better, like he was most of the way recovered from whatever binge had led to his accident. The other five were similar fellows, all hardscrabble types, the smallest of them a wiry guy all sinew and leathery skin, the largest somewhat bloated, by beer and fast food, probably. None of them was armed in any way. Reacher could see all sixteen hands, and all sixteen were empty. No guns, no knives, no wrenches, no chains.

  Amateurs.

  Reacher put his hands on the walkway’s rail, and he gazed out over the scene below, serenely, like a dictator in an old movie, ready to address a crowd.

  He said, ‘We need to find a way of getting you guys home before you get hurt. You want to work with me on that?’

  He had overheard a guy in a suit on a cell phone one time, who kept on asking, You want to work with me on that? He guessed it was a technique taught at expensive seminars in dowdy hotel ballrooms. Presumably because it mandated a positive response. Because civilized people felt an obligation to work with one another, if that option was offered. No one ever said, No, I don’t.

  But the guy from the half-ton did.

  He said, ‘No one is here to work with you, boy. We’re here to kick your butt and take our car and our money back.’

  ‘OK,’ Reacher said. ‘We can go down that road, if you like. But there’s no reason why all of you should go to the hospital. You ever heard of Gallup?’

  ‘Who?’

  ‘It’s a polling organization. Like at election time. They tell you this guy is going to get fifty-one per cent of the vote, and this other guy is going to get forty-nine.’

  ‘I’ve heard of them.’

  ‘You know how they do that? They don’t call everyone in America. That would take too long. So they sample. They call a handful of people and scale up the scores.’

  ‘So?’

  ‘That’s what we should do. We should sample. One of us against one of you. We should let the result stand in for what would have happened if we’d all gone at it together. Like the Gallup organization does.’

  No answer.

  Reacher said, ‘If your guy wins, you get to trade your worst truck for the Corvette. And you get half of Billy Bob’s money.’

  No answer.

  Reacher said, ‘But if my side wins, we’ll trade the Corvette for your best truck. And we’ll keep all of Billy Bob’s money.’

  No answer.

  Reacher said, ‘That’s the best I can do, guys. This is America. We need wheels and money. I’m sure you understand that.’

  No answer.

  Reacher said, ‘My friend here is ready and willing. You got a preference? Would you prefer to fight a woman?’

  The guy from the half-ton said, ‘No, that ain’t right.’

  ‘Then you’re stuck with me. But I’ll sweeten the deal. You can increase the size of your sample. Me against two of you. Want to work with me on that?’

  No answer.

  ‘And I’ll fight with both hands behind my back.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘You heard me.’

  ‘Both hands behind your back?’

  ‘For the terms we just agreed. And they’re great terms, guys. I mean, either way you get to keep the Corvette. I’m being reasonable here.’

  ‘Two of us, and your hands behind your back?’

  ‘I’d put a bag on my head if I had one.’

  ‘OK, we’ll take a piece of that.’

  ‘Terrific,’ Reacher said. ‘Any of you got health insurance? Because that would be a good way to choose up sides.’

  Then suddenly next to him Turner whispered, ‘I just remembered what I forgot. From last night. The thing in the original report.’

  ‘Was it the tribal guy?’ Reacher whispered back. An unknown American. A tribal elder. The grain of sand. The American was defined as unknown, but the tribal elder was not. ‘They told you his name?’

  ‘Not his name, exactly. Their names are all too complicated to remember. We use reference numbers instead. Assigned as and when they first become known to U.S. authorities. And the guy’s number was in the report. Which means he’s already in the system. He’s known to somebody.’

  ‘What was the number?’

  ‘I don’t remember. A.M. something.’


  ‘What does A.M. mean?’

  ‘Afghan male.’

  ‘That’s a start, I guess.’

  Then from below the guy from the half-ton called up, ‘OK, we’re all set down here.’

  Reacher glanced down. The small crowd had separated out, six and two. The two were the guy from the half-ton himself, and the bloated guy, full of McDonald’s and Miller High Life.

  Turner said, ‘Can you really do this?’

  Reacher said, ‘Only one way to find out,’ and he started down the stairs.

  THIRTY-SEVEN

  THE SIX SPECTATORS hung back, and Reacher and the chosen two moved together, into clear space, a tight little triangle of three men in lock step, two walking backward and one forward, all of them watchful, vigilant and suspicious. Beyond the parked trucks was an expanse of beaten dirt, about as wide as a city street. To the right was the back of the compound, where the Corvette was, behind the last building, and to the left the lot was open to Route 220, but the entrance was narrow, and there was nothing to see but the blacktop itself and a small stand of trees beyond it. The state police barracks was way to the west. No one on the beaten dirt could see it, and therefore the troopers could see no one on the beaten dirt.

  Safe enough.

  Good to go.

  Normally against two dumb opponents Reacher would have cheated from the get-go. Hands behind his back? He would have planted two elbows into two jaws right after stepping off the last stair. But not with six replacements standing by. That would be inefficient. They would all pile in, outraged, up on some peculiar equivalent of a moral high horse, and thereby buzzed beyond their native capabilities. So Reacher let the triangle adjust and rotate and kick the ground until everyone was ready, and then he jammed his hands in his back pockets, with his palms against his ass.

  ‘Play ball,’ he said.

  Whereupon he saw the two guys take up what he assumed were their combat stances, and then he saw them change radically. Tell a guy you’re going to fight with your hands behind your back, and he hears just that, and only that. He thinks, this guy is going to fight with his hands behind his back! And then he pictures the first few seconds in his mind, and the image is so weird it takes over his attention completely. No hands! An unprotected torso! Just like the heavy bag at the gym!

  So guys in that situation see nothing but the upper body, the upper body, the upper body, and the head, and the face, like irresistible targets of opportunity, damage just waiting to be done, unanswerable shots just begging to be made, and their stances open wide, and their fists come up high, and their chins jut forward, and their eyes go narrow and wild with glee as they squint in at the gut or the ribs or the nose or wherever it is they plan to land their first joyous blow. They see nothing else at all.

  Like the feet.

  Reacher stepped forward and kicked the fat guy in the nuts, solid, right foot, as serious as punting a ball the length of the field, and the guy went down so fast and so hard it was like someone had bet him a million bucks he couldn’t make a hole in the dirt with his face. There was a noise like a bag hitting a floor, and the guy curled up tight and his blubber settled and went perfectly still.

  Reacher stepped back.

  ‘Poor choice,’ he said. ‘Clearly that guy would have been better left on the bench. Now it’s just you and me.’

  The guy from the half-ton had stepped back too. Reacher watched his face. And saw all the guy’s previous assumptions being hastily revised. Inevitably. Yeah, feet, he was thinking. I forgot about that. Which pulled his centre of gravity too low. Now it was all feet, feet, feet. Nothing but feet. The guy’s hands came down, almost to his pelvis, and he put one thigh in front of the other, and he hunched his shoulders so tight that overall he looked like a little kid with a stomach cramp.

  Reacher said, ‘You can walk away now and we’ll call it done. Give us a truck, take the Corvette, and you’re out of here.’

  The guy from the half-ton said, ‘No.’

  ‘I’ll ask again,’ Reacher said. ‘But I won’t ask three times.’

  The guy said, ‘No.’

  ‘Then bring it, my friend. Show me the good stuff. You got good stuff, right? Or is driving around in circles all you can do?’

  Reacher knew what was coming. The guy was obviously right-handed. So it would be an inswinging right, starting low and never really getting high enough, like a sidearm pitcher, like a boxing glove fixed to a door, and the door slamming, with you in the doorway. That’s what it was going to be like. When it came. The guy was still shuffling around, still trying to find a launch pad.

  And then he found one, and then it came. Like a glove on a door. What are you going to do? Most people are going to duck out the way. But one six-year-old at the sci-fi movie isn’t. He’s going to turn sideways, and push forward hard, off bent knees, and he’s going to meet the door with his shoulder, nearer the hinge, about halfway across its width, maybe a little more, a solid aggressive shove where the momentum is lower, well inside the arc of the glove.

  Which is what Reacher did with the guy from the half-ton. He twisted, and pushed off, and slammed the guy with his shoulder, right in the centre of his chest, and the guy’s fist flailed all the way around Reacher’s back and came at him from the far side, limp, like the guy was trying to cop a feel in the picture house. After which the guy wobbled backward a long pace and got his balance by jabbing his hands out from his body, which left him stock still and wide open, like a starfish, which he seemed to realize immediately, because he glanced down in horror at Reacher’s moving feet.

  Newsflash, my friend.

  It’s not the feet.

  It’s the head.

  The feet were moving in a boxer’s shuffle, creating aim and momentum, and then the upper body was whipping forward, and the neck was snapping down, and the forehead was crunching into the bridge of the guy’s nose, and then snapping back up, job done, Reacher jerking upright, the guy from the half-ton staggering on rubber knees, half a step, and then the other half, and then a vertical collapse, weak and helpless, like a Victorian lady fainting into a crinoline.

  Reacher looked up at Turner on the walkway.

  He said, ‘Which truck do you think is the best?’

  THIRTY-EIGHT

  THE CLAUGHTON CODE of honour was a wonderful thing. That was clear. None of the six spectators interfered or intervened in any way. Either that, or they were worried about what Reacher might do to them, now that his hands were out of his pockets.

  In the end Turner liked the fat guy’s truck the best. It was a V-8, but not the one with the leaky muffler. It had the second-fullest tank of gas. It had good tyres. It looked comfortable. She drove it up next to the hidden Corvette, and they transferred Billy Bob’s money from the Corvette’s load space to the truck’s glove compartment, which two receptacles were about the same size, and then they rumbled back past the sullen crowd, and Reacher tossed the Corvette key out his window. Then Turner hit the gas and made the left on 220, past the state troopers, past the café with the griddle, and onward to the crossroads in the centre of town.

  Thirty minutes later Petersburg was twenty miles behind them. They were heading west, on a small road on the edge of a national forest. The truck had turned out to be a Toyota, not new, but it ran well. It was as quiet as a library, and it had satellite navigation. It was so heavy it smoothed out the bumps in the road. It had pillowy leather seats and plenty of space inside. Turner looked tiny in it. But happy. She had something to work with. She had a whole scenario laid out.

  She said, ‘I can see why these guys are worried. An A.M. number changes everything. The guy is known to us for a reason. Either his activities, or his opinions. And either thing is going to lead us somewhere.’

  Reacher asked, ‘How do we access the database?’

  ‘Change of plan. We’re going to Pittsburgh.’

  ‘Is the database in Pittsburgh?’

  ‘No, but there’s a big airport in Pittsburgh.’

 
‘I was just in Pittsburgh.’

  ‘At the airport?’

  ‘On the road.’

  ‘Variety is the spice of life,’ she said.

 
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