Never go back, p.23
Never Go Back,
Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
She smiled. She took her new sweater off. She was wearing nothing under it. No bra. She didn’t really need one, and she wasn’t about to pretend. He liked her for that. He liked her for everything, basically. Not that he had a big problem with any kind of a topless woman in his room. But she was special. Mentally, and physically. Physically she was flawless. She was lean and strong, but she looked soft and tiny. One curve flowed into another, endlessly, seamlessly, like a single contour, like a Möbius strip, from the cleft of her back, to her shoulder, to her waist, to her hips, to her back, where it started all over again. Her skin was the colour of honey. Her smile was wicked, and her laugh was infectious.
Romeo dialled, and this time Juliet picked up immediately. Romeo said, ‘It’s them. A tall, heavy, fair-haired man, and a younger dark-haired woman, much smaller. That’s what the hotel manager saw.’
‘Any indication how long they intend to stay?’
‘They paid cash for one night.’
‘Did they book a wake-up call?’
‘No. They can’t fly. Not with cash, and not with those IDs. Reacher looks nothing like Temple. Even the TSA would notice. I think they’re just holed up. Not a bad choice. Airport hotels are always anonymous, and Pittsburgh isn’t the centre of the known universe. I’d like to know how they got so much money, though.’
‘Our boys will get there as soon as they can.’
‘The hotel manager said Turner was on the phone.’
‘I’m having it traced now.’
Afterwards they lay spent and sweaty in tangled sheets, breathing hard, then breathing low. Turner got up on an elbow and stared at Reacher’s face, and ran her fingertips over his brow, slow and searching. She said, ‘It’s not even bruised.’
‘All bone,’ he said. ‘All the way through.’
Her touch moved down to his nose.
‘This wasn’t, though,’ she said. ‘Not all the way through. And recent, right?’
‘Nebraska,’ Reacher said. ‘Some guy, all worked up about something.’
Her fingertip traced the cuts, all healed up but not long ago, and the thickened bumps of bone, which now gave his nose a slight right turn. Still a surprise to him, but automatically normal to her. She traced around his ear, and his neck, and his chest. She put the tip of her pinkie in his bullet hole. It fit just right.
‘A .38,’ he said. ‘A weak load.’
‘Lucky,’ she said.
‘I’m always lucky. Look at me now.’
Her touch moved on, to his waist. To the old shrapnel scar.
‘Beirut,’ she said. ‘I read your file. A Silver Star and a Purple Heart. Not bad, but still, I bet overall you got more metal in your gut than on your chest.’
‘It was bone,’ Reacher said. ‘Fragments of somebody’s head, who was standing nearer.’
‘It said shrapnel in the file.’
‘How many times did you read that file?’
‘Over and over again.’
‘You know where the word shrapnel comes from?’
‘An eighteenth-century British guy named Henry Shrapnel.’
‘He was a captain in their artillery for eight years. Then he invented an exploding shell, and they promoted him major. The Duke of Wellington used the shell in the Peninsular Wars, and at the Battle of Waterloo.’
‘But thanks for reading that file. It means a lot to me.’
‘Because now I don’t have to spend a lot of time telling you a bunch of old stories. You know them already.’
‘Telling each other old stories has a nice ring to it.’
‘You haven’t told me any.’
‘But I will,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you as many as you want to hear.’
Romeo dialled Juliet and said, ‘She was calling a pre-paid cell phone almost certainly purchased at a Wal-Mart. If it was paid for in cash, it’s untraceable. And I bet it was.’
Juliet said, ‘It was worth a try.’
‘But you know, one big market for pre-paid cell phones is the military. Because some of them don’t make enough for a regular monthly contract. Which is shameful, frankly. And because some of them lead necessarily disorganized lives, and pre-paid suits them better.’
‘That’s a leap.’
‘The phone is showing up on three cell towers north and west of the Pentagon.’
‘Rock Creek is north and west of the Pentagon.’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘I think she was calling the mothership. And someone aboard the mothership took her call.’
‘Our boys are on their way to Pittsburgh.’
‘Doesn’t matter. No one at Rock Creek can help her now.’
TURNER TOOK A shower, but Reacher didn’t bother. He wrapped up in a robe and lounged in a chair, warm, deeply satisfied, as relaxed as he could ever remember being. Then Turner came out in the other robe and asked, ‘What time is it?’
‘Four minutes,’ Reacher said. ‘Until you’re due to call Leach again. Does she know I’m with you?’
Turner nodded. ‘I’m sure the whole world knows by now. And I told her, anyway.’
‘Was she OK with that?’
‘She’s a sergeant in the U.S. Army. I don’t think she’s a prude.’
‘That’s not the point. If you beat your thing, then no one can touch her for helping you. She’ll come out smelling of roses. But if I don’t beat my thing, then she’s still in trouble for helping me. Or vice versa. And so on and so forth. She’s doubling her risk and halving her chances.’
‘She didn’t object.’
‘You should hang on to her.’
‘I will,’ Turner said. ‘If I ever get back.’
And then she picked up the phone and dialled.
A little more than fourteen miles away, a phone rang inside the FBI Field Office on East Carson Street, Pittsburgh, which was a little south and east of the downtown area. A duty agent answered, and found himself talking to the Hoover Building in D.C. He was told that the Homeland Security computers were showing the names Sullivan and Temple as guests in an airport hotel nearby. The duty agent spooled back through his bulletins and his BOLOs, and saw that the D.C. Metro cops and the army MPs were looking for two fugitives presumed to be travelling under those names.
The duty agent called his Special Agent in Charge, and asked, ‘Do you want me to spread the word to D.C. and the army?’
His SAC was quiet for a moment, and then he said, ‘No need to complicate things.’
No need to share the credit, the duty agent thought.
His SAC said, ‘Send one of our own to check it out.’
‘Whenever you can. No big rush. We’ve got until the morning. I’m sure they aren’t going anywhere.’
Turner had the room phone trapped between her shoulder and her neck again, as before, and Reacher could hear the ring tone. Then he heard Leach answer. He couldn’t make out her words, but he could make out her mood. Which was not good. She launched into a long fast monologue, all of it reduced to a rapid plastic quack by the earpiece, but all of it frustrated and angry. Turner said, ‘Thanks anyway,’ and hung up, looking very tired, and bitterly disappointed.
Reacher said, ‘What?’
‘Take a guess.’
‘There was no number after all.’
‘The transcript is missing. Someone took it out of the file room.’
‘Has to be. No one else would or could.’
‘So either he’s one of them or he’s following orders blindly.’
Turner nodded. ‘They’re cleaning house. And they’re covering all the bases. Because they’re better than I thought they were. And therefore I’m screwed. There’s no way out for me now. Not without that A.M. number.’
‘Isn’t it still in a computer som
‘We don’t really trust computers. The feeling is we might as well send stuff straight to the New York Times. Or China.’
‘So your physical transcript is your only record?’
She nodded again. ‘It’s the only one I’m aware of. Maybe Bagram keeps a copy. Why? You thinking of asking JAG to issue a subpoena? Good luck with that.’
‘Could it be misfiled?’
‘No, and Leach checked everywhere anyway. She’s not dumb.’
‘There has to be another way around this.’
‘Wake me up if you think of it,’ she said. ‘Because right now I’m all done thinking. I have to get some sleep.’
She dropped her robe to the floor and padded naked around the room, straightening the drapes, turning out the lights, and then she climbed under the covers, and rolled over, and sighed a long, sad, exhausted sigh, and then she lay still. Reacher watched her for a moment, and then he went back to his chair, and sat a spell in the dark. He pictured the Rock Creek file room in his mind, upstairs, first on the left, room 201. He pictured the duty captain downstairs in 103, taking the long-distance call from Weeks and Edwards, writing it up, hand-carrying the sheet of precious paper up the old stone stairs, showing it to Turner, getting her reply, transmitting it, copying it out, and heading upstairs again to file both the call and the response in the right drawer, correctly, sequentially, back to back.
And then he pictured Morgan coming out of his office, just two rooms away, and glancing up and down the corridor. The work of a moment. Two pages, burned or torn up or shredded. Or folded into a pocket, and handed over at a later time, to persons unknown, in exchange for tight nods of appreciation, and implied promises of future consideration.
There has to be another way around this. Reacher might have remembered the number. He liked numbers. This one might have had some intrinsic appeal. Prime, or nearly, or with interesting factors. But he hadn’t seen the number. But nothing was impossible. No system was ever perfect, no security was ever a hundred per cent foolproof, and there were always unforeseen wrinkles.
There has to be another way around this.
But Reacher couldn’t think of one. Not right then. He stood up, and yawned, and stretched, and then he dropped his robe on top of Turner’s, and he slid into bed next to her. She was already deeply asleep. Breathing slow. Warm, and soft. Her circuit breakers had tripped. She had shut down, overwhelmed. Like that old movie: I’ll think about that tomorrow. He stared up at the ceiling, dim and grey above him. Then he closed his eyes, and breathed in, and breathed out, and he fell asleep.
He slept well, for five solid hours.
And then he woke up, at four o’clock in the morning.
Because someone was hammering on the door.
TURNER WOKE UP too, immediately, but Reacher put his hand on her shoulder. He whispered, ‘I’ll go.’ He blinked once and slid out of bed and found his robe on the floor. He put it on as he walked. The hammering didn’t quit. It was not a polite or an apologetic sound. Not a hotel-in-the-dead-of-night sound. It was full-on urgent and demanding. Boom, boom. Arrogant, and intrusive. It was a no-argument sound. It was the sound of law enforcement. Or the sound of someone pretending to be law enforcement.
Reacher didn’t use the spy hole. He didn’t like spy holes. He never had. Too easy for an assailant to wait until the lens darkened, and then to fire a handgun through the pre-drilled hole. No aim required. Better to ignore the spy hole altogether, and fling the door open real quick and punch them in the throat. Or not. Depending on who they were, and how many they were.
Behind him Turner was out of bed and in her robe, too. He pointed her towards the bathroom. Nothing to gain by presenting a single unified target. And she had nowhere else to go. There was only one way out of the room, which was the door. They were on a high floor, and the windows didn’t open anyway. Legal issues, presumably, because of inquisitive children, and because it was an airport hotel, with noise and jet fumes from early in the morning until late at night.
Turner stepped into the bathroom, and Reacher put his hand on the handle. He took a breath. MPs or federal agents would have weapons drawn. That was for sure. But they wouldn’t shoot. Not right away. They had too much training. And too many protocols. And too much potential paperwork. But the four guys from the dented car might shoot right away. They had training, but no protocols and no paperwork.
So, best bet, open the door but stay behind it. Irresistible. A door that sags open seemingly all by itself just begs for a craned neck and a quick glance inside. And in turn a craned neck and a quick glance inside just begs for a straight right to the temple. Then you kick the door shut again instantly, and you’ve got a hostage on the floor on one side of the threshold, with his pals left outside on the other. You’ve got the basis for a negotiation.
Reacher turned the handle. Downward, ten degrees. Twenty. Thirty. No reaction. Forty, fifty, sixty. No reaction. So he continued all the way to ninety, fast, and he gave the handle a sharp tug, to pull the door through maybe two-thirds of its travel, and then he made a fist and cocked his arm and waited.
For a long time.
Clearly the door had been trapped open by a boot applied from the other side, while decisions were being considered. Which process was taking considerable time.
Close to a whole minute passed.
Then an object came sailing in.
Reacher didn’t look at it. Didn’t follow it with his conscious vision. He wasn’t born yesterday. But the brief flash he caught in the corner of his eye said envelope. A brown letter-size envelope, sealed with a metal closure, he thought, like something out of an office. Lightly loaded, with no thickness to it. And the sound it made when it fluttered to the carpet backed up the first impressions. Papery but stiff, with a faint resonant crackle, where it hit edge-on, and tiny sliding sounds, as if it carried a small number of separate items inside, each one of them thin and light.
Then a head came around the door.
With a face.
Sergeant Leach’s face.
Leach was in her ACUs. She looked very tired. She stepped into the room, and Turner stepped out of the bathroom, and Reacher closed the door. Turner saw the envelope on the carpet and said, ‘Is it all there?’
Leach said, ‘Yes.’
‘I thought you were going to overnight it.’
‘I think you’re going to need it sooner than FedEx can get it to you.’
‘So you drove out all this way?’
‘Well, I didn’t walk or fly.’
‘How long did it take?’
‘About four hours.’
‘Thank you, sergeant.’
‘What time are you due on post in the morning?’
‘Soon enough that I really should leave right about now.’
Never Go Back by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on46 votes