Night school, p.23
Night School, p.23Part #21 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
They were late back to the hotel. The others were waiting. Bishop had sent a little bus. Like an airport shuttle. They were all in their seats, all watching out their windows. Waterman, Landry, White, and Vanderbilt. And Sinclair. Reacher and Neagley got in, and the door hissed shut behind them, and the bus took off. Not a long ride, around the Ausenalster lake, to a large and imposing but slightly odd building. It looked like a copy of the White House done purely from memory by a builder who had visited once as a kid. Inside, Bishop greeted them and showed them their room. Mostly desks and phones and fax machines and copy machines and telex machines and printers and bulky computer terminals with dirty beige keyboards. Bishop said the phones were set up as a replica of the McLean switchboard. Locally only Griezman had been given the numbers, in his case without being told their location.
It was Griezman who called first.
With a problem.
Reacher picked up and Griezman said, “Don’t put me on speaker.”
“I screwed up. Or my department did. Which is the same thing.”
“I think we lost Wiley. Somehow he was in a hit-and-run accident about two hours after you and I left. He was driving a car and he hit a bicycle. He was full of champagne, no doubt. A witness described him perfectly. She was shown Helmut Klopp’s sketch and made a positive ID. It’s all right there in the traffic division’s log.”
“So your guy missed him coming out.”
“At one point he was talking to a traffic cop. It might have happened then.”
“But either way you don’t know where Wiley is.”
“Not with an acceptable degree of certainty.”
“Is that something they teach you to say?”
“It sounds sober and mature, and burdened down with technicalities.”
Reacher said, “Shit happens, get over it.”
Griezman said, “I’m sorry we missed him.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll maintain the surveillance as long as I can.”
Reacher hung up and told the story and Sinclair asked everyone’s first question for them, when she said, “Was that the delivery? Did we miss it? Was he so stressed he knocked a bicycle over?”
“Too soon, surely,” Vanderbilt said. “It was the middle of the first night. He can’t have been paid yet. So he won’t have delivered yet. Not unless he’s really dumb.”
“Worst case, he was going to the airport,” Landry said. “For the early flight to Zurich. Maybe he’d rather wait a day or two there than here. In which case he took the delivery with him. If it’s small. To swap in the banker’s office, like Reacher said.”
“We should be watching the airports,” Waterman said.
“We are,” Sinclair said. “Both airports have closed-circuit television. CIA arranged temporary feeds. Unofficial, so they won’t last long, but so far Wiley has not passed through.”
“And he didn’t come home either,” Reacher said. “Not unless Griezman’s guy missed him twice. So where is he now?”
“Out and about,” Neagley said. “Somewhere in Germany. The phase before delivery. Like the dealer inspection when you buy a new car. Ahead of the big reveal.”
Wiley was waking up, in his bedroom, the same place he had woken up for the last three months. In his rented apartment on the waterfront. The new development. A village within the city. But not really. It was actually a giant dormitory, full of incurious people who rushed in and out in the dark, and slept the few hours between. He had never seen his neighbors, and as far as he knew they had never seen him. Perfect.
He got up and set his coffee machine going. He rinsed the fumes out of the Dom Perignon bottle and placed it in the recycle bin. He put his glass in the dishwasher.
He picked up his phone and dialed the rental franchise he had used before. The call was answered immediately, by a man who sounded young and efficient.
Wiley said, “Do you speak English?”
“Certainly, sir,” the young man said.
“I need to rent a panel van.”
“What size, sir?”
“Long wheelbase, high roof. I need plenty of space inside.”
“We have Mercedes-Benz or Volkswagen. The Mercedes-Benz is longer. Over four meters inside.”
Wiley did the math in his head. Four meters was thirteen feet. He needed twelve. He said, “How far off the ground is the load floor?”
“Quite normal, I think. I’m not sure exactly.”
“Does it have a roll-up rear door?”
“No, sir. It has hinged rear doors. Is that a problem?”
“I need to back it up to another truck and move stuff across. Can’t get close enough with hinged doors.”
“I’m afraid our only option with a roll-up door is in an altogether different class of vehicle. It’s a question of gross vehicle weight, technically. In Germany the heavier vehicles require a commercial license. Do you have one?”
“I’m pretty sure I got the right license for whatever you want to give me. You can count on that. Like a deck of cards.”
“Very good, sir,” the young man said. “When do you need the van?”
“Immediately,” Wiley said.
The phone rang again in the consulate room, and Landry passed it to Reacher. It was Bishop, in his office nearby. Who said, “There’s a U.S. Army soldier at the reception desk claiming he has orders to report to you.”
“OK,” Reacher said. “Send him up. Or should I go get him?”
“I’ll have him escorted,” Bishop said.
The escort turned out to be a woman of maybe twenty-three, maybe a recent graduate, just starting out, but already Foreign Service to the core. The soldier turned out to be an enlisted man with a Mohawk haircut. From Wiley’s air defense unit. His crewmate. The witness from the AWOL file, four months earlier. He was an E-4, but only a specialist, not a hard-striper corporal. One step up from private first class, but not yet an NCO. He was in woodland-pattern battledress uniform. He was all squared away. Maybe twenty years old. He looked like a good soldier. His name tape said Coleman.
Neagley put three chairs in a quiet corner, and they all sat down. Reacher said, “Thanks for stopping by, soldier. We appreciate it. Did they tell you what this is about?”
Coleman said, “Sir, they told me you would ask questions about Private Wiley.”
His accent was from the South. The Georgia hill country, maybe. He was perched on the edge of his chair like the sitting-down version of standing rigidly to attention.
Reacher said, “Reports from four months ago suggest Wiley was happy to be in your unit. Were those reports correct?”
Coleman said, “Yes sir, I believe they were.”
“Happy and fulfilled?”
“Yes sir, I believe he was.”
“Not victimized or oppressed in any way?”
“No sir, not to my knowledge.”
“Which makes him a very unusual AWOL. And which makes it completely impossible for you or your unit to get the blame. This is not your fault. There is no practical way to make this your fault. A hundred bureaucrats could type for a hundred years on a hundred typewriters and still not get close to making this your fault. Understand? We know Wiley took off for external reasons.”
Coleman said, “Yes sir, that was also our conclusion.”
“So relax, OK? You are not accused of anything. There are no wrong answers. There are no dumb answers, either. We need anything you can tell us. Any little impression. I don’t care how stupid it is. So don’t hold back. Get it all out. Then you can have the rest of the day in Hamburg. You can check out the clubs.”
“How long have you known Wiley?”
“He was in the unit nearly two years.”
“Old guy, right?”
“Way older than my oldest brothe
“Did you think that was weird?”
“A little bit.”
“Did you have a theory about why he waited so long?”
“I think he tried some other things first.”
“Did he talk about them?”
“No sir, never,” Coleman said. “He was all buttoned up. He was a keeper of secrets. We all knew he was hiding things. He was always smiling to himself and saying nothing. But he was old, so we figured it was OK. We figured he was entitled. It didn’t stop anyone liking him, either. He was a popular guy.”
“Was he a hard worker?”
Coleman started to answer, and then he stopped.
Reacher said, “What?”
“Sir, you asked for stupid impressions.”
“I like stupid,” Reacher said. “Sometimes stupid is all we got.”
“Well, sir, it seemed to me it wasn’t just secrets. It seemed to me like a whole secret plan. For his life. Day by day. Yes, he was a hard worker. He did it all and never complained. Even the bullshit parts. And most of it is bullshit now. He would get a look on his face. He was happy, because every day was one day closer.”
“I don’t know.”
“Four months ago you mentioned Wiley’s uncle.”
“They were asking us if Wiley was a chatty guy. They wanted to know what he talked about. There wasn’t much. He told me he was from Sugar Land, Texas. He knew about beef cattle. One time he said he wanted to be a rancher. But that was all. He never talked much. Then one night we were back off an exercise, and we had fired some practice rounds, and we had gotten a pretty good score against the helicopters, so we all laid back and cracked some beers, and we got pretty buzzed. They all got to talking about why they had joined the army. But in a cryptic way. There are some real smart mouths in the unit. You had to put it all in one clever sentence. I’m not so good at that type of thing. When my turn came I said, I joined the army to learn a trade. I thought there could be a double meaning. Trade, like automobile mechanic, or trade like killing people. Which would be alternative employment later if automobile mechanic jobs were hard to find.”
“Good answer,” Reacher said.
“They didn’t get it.”
“What did Wiley say?”
“He said he joined the army because his uncle told him Davy Crockett stories. Which was short and cryptic, just like it should be. Like a crossword puzzle. Then he smiled his secret smile. It was easy for him to be cryptic. He was always cryptic.”
“What did you think he meant?”
“I remember Davy Crockett on the television show. I saw him every week. He wore a hat made from an old raccoon. Didn’t make me want to join the army. So I don’t know what he meant. I guess that time it was me who didn’t get it.”
“Just uncle, or was there a name?”
“Not then. But later they were ragging on him about talking so much about ranching, when there was nothing in his home town but a big old sugar factory, and he said his uncle Arnold had worked on a ranch before he got drafted.”
“Did that sound like the same uncle? Or a different uncle?”
Coleman went quiet, as if running through his own family members, and listening in his head to what he called them. This uncle, that uncle. Was there a difference?
Eventually he said, “I don’t know. Wiley was the kind of guy who would use a name where he could. A Texas kind of guy. Old-fashioned courtesy. But he couldn’t in the cryptic sentence, because it had to be short. So maybe it was Arnold both times, or maybe not.”
“Tell me more about how every day he was one day closer. The secret plan. How was his mood? Did it feel like a step-by-step plan, slow and steady, or were there ups and downs?”
“I guess neither,” Coleman said. “Or a mixture of both. He was always cheerful, but he got happier later. Total of two steps only. He was up, and then he was up some more.”
“When did it change?”
“About halfway through. About a year ago.”
“Nothing I could put in words.”
“Got an impression?”
“It might be stupid.”
“I like stupid.”
“I guess he was like a guy waiting for news, always kind of expecting it would be good news, and then finally getting it, and sure enough, it is good news.”
“Like a guy looking for something he knew was there, and finding it?”
“Exactly like that.”
In Jalalabad it was much later in the morning. Breakfast was long gone, and lunch was coming. The messenger was called back to the small hot room. Her second visit of the day. She had already delivered Wiley’s response, on her arrival at dawn. The fat man had smiled and rocked, and the tall man had clenched his fists and howled like a wolf. Now only the fat man was there. The tall man’s cushion was dented but empty. He was elsewhere. Very busy. Very excited. Busier and more excited than he should have been, she thought, about a matter he had claimed was of very little importance.
Silent flies came close, and hovered, and darted away.
The fat man said, “Sit down.”
The messenger looked at the tall man’s cushion.
She said, “May I stand?”
“As you wish. I am very proud of your performance. It was flawless. As of course it should have been, given the excellence of your training.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I felt well prepared.”
“Was your German adequate?”
“I spoke very little. Only to a taxi driver.”
“Would it have been adequate if you had to speak more?”
“I believe so. Because of the excellence of my training.”
“Would you like to go back to Hamburg?”
She thought of photographs and fingerprints and computer records.
She said, “I will go where you in your wisdom choose to send me.”
“The delivery is planned, as you know, but we must have a presence to authorize its collection.”
“It would be an honor.”
The fat man said, “Are languages your greatest strength?”
She said, “That’s not for me to say.”
“Those who trained you say your memory is excellent and you know your numbers.”
She didn’t answer.
She didn’t want to talk about numbers.
The fat man said, “Were those who trained you not telling the truth?”
“They were very kind. But too generous. I know hardly any numbers at all.”
“Why do you say this?”
She didn’t answer.
“Before Hamburg you want me to go to Zurich. Where they also speak German. To a bank. To transfer money to Wiley. With numbers. Account numbers and passcodes. This is how I will be able to authorize the collection.”
“Do you intend to refuse?”
Night School by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on48 votes