Die trying, p.24
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       Die Trying, p.24

         Part #2 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Twenty-Four

  THE BUREAU LEAR refueled at Fargo and flew straight southwest to California. McGrath had argued again in favor of heading straight for Montana, but Webster had overruled him. One step at a time was Webster's patient way, so they were going to check out the Beau Borken story in California, and then they were going to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado to meet with General Johnson, McGrath was about the only Bureau guy alive capable of shouting at Webster, and he had, but arguing is not the same thing as winning, so they were all in the air heading first for Mojave, McGrath and Webster and Brogan and Milosevic, all overtired, overanxious and morose in the hot noisy cabin.

  "I need all the background I can get," Webster said. "They put me in personal charge and these are not the type of guys I can be vague with, right?"

  McGrath glared at him and thought: don't play your stupid Beltway games with Holly's life, Webster. But he said nothing. Just sat tight until the tiny plane started arrowing down toward the airfield on the edge of the desert.

  They were on the ground just after two o'clock in the morning, West Coast time. The Mojave Agent-in-Charge met them on the deserted tarmac in his own car. Drove them south through the sleeping town.

  "The Borkens were a Kendall family," he said. "Small town, fifty miles from here. Farming place, mostly citrus. One-man police department. The sheriff is waiting for us down there. "

  "He know anything?" McGrath asked.

  The guy at the wheel shrugged.

  "Maybe," he said. "Small town, right?"

  Fifty miles through the desert night at eighty-five took them just thirty-six minutes. Kendall was a small knot of buildings adrift in a sea of groves. There was a gas station, a general store, a growers' operation and a low cement building with whip antennas spearing upward from the roof. A smart black-and-white was parked up on the apron outside. It was marked: Kendall County Sheriff. There was a single light in the office window behind the car.

  The five agents stretched and yawned in the dry night air and trooped single file into the cement building. The Kendall County sheriff was a guy about sixty, solid, gray. He looked reliable. Webster waved him back into his seat and McGrath laid the four glossy mug shots on his desk in front of him.

  "You know these guys?" he asked.

  The sheriff slid the photographs nearer and looked at each of them in turn. He picked them up and shuffled them into a new order. Laid them back down on the desk like he was dealing a hand of giant playing cards. Then he nodded and reached down to his desk pedestal. Rolled open a drawer. Lifted out three buff files. He placed the files underneath three of the photographs. Laid a stubby finger on the first face.

  "Peter Wayne Bell," he said. "Mojave kid, but he was down here a lot. Not a very nice boy, as I believe you know. "

  He nodded across to his monitor screen on a computer cart at the end of the desk. A page from the National Crime Center Database was glowing green. It was the report from the North Dakota cops about the identity of the body they had found in a ditch. The identity, and the history.

  The sheriff moved his wrist and laid a finger on the next photograph. It was the gunman who had pushed Holly Johnson into the back of the Lexus.

  "Steven Stewart," he said. "Called Stevie, or Little Stevie. Farm boy, a couple of bushels short of a wagonload, know what I mean? Jumpy, jittery sort of a boy. "

  "What's in his file?" Webster asked.

  The sheriff shrugged.

  "Nothing too serious," he said. "The boy was just too plain dumb for his own good. Group of kids would go out and mess around, and guess who'd be the one still stood there when I roll up? Little Stevie, that's who. I locked him up a dozen times, I guess, but he never did much of what you would want to call serious shit. "

  McGrath nodded and pointed to the photograph of the gunman who had gotten into the front seat of the Lexus.

  "This guy?" he asked.

  The sheriff moved his finger and laid it on the guy's glossy throat.

  "Tony Loder," he said. "This is a fairly bad guy. Smarter than Stevie, dumber than you or me. I'll give you the file. Maybe it won't keep you Bureau guys awake nights, but it sure won't help you sleep any better than you were going to anyhow. "

  "What about the big guy?" Webster asked.

  The sheriff jumped his finger along the row and shook his grizzled head.

  "Never saw this guy before," he said. "That's for damn sure. I'd remember him if I had. "

  "We think maybe he's a foreigner," Webster said. "Maybe European. Maybe had an accent. That ring any bells with you?"

  The sheriff just kept on shaking his head.

  "Never saw him before," he said again. "I'd remember. "

  "OK," McGrath said. "Bell, Little Stevie Stewart, Tony Loder and the mystery man. Where do these Borken guys fit in?"

  The sheriff shrugged.

  "Old Dutch Borken never fit in nowhere," he said. "That was his problem. He was in Nam, infantry grunt, moved out here when he got out of the service. Brought a pretty wife and a little fat ten-year-old boy with him, started growing citrus, did pretty well for a long while. He was a strange guy, a loner, never saw much of him. But he was happy enough, I guess. Then the wife took sick and died, and the boy started acting weird, the market took a couple of hits, profits were down, the growers all started getting into the banks for loans, interest went up, land went down, the collateral was disappearing, irrigation water got expensive, they all started going belly-up one after the other. Borken took it bad and swallowed his shotgun. "

  Webster nodded.

  "The little fat ten-year-old was Beau Borken?" he asked.

  The sheriff nodded.

  "Beau Borken," he said. "Very strange boy. Very smart. But obsessed. "

  "With what?" McGrath asked.

  "Mexicans started coming up," the sheriff said. "Cheap labor. Young Beau was dead set against it. He started hollering about keeping Kendall white. Joined the John Birch types. "

  "So he was a racist?" McGrath said.

  "At first," the sheriff said. "Then he got into all that conspiracy stuff. Talking about the Jews running the government. Or the United Nations, or both, or some damn thing. The government was all Communists, taking over the world, secret plans for everything. Big conspiracy against everybody, especially him. Banks controlled the government, or was it the government controlled the banks? So the banks were all Communists and they were out to destroy America. He figured the exact reason the bank loaned his father the money was so it could default him later and give the farm to the Mexicans or the blacks or some damn thing. He was raving about it, all the time. "

  "So what happened?" Webster said.

  "Well, of course, the bank did end up defaulting him," the sheriff said. "The guy wasn't paying the loan, was he? But they didn't give his land to the Mexicans. They sold it on to the same big corporation owns everything else around here, which is owned by the pension funds, which probably means it's owned by you and me, not Communists or Mexicans or anybody else, right?"

  "But the boy blamed the conspiracy for his father's death?" Brogan asked.

  "He sure did," the sheriff said. "But the truth is it was Beau himself who did for the old man. I figure old Dutch could have faced just about anything, except his only boy had turned out to be a complete lunatic. A cruel, selfish, weird boy. That's why he swallowed the damn shotgun, if you want to know the truth. "

  "So where did Beau go?" Webster asked.

  "Montana," the sheriff said. "That's what I heard. He was into all those right-wing groups, you know, the militias. Built himself up to leader. Said the white man was going to have to stand and fight. "

  "And those other guys went with him?" Brogan asked.

  "The three of them for sure," the sheriff said. "This big guy, I never saw before. But Little Stevie and Loder and Peter Bell, they were all in awe of Beau, like little robots. They all went up there together. They had a little cash, and the
y stripped the Borken place of anything they could carry, and they headed north. Figured to buy some cheap land up there and defend themselves, you know, although against who I can't say, because the way I hear it there ain't nobody up there, and if there is they're all white people anyway. "

  "What's in his file?" Webster asked.

  The sheriff shook his head.

  "Just about nothing," he said. "Beau's way too smart to get caught doing anything bad. "

  "But?" McGrath said. "He's doing stuff without getting caught?"

  The sheriff nodded.

  "That armored car robbery?" he said. "North of the state somewhere? I heard about that. Didn't stick to him, did it? I told you, way too smart. "

  "Anything else we should know?" Webster asked.

  The sheriff thought for a while and nodded again.

  "There was a fifth guy," he said. "Name of Odell Fowler. He'll turn up alongside of Beau, for sure. You can bet on that. Loder and Stevie and Bell get sent out doing mischief, you can be damn sure Borken and Fowler are sitting there in the shadows pulling their strings. "

  "Anything else?" Webster said again.

  "Originally there was a sixth guy," the sheriff said. "Guy named Packer. Six of them, all thick as thieves. But Packer took up with a Mexican girl. Couldn't help himself, I guess, just plain fell in love with her. Beau told him to stop seeing her. They fell out about it, a lot of tension going on. One day, Packer's not around anymore, and Beau is all smiling and relaxed. We found Packer out in the scrub, nailed to a big wooden cross. Crucified. Dead for a couple of days. "

  "And you figure Borken did it?" Brogan asked.

  "Couldn't prove it," the sheriff replied. "But I'm sure of it. And I'm sure he talked the others into helping him do it. He's a born leader. He can talk anybody into doing anything, I can promise you that. "

  KENDALL BACK TO Mojave was fifty miles by car. Mojave to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado was another eight hundred and thirty miles by Lear. Three hours of travel, door to door, which put them down at Peterson through the gorgeous mountain dawn. It was the kind of sight people pay money to see, but the four FBI men took no notice at all. Thursday July third, the fourth day of the crisis, and no proper rest and no proper nutrition had left them ragged and focused on nothing except the job in hand.

  General Johnson himself was not available to meet them. He was elsewhere on the giant base, on duty glad-handing the returning night patrols. His aide saluted Webster, shook hands with the other three, and walked them all over to a crew room reserved for their use. There was a huge photograph on the table, black-and-white, crisply focused. Some kind of a landscape. It looked like the surface of the moon.

  "That's Anadyr, in Siberia," the aide said. "Satellite photograph. Last week, there was a big air base there. A nuclear bomber base. The runway was aimed straight at our missile silos in Utah. Arms reduction treaty required it to be blown up. The Russians complied last week. "

  The four agents bent for another look. There was no trace of any man-made structure in the picture. Just savage craters.

  "Complied?" McGrath said. "Looks like they did an enthusiastic job of work. "

  "So?" Webster said.

  The aide pulled a map from the portfolio. Unfolded it and stepped around so that the agents could share his view. It was a slice of the world, eastern Asia and the western United States, with the mass of Alaska right in the center and the North Pole right at the top. The aide stretched his thumb and finger apart and spanned the distance from Siberia southeast down to Utah.

  "Anadyr was here," he said. "Utah is here. Naturally we knew all about the bomber base, and we had countermeasures in place, which included big missile bases in Alaska, here, and then a chain of four small surface-to-air facilities strung out north to south all the way underneath Anadyr's flight path into Utah, which are here, here, here and here, straddling the line between Montana and the Idaho panhandle. "

  The agents ignored the red dots in Idaho. But they looked closely at the locations in Montana.

  "What sort of bases are these?" Webster asked.

  The aide shrugged.

  "They were kind of temporary," he said. "Thrown together in the sixties, just sort of survived ever since. Frankly, we didn't expect to have to use them. The Alaska missiles were more than adequate. Nothing would have gotten past them. But you know how it was, right? Couldn't be too ready. "

  "What sort of weapons?" McGrath asked.

  "There was a Patriot battery at each facility," the aide said. "We pulled those out a while back. Sold them to Israel. All that's left is Stingers, you know, shoulder-launch infantry systems. "

  Webster looked at the guy.

  "Stingers?" he said. "You were going to shoot Soviet bombers down with infantry systems?"

  The aide nodded. Looked definite about it.

  "Why not?" he said. "Don't forget, those bases were basically window dressing. Nothing was supposed to get past Alaska. But the Stingers would have worked. We supplied thousands of them to Afghanistan. They knocked down hundreds of Soviet planes. Mostly helicopters, I guess, but the principle is good. A heat seeker is a heat seeker, right? Makes no difference if it gets launched off a truck or off a GI's shoulder. "

  "So what happens now?" Webster asked him.

  "We're closing the bases down," the guy said. "That's why the General is here, gentlemen. We're pulling the equipment and the personnel back here to Peterson, and there's going to be some ceremonies, you know, end-of-an-era stuff. "

  "Where are these bases?" McGrath asked. "The Montana ones? Exactly?"

  The aide pulled the map closer and checked the references.

  "Southernmost one is hidden on some farmland near Missoula," he said. "Northern one is hidden in a valley, about forty miles south of Canada, near a little place called Yorke. Why? Is there a problem?"

  McGrath shrugged.

  "We don't know yet," he said.

  THE AIDE SHOWED them where to get breakfast and left them to wait for the General. Johnson arrived after the eggs but before the toast, so they left the toast uneaten and walked back together to the crew room. Johnson looked a lot different from the glossy guy Webster had met with Monday evening. The early hour and three days' strain made him look twenty pounds thinner and twenty years older. His face was pale and his eyes were red. He looked like a man on the verge of defeat.

  "So what do we know?" he asked.

  "We think we know most of it," Webster answered.

  "Right now our operational assumption is your daughter's been kidnapped by a militia group from Montana. We know their location, more or less. Somewhere in the northwestern valleys. "

  Johnson nodded slowly.

  "Any communication?" he asked.

  Webster shook his head.

  "Not yet," he said.

  "So what's the reason?" Johnson asked. "What do they want?"

  Webster shook his head again.

  "We don't know that yet," he said.

  Johnson nodded again, vaguely.

  "Who are they?" he asked.

  McGrath opened the envelope he was carrying.

  "We've got four names," he said. "Three of the snatch squad, and there's pretty firm evidence about who the militia leader is. A guy named Beau Borken. That name mean anything to you?"

  "Borken?" Johnson said. He shook his head. "That name means nothing. "

  "OK," McGrath said. "What about this guy? His name's Peter Bell. "

  McGrath passed Johnson the computer print of Bell at the wheel in the Lexus. Johnson took a long look at it and shook his head.

  "He's dead," McGrath said. "Didn't make it back to Montana. "

  "Good," Johnson said.

  McGrath passed him another picture.

  "Steven Stewart?" he said.

  Johnson paid the print some attention, but ended up shaking his head.

  "Never saw this guy before," he said.

  "Tony Loder?" McGrath asked.

  Johnson stared at Loder's face and shook his head.

  "No," he said.

  "Those three and Borken are all from California," McGrath said. "There may be another guy called Odell Fowler. You heard that name?"

  Johnson shook his head.

  "And there's this guy," McGrath said. "We don't know who he is. "

  He passed over the photograph of the big guy. Johnson glanced at it, then glanced away. But then his gaze drifted back.

  "You know this one?" McGrath asked him.

  Johnson shrugged.

  "He's vaguely familiar," he said. "Maybe somebody I once saw?"

  "Recently?" McGrath asked.

  Johnson shook his head.

  "Not recently," he said. "Probably a long time ago. "

  "Military?" Webster asked.

  "Probably," Johnson said again. "Most of the people I see are military. "

  His aide crowded his shoulder for a look.

  "Means nothing to me," he said. "But we should fax this to the Pentagon. If this guy is military, maybe there'll be somebody somewhere who served with him. "

  Johnson shook his head.

  "Fax it to the military police," he said. "This guy's a criminal, right? Chances are he was in trouble before, in the service. Somebody there will remember him. "

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