Never go back, p.25
Never Go Back,
Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
‘A friend of Leach’s. She said she knew someone who looked like me.’
‘So what’s your name now?’
Turner answered by flipping the licence into his lap, like a card trick. Illinois, Margaret Vega, five-seven, brown eyes, thirty-one years old. Not an organ donor. The photograph showed a light-skinned Hispanic woman. At first glance a little like Turner, but not a whole lot.
Reacher flipped the licence back.
‘And Ms Vega was happy to give up her DL?’ he said. ‘Just like that? And her credit card too?’
‘We have to return them. And we have to pay back any charges we make. Obviously I had to promise. But Billy Bob’s money can take care of that.’
‘That’s not the point. Ms Vega is way out on a limb now.’
‘I guess Leach can be persuasive.’
‘Only because she thinks you’re worth it.’
‘She had no friends who looked like you. Not even close. Which is why we had to use the locker. Probably Mr Kehoe was the target in a training scenario. He looks like the guy with the chainsaw in a slasher movie.’
‘Should work fine, then. When are we leaving?’
‘As soon as possible,’ Turner said. ‘We’ll catch an early flight.’
They showered and dressed, and then packing was nothing more than jamming their new toothbrushes in their pockets, and putting on their coats. They left the drapes closed and the lights off, and Reacher hung the Do Not Disturb card on the outside handle, and then they hustled down the corridor to the elevator. It was just after five in the morning, and Turner figured the long-hauls to the West Coast would start around six. Not an infinite choice of carriers out of Pittsburgh International, but there would be at least several. Worst case, they could connect through San Francisco, or Phoenix, or Las Vegas.
The elevator reached the lobby and they stepped out to a deserted scene. There was no one at the desk. No one anywhere. So Reacher dropped their key cards in the trash, and they headed for the door, where they got straight into a hesitant after-you-no-after-you thing with a lone guy who had chosen that exact moment to come in from the dark sidewalk outside. He was a compact man in a navy suit and a white shirt and a navy tie. He had a fresh haircut, short and conservative, and a pink face, recently shaved. Eventually they worked out a three-way pecking order. The guy held the door for Turner, who stepped out, and then Reacher hung back, and the guy stepped in, and finally Reacher stepped out.
There were no taxis at the kerb. But there was a hotel shuttle bus, with its engine running and its door open. No driver at the wheel. Inside, maybe, taking a leak.
Ten yards farther on a Crown Vic was parked in the fire lane. Dark blue, clean and shiny, with antennas on the trunk lid. Reacher turned and looked back at the hotel door. Deep in the lobby the guy who had come in was waiting for service at the desk. Navy suit. White shirt. Navy tie. Short hair, pink face, clean shave.
Reacher said, ‘FBI.’
Turner said, ‘They were tracking those names. Sullivan and Temple.’
‘He walked right past us. How long till his brain kicks in?’
‘He’s FBI, so it won’t be instantaneous.’
‘We could head back to the truck and drive ourselves.’
‘No, the truck should stay here. We need to keep breaking the chain. Get on the bus. The driver will be back in a minute. Got to be. He left it running.’
Reacher said, ‘We’ll be sitting ducks.’
‘We’ll be invisible,’ Turner said. ‘Just folks on a bus.’
Reacher glanced around. The guy was still at the counter. No one behind it. The shuttle bus was all done up in chrome and a corporate style. It had black windows. Like a movie star’s limousine. A touch of glamour, for the everyday traveller.
Black windows. Just folks on a bus. Predator and prey, motion and stillness. An old evolutionary legacy. Reacher said, ‘OK, we’ll get on the bus.’
They climbed aboard, and the suspension dipped under their weight, and they shuffled along a low narrow aisle and took seats on the far side, halfway to the back.
And then they sat still and waited.
Not a great feeling.
The view out was not great either, because of the distance and the window tint and the multiple layers of glass, but Reacher could still see the guy. He was getting impatient. He had turned around to face the empty lobby, and he had stepped a yard away from the desk. Claiming the wider space, expressing his resentment, but staying close enough to the help to remain definitively first in line. Not that he had any competition. Nor would he for an hour or so. Red-eye arrivals would start about six, too.
Then the guy suddenly moved forward, a long pace, eager, as if he was about to greet someone. Or accost someone. On the right of the frame a second figure stepped into view. A man, in a black uniform with a short jacket. A bellboy, maybe. The FBI guy asked a question, accompanied by a sweeping gesture with his arm, like where the hell is everybody, and the guy in the short jacket paused, uncomfortable, as if obliged to venture outside his accustomed territory, and then he squeezed behind the counter and rapped on a door, with no result, so he opened the door a crack and called through, enquiringly, and fifteen seconds later a young woman came out, running her fingers through her hair. The FBI guy turned back to the desk, and the young woman moved up face to face with him, and the guy in the short black jacket walked out of the lobby.
Not a bellboy.
The bus driver.
He climbed aboard, and saw that he had customers, and he glanced back at the lobby, to see if he was about to get more, and he must have concluded not, because he asked, ‘Domestic or international?’
Turner said, ‘Domestic.’
So the guy dumped himself down in his seat, and unspooled a long seat belt, and clipped it tight, and the door closed with a wheezing sigh, and the guy put the bus in gear.
And then he waited, because he had to, because an arriving car was manoeuvring around the parked Crown Vic, and thereby blocking his exit.
It was the car with the dented doors.
THE CAR WITH the dented doors squeezed around the parked Crown Vic, and then it slowed to a walk and prepared to pull up just short of the hotel entrance. The bus moved off into the vacated space, grinding slow and heavy, and it passed the car close by, flank to flank. Reacher got up off his seat and stared out the window. All four guys were in the car. The two he had met on the first night, and the third guy, and the big guy with the tiny ears. The whole crew was there.
‘Leave it,’ Turner said.
‘We need to take them off the table.’
‘But not here, and not now. Later. They’re on the back burner, remember?’
‘No time like the present.’
‘In a hotel lobby? In front of an FBI agent?’
Reacher craned around and saw the four guys climb out of the car. They glanced left and right, fast and fluid, and then they headed straight inside, single file, a crisp linear stream, one, two, three, four, like men with an urgent purpose. Turner said, ‘Stand easy, major. Another time, another place. We’re going to LA.’
The bus picked up speed and left the hotel behind. Reacher watched for as long as there was something to see, and then he turned back. He said, ‘Tell me what you know about how the FBI tracked our names.’
‘The modern world,’ Turner said. ‘Homeland Security. It’s an information-dependent operation. All kinds of things are linked together. Airlines, for sure, and no doubt airport hotels too. In which case it would be easy enough to set up an alert in case two specific names appeared in the same place at the same time.’
‘Would the Bureau share that information?’
‘Are you kidding?’
‘Then we need to revisit what we said about the top boys here. They’re not very senior staff officers. They’re very, very senior staff officers. Don’t you think? To be inside Homeland Security’s databases, independently, in real time?’
‘From their Pittsburgh field office. Our guys had further to come. They must have set out much earlier. They must have known before the FBI did. They had an alert of their own.’
The hotel bus let them out at the terminal, and they ducked inside to check the departure boards. Next out were two flights within a minute of each other, U.S. Airways to Long Beach, and American Airlines to Orange County.
‘Got a preference?’ Turner asked.
‘Long Beach,’ Reacher said. ‘We can rent a car. Straight shot up the 710. Then the 101. The mother’s affidavit was out of a law office in North Hollywood. I’m guessing that’s where she is.’
‘How are you going to find her?’
‘I’ll start in her lawyer’s parking lot. That’s one place she won’t get moved on.’
‘Her lawyer’s office will be staked out, surely. By elements of the 75th and the FBI for sure. And our four unofficial friends will be there about six hours after they realize we’re not in the hotel.’
‘So we’ll have to be very careful.’
The U.S. Airways ticket counter was opening up. A cheerful woman of about fifty spent a minute booting computers and sorting labels and papers and pens, and then she turned towards them with a smile. Turner asked about seats to Long Beach, on the morning flight. The woman clicked away on her keyboard, flat-fingered because of her nails, and said she didn’t have many. But two was no problem. So first Turner and then Reacher handed over driver’s licences and credit cards, absently and casually, as if they had just pulled them at random from a full deck of documentation. The woman lined them up in front of her, in a neat physical analogue of a window seat and an aisle, and she typed the names, moving her head back and forth as she glanced between the licences and the screen, and then she swiped the cards, and she hunted and pecked and clicked some more, and then a machine kicked in and printed boarding cards. The woman swept them up, and collated them with the right licences and the right credit cards, and she said, ‘Ms Vega, Mr Kehoe, here you go,’ and she handed them over, like a little ceremony.
They thanked her and walked away, and Reacher said, ‘This is why you made me buy a sweater, right?’
‘You’re going to meet your daughter,’ Turner said. ‘And first impressions count.’
Juliet called Romeo, because there was a division of labour, and some of the responsibilities were his, and he said, all excited, ‘Our boys are in the corridor, right now, directly outside their room.’
Romeo said, ‘Corridor?’
‘Hotel corridor. Hotel room. Our guys say the room is dark, it is quiet, there is a Do Not Disturb notice on the door, and they have not yet checked out.’
‘So they’re in the room?’
‘They have to be.’
‘Then why are our boys in the corridor?’
‘There’s a problem.’
Romeo said, ‘What kind of a problem?’
‘The FBI is there.’
‘With our boys. Literally. In the corridor. Just kind of standing around. One guy. He can’t do anything because he thinks he has four civilian witnesses. We can’t do anything because we know we have one FBI witness. We’re all just standing around.’
‘In the corridor?’
‘Right outside their room.’
‘Do we know they’re in there? For certain?’
‘Where else would they be?’
‘Are they both in there?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘I did some cutting and pasting.’
‘Data. After that call to the mothership. It threw me a little. I thought some precautions might be appropriate. Among the things I put on the alert list was the 110th’s undercover locker. For no good reason. Just for the sake of being able to feel I was doing everything I could. But I just got something back. One of the identities just bought a ticket on U.S. Airways, from Pittsburgh to Long Beach, in California.’
‘First flight this morning. About half an hour from now.’
‘Only one of them?’
‘None of the other identities is showing up as active.’
‘And which one is?’
‘Michael Dennis Kehoe. The man, in other words. They’ve split up. I guess they had to. All the woman has is the Helen Sullivan ID, and by now they must realize no one named Helen Sullivan is getting on an airplane anytime soon. Not without extensive trials and tribulations beforehand. Which Turner can’t afford. Therefore Reacher is heading to California alone. Which makes sense. He needs to be there. She doesn’t.’
Juliet said, ‘Maybe Turner is in the room on her own.’
‘Logical. If Reacher is on his way to California.’
‘Perfectly logical. If he is.’
‘But not if he isn’t. We need to find out, right now. We need to cut a deal with the FBI. We won’t rat them out, and they won’t rat us out. Or whatever. But we need to get our boys through that door, right now. Even if the FBI gets in as well.’
Turner was the CO, and she wanted to get airside as soon as possible. She thought airport security would be some kind of a barrier. Against the four guys, at least. If they got as far as the airport, that was. Which they might, if they talked to the bus driver. Two passengers? Yes, sir, domestic. But airport security was useless against the FBI or the army. Those guys went to the head of the line, and then in through the side door.
So, not really a barrier. More of a filter.
They had nothing made of metal in their pockets, except small change, which they pooled in a scuffed black bowl. They stepped through the hoop one after the other, just two coatless, shoeless figures among a building crowd. They put their coats back on and laced up their boots and split the change and moved off in search of coffee.
Juliet called Romeo and said, ‘Our boys got a look inside the hotel room. They claimed they were worried about their friend, and the FBI guy was all over that immediately. It made opening the door look like a public service.’
Romeo said, ‘And?’
‘There was no one in the room.’
‘They’re in the airport terminal.’
‘Both of them?’
‘One of the women passengers on the same U.S. Airways flight used a credit card that comes back to a bank in Arlington County. A woman named Margaret Vega.’
Juliet said, ‘And?’
‘She was a very late booking. Within the last hour.’
‘She was one of only two passengers who booked at that time. The other being Michael Dennis Kehoe. Their cards were charged within the same minute.’
‘Where did Turner get a credit card in the name of Margaret Vega?’
‘I don’t know. Yet.’
‘Not the undercover locker?’
‘No. A real person, possibly. From the mothership, perhaps. I’ll check.’
‘When does the flight leave?’
‘They’ll start boarding in about fifteen minutes.’
‘OK, I’m sending our boys straight to the terminal. They can check landside, at least.’
‘I’m ahead of you,’ Romeo said. ‘They can go airside. They can even get on the plane, if they need to. I got them two seats and two standby seats. Which was difficult, by the way. It’s shaping up to be a full flight. Tell them the boarding cards will be at the ticket counter.’
The gate area was a wide, spacious lounge, carpeted, painted in soothing pastel colours, but it was far from restful, because it was packed with more than a hundred people. Clearly Pittsburgh to Long Beach was a popular route. Reacher wasn’t sure why. Although he had read that Pittsburgh was becoming an in-demand moviemaking town. Because of money. Financial incentives were being offered, and production companies were responding. All kinds of movies had already been shot there, and more were planned. So maybe these were show folk, heading home. The Long Beach airport was no less convenient for H
Never Go Back by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on46 votes