Never go back, p.26
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       Never Go Back, p.26

         Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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  unruly. And as always Reacher tried to hang back beyond its edge, but Turner was the CO, and she wanted to get on the plane as early as possible. As if the narrow fuselage was sovereign territory, like an embassy on foreign soil, not the same as the city that surrounded it. They had a high row number, which meant their seats would be towards the back, which meant they would board before most of the rest, directly after the halt and the lame, and the families with small children, and the first-class cabin, and the frequent fliers. So Turner was all in favour of pushing up close to the desk. She had a small person’s deftness. She slid through gaps denied to Reacher’s clumsier frame. But he followed her doggedly, and he got to the spot she had staked out about a minute after her.

  And then more or less immediately the boarding process began. A woman opened the official door and used a microphone on a curly cord, and the crowd surged, and wheelchairs pushed through, and old guys with walking canes limped after them, and then couples carrying children and fantastically complicated seating equipment went next, and then sleek men and women in suits rushed on, and then Reacher was carried along in the flow, down the jet bridge, through cold air and kerosene stink, and finally into the cabin. He hunched and ducked and made his way down the aisle to his seat, which was a narrow thing with adequate legroom only if he folded himself into it bolt upright. Next to him Turner looked happier. Hers was the body type the seats had been designed for.

  They clipped their belts and waited.

  Romeo called Juliet and said, ‘I’m watching the U.S. Airways system right now.’

  Juliet said, ‘And?’

  ‘Bad news, I’m afraid. Kehoe and Vega have already boarded. And we just lost both our standby seats. Two of their frequent fliers showed up and pre-empted them. They get priority.’

  ‘Can’t you call U.S. Airways and tell them they don’t?’

  ‘I could, but I don’t think I will. The airline would make a charge. That’s how it works now. Apparently goodwill has monetary value, at least when Uncle Sam is paying the bill. And a charge would generate paperwork, which we can’t afford. So we’ll have to live with it. We’ll get two of them on, at least.’

  ‘Which two?’

  ‘It seems to have been done alphabetically.’

  ‘Not ideal,’ Juliet said.

  ‘Eyes and ears are all we need at this point. A holding operation. I got the other two on American to Orange County. They’ll arrive around the same time. They can link up in California.’

  Reacher stared ahead, down the long aluminium tube, and watched people as they shuffled in, and turned right, and shuffled some more, and peered at their seat numbers, and jammed large suitcases and bulky coats into the overhead lockers. Luggage, baggage, burdens. Not his thing. Some of the approaching faces were happy, but most were glum. He remembered taking flights as a kid, long ago, at the military’s expense, on long-forgotten carriers like Braniff and Eastern and Pan American, when jet travel was rare and exotic and people dressed up for it and glowed with excitement and novelty. Suits and ties, and summer dresses, and sometimes even gloves. China plates, and milk jugs, and silverware.

  Then he saw the guy he had punched in the side of the head.

  FORTY-FOUR

  THERE WAS NO mistaking the guy. Reacher remembered him well. At the motel, on the first night, the car showing up, not yet dented, the guy climbing out of the passenger seat and tracking around the hood and starting in with the verbal chit-chat.

  We’re not worried about you, old man.

  Reacher remembered the long left hook, and the feel of bone, and the sideways snap of the guy’s head. And then he had seen him again, from a distance in the motel lot the next day, and for a third time just minutes ago, getting out of the car at the hotel.

  It was the guy, no question.

  And right behind him was the guy Reacher thought of as the third man. Not the driver from the first night, and not the big guy with the small ears, but the makeweight from the second day. Both guys peered ahead, left and right, close and far, until they located their quarry, and then they looked away fast and acted innocent. Reacher watched the space behind them, but the next passenger was a woman, as was the next after that, who was also the last. The steward came on the PA and said he was about to close the cabin door and everyone should turn off their portable electronic equipment. The two guys kept on shuffling up the aisle, and then they dumped themselves down, in separate lone seats, one on the left and one on the right, three rows and four rows ahead, respectively.

  Turner said, ‘This is crazy.’

  ‘That’s for damn sure,’ Reacher said. ‘How long is this flight?’

  Which question was answered immediately, not by Turner, but by the steward on the PA again, with another of his standard announcements. He said the computer was showing a flight time of five hours and forty minutes, because of a headwind.

  Reacher said, ‘This back-burner thing isn’t working. It isn’t working at all. Because they’re not letting it work. I mean, what exactly is this? Now they’re coming on the plane with us? Why? What are they going to do? In front of a hundred other people in a small metal tube?’

  ‘Could just be close-order surveillance.’

  ‘Do they have eyes in the back of their heads?’

  ‘Then it’s a warning shot of some kind. We’re supposed to feel intimidated.’

  ‘Yeah, now I’m really scared. They sent Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.’

  ‘And where are the other two?’

  ‘Full flight,’ Reacher said. ‘Maybe two seats was all they could get.’

  ‘In which case why not send the big guy?’

  ‘The question is not why or why not. It’s how. How are they doing this? They started from stone cold and now they’re five minutes behind us. And as far as they know we have no ID. Except Sullivan and Temple, and they have to figure we know no one named Sullivan or Temple is getting on a plane today, not without some serious scrutiny. So how did they know we were heading for departures? Why would we, without ID? It was much more likely we’d head for the parking lot and get back on the road.’

  ‘The bus driver told them.’

  ‘Too quick. He’s not even back yet. It’s them. There’s no information they can’t get. They’re in this airline’s operating system, right now. They saw us buy the tickets, and they watched us board. Which means they’re in the 110th’s undercover locker, too. Because how else would the name Kehoe mean anything to them? They’re watching everything we do. Every move we make. We’re in a goldfish bowl.’

  ‘In which case they must have matched Vega to Kehoe by now. Because we booked at the same time, and we’re sitting together. So they know I’m Vega. Which means the real Vega is in bad trouble. As is Leach too, for brokering the loan. And for delivering the stuff. We really need to warn them both.’

  ‘We can’t warn either one of them. We can’t do anything. Not for the next five hours and forty minutes.’

  The plane taxied, earthbound and clumsy, ahead of an American Airlines departure, which Reacher figured was the Orange County flight, due to leave a minute later. The sky was still dark. There was no sign of the morning sun.

  Then came the runway, and the plane turned and paused, as if to compose itself, and then its engines roared and it accelerated on its way, rumbling over the concrete sections, relentlessly, and Reacher watched out the window and saw the ground fall away below and the broad aluminium wing dip and flex as it took the weight. The lights of Pittsburgh twinkled in the distance, carved into curves and headlands by broad black rivers.

  Three and four rows in front the two guys were staring studiously ahead. Both had middle seats. The least desirable, and therefore the last to sell. On the left of the cabin was the guy from the first night. He had a younger woman next to him at the window, and an older woman next to him on the aisle. On the right of the cabin was the makeweight from the second day. He had an old white-haired guy next to him at the window, one of the early boarders, Reacher t
hought, with a walking stick. On the aisle was a woman in a suit, who would have looked more at home in first class. Maybe she was on a business trip. Maybe her employer had cut back on benefits.

  Turner said, ‘I wish we knew who they were.’

  ‘They’re on a plane this time,’ Reacher said. ‘Not in a car. Which implies two major certainties. This time they have IDs in their pockets. And no weapons.’

  ‘How far up the chain of command would you have to go before you found someone with unfettered 24/7 access to every national security system this country has?’

  ‘I assume everything changed after 9/11. I was gone four years before that. But I would guess an O8 in Intelligence might have that capability. Although not unfettered. They’re a paranoid bunch. They have all kinds of checks and balances. To do a little private snooping on an airline’s passenger manifest at five o’clock in the morning would be something else entirely.’

  ‘So who?’

  ‘Think about it the other way around. How far down the chain of command would you have to go? The president could do it. Or the National Security Adviser. Or anyone who gets in the Situation Room on a regular basis. The Chiefs of Staff, in other words. Except this is a round-the-clock responsibility, and it’s been running for more than a dozen years now. So there must be a separate desk. A Deputy Chief of Staff. Some kind of a go-to guy, tasked to be on top of everything, all the time. He could dip in and out any old time he wanted to. No checks and balances for him, because he’s the guy the checks and balances get reported to.’

  ‘So we’re dealing with a Deputy Chief of Staff?’

  ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall.’

  ‘Conspiring with someone in Afghanistan?’

  ‘Those guys all know each other. They’re very social. Probably classmates.’

  ‘So who are these guys on the plane? They don’t look like Pentagon staffers.’

  Reacher didn’t answer. He just watched and waited.

  And then ten minutes later his patience was rewarded.

  The woman in the fancy business suit got up and headed for the bathroom.

  FORTY-FIVE

  REACHER WAITED FOR the woman in the suit to pass by, and then he unclipped his belt and got up and headed forward, one row, two, three, four. He dropped into the woman’s vacated seat, and the makeweight from the second day reared back against the white-haired old guy with the cane, who was fast asleep with his head against the window.

  Reacher said, ‘Let me see your ID.’

  Which the guy didn’t. He just sat there, completely disconcerted, pressed up against his quarry like a sardine in a can. He was wearing some kind of nylon cargo pants, and a black sweatshirt under a black pea coat. He had a Hamilton watch on his left wrist, which meant he was probably right-handed. How long do women take in the bathroom? In Reacher’s experience they were not lightning fast. Four minutes, possibly.

  Which was about three more than he needed.

  He leaned forward, like he was going to head-butt the seat in front of him, and he rocked to his right, and he leaned back again, all one continuous fluid motion, so the guy ended up half trapped behind his right shoulder and his upper arm, and he reached over with his right hand and grabbed the guy’s right wrist, and he dragged the guy’s hand over towards him, twisting the wrist so the knuckles came first, with the palm facing away, and with his left hand he grabbed the guy’s right index finger, and he said, ‘Now you’ve got a choice. You can take it like a man, or you can scream like a little girl.’

  And he broke the guy’s finger, by wrenching it down ninety degrees and snapping the first knuckle, and then he popped the second knuckle with the ball of his thumb. The guy jumped and squirmed and gasped in shock and pain, but he didn’t scream. Not like a little girl. Not with a hundred other people there.

  Next Reacher broke his middle finger, in the same way, in the same two places, and then the guy started trying to get his trapped left arm free, which Reacher allowed, but only so he could swap hands and attend to the same two fingers on the other side.

  Then he said, ‘ID?’

  The guy didn’t answer. He couldn’t. He was too busy whimpering and grimacing and staring down at his ruined hands. His fingers were all over the place, sticking out at odd angles, bent into L shapes. Reacher patted him down, at close quarters, pushing him and pulling him to get at all his pockets. Nothing exciting in most of them, but he felt a characteristic lump in the right hip pocket. A tri-fold wallet, for sure. He pulled it out and stood up. Across the aisle and one row back the other guy was half on his feet. The woman in the suit was out of the bathroom and coming towards him. She hung back to let him sit, and then she continued on her way.

  Reacher dumped the wallet in Turner’s lap and re-clipped his belt. She said, ‘What did you do to him?’

  ‘He won’t be pulling any triggers for a week or two. Or hitting anything. Or driving. Or buttoning his pants. He’s off the table. Prevention is better than cure. Get your retaliation in first.’

  Turner didn’t answer.

  ‘I know,’ Reacher said. ‘Feral. What you see is what you get.’

  ‘No, it was good work.’

  ‘How did it look?’

  ‘He was hopping around a bit. I knew something was happening.’

  ‘What’s in the wallet?’

  Turner opened it up. It was a fat old item, made of decent leather that had moulded itself around its contents. Which were numerous. The back part had cash in two sections, a healthy quarter-inch wad of twenties, but nothing larger, and then a thinner selection of ones and tens and fives. The front part had three pockets sized to carry credit cards. On the top of the deck in the centre was a North Carolina driver’s licence, with the guy’s face in the picture, and the name Peter Paul Lozano. Behind the DL was a stack of credit cards, Visa and MasterCard and Discover and American Express, with more in the slots on the left and the right, all of them current, in-date and unexpired, all of them in the name of Peter P. Lozano.

  There was no military ID.

  ‘Is he a civilian?’ Turner said. ‘Or sanitized?’

  ‘I’m guessing sanitized,’ Reacher said. ‘But Captain Edmonds can tell us. I’ll give her the name. She’s working with HRC.’

  ‘Are you going to get the other guy’s name?’

  ‘Two would triangulate better than one.’

  ‘How are you going to do it?’

  ‘I’ll think of something.’

  Four rows ahead the guy named Lozano was hunched over and rocking back and forth in his seat, as if he had his hands clamped up under his arms to manage the pain. A stewardess came by, and he glanced at her, as if he wanted to speak, but then he looked away again. Because what was he going to say? A bad man came by and hurt me? Like a little girl? Like a snitch in the principal’s office? Clearly not his style. Not in front of a hundred other people.

  ‘Military,’ Reacher said. ‘Don’t you think? Boot camp taught him to keep his mouth shut.’

  Then the other guy squeezed out past the old lady next to him. The guy from the first night, with all the verbal chit-chat. He stepped forward a row and bent down to talk to his buddy. It turned into a regular little conference. There was discussion, there was exhibition of injuries, there were hostile glances over the shoulder. The woman in the business suit looked away, her face blank and frozen.

  Turner said, ‘It won’t work twice. Forewarned is forearmed. The guy is getting a damn play by play.’

  ‘And hoping his seatmate has a strong bladder.’

  ‘Do you really think Edmonds will get us the file on 3435?’

  ‘She either will or she won’t. It’s about fifty-fifty. Like the toss of a coin.’

  ‘And either way is OK with you, right?’

  ‘I’d prefer to have the file.’

  ‘But you’re not going to be heartbroken if you don’t get it. Because just asking for it was enough. Asking for it was like telling them we’re one step away. Like our breath on the
ir necks.’

  ‘I’d prefer to have the file,’ Reacher said again.

  ‘Like these guys on the plane. You’re sending them back walking wounded. You’re sending a message, aren’t you?’

  Reacher said nothing.

  Reacher kept one eye on the guy from the first night, three rows ahead on the left. The woman next to him at the window seemed to be asleep. From behind she looked young, and she was dressed like a homeless person. Definitely no summer frock, and no gloves. But she was clean. A movie person, probably. Junior, to be flying coach. Not an A-lister. Maybe an intern, or an assistant to an assistant. Perhaps she had been scouting locations, or organizing office space. The older woman on the aisle looked like a grandma. Maybe she was heading out to visit her grandkids. Maybe her ancestors had worked for Carnegie and Frick, in their brutal mills, and then when the city hit hard times maybe her children had joined the rustbelt diaspora and headed for sunnier climes. Maybe they were living the dream, in the warmth of southern California.

  Reacher waited.

 
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