Never go back, p.27
Never Go Back,
Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
And in the end it was the guy himself who proved to have a bladder issue. Too much morning coffee, perhaps. Or orange juice. Or water. But whichever, the guy stood up and squeezed out past grandma, and oriented himself in the aisle, and locked eyes with Reacher, and took hesitant steps towards the back of the plane, watching Reacher all the way, one row, two, three, and then as he came alongside he turned and walked backward the rest of the way, his eyes still on Reacher’s, exaggerated, as if to say no way you’re getting a jump on me, and he fumbled behind himself for the door, and he backed ass-first into the bathroom, his eyes still locked on Reacher’s until the last possible second, and then the door closed and the bolt shot home.
How long do men take in the bathroom?
Not as long as women, generally.
Reacher unclipped his belt and stood up.
REACHER WAITED OUTSIDE the bathroom, patiently, lik a regular passenger, like the next man in line. The door was a standard bi-fold contraption, hinged on the right, cream in colour, and a little grimy. No surprises. Then he heard the sudden muted suck of the flush, and then there was a pause, for hand washing, he hoped, and then the red Occupied changed to a green Vacant, and the centre of the door pulled back, and its left-hand edge slid along its track, and as soon as it was three-quarters of the way home Reacher wheeled around and slammed the heel of his left hand through the widening gap and caught the guy in the chest and smashed him back into the bulkhead behind the toilet.
Reacher crammed in after him and closed the door again with a jerk of his hips. The space was tiny. Barely big enough for Reacher on his own. He was jammed hard up against the guy, chest to chest, face to face. He turned half left, so he was hip to hip, so he wouldn’t get kneed in the balls, and he jammed his right forearm horizontally into the guy’s throat, to pin him against the back wall, and the guy started wriggling and struggling, but uselessly, because he couldn’t move more than an inch or two. No swing, no momentum. Reacher leaned in hard and turned his own left hand backward and caught the guy’s right wrist, and rotated it like a doorknob, which meant that as the twist in Reacher’s arm unwound the exact same twist went into the other guy’s arm, more and more, harder and harder, relentlessly, until the guy really needed to do a pirouette or a cartwheel to relieve the agonizing pressure, which obviously he couldn’t, due to the complete lack of space. Reacher kept it going until the point of the guy’s elbow was facing directly towards him, and then he raised the guy’s arm, up and up, still twisting, until it was horizontal, an inch from the side wall, and then he took his forearm out of the guy’s throat and smashed his own elbow down through the guy’s elbow, shattering it, the guy’s arm suddenly folding the way no arm is designed to fold.
The guy screamed, which Reacher hoped would be muffled by the door, or lost in the sound of rushing air, and then the guy collapsed into a sitting position on the commode, and then Reacher broke his other arm, the same way, twist, twist, smash, and then he hauled him upright again by the collar and checked his pockets, an inch away, up close and personal, the guy still struggling, his thighs going like he was riding an imaginary bicycle, but generating no force at all because of the extreme proximity, Reacher feeling nothing more than a ripple.
The guy’s wallet was in his right hip pocket, the same as the previous guy. Reacher took it and turned to his left and jabbed the guy with his elbow, hard, in the centre of his chest, and the guy went back down on the toilet, and Reacher extricated himself from the tangle of flopping limbs, and shouldered out the door. He closed it behind him as much as he could, and then he walked the short distance back to his seat.
The second wallet was loaded more or less the same as the first. A healthy wad of twenties, and some leathery small bills the guy had gotten in change, and a deck of credit cards, and a North Carolina driver’s licence with the guy’s picture and the name Ronald David Baldacci.
There was no military ID.
Reacher said, ‘If one is sanitized, they all are.’
‘Or they’re all civilians.’
‘Suppose they aren’t.’
‘Then they’re lifers at Fort Bragg. To have North Carolina DLs.’
‘Who’s at Fort Bragg these days?’
‘Nearly forty thousand people. More than two hundred and fifty square miles. It was a city all its own at the last census. There’s a lot of airborne, including the 82nd. And Special Forces, and psy-ops, and the Kennedy Special Warfare Center, and the 16th MP, and a lot of sustainment and logistics.’
‘A lot of people in and out of Afghanistan, in other words.’
‘Including the logistics people. They brought stuff in, and now they’re taking it out again. Or not.’
‘You still think this is a repeat of the Big Dog scam?’
‘Except bigger and better. And I don’t think they’re selling it here at home. I think they’re selling it to the native population.’
‘We’ll find out,’ Reacher said. ‘We’re one step away, after all.’
‘Back burner again,’ Turner said. ‘You took care of what you had to. Now you’re going to meet your daughter.’
About five minutes after that the guy came out of the bathroom, pale, sweating, seemingly smaller, much diminished, only his lower body moving, his upper body held rigid, like a robot only half working. He stumbled down the aisle and squeezed past the grandma and dumped himself back in his seat.
Reacher said, ‘He should ask the stewardess for an aspirin.’
Then the flight reverted to normal, and became like most flights Reacher had taken. No food was served. Not in coach. There was stuff to buy, mostly small chemical pellets artfully disguised as various natural products, but neither Reacher nor Turner bought any. They figured they would eat in California. Which would make them hungry, but Reacher didn’t mind being hungry. He believed hunger kept him sharp. He believed it stimulated creativity in the brain. Another old evolutionary legacy. If you’re hungry, you work out a smarter way to get the next woolly mammoth, today, not tomorrow.
He figured he was owed about three hours’ sleep, after being woken by Leach at four in the morning, so he closed his eyes. He wasn’t worried about the two guys. What were they going to do? They could spit peanuts at him, he guessed, but that was about all. Beside him he felt Turner arrive at the same conclusion. She rested her head on his shoulder. He slept bolt upright, waking with a start every time his head tipped forward.
Romeo called Juliet and said, ‘We have a serious problem.’
Juliet said, ‘In what way?’
‘Turner must have remembered the number after all. Reacher’s lawyer just made an application to see the full bio on A.M. 3435.’
‘Why Reacher’s lawyer?’
‘They’re trying to slip it by. They assume we’re watching her lawyer, but maybe not his. It’s not even his main lawyer. It’s the newbie doing his paternity case.’
‘Then we can get it thrown out, surely. It’s got nothing to do with his paternity case.’
‘It’s an application, like any other. The process is what it is. We’d have to show good reason. And we can’t, because there’s nothing demonstrably special about the guy. Except to us. We can’t afford that kind of attention. Everyone would think we’d lost our minds. They’d say, who the hell is redacting that guy? He’s just a run-of-the-mill peasant.’
‘So how long have we got?’
‘A day, perhaps.’
‘Did you cancel their credit cards?’
‘I cancelled his. Easy enough, because it was the army’s to start with. But I can’t touch hers without a paper trail. Margaret Vega is a real person.’
‘What are we going to do?’
‘We’re going to finish it in California. They’ll be on the ground soon, four against two.’
Reacher and Turner slept most of three hours, and woke up with the plane on approach into Long Beach, and with the steward on the PA again, talking about seat backs and tray tables and upright position
She said, ‘We shouldn’t use Hertz or Avis. To rent the car, I mean. Or any of the big franchises. Just in case their computers are hooked up with the government.’
He said, ‘You’re getting paranoid in your old age.’
‘Doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me.’
She said, ‘What would that leave us with?’
‘Local guys. Rent-a-Wrecks, or four-year-old Lamborghinis.’
‘Will they take cash?’
‘We have credit cards.’
‘They might have cancelled them. They seem able to do that kind of thing.’
‘They can’t have. Not yet. They don’t even know we’ve got them.’
‘They saw us buy these flights.’
‘They saw Vega and Kehoe buy these flights. But we’re not Vega and Kehoe any more. From now on we’re Lozano and Baldacci, at least when it comes to credit cards. We’ll use theirs. How’s that for a message?’
‘They can track credit cards.’
‘You want them to find us, don’t you?’
‘Easier than us finding them. But I agree with you about Hertz and Avis. We don’t want to make it too easy. We need to give them a sense of achievement.’
‘First we have to make it through the airport. Which could be full of MPs. Because Warrant Officer Espin isn’t the dumbest bunny ever born. He must know where you’re going. And he’s got the personnel. He could have a guy in every airport within a hundred miles of LA. All day and all night. And the FBI could be there too. Their Pittsburgh people don’t need to be geniuses to figure out where we were going.’
‘We’ll keep our eyes open.’
The glide path was long and gentle, and the landing was smooth, and the inward taxi felt fast and nimble. Then a tiny bell sounded and a light went out and about ninety-seven people leapt to their feet. Reacher stayed in his seat, because it was no less comfortable than standing under a six-foot ceiling. And the guys three and four rows ahead stayed sitting too, because there was no way known to science for an adult male human to get out of an airline seat in coach without using leverage from his hands and his arms.
The plane emptied from the front, with people flowing out in layers, like sand in an hourglass. They grabbed their suitcases and their coats from where they had stowed them, and they funnelled away, and the next row slid out to replace them, and the next. The old white-haired guy with the cane and the young movie intern had to struggle out past their immobile centre-seat neighbours. Then the next rows cleared, and the two guys were left sitting all alone in a sea of emptied space. Reacher took his turn down the aisle, head bent and hunched, and he paused three rows ahead and hauled the left-hand guy to his feet by the front of his shirt. It seemed the least he could do. He paused again a row later and did the same with the right-hand guy. Then he moved on, down the aisle, through the galley, out the door, through warm air and kerosene stink, and into the Long Beach airport.
AIRPORTS ARE FULL of solo loiterers, which makes spotting surveillance almost impossible. Because everyone is a suspect. A guy sitting around doing nothing behind a rumpled newspaper? Rare on the street, but pretty much compulsory in the airport. There could have been fifty undercover MPs and fifty FBI agents inside the first thirty feet alone.
But no one showed any interest in them. No one looked at them, no one approached them, and no one followed them. So they walked away fast, straight to the taxi line, and they got in the back of a beat-up sedan, and they asked the driver for off-airport car rental, but not Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, or anyone else with an illuminated sign. The driver didn’t ask supplementary questions. Didn’t seek detailed specifications. He just took off, like he knew where he was going. His brother-in-law’s, probably, or whichever guy gave him the best finder’s fee.
In which case the brother-in-law or the top-dollar hustler must have been named Al, and he must have been a cool guy, because the cab pulled up in front of a vacant lot filled with about twenty parked cars and backed by a wooden shed, which had Cool Al’s Auto Rental painted on its roof, inexpertly, by hand, in thin paint, with a wide brush.
‘Perfect,’ Reacher said.
Peter Paul Lozano took care of the cab fare, via a bill peeled off his quarter-inch stack of twenties, and then Reacher and Turner wandered through the lot. Clearly Cool Al had positioned his business in what he must have figured was a sweet spot halfway between the Rent-a-Wreck idea and the four-year-old Lamborghini approach. The lot was filled with vehicles that had started out prestigious, and had probably stayed prestigious for a good long time, but which were now well into a long and sad decline. There were Mercedes-Benzes and Range Rovers and BMWs and Jaguars, all of them last-but-three body styles, all of them scuffed and dented and a little dull.
‘Will they work?’ Turner asked.
‘Don’t know,’ Reacher said. ‘I’m the last guy to ask about cars. Let’s see what Cool Al has to say on the subject.’
Which was, translated and paraphrased, ‘They’ve lasted this long, so why should they stop now?’ Which struck Reacher as both logical and optimistic. Cool Al himself was a guy of about sixty or sixty-five, with a full head of grey hair, and a big belly, and a yellow shirt. He was at a desk that took up half the space in his shed, which was hot and smelled of dusty wood and creosote.
He said, ‘Go on, pick a car, any car.’
‘A Range Rover,’ Turner said. ‘I’ve never been in one before.’
‘You’ll love it.’
‘I hope so.’
Reacher did the deal, at the giant desk, with licences from Vega and Baldacci, and a made-up cell number, and one of Baldacci’s credit cards, and a scrawled signature that could have been pretty much anything. In return Cool Al handed over a key and waved a wide arm towards the right side of the lot and said, ‘The black one.’
The black one turned out to be sun-hazed down to a steely dark purple, and its window tints were lifting and bubbling, and its seats were cracked and sagging. It was from the 1990s, Turner thought. No longer a premium vehicle. But it started, and it turned right, and it rolled down the road. Turner said, ‘It’s lasted this long. Why should it stop now?’
It stopped a mile later, but on command, for breakfast at the first diner they saw, which was a family-run place on Long Beach Boulevard. It had all the good stuff, including a long-delayed omelette for Turner. She called Sergeant Leach from the payphone and told her to take care. Reacher watched the parking lot, and saw no one. No pursuit, no surveillance, no interest at all. So they got back on the road and headed north and west, looking for a 710 on-ramp, Reacher driving for the first time. The stately old boat suited him well. Its window tints were reassuring. They were nearly opaque. And the mechanical parts seemed up to their task. The car floated along, as if the road surface was just a vague rumour, somewhere far, far away.
Turner said, ‘What are you going to do if you see them?’
Reacher said, ‘Who?’
‘Your daughter and her mother.’
‘You mean what am I going to say?’
‘No, I mean from a distance, the very first time you lay eyes on them.’
‘I don’t see how I would recognize them.’
‘Suppose you did.’
‘Then I’m going to look for the trap.’
‘Correct,’ Turner said. ‘They’re bait, until proven otherwise. The MPs and the FBI will be there for sure. It’s a known destination. Every single person you see could be undercover. So proceed accordi
‘Between here and North Hollywood the danger doubles with every mile. We’re heading straight for the centre of the inferno.’
‘Is this a pre-action briefing?’
‘I’m your CO. I’m obliged to give one.’
‘You’re preaching to the choir.’
‘You might recognize them, you know.’
‘Daughters don’t necessarily resemble their fathers.’
‘I meant you might remember the mother.’
Juliet called Romeo, because some responsibilities were his, and he said, ‘I have some very bad news.’
Romeo said, ‘Does it relate in any way to Baldacci using his credit card at a car rental called Cool Al’s?’
‘What kind of Al’s?’
‘It’s a West Coast thing. What happened?’
‘Reacher got to them on the plane. He put them out of action and
Never Go Back by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on46 votes