Night school, p.27
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       Night School, p.27
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         Part #21 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child  

  Gelb Bauernhof was a property about a hundred yards wide by two hundred deep. Like a high-end suburban lot in America. But a farm nonetheless. Albeit in miniature. There was nothing yellow about it. The sky was gray, and the dirt was brown, and the cabbages were army green. Bishop turned in at the driveway. Which was dirt, hand scraped to a consistent camber. The big blue Opel hissed over it. The garage was dead ahead. The house was to the left. About eighty yards from the street.

  Bishop rolled on. There was no reaction. He stopped where a footpath left the driveway and led to the house. Now twenty yards away. Still no reaction.

  Then a man came out of the house.

  He left the front door open, and took two steps, and stood on the path and watched. He was about Reacher’s own age. Maybe thirty-five. He stood tall and straight. Fair hair, a shapeless gray sweater, and shapeless gray pants.

  Nothing on his feet.

  Reacher said, “I’ll go first.”

  He got out of the car slowly, and took a step. The guy on the path just watched. Another step. All good. So Reacher kept on going, a step at a time, until he was face to face with the guy. Like a salesman calling. Or a neighbor in need of advice.

  Reacher said, “I need to speak with Arnold Peter Mason.”

  The guy didn’t answer. Didn’t react at all. Like he hadn’t heard. He was looking past Reacher’s shoulder into the middle distance. Nothing there but cabbages.

  Reacher said, “Herr Mason?”

  The guy looked at him. Blue eyes. Empty. Nothing going on back there. The lights were on, but no one was home. The handicapped son. Same age as Wiley. Same generation as the so-called nephew. Thirty-five years old, but still a dependent.

  Reacher pointed to the house with one hand and made an arm-around-the-shoulder shape with the other, and said, “Let’s both of us go inside.”

  The guy did nothing for a moment, and then he turned and walked briskly back to the house, his bare feet slapping, and he leaned in the open door and pounded on the wall, and shouted out, “Mutti!”

  Then he stood back and waited.

  A woman came out. She was small and trim. She had fading blonde hair cut short. She was maybe sixty-five years old. A kind face. Worn, but still handsome. She smiled benignly at Reacher, as if to say she was sure he understood, and then she turned away and thanked her son for a job well done, squeezing his hands, patting his shoulder, cupping his cheek, sending him back inside.

  Then she stepped up to where Reacher was waiting. She looked at him for a second, and then she said, “Are you from the army?”

  She spoke in English, with an accent but no hesitation.

  Reacher said, “How did you know?”

  “Arnold said you would come.”

  “Did he?”

  “Although he thought sooner. But still.”

  “I’m Major Reacher.”

  “I’m Frau Mason.”

  “Is Arnold home?”

  “Of course.”

  The others got out of the car and followed Reacher and the woman through the door. The house was small inside, but light and cheerful, with white paint and sprigged wallpapers. The woman led Reacher to a back parlor. She went in. He followed. She crossed the room and bent down and hugged a man in a wheelchair. She kissed him awake. She said, “Darling, this is Major Reacher from the army.”

  Arnold Mason. Once a teenage ranch hand, then an infantry soldier, then a family man with two different families. Now collapsed in a wheelchair, slack on one side, one eye looking, the other eye shut.

  Reacher said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Mason.”

  The guy didn’t answer. He was sixty-five years old, but he looked ninety-five. He had no strength. No focus. Reacher looked at the woman and said, “Frau Mason, can we talk?”

  They went back to the hallway. Bishop and Sinclair introduced themselves as government workers. Reacher asked, “What happened to him?”

  The woman said, “Don’t you know?”

  “No, we don’t.”

  “He has a growth in his head.”

  “Like a tumor?”

  “It’s a long word I don’t understand. It’s crushing his brain. One part after another. Day by day.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “He knew you would be.”

  Reacher said, “When did it start?”

  “A year and a half ago.”

  “Can he talk?”

  “A little. He lost movement on one side, so he sounds funny. But he’s not upset about it. He was never much of a talker. And now he can’t remember anything anyway.”

  “That could be a problem. We’re here to ask him questions.”

  “I thought you were here to help him.”

  “Why?”

  “He said if he got sick someone from the army was sure to come.”

  “Has he been treated by the army before?”

  “No, never.”

  “How bad is his memory?”

  “Patchy, but mostly very bad.”

  “How tired does he get?”

  “He’ll lose track after the first few questions.”

  Reacher said, “Would you wait outside?”

  “Has he done something wrong?”

  “The questions are about the period immediately after he mustered out. The six years he wasn’t here. He might not want you to hear his answers. I’m obliged to consider his privacy.”

  The woman said, “I know all about Mrs. Wiley, in Sugar Land, Texas. Is that all this is about?”

  “Her son,” Reacher said.

  They went back in the parlor. Mason was still awake, and a little brighter. He acknowledged introductions with a vague one-eyed glance and a movement of his hand. His wife crouched behind his chair and hugged his shoulders, as if to reassure him, and Reacher squatted in front of him, to get in his line of sight.

  Reacher said, “Mr. Mason, do you remember Horace Wiley?”

  Mason closed his working eye, and held it shut a moment, and then opened it again. His gaze was faraway and watery. The working half of his face moved with exaggerated diction and he said, “Call me Arnold.”

  His voice was low and breathy, and half his mouth was frozen, but the words came out clear enough.

  Reacher said, “Arnold, tell me about Horace Wiley.”

  Mason’s eye closed again, longer, as if he was consulting an internal source of information, and then his eye opened, and with half a hint of half a smile he said, “I used to call him Horse. Sounded about the same in Texas anyway.”

  “When was the last time you heard from him?”

  A pause.

  Mason said, “I guess I never heard from him. Not since I left.”

  “Did you tell him Davy Crockett stories?”

  A longer pause.

  Longer.

  Mason said, “I don’t remember any of that.”

  “He said he joined the army because you told him Davy Crockett stories.”

  “Horse joined the army? Hot damn.”

  “What about the stories?”

  “I don’t remember.”

  “You sure?”

  “Maybe it was a television show the kid was watching.”

  “Nothing more?”

  “I don’t think I would have told stories. Not back then. People said I didn’t talk much.”

  Then his eye closed again, and his chin fell to his chest. His wife propped his head comfortably and hauled herself up. She said, “He’ll sleep now. That was more talking than he’s used to.”

  They filed out to the hallway with the sprig wallpaper. The woman said, “Can you help him?”

  Bishop said, “We’ll check with the Veterans’ Administration.”

  Reacher said, “Did he ever tell you the Davy Crockett stories?”

  The woman said, “No, never.”

  Sinclair said, “How is your son?”

  “He’s well, thank you. A little slow. By now like a seven-year-old. But placid, not boisterous. We have much to look forward to. Except that
Arnold blames himself. Which is why he went back to Texas after his discharge. All those years ago. He ran away. He couldn’t face it all day every day. Because he thought it was his fault.”

  “Why?”

  “It’s genetic. It’s him or me. He says it’s him. Truth is it could be both of us. But he insists. But he came back in the end. It all calmed down. He did very well. But he still blames himself. And now he worries what will become of us.”

  —

  They got back in the car, and they turned around, and they drove away. Reacher said, “Did you believe him?”

  “Believe what?” Sinclair said. “He couldn’t remember anything.”

  “Did you believe he couldn’t remember anything?”

  “Didn’t you?”

  “I wasn’t sure. On the one hand, OK, he’s dying from a brain tumor. On the other hand, I didn’t like the call-me-Arnold bullshit. He was buying time. He was an infantryman twenty years, so he can smell MPs a mile away. He wanted to think about his answers.”

  “Which were, in the end?”

  “No, Wiley hadn’t contacted him, and no, he didn’t remember telling Davy Crockett stories.”

  “You think he was lying?”

  “A person in that condition is hard to read. I think the first part was probably true. He was sad, not defensive. But he paused an awful long time after the Davy Crockett question. Maybe it was the brain tumor. Or maybe he was putting two and two together. The passage of time, plus Horace Wiley’s inborn nature, which he observed at close quarters, plus whatever was in the Davy Crockett stories, plus then many years later the sudden appearance of an O-4 investigator, equals some kind of an eventual bad outcome. And therefore a need for denial. Which our natural sympathy excuses as memory loss. Which it might actually be. But we’ll never know for sure. Because we can’t find out. We can’t smack the guy around. So to speak.”

  Bishop said, “He can’t be actively involved. He’s been sick a year and a half.”

  “Agreed,” Reacher said.

  “So it’s all about the Davy Crockett stories. Which at face value sound like nothing. Just stupid fairytales for kids. But they were top of Wiley’s cryptic list. So clearly they have personal meaning for him.”

  Sinclair said, “Personal meaning how?”

  Neagley said, “He didn’t tell his wife. So they were work-based stories, not home-based. They were army stories. Of which there are millions. All kinds of unit legends. Maybe Mason told Wiley his unit’s legend, man to man, trying to bond with the kid. Like in the movies. The mother’s new boyfriend always does that. Maybe Wiley always remembered the stories. Maybe they were powerful enough to make him come check them out, all these years later.”

  “What kind of legends are there?”

  “We could try a Hail Mary,” Neagley said. She was reading Arnold Mason’s service record like a sheet of music, moving her finger from measure to measure, head cocked, listening to the tune. She said, “It’s a long shot, but if you start way back, a first lieutenant with these guys might have rotated back in as a captain. Maybe again as a major or a light colonel. Back then airborne infantry could build careers. If such a guy did well, he could still be with us. Very senior now, but he’ll remember. Everybody remembers their first unit.”

  “It’s forty years ago.”

  “If he graduated the Point at twenty-two, he’s still short of retirement.”

  “He’d be a general by now.”

  “Probably.”

  “How would you find him?”

  “I would call a friend in Personnel Command. Someone would figure it out.”

  “Do it,” Sinclair said. “As soon as we get back.”

  They drove on. Outside the sky grew darker. Either rain coming, or late afternoon. Or both.

  —

  In Jalalabad dusk was already falling. The messenger was leaving the white mud house. She climbed into a Toyota pick-up truck. Same system as before. Drive all night, and take the first flight out. She was ready. Still a clean skin, more or less. Not that the Swiss cared. All money was the same to them. She had been coached.

  She knew the address in Zurich. She knew Zurich would look different than Hamburg. She knew all the numbers. Their account number, their passcode, one hundred million dollars, zero cents, Wiley’s account number. She had Swiss francs in her pocket, for taxis.

  Pray for success, the fat man had said. But not hers. Her job was easy. He should have said pray for Wiley’s success. She didn’t like Wiley. Not because of the assault on her modesty. Because he was weak and furtive and easily distracted. Which worried her. His job wasn’t easy. Her success depended on his. If this deal fails, then yes, you will be killed.

  It wouldn’t fail because of her.

  The Toyota bucked and bounced over washboard roads, heading away from the last of the sunset.

  —

  Neagley got on the phone in the consulate room and called her friend in Personnel Command. She explained the Hail Mary. Her friend said the theory sounded simple enough. Look for junior commanders in about 1955, in the airborne divisions in Germany, who were still in the army forty years later. Neagley bet five dollars on low single digits. Her friend put ten on the zero. Because of natural attrition, he said, plus three major upheavals, first Vietnam, and then the Soviet collapse, and then the modern-day volunteer high-tech military machine, all lean and mean, with body armor and women and night-vision goggles. No guy could survive all that.

  Then another phone rang, and it was picked up by Vanderbilt and handed to Reacher. It was Griezman. Who said, “I need to speak with you in private.”

  Reacher said, “Go ahead.”

  “No, face to face. And alone. Where are you?”

  “I’m not supposed to tell you that.”

  “I can’t help you if you won’t let me.”

  “I’m at the U.S. consulate.”

  “Be outside one minute from now.”

  Chapter 32

  Reacher waited at the curb, with his back to the not-exactly White House, and he saw Griezman’s Mercedes in traffic a hundred yards to his left. He got in when it got there, and Griezman pulled a U-turn and headed back the way he had come. He was as big as ever. And quiet. He had something on his mind.

  Reacher said, “Where are we going?”

  Griezman said, “The railroad station.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I’m a responsible copper. I added Wiley as a potential suspect. Which meant the uniformed division got his picture. The feet on the street. They showed it around. A money changer at the railroad station recognized it. From a couple of days ago. Which makes him your business, not mine.”

  “Thank you.”

  “However,” Griezman said.

  “That doesn’t sound good.”

 
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