Night school, p.29
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       Night School, p.29
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         Part #21 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  Wiley took the padlock off the hasp, in the center of the door, and then off the top bolt, and the bottom, and he dragged the door open, and he ducked inside. He was calm. He had simple mechanical tasks ahead of him. First up were the plates. He took off the rental’s fresh new issue, and he put on the old BMW’s number in their place. Then he took out his cans of spray paint, bought at the hardware store, lurid greens and yellows and orange and red and silver. He sprayed fat initials on the side of the van, his own, just for the hell of it, but reversed, WH, all swelled up like balloons, like you saw on the subway cars. He shaded the letters with silver, and sprayed random swirls in the background, and added a fat S and a fat L, like a tag for a second artist, except it wasn’t. It was Sugar Land, right there on the truck, because why the hell not? It was where he was from, and it was where he was going.

  Then he sprayed a mist of gray over everything else, to calm it down, to give it age. He stood back. He was light-headed from the aerosol fumes. But he was satisfied. It was no longer a new white truck. It was a piece of urban junk. It was no longer worthy of a passing glance. Not that anyone would be passing. Everyone was at the hotel. There would be crowds of law enforcement and all kinds of perimeters. Firefighters and SWAT teams in the center, because of the handgun rounds and the gasoline fires. Then all kinds of security and rubberneckers and glory hunters. I was there, man. The bullets were zipping right over my head.

  He opened the double doors all the way, and then he climbed in and started up the rental. He reversed it out, and maneuvered it around, sawing it back and forth until it was lined up perfectly. He watched his mirrors and backed it up slowly, slowly, until its rear bumper kissed the old truck’s rear bumper. He put on the parking brake and shut down the motor. He climbed through from the cab to the load space. He rolled up the rear door from the inside. The old truck’s rear door was right there, an inch away. He unlocked it and rolled it up from the outside.

  A wooden crate.

  It was six feet high and six feet wide and twelve feet long. It was solidly made from tight-grained softwood, straight and true, once pale, now aged to a tobacco amber. It was a prototype of a standardized container system the Pentagon experimented with in the 1950s. A survivor. A piece of history. It was stenciled here and there with faded whitewash numbers.

  It weighed more than six hundred pounds. No way to move it without a forklift truck. One of which he no longer had. He took out a regular slot screwdriver from his bag. Old fashioned. Like the crate. It had screws the size of buttons. They were set on six-inch centers all around the perimeter of the end panel. Forty-four in total. Probably the result of a study by a research and development corporation. Some guy in a suit got a fat check for saying more was better. Which made everyone happy. The Pentagon’s ass was covered. The screw supplier was making out like a bandit. Probably charged a dollar each. Military spec.

  Wiley got to work.

  —

  The phone rang in the consulate room. Griezman. Who said, “Something is happening in the hotel parking garage. Where the hooker vanished. There were gunshots and then a car blew up. Then two more. The fire is contained because there are sprinklers and foam on the ceiling. But we can’t get close. Not until we’re sure about the gun.”

  Reacher said, “You think the guy is still in there?”

  “Don’t you?”

  “We didn’t like the sound. It could have been ammo cooking off. Some kind of a delayed mechanism. You need to consider someone set it up on a timer. In which case he’s long gone. He’s where you’re not.”

  “Who?”

  “Horace Wiley, maybe. He’s keeping to a busy schedule right now. He might be in need of a decoy. You should put half your men back on the street.”

  “You think he’s back in town?”

  “I’m beginning to think he never left. He could be moving his truck right now. You should put guys on the street.”

  “Impossible. This is a government protocol. There were gunshots and explosions in the center of town. It’s not my decision. They planned for a year. The mayor’s office is in charge and we’re doing it by the book.”

  “How long do they plan to wait before they go in?”

  “A unit with body armor is on its way. Thirty minutes, possibly.”

  “OK,” Reacher said. “Good luck.”

  He clicked off the call. No one spoke.

  Reacher said, “I’m going out for a walk.”

  —

  Forty-four screws cost him just shy of twenty minutes, plus a lot of burn in his forearms. But then the panel came free and he laid it down to bridge the gap between the load floors. A flat surface, from one truck to the other. As planned ahead of time. He had thought of everything.

  The air in the crate smelled still and stale. Old wood, old canvas, old dust. The old world. The contents were exactly what Uncle Arnold had told him about, all those years before. Ten identical items. All the same. Each one weighed fifty pounds. Each one was ready-packed in a transport container. What Uncle Arnold had called an H-912. Wiley still remembered all the details. The containers had straps all over them. Easy to grab. Easy enough to haul and slide and drag and push. One at a time. From the old truck to the new truck. All the way in. Butted up tight, starting in the far back corner.

  Then a pause, and a breath, and back for the next one.

  —

  Reacher walked south to the Ausenalster lake. The city was quiet. A learned response. Europe was full of explosions. Factions and groups and people’s armies. A big deal for a day or two, until the next thing happened. He turned east at the water, looping around. He was two miles from where Wiley lived. Which had no inconspicuous place to park a panel van. But it made sense to keep it close by. Which was a relative term. A circle on a map would be drawn cautiously large. Some of it would be water. But most would be land. Of which Reacher could cover nothing more than a random and insignificant sliver. But doing something felt better than doing nothing. Walking felt better than sitting around. So he walked.

  —

  Fifty pounds was a hell of a weight, especially when you had to do it over and over. Wiley took a break after seven units, breathing hard, half bent over. Partly nerves. A simple mechanical task, but the whole ball game right there, nonetheless. The moment of maximum exposure. But much longer than a moment. Close to half an hour already, with vapor lights all over the old docks, and the two trucks jammed together rear end to rear end like some kind of vehicular sodomy, complete with rocking and thumping and grunting inside, while all the time half in and half out of a tumbledown shed no one had used in the last thirty years.

  Vulnerable.

  Not good.

  He took a breath and rolled his aching shoulders and got back to work. He dragged number eight the length of the crate, and up over the lip, and across the last yard of the old truck’s floor, and over the flat wooden panel, slowly, slowly, until it seesawed in the middle and clapped back down, and then onward into the new truck, where he left it standing upright against number seven.

  He went back to the crate, to the far back wall, and he got number nine. He dragged it out, and over, and in. All the way. He took a breath and went back for number ten. The last. He pulled it away from the wall. The book was right there. Right where Uncle Arnold said it would be. A khaki file folder striped in red, set in a neat receptacle made of thin plywood, with a half-moon shape scooped out for fingers. Maybe an apprentice’s work, all those years ago. In the crate factory. The folder held mimeographed copies of typewritten pages, all held together with brass fasteners gone dull with age.

  He carried the folder in one hand and dragged number ten with the other. He stood ten upright next to nine and wedged the book between them. He dragged the bridge back into the old truck and rolled down the new truck’s door from the outside. He squeezed around the empty crate and climbed out of the old truck through its cab. He hustled around and got in the new truck and started it up. He moved it forward and backed and filled unti
l he had gotten it turned around again, and then he drove it in nose first on the right-hand side, and he shut it down and locked it up. He re-packed his duffel and closed the double doors, and bolted the bolts, and closed the hasp, and clicked the padlocks shut.

  Nearly forty minutes. A long time. He walked to the corner and risked a look up the cobblestone street. All the way to the metal bridge. Beyond it on the main road the traffic was moving. Left to right, and right to left. Normal speed. No sirens. No squealing tires. No flashing lights.

  Logical.

  He carried his bag and used the footbridges, from pier to pier, all the way home.

  —

  Reacher walked halfway into the St. Georg neighborhood, curving west with the road around the lake. He saw nothing of interest. Cars, but none of them contained Wiley. Pedestrians, alone and in groups, but none of them Wiley. Eventually he stopped at a crosswalk. The main road ran straight ahead to St. Pauli. There was a narrow left turn that led to a boxy metal bridge. He saw cobblestones and moonlight on black water. All quiet. No movement.

  He gave it up and turned around and headed back. Folks in their homes were watching television. Hundreds of rooms were glowing blue. Live news, no doubt. The handgun rounds had been a pretty smart move. Explosions could be spun as accidental. Gunshots, not so much. Way to get attention. Textbook, literally. They had planned for a year.

  He got back to the consulate, where the evening guard let him in, and where Neagley told him the Joint Chiefs had issued the order to General Helmsworth. He was booked on Delta, on the night flight, nonstop out of Atlanta. A consulate car would pick him up in the morning.

  “A Silver Star for sure,” Neagley said. “We had explosions and gunfire. He’ll call it a war zone.”

  Then the phone rang. Griezman again. Who said, “There was no one in the parking garage. Just three burned-out cars, still smoldering. And bullet holes everywhere. It’s crazy.”

  “It was a set-up,” Reacher said.

  “But by who?”

  “It would be a big coincidence if it was someone else.”

  “The mayor’s office is in charge. They don’t know the history.”

  “Can you give me some unmarked cars?”

  “Impossible, I’m afraid. I’m standing by to be briefed. Which at this rate might be tomorrow. Someone already said that corner of the garage is near the hotel kitchen, so we should look at animal activists worried about foie gras and crate-raised veal.”

  “I don’t think it was them.”

  “Neither do I. But you see my point. This is going to be a long night. The mayor’s office doesn’t know any better.”

  Twelve hours until the Swiss banks opened.

  Reacher said nothing.

  Griezman killed the call without saying goodbye.

  —

  Later Bishop’s airport bus took them back to the hotel. They all went to their rooms. Reacher heard Neagley’s door click shut. Then Sinclair’s. Then a minute later she called him on the house phone. She said, “When should we ask for help?”

  He said, “Not before tomorrow.”

  “You say that every day.”

  “I live in hope.”

  She said, “Will it happen tomorrow?”

  “It might.”

  “Will you come over and talk to me?”

  She was waiting for him, standing in the middle of her room, in her black dress, with her pearls, and her nylons, and her shoes, and her uncombed hair.

  She said, “What are you thinking about?”

  He kissed her, long and slow, and then he moved behind her. She leaned back and rested against him.

  He said, “Personally or professionally?”

  She said, “Professionally first.”

  He bent her forward an inch and found the tag on her zipper, at the back of her neck. The metal teardrop. Tiny, but perfectly cast. A quality item. He eased it down, past the clasp of her bra, to the small of her back.

  He said, “Where do they plan to use what they’re buying?”

  She said, “I don’t know.”

  “In Germany?”

  “That would make no sense politically.”

  He tipped the dress off her shoulders, and it fell, and caught, and fell again, and puddled on the floor around her feet.

  She leaned back.

  She was warm.

  She said, “More likely D.C. or New York or conceivably London.”

  “Then they’ll ship it by sea. We wasted a day. Wrong assumption. Wiley was never headed out of town. It’s a big heavy thing that needs a large-size panel van. Driving is not the best way to get it out of Germany. They can’t drive it all the way to D.C. or New York or London anyhow. It has to go by sea eventually.”

  He bent her forward again, just an inch, and he unhooked her bra. He smoothed his hands over her shoulders, snagging the straps, pushing them off.

  The bra joined the dress.

  He cupped her breasts.

  She leaned back, and turned her head, and kissed his chest.

  He said, “Wiley drove the furniture truck straight here, seven months ago. Even though he never served here. He chose Hamburg because it’s a port. The second largest in Europe. They call it the gateway to the world.”

  He hooked his thumbs in the top of her pantyhose.

  She said, “He’s going to put it on a ship.”

  “That’s my guess.”

  “When?”

  He eased her pantyhose down.

  Panties, too.

  Clumsy thumbs.

  He said, “When he gets paid.”

  “Which could be tomorrow.”

  He said nothing.

  She stepped out of her shoes, and turned to face him. Naked, apart from the pearls. A sight to see.

  She said, “When should we ask for help?”

  He said, “Not this exact minute.”

  He took off his T-shirt.

  She said, “Now your pants.”

  “Yes ma’am,” he said.

  She rode cowgirl again, but this time reversed, with her back to him. Which visually speaking had a complex balance of pluses and minuses. Overall it was no kind of a hardship. He felt like an observer of a private pleasure. She was going for the big one. That was clear. OK with him. Whatever worked. Whatever got you through the night.

  Chapter 34

  Bishop sent the bus early, because of General Helmsworth coming in. The driver said Delta’s wheels-down in Hamburg had already happened, just as dawn was coming up. The general was being met at the airport and would be driven straight to the consulate, where he would freshen up in the guest quarters ahead of moving to a meeting room provided by Bishop. Apparently Helmsworth’s interpretation of his orders was narrow. He would speak only to Sinclair, Reacher and Neagley, who were in his chain of command, broadly understood. The others were not. Which in practical terms was no problem at all. They had already decided among themselves to keep it lean. It was felt someone else’s cryptic half-remembered childhood legends would not survive a formal one-against-seven across-the-table grilling. It was felt a casual atmosphere would be more productive. A smaller gathering. Sinclair and Reacher and Neagley had already been chosen ahead of time.

  So the others went to the regular office, and Bishop led the way to the room he had chosen. It looked a lot like the room in Fort Belvoir where Reacher had gotten his medal. Same kind of gilt chairs, same kind of red velvet, same kind of flags. Maybe the ceiling was higher. It was an older building. Neagley found four chairs with arms, and she set them in a square, like a casual group. All equal. Just folks passing the time of day.

  Then Bishop left, and a minute later Helmsworth came in. He was a compact man close to his middle sixties. He had a silver buzz cut and bright gray eyes. He was wearing battledress uniform, starched and pressed, with two black stars in the collar. He had flown all night, but he looked in reasonable shape. Introductions were made. Hands were shaken, except for Neagley, who nodded politely. Then they all sat down, where N
eagley had placed the chairs.

  Reacher said, “General, how annoyed are you right now, on a scale of one to ten?”

  Helmsworth said, “All things considered, son, about an eight or a nine.”

  He sounded like a guy reading out a death sentence.

  Reacher said, “It can only get worse.”

  “I have no doubt about that, soldier.”

  “But we don’t have time for bullshit. So cheer the hell up, general. We’re here to talk about the good old days.”

  “Yours or mine, major?”

  “A sergeant named Arnold P. Mason. He served in an 82nd Airborne unit. Your path and his crossed in 1955, and a couple of times later. But only technically. You were moving up by then. You won’t remember him.”

 
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