Never go back, p.30
Never Go Back,
Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
‘People who wear uniforms, mostly.’
Turner’s map showed the new location to be south of the Ventura Freeway, in a neighbourhood without a name. Not really Universal City, not really West Toluca Lake, definitely not Griffith Park, and too far south to be North Hollywood. But Reacher figured it was the right kind of place. It would have a high turnover of people, all coming and going and incurious, and it would have ventures and operations starting up and shutting down. Therefore it would have empty buildings, and it would have staff-only lots in front of failed businesses. Best way to get there was south on Vineland again, past the law office, across the Ventura Freeway, and then the neighbourhood lay waiting on the right.
Turner said, ‘We have to assume the MPs and the FBI have this same information.’
‘I’m sure they do,’ Reacher said. ‘So we’ll do it the same way we did the law office.’
‘Which might be the second pass for some of them, because I’m sure they’re rotating back and forth. Between there and the law office, I mean. They can’t let either scene get too static.’
‘What if it’s a little alley, or a one-way street?’
‘Then we’ll abort. We’ll find some other way.’
‘And best case, all we do is eyeball it. No meet and greet. We need a whole lot of long-range surveillance before we even think about that.’
‘Even if the cutest fourteen-year-old in the world runs out waving a home-made banner that says Welcome Home Daddy. Because it might be the wrong fourteen-year-old, with a different daddy.’
‘Understood,’ Reacher said again.
‘No meet and greet,’ Reacher said.
‘So let’s go.’
They didn’t use Vineland Avenue. They figured rolling past the law office again would turn one pass into two, for some of the watchers, for no productive reason at all, and then the two could become three, if the rotation was timed just wrong. And three times was not a charm. Most people picked up on things the third time around. That was Reacher’s experience. Even if they didn’t know they were noticing. A stumble on a word while talking to a friend? You just saw the same guy for the third time, in the corner of your eye. Or the same car, or the same flower truck, or the same coat or dog or shoes or walk.
So they looped clockwise, east first, and then south, and they crossed the freeway a little to the right of a straight line. Then they pulled over. The target neighbourhood was ahead on the right. It was a low-rise warren with concrete kerbs and dry grass shoulders, with tarred poles carrying dozens of wires, some of them as thick as Reacher’s wrist, and behind them were small buildings, some of them bungalows, some of them garden apartments, some of them stores or bodegas. There was one nail salon and one pick-up truck clearly visible. There were basketball hoops and ice hockey goals and satellite dishes as big as hot tubs, and parked cars everywhere.
‘Not good,’ Turner said.
Reacher nodded, because it wasn’t. It was tight-packed and close-quarters, and rolling through would mean stopping and starting and manoeuvring around one obstacle after another. Walking speed would be a luxury.
He said, ‘You’re the CO.’
She said, ‘You’re the XO.’
‘I say go for it. But it’s your decision.’
‘Why do you say go for it?’
‘The negatives look bad, but they’re actually positives. Things could work out in our favour. The MPs and the FBI don’t know what we’re driving. As far as they’re concerned, this is just an old truck with dark windows. They’re not looking for it.’
‘But the two guys from the dented car might be. They’re getting good intelligence. Worst case, someone saw the credit card and knows what we’re driving.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Reacher said. ‘They can’t do anything to us. Not here. Not in front of government witnesses. They must know the MPs and the FBI are right there with them. It’s a perfect Catch-22. They’ll just have to sit there and take it.’
‘They might follow us. The MPs and the FBI wouldn’t see anything wrong with that. Just another car leaving the neighbourhood.’
‘I agree. But like I said. That would be things working out in our favour. That would be two birds with one stone. We eyeball the location, and we lure the guys out to a place of our choosing. All in all, I would call that a good day’s work. Speaking as an XO, that is. But it’s your decision. That’s why you get the big bucks. Almost as many as some high-school teachers.’
Turner said nothing.
Reacher said, ‘Two front burners, remember.’
Turner said, ‘OK, go for it.’
They checked the map and Reacher rehearsed the turns. A right, a left, a right, and that was her street, apparently. Her lot number looked to be about halfway between one end and the other. Turner said, ‘Remember, eyeballs only. No meet and greet.’
‘Got it,’ Reacher said.
‘Yes, ma’am.’ He eased off the kerb and rolled down to the first turn and swung the wheel, and then he was in the neighbourhood. The first street was a mess. Mixed-use zoning, with a bakery truck stopped outside a grocery, and a kid’s bike dumped in the gutter, and a car with no wheels up on blocks. The second street was better. It was no wider, but it was straight and less cluttered. The tone of the neighbourhood rose through its first fifty yards. There were little houses on the left and the right. Not prosperous, but solid. Some had new roofs, and some had painted stucco, and some had parched plants in concrete tubs. Regular people, doing their best, making ends meet.
Then came the final right turn, and the tone rose some more. But not to dizzying heights. Reacher saw a long straight street, with the 101 plainly visible at the far end, behind hurricane fencing. The street had tract housing on both sides, built for GIs in the late 1940s, and still there more than sixty years later. The houses were all cared for, but to varying degrees, some of them well maintained, some of them refurbished, and some of them extended, but others more marginal. Most had cars on their driveways, and most had extra cars on the kerb. Overall so many it was effectively a one-lane road.
Slow, and awkward.
Turner said, ‘FBI ahead on the right, for sure.’
Reacher nodded and said nothing. One of the cars on the kerb was a Chevy Malibu, about sixty feet away, plain silver, base specification, with plastic where there should have been chrome, with two stubby antennas glued to the back glass, with a guy behind the wheel wearing a white-collared shirt. An unmarked car, but no real attempt at deception. Therefore possibly a supervisor, just stopping by for a moment, to check on morale and spread good cheer. To the guy he was parked right behind, maybe.
Reacher said, ‘Check out the thing in front of him.’
It was a civilian Hummer H2, wide, tall, gigantic, all waxed black paint and chrome accents, with huge wheels and thin tyres, like black rubber bands.
‘So eight years ago,’ Turner said. A legal seizure, possibly, because of coke in the door pocket, or because it was charged to a scam business, or it had carried stolen goods in the back, first confiscated and then reissued as an undercover surveillance vehicle, slightly tone deaf in terms of credibility, like the government usually was.
And sixty feet in front of the Hummer was a small white compact, parked on the other kerb, facing towards them, clean and bland, barely used, not personalized in any way. An airport rental, almost certainly. The 75th MP. Some unfortunate guy, coach class to LAX, and then a bare-bones government account with Hertz or Avis. The worst car on the lot, and no upgrade.
‘See it?’ Reacher asked.
Turner nodded beside him. ‘And now we know where the address is. Exactly halfway between the Hummer’s front bumper and that thing’s, I would say. Subtle, aren’t they?’
‘As always.’ Reacher had been checking house numbers, and the lot they were looking for was going to be o
‘Hard to tell,’ Turner said. ‘Any one of these cars could have people in it.’
‘Let’s hope so,’ Reacher said. ‘Two people in particular.’
He rolled on, slow and careful, giving himself a margin of error. The old truck’s steering was a little vague and sloppy. Plus or minus six inches was all it was good for. He passed the silver Malibu, and glanced down to his right. The white-collared shirt had a necktie down the front. FBI for sure. Probably the only necktie inside a square mile. Then next up was the Hummer. It had a fair-haired white guy behind the wheel. With a whitewall crew cut, high and tight. Probably the first whitewall crew cut ever seen inside a pimped-out H2. Government. Tone deaf.
Then Reacher glanced to his left, and started tracking the numbers. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting. A gap of some kind, basically. Something different from the places before and after. Something boarded up and foreclosed, or burned down and bulldozed, or never built in the first place. With a big old car parked back in the shadow of its neighbours. Maybe a Buick Roadmaster.
But the address Emily had gotten was a house like all the others. Not different from the places before or after, not boarded up by the bank, and not burned and levelled. Just a regular house, on a regular lot. It had a car on its driveway, but it wasn’t a Buick Roadmaster. It was a two-door coupé, imported, sunfaded red, fairly old, and even smaller than the MP’s white compact. Therefore not big enough for two people to sleep in. Not even close. The house itself was an old one-storey, extended upward, with a ground-floor window on the left, and a groundfloor window on the right, and a new attic window punched out directly above a blue front door.
And coming out the blue front door was a girl.
She could have been fourteen years old. Or fifteen. She was blonde.
And she was tall.
TURNER SAID, ‘DON’T stop,’ but Reacher braked anyway. He couldn’t help it. The girl looped around the parked coupé and stepped out to the sidewalk. She was wearing a yellow T-shirt and a blue denim jean jacket, and big black baggy pants, and yellow tennis shoes on her feet, with no socks, and no laces. She was slender and long-limbed, all knees and elbows, and her hair was the colour of summer straw. It was parted in the centre, and wavy, and it came halfway down her back. Her face was unformed, like teenagers’ faces are, but she had blue eyes, and cheekbones, and her mouth was set in a quizzical half-smile, as if her life was full of petty annoyances best tolerated with patience and goodwill.
She set off walking, west, away from them.
Turner said, ‘Eyes front, Reacher. Hit the gas and pass her and do not stop. Drive to the end of the road, right now. That’s an order. If it’s her, we’ll confirm later, and we’ll deal with it.’
So Reacher speeded up again, from walking pace to jogging, and they passed the girl just as she was passing the MP’s white compact. She didn’t seem to react to it in any way. Didn’t seem to know it was there for her. She hadn’t been told, presumably. Because what could they say? Hi there, miss, we’re here to arrest your father. Who you’ve never met. If he shows up, that is. Having just been told all about you.
Reacher kept one eye on the mirror and watched her grow smaller. Then he paused at the T, and turned left, and looked at her one more time, and then he drove away, and she was lost to sight.
No one came after them. They pulled over a hundred yards later, but the street behind them stayed empty. Which theoretically was a minor disappointment. Not that Reacher really registered it as such. In his mind right then the two surviving guys from the dented car were on the backest of all back burners, on a stovetop about ten miles deep.
He said, ‘They told me she was living in a car.’
‘Maybe her mom got a new job. Or a new boyfriend.’
‘Did you see any surveillance opportunities?’
‘Maybe we should join the crowd and park on the street. We’d be OK as long as we never got out of the car.’
‘We can do better than that,’ Turner said. She checked her map, and looked out through the Range Rover’s windows, all around, craning her neck, searching for high ground or elevated vantage points. Of which there were plenty to the south, where the Hollywood Hills rose up in the smog, but they were too distant, and in any case the front of the house would be invisible from the south. In the end she pointed a little north of west, at an off-ramp in the tangle where the 134 met the 101. It was raised up high, and its curve seemed to cradle the whole neighbourhood as it swooped around from one freeway to the next. She said, ‘We could fake a breakdown, if that ramp has a shoulder. Overheating, or something. This car certainly looks the part. We could stay there for hours. The FBI doesn’t do roadside assistance. If the LAPD stops for us, we’ll say sure, we’re about cooled down now, and we’ll get on our way.’
‘Warrant Officer Espin will have seen it,’ Reacher said. ‘He’ll have scoped out the terrain, surely. If he sees any kind of a parked vehicle up there, he’ll investigate.’
‘OK, if anything other than a marked LAPD cruiser stops for us, we’ll take off immediately, and if it’s Espin we’ll duke it out in the wilds of Burbank.’
‘We’ll lose him well before Burbank. I bet they gave him a four-cylinder rental.’
They wanted a pawn shop next, because they needed a quality item for a short spell of time, and fast, and unmemorably, and they were going to pay for it with a stolen credit card, so overall second-hand was the better market. They used surface streets to West Hollywood, and picked one of many establishments, and Reacher said to the guy, ‘Let me see your best binoculars.’
Of which there were many, mostly old. Which made sense. Reacher figured that back in his father’s day binoculars were bought simply because binoculars were bought. Every family had a pair. And an encyclopedia. No one used either. Or the clockwork eight-millimetre camera, if the family was a colonel’s or better. But they had to be provided. Part of a family man’s sacred duty. But now all those family men were dead, and their adult children’s houses were of finite capacity. So their stuff found itself stacked between the acoustic guitars and the college rings, still in the velvet-lined leather buckets it came in, and tagged with prices halfway between low and very.
They found a pair they liked, powerful but not too heavy, and adjustable enough to fit both their faces, and Baldacci paid, and they walked back to the car.
Turner said, ‘I think we should wait for dusk. Nothing will happen before then, anyway. Not if her mom has a new job. And we have a black car. Espin won’t even see it in the dark. But the street itself should be lit up enough for binoculars.’
‘OK,’ Reacher said. ‘We should eat first, I guess. This could take hours. How long are you prepared to stay up there?’
‘As long as it takes. As many times as it takes.’
‘In all of my dating history, I don’t know if this is the smartest thing I’ve ever done, or the dumbest.’
They ate in West Hollywood, well and slowly and expensively, on Peter Paul Lozano’s dime, and they let late afternoon turn into early evening, and as soon as the street lights were brighter than the sky they got back in the car and took Sunset Boulevard to the 101. Traffic was bad, as always, but the sky used the wasted minutes to get darker and darker, so that by the time they took the curving off-ramp the day had gone completely.
There was no official shoulder on the ramp, but there was more than a shoulder’s width of painted chevrons on the right side, to define the traffic lane through the curve, so they pulled over as if their dashboard was lit up like a Christmas tree. Turner had the new old binoculars out and ready, and they rolled forward until she figured they had as good a view as they were going to get. Reacher shut the motor down. They were about three hundred yards from the blue front door, and about forty feet abov
They took turns with the binoculars. Reacher twisted around in the driver’s seat and rested his back on the door, and looked out beyond Turner next to him, through her open window. The optical image was dark and indistinct. No night-vision enhancement. But it was adequate. Behind him cars sped past, just feet away, a steady procession, all of them leaving the 101 and joining the 134. None of them stopped to help. They just rocked the old truck with their slipstreams, and sped onward, oblivious.
Romeo called Juliet and said, ‘They were just in West Hollywood. They bought something in a pawn shop, on Baldacci’s card, and then they ate at a very expensive restaurant, on Lozano’s.’
Juliet said, ‘What would they want from a pawn shop?’
‘Doesn’t matter. The point is they were in West Hollywood, whiling away the hours, apparently aimlessly, which one assumes they wouldn’t do if there were things still on their agenda, like determining Ms Dayton’s current location, for instance. So I think we should assume they have it now.’
‘How did they get it?’
‘Doesn’t matter how. What matters is what they’re going to do next. Possibly they were in West Hollywood just hiding out until dark. In which case they’re probably back at the house by now, about to begin a lengthy period of surveillance.’
Never Go Back by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on46 votes