Die trying, p.31
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       Die Trying, p.31

         Part #2 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Thirty-One

  HOLLY PAUSED IN the corridor. Smiled. The woman had left her weapon propped against the wall outside the door. That had been the delay. She had used the key, put the tray on the floor, unslung her weapon, propped it against the wall, and picked up the tray again before nudging open the door.

  She swapped the iron tube for the gun. Not a weapon she had used before. Not one she wanted to use now. It was a tiny submachine gun. An Ingram MAC 10. Obsolete military issue. Obsolete for a reason. Holly's class at Quantico had laughed about it. They called it the phone booth gun. It was so inaccurate you had to be in a phone booth with your guy to be sure of hitting him. A grim joke. And it fired way too quickly. A thousand rounds per minute. One touch on the trigger and the magazine was empty.

  But it was a better weapon than part of an old iron bed frame. She checked the magazine. It was full, thirty shells. The chamber was clean. She clicked the trigger and watched the mechanism move. The gun worked as well as it was ever going to. She smacked the magazine back into position. Straightened the canvas strap and slung it tight over her shoulder. Clicked the cocking handle to the fire position and closed her hand around the grip. Took a firm hold on her crutch and eased to the top of the stairs.

  She stood still and waited. Listened hard. No sound. She went down the stairs, slowly, a step at a time, the Ingram out in front of her. At the bottom, she waited and listened again. No sound. She crossed the lobby and arrived at the doors. Eased them open and looked outside.

  The street was deserted. But it was wide. It looked like a huge city boulevard to her. To reach safety on the other side was going to take her minutes. Minutes out there in the open, exposed to the mountain slopes above. She estimated the distance. Breathed hard and gripped her crutch. Jabbed the Ingram forward. Breathed hard again and took off at a lurching run, jamming the crutch down, leaping ahead with her good leg, swinging the gun left and right to cover both approaches.

  She threw herself at the mound in front of the ruined county office. Scrabbled north around behind it and fought through grabbing undergrowth. Entered the forest parallel to the main track, but thirty yards from it. Leaned on a tree and bent double, gasping with exertion and fear and exhilaration.

  This was the real thing. This was what the whole of her life had led her to. She could hear her father's war stories in her head. The jungles of Vietnam. The breathless fear of being hunted in the green undergrowth. The triumph of each safe step, of each yard gained. She saw the faces of the tough quiet men she had known on the bases as a child. The instructors at Quantico. She felt the disappointment of her posting to a safe desk in Chicago. All the training wasted, because of who she was. Now it was different. She straightened up. Took a deep breath. Then another. She felt her genes boiling through her. Before, they'd felt like resented intruders. Now they felt warm and whole and good. Her father's daughter? You bet your ass.

  REACHER WAS CUFFED around the trunk of a hundred-foot pine. He had been dragged down the narrow track to the Bastion. Burning with fury. One punch and one kick was more than he had yielded since his early childhood. The rage was burying the pain. And blurring his mind. A life for a life, the fat bastard had said. Reacher had twisted on the floor and the words had meant nothing to him.

  But they meant something now. They had come back to him as he stood there. Men and women had strolled up to him and smiled. Their smiles were the sort of smiles he had seen before, long ago. The smiles of bored children living on an isolated base somewhere, after they had been told the circus was coming to town.

  SHE THOUGHT HARD. She had to guess where he was. And she had to guess where the parade ground was. She had to get herself halfway between those two unknown locations and set up an ambush. She knew the ground sloped steeply up to the clearing with the huts. She remembered being brought downhill to the courthouse. She guessed the parade ground had to be a large flat area. Therefore it had to be farther uphill, to the northwest, where the ground leveled out in the mountain bowl. Some distance beyond the huts. She set off uphill through the trees.

  She tried to figure out where the main path was running. Every few yards, she stopped and peered south, turning left and right to catch a glimpse of the gaps in the forest canopy where the trees had been cleared. That way, she could deduce the direction of the track. She kept herself parallel to it, thirty or forty yards away to the north, and fought through the tough whippy stems growing sideways from the trunks. It was all uphill, and steep, and it was hard work. She used her crutch like a boatman uses a pole, planting it securely in the soil and thrusting herself upward against it.

  In a way, her knee helped her. It made her climb slowly and carefully. It made her quiet. And she knew how to do this. From old Vietnam stories, not from Quantico. The Academy had concentrated on urban situations. The Bureau had taught her how to stalk through a city street or a darkened building. How to stalk through a forest came from an earlier layer of memory.

  SOME PEOPLE STROLLED up and strolled away, but some of them stayed. After a quarter hour, there was a small crowd of maybe fifteen or sixteen people, mostly men, standing aimlessly in a wide semicircle around him. They kept their distance, like rubberneckers at a car wreck, behind an invisible police line. They stared at him, silently, not much in their faces. He stared back. He let his gaze rest on each one in turn, several seconds at a time. He kept his arms hitched as high behind him as he could manage. He wanted to keep his feet free for action, in case any of them felt like starting the show a little early.

  SHE SMELLED THE first sentry before she saw him. He was moving upwind toward her, smoking. The odor of the cigarette and the unwashed uniform drifted down to her and she pulled silently to her right. She looped a wide circle around him and waited. He walked on down the hill and was gone.

  The second sentry heard her. She sensed it. Sensed him stopping and listening. She stood still. Thought hard. She didn't want to use the Ingram. It was too inaccurate. She was certain to miss with it. And the noise would be fatal. So she bent down and scratched up two small stones. An old jungle trick she had been told about as a child. She tossed the first stone twenty feet to her left. Waited. Tossed the second thirty feet. She heard the sentry figure something was moving slowly away to the left. Heard him drift in that direction. She drifted right. A wide circle, and onward, up the endless hill.

  FOWLER SHOULDERED THROUGH the small semicircle of onlookers. Stepped up face-to-face with him. Stared hard at him. Then six guards were coming through the crowd. Five of them had rifles leveled and the sixth had a length of chain in his hand. Fowler stood aside and the five rifles jammed hard into Reacher's gut. He glanced down at them. The safety catches were off and they were all set to automatic fire.

  "Time to go," Fowler said.

  He vanished behind the sturdy trunk and Reacher felt the cuffs come off. He leaned forward off the tree and the muzzles tracked back, following the motion. Then the cuffs went back on, with the chain looped into them. Fowler gripped the chain and Reacher was dragged through the Bastion, facing the five guards. They were all walking backward, their rifles leveled a foot from his head. People were lined into a tight cordon. He was dragged between them. The people hissed and muttered at him as he passed. Then they broke ranks and ran ahead of him, up toward the parade ground.

  THE THIRD SENTRY caught her. Her knee let her down. She had to scale a high rocky crag, and because of her leg, she had to do it backward. She sat on the rock like it was a chair and used her good leg and the crutch to push herself upward, a foot at a time. She reached the top and rolled over on her back on the ground, gasping from the effort, and then she squirmed upright and stood, face-to-face with the sentry.

  For a split second, she was blank with surprise and shock. He wasn't. He had stood at the top of the bluff and watched every inch of her agonizing progress. So he wasn't surprised. But he was slow. An opponent like Holly, he should have been quick. He should have been ready. Her reaction clicked in be
fore he could get started. Basic training took over. It came without thinking. She balled her fist and threw a fast low uppercut. Caught him square in the groin. He folded forward and down and she wrapped her left arm around his throat and crunched him in the back of his neck with her right forearm. She felt his vertebrae smash and his body go slack. Then she clamped her palms over his ears and twisted his head around, savagely, one way and then the other. His spinal cord severed and she turned him and dropped him over the crag. He thumped and crashed his way down over the rocks, dead limbs flailing. Then she cursed and swore, bitterly. Because she should have taken his rifle. It was worth a dozen Ingrams. But there was no way she was going to climb all the way down to get it. Climbing back up again would delay her too long.

  THE PARADE GROUND was full of people. All standing in neat ranks. Reacher guessed there were maybe a hundred people there. Men and women. All in uniform. All armed. Their weapons formed a formidable array of firepower. Each person had either a fully automatic rifle or a machine gun slung over their left shoulder. Each person had an automatic pistol on their belt. They all had ammunition pouches and grenades hung regulation-style from loops on their webbing. Many of them had smeared night camouflage on their faces.

  Their uniforms were adapted from U. S. Army surplus. Camouflage jackets, camouflage pants, jungle boots, forage caps. Same stuff as Reacher had seen piled up in the storehouse. But each uniform had additions. Each jacket had an immaculate shoulder flash, woven in maroon silk, spelling out Montana Militia in an elegant curve. Each jacket had the wearer's name stenciled onto olive tape and sewn above the breast pocket. Some of the men had single chromium stars punched through the fabric on the breast pocket. Some kind of rank.

  Beau Borken was standing on an upturned wooden crate, west edge of the leveled area, his back to the forest, his massive bulk looming over his troops. He saw Fowler and Reacher and the guards arriving through the trees.

  "Attention!" he called.

  There was a shuffling as the hundred militia members snapped into position. Reacher caught a smell of canvas on the breeze. The smell of a hundred Army-surplus uniforms. Borken waved a bloated arm and Fowler used the chain to drag Reacher up toward the front of the gathering. The guards seized his arms and shoulders and he was turned and maneuvered so he was left standing next to the box, suddenly isolated, facing the crowd.

  "We all know why we're here," Borken called out to them.

  SHE HAD NO idea how far she had come. It felt like miles. Hundreds of feet uphill. But she was still deep in the woods. The main track was still forty yards south on her left. She felt the minutes ticking away and her panic rising. She gripped the crutch and moved on northwest again, as fast as she dared.

  Then she saw a building ahead of her. A wooden hut, visible through the trees. The undergrowth petered out into stony shale. She crept to the edge of the wood and stopped. Listened hard over the roar of her breathing. Heard nothing. She gripped the crutch and raised the Ingram tight against the strap. Limped across the shale to the corner of the hut. Looked out and around.

  It was the clearing where they had arrived the night before. A wide circular space. Stony. Ringed with huts. Deserted. Quiet. The absolute silence of a recently abandoned place. She came out from behind the hut and limped to the center of the clearing, pirouetting on her crutch, jabbing the Ingram in a wide circle, covering the trees on the perimeter. Nothing. Nobody there.

  She saw two paths, one running west, a wider track running north. She swung north and headed back into the cover of the trees. She forgot all about trying to stay quiet and raced north as fast as she could move.

  "WE ALL KNOW why we're here," Borken called out again.

  The orderly crowd shuffled, and a wave of whispering rose to the trees. Reacher scanned the faces. He saw Stevie in the front rank. A chromium star through his breast pocket. Little Stevie was an officer. Next to Stevie he saw Joseph Ray. Then he realized Jackson was not there. No scarred forehead. He double-checked. Scanned everywhere. No sign of him anywhere on the parade ground. He clamped his teeth to stop a smile. Jackson was hiding out. Holly might still make it.

  SHE SAW HIM. She stared out of the forest over a hundred heads and saw him standing next to Borken. His arms were cuffed behind him. He was scanning the crowd. Nothing in his face. She heard Borken say: we all know why we're here. She thought: yes, I know why I'm here. I know exactly why I'm here. She looked left and right. A hundred people, rifles, machine guns, pistols, grenades. Borken on the box with his arms raised. Reacher, helpless beside him. She stood in the trees, heart thumping, staring. Then she took a deep breath. Set the Ingram to the single-shot position and fired into the air. Burst out of the trees. Fired again. And again. Three shots into the air. Three bullets gone, twenty-seven left in the magazine. She clicked the Ingram back to full auto and moved into the crowd, parting it in front of her with slow menacing sweeps of her gun hand.

  She was one woman moving slowly through a crowd of a hundred people. They parted warily around her, and then as she passed them by, they unslung their weapons and cocked them and leveled them at her back. A wave of loud mechanical noises trailed behind her like a slow tide. By the time she reached the front rank, she had a hundred loaded weapons trained on her from behind.

  "Don't shoot her!" Borken screamed. "That's an order! Nobody fire!"

  He jumped down off the box. Panic in his face. He raised his arms out wide and danced desperately around her, shielding her body with his huge bulk. Nobody fired. She limped away from him and turned to face the crowd.

  "Hell are you doing?" Borken screamed at her. "You think you can shoot a hundred people with that little pop-gun?"

  Holly shook her head.

  "No," she said quietly.

  Then she reversed the Ingram and held it to her chest.

  "But I can shoot myself," she said.

 
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