Never go back, p.31
Never Go Back,
Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
‘Our boys aren’t there any more.’
‘Then get them back. Tell them to look at the neighbourhood with a military eye and work out where a skilled team would be watching from. There can’t be more than a handful of suitable vantage points. They won’t be hunkered down in a neighbour’s back yard, for instance. They’re probably fairly distant. The field manual calls for a line of sight plus elevation. Upstairs in an empty building, perhaps, or a water tower, or a parking garage. Tell our boys to compile a list of possibilities, and then tell them to split up and investigate. More efficient that way. We need this done tonight.’
‘You can buy guns in a pawn shop.’
‘But they didn’t. There’s a waiting period. California has laws. And they only spent thirty dollars.’
‘On the credit card. There could have been a side deal in cash. Lozano and Baldacci had plenty with them on the plane.’
‘An illegal purchase? Then they wouldn’t have stuck around to eat. Not in the same neighbourhood. They’d have been too nervous. They’d have gone somewhere else. That’s my sense. So assume they’re still unarmed.’
‘I hope you’re right about that,’ Juliet said. ‘It would make things easier.’
Turner spent thirty minutes with the binoculars, and then she passed them back to Reacher, blinking and rubbing her eyes. He widened them out to fit, and adjusted the focus, which took a big turn of the wheel. Either he was half blind, or she was.
She said, ‘I want to call Sergeant Leach again. I want to know she’s OK.’
He said, ‘Give her my best.’ He half listened to Turner’s end of the conversation while he watched what was happening three hundred yards away. Which was nothing much. The Hummer stayed where it was, and the small white compact stayed where it was. No one went in or out through the blue front door. Sergeant Leach was apparently OK. As was her cooperative friend Margaret Vega. At that point, at least. So far. The conversation was short. Turner said nothing explicit, but between the lines Leach seemed to be agreeing with her that the die was cast, and the only available options were win big or go home.
The blue door stayed closed. Most of the time Reacher kept the binoculars trained hard on it, but then for maybe four seconds out of every twenty he started a fragmented exploration of the neighbourhood. He traced his way back down the street, and out through the elbow where they had come in, with the bakery truck outside the grocery, and the dumped bike, and the car with no wheels. Then came the main drag, which was Vineland Avenue, about as far south of the freeway as the law office was north.
He went back to the blue door, which stayed closed.
And then he traced his way down the street again, but went the other way at the far end, right instead of left, and he found an identical elbow, like a mirror image. The same kind of zoning, and the same kinds of issues. And then the main drag again, still Vineland, but a further quarter mile south. Which made the neighbourhood not quite a rectangle. It was taller on the right than the left. Like a pennant. Some way above its top right corner was the freeway, and then the law office, and some way below its bottom right corner was an old coach diner, all lit up and shiny.
Reacher knew which way he would walk.
He went back to the blue door, which stayed closed.
It stayed closed until a minute before eight o’clock. And then it opened, and she came out again, just the same as before. Same long-limbed stride, almost graceful, same hair, same shirt, same jacket, same shoes. Presumably no socks or laces, and possibly the same wry expression, but it was dark, and the optics had limits.
Just the same as before.
But she turned the other way.
She went east, not west. Away from the freeway interchange. Towards the main drag. No one went with her. No shadow, and no protection. Reacher pointed, and Turner nodded.
He said, ‘Do you think it’s possible they didn’t tell either one of them?’
She said, ‘Obviously they didn’t tell the kid. They can’t say, we found your daddy but decided to arrest him instead.’
‘Can they say that to the mother? She’s not going to get much child support if they throw away the key.’
‘What’s on your mind?’
‘They didn’t send anyone with her. Which they should have. If I can’t get to her in the house, then I’ll try to get to her when she leaves. That’s obvious, surely. But no one is with her. The only logical reason is that they haven’t told them, and they can’t explain away four guys following them everywhere, so they don’t follow them everywhere.’
‘Plus they’re cheapskates. If they told them, they’d have to put a woman support officer in the house. Which would cost money.’
‘OK, so if mother and child are bait but don’t know it, and they leave the house, then all Espin or anyone else can do is a long-distance tail, and an occasional pass in a vehicle.’
‘But no one is moving and neither vehicle has started its engine.’
‘Maybe they wait until she’s out of sight.’
‘Let’s see if they do.’
They didn’t. The girl turned right at the far end of the street, and disappeared, but back at her house no one moved, and neither car started.
Turner said, ‘Maybe there’s another team.’
‘Would you approve that budget?’
‘Of course I would.’
‘Would they? If they won’t even put a woman officer in the house?’
‘OK, there’s only one team and it’s not moving. Laziness and complacency. Plus it must be hard to get a parking spot.’
‘They’re not moving because they think I’m dumb enough to walk up the driveway and knock on the door.’
Then a car drove in, all the way from the far end of the neighbourhood, coming off Vineland, and coming through the elbow they had used before. Its lights swung right and left, and then it came down the street, head-on and blinding, past the Hummer, past the blue door, almost level with the small white compact, and then it stopped, and backed up fast, past the house again, past the Hummer, and all the way back to the last parking spot on the street, which was evidently much farther away than its driver desired. The car parallel-parked neatly and its headlights shut off, and two guys got out, far off and indistinct, just moving shadows really, one maybe larger than the other.
The lizard brain stirred, and a billion years later Reacher leaned forward an inch.
THE BINOCULARS WERE marginal at the distance, and the light was very low, so Reacher kept an open mind. On any given day there were nearly forty million people in California, and for two specific individuals to show up while observed by a third was an unlikely event.
But unlikely events happened from time to time, so Reacher kept his field of view tight on the two figures, and he goosed the focus as they walked, for the sharpest image. They walked in the street, not on the sidewalk, straight down the traffic lane, fast, side by side, getting closer all the time, Reacher getting surer all the time. They passed the Hummer again, and they stepped into a pool of light, and then Reacher was certain.
He was looking at the driver from the first night, and next to him was the big guy with the shaved head and the small ears.
They stopped right in front of the house, and they stood still, and then they turned back to face the way they had come, as if they were studying the far horizon, and then they began to rotate in place, slowly, counterclockwise, using small shuffling steps, occasionally pointing, always away from the house and upward.
Reacher said, ‘They’re looking for us.’
They continued to rotate, past the midpoint, and then they saw the right-hand end of the off-ramp for the first time. The guy with the ears seemed to understand immediately. His arm came up and he sketched the curve right to left, and then back again left to right, tracking the wide circumference, showing how it cradled the whole neighbourhood, and then he pulled his palm back towards his chest, as if to say it’s like the front
Reacher said, ‘They’ve found us.’
Turner checked the map and said, ‘They can’t get here very quickly. Not with the way the roads go. They’d have to drop down to the Hollywood Bowl, on surface streets, and then come back up again, behind us on the 101. That’s a very big square.’
‘The kid is out on her own.’
‘It’s us they want.’
‘And it’s her we want. They should stick with her. I would.’
‘They don’t know where she went.’
‘It’s not rocket science. Her mom’s not home, and she watched TV shows until the eight o’clock hour, and then she went out to get something to eat.’
‘They’re not going to take her hostage.’
‘They beat Moorcroft half to death. And they’re running out of time.’
‘So what do you want to do?’
Reacher didn’t answer. He just dropped the binoculars in Turner’s lap and started the car and jammed it in gear and glanced back over his shoulder. He gunned it off the chevrons and into the traffic lane, and he swooped around the curve, leaving the 101, joining the 134, merging with slow traffic, looking ahead for the first exit, which he figured would be very soon, and which he figured would be Vineland Avenue. And it was, with a choice of north or south. Reacher inched through the congestion, frustrated, and went south, along the taller edge of the neighbourhood, past the first mixed-use elbow, past the second, and onward, a hundred yards, until he saw the coach diner ahead, all lit up and shiny.
And crossing Vineland towards it was the girl.
He slowed and let her pass fifty yards in front of him, and then he watched her as she stepped into the diner’s lot. There was a gaggle of kids in one corner, maybe eight of them in total, boys and girls, just hanging out in the shadows and the night air, aimlessly, joking around, posturing and preening, the way kids do. The girl headed over towards them. Maybe she wasn’t going to eat after all. Maybe she had eaten at home. Something from the freezer, perhaps, microwaved. And maybe this was her after-dinner social life. Maybe she had come out to a regular rendezvous, to join the crowd at their chosen spot, to hang out and have fun, all night long.
Which would be OK. There was safety in numbers.
She stepped up close to the other kids, and there were some deadpan comments, and some high fives, and some laughter, and a little horsing around. Reacher was running out of road, so he took a snap decision and pulled into the lot, and parked in the opposite corner. The girl was still talking. Her body language was relaxed. These were her friends. They liked her. That was clear. There was no awkwardness.
But then minutes later she inched away, her body language saying I’m going inside now, and no one moved to follow her, and she didn’t look disappointed. Almost the opposite. She looked like she had enjoyed their company for sure, but now she was ready to enjoy her own. Equally for sure. As if it was all the same to her.
Turner said, ‘She’s a loner.’
Reacher said, ‘And tall.’
‘Doesn’t necessarily mean anything.’
‘We can’t stay here.’
‘I want to go inside.’
‘No meet and greet. Not yet.’
‘I won’t talk to her.’
‘You’ll draw attention to her.’
‘Only if those guys see this car out front.’
Turner said nothing. Reacher watched the girl pull the door and step inside. The diner was built in the traditional style, out of stainless steel, with folds and creases and triple-accent lines like an old automobile, and small framed windows like an old railroad car, and neon letters configured in an Art Deco manner. It looked busy inside. The peak period, between the blue-plate specials and the late-night coffee drinkers. Reacher knew all about diners. He knew their rhythms. He had spent hundreds of hours in them.
Turner said, ‘Observation only.’
Reacher said, ‘Agreed.’
‘OK, go. I’ll hide the car somewhere and wait. Don’t get in trouble.’
‘Call me when you’re done.’
‘Thank you,’ Reacher said. He climbed out and crossed the lot. He heard cars on Vineland, and a plane in the sky. He heard the group of kids, scuffling and talking and laughing. He heard the Range Rover drive away behind him. He paused a beat and took a breath.
Then he pulled the diner door, and he stepped inside.
The interior was built in the traditional style, too, just as much as the outside, with booths to the left and the right, and a fullwidth counter dead ahead, about six feet from the back wall, which had a pass-through slot to the kitchen, but was otherwise all made of mirror glass. The booths had vinyl benches and the counter had a long line of stools, all chrome and pastel colours, like 1950s convertibles, and the floor was covered with linoleum, and every other horizontal surface was covered with laminate, in pink or blue or pale yellow, with a pattern, like small pencil notations, that given the dated context made Reacher think of endless arcane equations involving the sound barrier, or the hydrogen bomb.
There was a stooped and grey-haired counter man behind the counter, and a blonde waitress about forty years old working the left side of the coach, and a brunette waitress about fifty years old working the right side, and they were all busy, because the place was more than three-quarters full. All the booths on the left were taken, some by people eating at the end of the work day, some by people eating ahead of a night out, one by a quartet of hipsters apparently intent on period authenticity. The right side of the coach had two booths free, and the counter showed nineteen backs and five gaps.
The girl was all the way over on the right, at the counter, on the last stool, owning it, like the place was a bar and she had been a regular patron for the last fifty years. She had silverware and a napkin in front of her, and a glass of water, but no food yet. Next to her was an empty space, and then came a guy hunched over a plate, and another, and another, with the next empty stool nine spots away. Reacher figured he would get a better look at her from one of the empty booths, but diners had an etiquette all their own, and lone customers taking up four-place booths at rush hour was frowned upon.
So Reacher stood in the doorway, unsure, and the blonde waitress from the left side of the coach took pity on him and detoured over, and she tried a welcoming smile, but she was tired and it didn’t really work. It came out as a dull and uninterested gaze, nothing there at all, and she said, ‘Sit anywhere you like, and someone will be right with you.’ Then she bustled away again, and Reacher figured anywhere you like included four-person booths, so he turned to his right and took a step.
The girl was watching him in the mirror.
And she was watching him quite openly. Her eyes were locked on his, in the mirrored wall, via reflections and refractions and angles of incidence and all the other stuff taught in high-school physics class. She didn’t look away, even when he looked right back at her.
No contact, he had promised.
He moved on into the right side of the coach, and he took an empty booth one away from directly behind her. To see her best he put his shoulder against the window and his back to the rest of the room, which he didn’t like, but he had no option. The brunette waitress showed up with a menu and a smile as wan as the blonde’s, and she said, ‘Water?’
He said, ‘Coffee.’
The girl was still looking at him in the mirror.
He wasn’t hungry, because the meal Lozano had bought in West Hollywood had been a feast fit for a king. So he slid the menu aside. The brunette was not thrilled with his lack of an order. He got the feeling he wouldn’t see
The girl was still watching.
He tried the coffee. It was OK. The counter man brought the girl a plate, and she broke eye contact long enough to say something to him that made him smile. He had an embroidered patch on his uniform, with his name, which was Arthur. He said something back, and the girl smiled, and he moved away again.
Then the girl picked up her silverware and her napkin in one hand, and her plate in the other, and she slid off her stool, and she stepped over to Reacher’s booth, and she said, ‘Why don’t I join you?’
THE GIRL PUT her silverware down, and her napkin, and her plate, and then she ducked back to the counter to retrieve her glass of water. She waved to the guy called Arthur and pointed at the booth, as if to say I’m moving, and then she came back with her water and put it next to her plate, and she slid along the vinyl bench, and she ended up directly opposite Reacher. Up close she looked the same as she did from a distance, but all the details were clearer. In particular her eyes, which seemed to work well with her mouth, in terms of getting all quizzical.
He said, ‘Why would you want to join me?’
Never Go Back by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on46 votes