Die trying, p.33
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       Die Trying, p.33

         Part #2 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
slower 1  faster
Chapter Thirty-Three

  MILOSEVIC AND BROGAN were strapped side by side in the rear of the Air Force chopper. McGrath and Johnson and the General's aide were crushed into the middle row of seats. The aircrew were shoulder to shoulder in the front. They lifted off from Silver Bow and clattered away northwest over the town of Butte, nose down, low altitude, looking for maximum airspeed. The helicopter was an old Bell, rebuilt with a new engine, and it was pushing a hundred and twenty miles an hour, which made for a lot of noise inside. Consequently McGrath and Johnson were screaming into their radio mikes to make themselves understood.

  McGrath was patched through to the Hoover Building. He was trying to talk to Harland Webster. He had one hand cupped over the mike and the other was clamping the earphone to his head. He was talking about the missile unit. He didn't know if Webster was hearing him. He just repeated his message over and over, as loud as he could. Then he flicked the switch and tore off the headset. Tossed it forward to the copilot.

  Johnson was talking to Peterson. Radio contact had not been restored. He limited himself to requesting an update by secure landline direct to the mobile command post in two hours' time. He failed to decipher the reply. He pulled off his headset and looked a question at McGrath. McGrath shrugged back at him. The helicopter clattered onward.

  HARLAND WEBSTER HEARD the shrieking din cut off. He hung up his phone in the sudden silence of his office. Leaned forward and buzzed his secretary.

  "Car," he said.

  He walked through to the elevator and rode down to the garage. Walked over to his limousine. His driver was holding the door for him.

  "White House," he said.

  This time, the driver said nothing. Just fired it up and eased out of the garage. Bumped up and out into the afternoon rush. Crawled the sixteen hundred yards west in silence. Webster was directed to the same off-white room. He waited there a quarter hour. Dexter came in. Clearly not pleased to see him back so soon.

  "They've stolen some missiles," Webster said.

  "What missiles?" Dexter asked.

  He described everything as well as he could. Dexter listened. Didn't nod. Didn't ask any questions. Didn't react. Just told him to wait in the room.

  THE AIR FORCE Bell put down on a gravel turnout two hundred yards south of where the road into Yorke narrowed and straightened into the hills. The pilot kept the engine turning and the five passengers ducked out and ran bent over until they were out of the fierce downdraft. There were vehicles on the road ahead. A random pattern of military vehicles slewed across the blacktop. One of them was turning slowly in the road. It turned in the narrow space between the rocky walls and straightened as it approached. It slowed and halted fifty yards away. General Johnson stepped out into view. The car moved forward and stopped in front of him. It was a new Chevrolet, sprayed a dull olive green. There were white stenciled letters and figures on the hood and along the sides. An officer slid out. He saluted the General and skipped around to open all the doors. The five men squeezed in and the car turned again and rolled the two hundred yards north to the mess of vehicles.

  "The command post is on its way, sir," the officer said. "Should be here inside forty minutes. The satellite trucks are an hour behind it. I suggest you wait in the car. It's getting cold outside. "

  "Word from the missile unit?" Johnson asked.

  The officer shook his head in the gloom.

  "No word, sir," he said.

  WEBSTER WAITED MOST of an hour. Then the door of the small off-white room cracked open. A Secret Service agent stood there. Blue suit, curly wire running up out of his collar to his earpiece.

  "Please come with me, sir," the agent said.

  Webster stood up and the guy raised his hand and spoke into his cuff. Webster followed him along a quiet corridor and into an elevator. The elevator was small and slow. It took them down to the first floor. They walked along another quiet corridor and paused in front of a white door. The agent knocked once and opened it.

  The President was sitting in his chair behind his desk. The chair was rotated away and he had his back to the room. He was staring out through the bulletproof windows at the darkness settling over the garden. Dexter was in an armchair. Neither asked him to sit down. The President didn't turn around. As soon as he heard the door click shut, he started speaking.

  "Suppose I was a judge," he said. "And suppose you were some cop and you came to me for a warrant?"

  Webster could see the President's face reflected in the thick glass. It was just a pink smudge.

  "OK, sir, suppose I was?" he said.

  "What have you got?" the President asked him. "And what haven't you got? You don't even know for sure Holly's there at all. You've got an undercover asset in place and he hasn't confirmed it to you. You're guessing, is all. And these missiles? The Army has lost radio contact. Could be temporary. Could be any number of reasons for that. Your undercover guy hasn't mentioned them. "

  "He could be experiencing difficulties, sir," Webster said. "And he's been told to be cautious. He doesn't call in with a running commentary. He's undercover, right? He can't just disappear into the forest any old time he wants to. "

  The President nodded. The pink smudge in the glass moved up and down. There was a measure of sympathy there.

  "We understand that, Harland," he said. "We really do. But we have to assume that with matters of this magnitude, he's going to make a big effort, right? But you've heard nothing. So you're giving us nothing but speculation. "

  Webster spread his hands. Spoke directly to the back of the guy's head.

  "Sir, this is a big deal," he said. "They're arming themselves, they've taken a hostage, they're talking about secession from the Union. "

  The President nodded.

  "Don't you understand, that's the problem?" he said. "If this were about three weirdos in a hut in the woods with a bomb, we'd send you in there right away. But it isn't. This could lead to the biggest constitutional crisis since 1860. "

  "So you agree with me," Webster said. "You're taking them seriously. "

  The President shook his head. Sadly, like he was upset but not surprised Webster didn't get the point.

  "No," he said. "We're not taking them seriously. That's what makes this whole thing so damn difficult. They're a bunch of deluded idiots, seeing plots everywhere, conspiracies, muttering about independence for their scrubby little patch of worthless real estate. But the question is: how should a mature democratic nation react to that? Should it massacre them all, Harland? Is that how a mature nation reacts? Should it unleash deadly force against a few deluded idiot citizens? We spent a generation condemning the Soviets for doing that. Are we going to do the same thing?"

  "They're criminals, sir," Webster said.

  "Yes, they are," the President agreed, patiently. "They're counterfeiters, they own illegal weapons, they don't pay federal taxes, they foment racial hatred, maybe they even robbed an armored car. But those are details, Harland. The broad picture is they're disgruntled citizens. And how do we respond to that? We encourage disgruntled citizens in Eastern Europe to stand up and declare their nationhood, right? So how do we deal with our own disgruntled citizens, Harland? Declare war on them?"

  Webster clamped his jaw. He felt adrift. Like the thick carpets and the quiet paint and the unfamiliar scented air inside the Oval Office were choking him.

  "They're criminals," he said again. It was all he could think of to say.

  The President nodded. Still a measure of sympathy.

  "Yes, they are," he agreed again. "But look at the broad picture, Harland. Look at their main offense. Their main offense is they hate their government. If we deal with them harshly for that, we could face a crisis. Like we said, there are maybe sixty million Americans ready to be tipped over the edge. This Administration is very aware of that, Harland. This Administration is going to tread very carefully. "

  "But what about Holly?" he asked. "You can't
just sacrifice her. "

  There was a long silence. The President kept his chair turned away.

  "I can't react because of her, either," he said quietly. "I can't allow myself to make this personal. Don't you see that? A personal, emotional, angry response would be wrong. It would be a bad mistake. I have to wait and think. I've talked it over with the General. We've talked for hours. Frankly, Harland, he's pissed at me, and again frankly, I don't blame him. He's just about my oldest friend, and he's pissed at me. So don't talk to me about sacrifice, Harland. Because sacrifice is what this office is all about. You put the greater good in front of friendship, in front of all your own interests. You do it all the time. It's what being President means. "

  There was another long silence.

  "So what are you saying to me, Mr. President?" Webster asked.

  Another long silence.

  "I'm not saying anything to you," the President said. "I'm saying you're in personal command of the situation. I'm saying come see Mr. Dexter Monday morning, if there's still a problem. "

  NOBODY WAITED IN the car. Too restless for that. They got out into the chill mountain air and milled aimlessly around. Johnson and his aide strolled north with the driver and looked at the proposed location for the command post. McGrath and Brogan and Milosevic kept themselves apart as a threesome. McGrath smoked, lost in thought. Time to time, he would duck back into the Army Chevrolet and use the car phone. He called the Montana State Police, the power company, the phone company, the Forest Service.

  Brogan and Milosevic strolled north. They found an armored vehicle. Not a tank, some kind of a personnel carrier. There was the officer who had met them with the car and maybe eight soldiers standing near it. Big, silent men, pitching tents on the shoulder in the lee of the rocks. Brogan and Milosevic nodded a greeting to them and strolled back south. They rejoined McGrath and waited.

  Within forty minutes they all heard the faint roar of heavy diesels far to the south. The noise built and then burst around the curve. There was a small convoy of trucks. Big, boxy vehicles, mounted high on exaggerated drivetrains, big wheels, huge tires, axles grinding around. They roared nearer, moving slow in low gear. The officer from the car ran to meet them. Pointed them up to where he wanted them. They roared slowly past and stopped two abreast in the road where it straightened into the rock cutting.

  There were four vehicles. Black and green camouflage, rolls of netting on the flanks, stenciled numbers and big single stars in white. The front two trucks bristled with antennas and small dishes. The rear two were accommodations. Each vehicle had hydraulic jacks at each corner. The drivers lowered the jacks and the weight came up off the tires. The jacks pushed against the camber of the road and leveled the floors. Then the engines cut off and the loud diesel roaring died into the mountain silence.

  The four drivers vaulted down. They ran to the rear of their trucks and opened the doors. Reached in and folded down short aluminum ladders. Went up inside and flicked switches. The four interiors lit up with green light. The drivers came back out. Regrouped and saluted the officer.

  "All yours, sir," the point man said.

  The officer nodded. Pointed to the Chevy.

  "Drive back in that," he said. "And forget you were ever here. "

  The point man saluted again.

  "Understood, sir," he said.

  The four drivers walked to the Chevy. Their boots were loud in the silence. They got in the car and fired it up. Turned in the road and disappeared south.

  BACK IN HIS office, Webster found the Borken profile on his desk and a visitor waiting for him. Green uniform under a khaki trench coat, maybe sixty, sixty-two, iron-gray stubble on part of his head, battered brown leather briefcase under his arm, battered canvas suit carrier on the floor at his feet.

  "I understand you need to talk to me," the guy said.

  "I'm General Garber. I was Jack Reacher's CO for a number of years. "

  Webster nodded.

  "I'm going to Montana," he said. "You can talk to me there. "

  "We anticipated that," Garber said. "If the Bureau can fly us out to Kalispell, the Air Force will take us on the rest of the way by helicopter. "

  Webster nodded again. Buzzed through to his secretary. She was off duty.

  "Shit," Webster said.

  "My driver is waiting," Garber said. "He'll take us out to Andrews. "

  Webster called ahead from the car and the Bureau Lear was waiting ready. Twenty minutes after leaving the White House, Webster was in the air heading west over the center of the city. He wondered if the President could hear the scream of his engines through his thick bulletproof glass.

  THE AIR FORCE technicians arrived with the satellite trucks an hour after the command post had been installed. There were two vehicles in their convoy. The first was similar to the command post itself, big, high, boxy, hydraulic jacks at each corner, a short aluminum ladder for access. The second was a long flatbed truck with a big satellite dish mounted high on an articulated mechanism. As soon as it was parked and level, the mechanism kicked in and swung the dish up to find the planes, seven miles up in the darkening sky. It locked on and the delicate electronics settled down to tracking the moving signals. There was a continuous motor sound as the dish moved through a subtle arc, too slowly for the eye to detect. The techs hauled out a cable the thickness of a sapling's trunk from the flatbed and locked it into a port on the side of the closed truck. Then they swarmed up inside and fired up the monitors and the recorders.

  McGrath hitched a ride with the soldiers in the armored carrier. They rumbled a mile south and met a waiting Montana State Police cruiser on the road. The state guy conferred with McGrath and opened his trunk. Pulled out a box of red danger flares and an array of temporary road signs. The soldiers jogged south and put a pair of flares either side of a sign reading: Danger, Road Out. They came back north and set up a trio of flares in the center of the blacktop with a sign reading: Bridge Out Ahead. Fifty yards farther north, they blocked the whole width of the road with more flares. They strung Road Closed signs across behind them. When the state guy had slalomed his way back south and disappeared, the soldiers took axes from their vehicle and started felling trees. The armored carrier nudged them over and pushed them across the road, engine roaring, tires squealing. It lined them up in a rough zigzag. A vehicle could get through, but only if it slowed to a dead crawl and threaded its way past. Two soldiers were posted as sentries on the shoulders. The other six rode back north with McGrath.

  Johnson was in the command vehicle. He was in radio contact with Peterson. The news was bad. The missile unit had been out of radio contact for more than eight hours. Johnson had a rule of thumb. He had learned it by bitter experience in the jungles of Vietnam. The rule of thumb said: when you've lost radio contact with a unit for more than eight hours, you mark that unit down as a total loss.

  WEBSTER AND GARBER did not talk during the plane ride. That was Webster's choice. He was experienced enough as a bureaucrat to know that whatever he heard from Garber, he'd only have to hear all over again when the full team was finally assembled. So he sat quietly in the noisy jet whine and read the Borken profile from Quantico. Garber was looking questions at him, but he ignored them. Explain it to Garber now, and he'd only have to do it all over again for McGrath and Johnson.

  The evening air at Kalispell was cold and gray for the short noisy walk across the apron to the Air Force Bell. Garber identified himself to the copilot who dropped a short ladder to the tarmac. Garber and Webster scrambled up inside and sat where they were told. The copilot signaled with both hands that they should fasten their harnesses and that the ride would take about twenty-five minutes. Webster nodded and listened to the beat of the rotor as it lifted them all into the air.

  GENERAL JOHNSON HAD just finished another long call to the White House when he heard the Bell clattering in. He stood framed in the command post doorway and watched it put down on the
same gravel turnout, two hundred yards south. He saw two figures spill out and crouch away. He saw the chopper lift and yaw and turn south.

  He walked down and met them halfway. Nodded to Garber and pulled Webster to one side.

  "Anything?" he asked.

  Webster shook his head.

  "No change," he said. "White House is playing safe. You?"

  "Nothing," Johnson said.

  Webster nodded. Nothing more to say.

  "What we got here?" he asked.

  "Far as the White House knows, nothing," Johnson said. "We've got two camera planes in the air. Officially, they're on exercises. We've got eight Marines and an armored car. They're on exercises, too. Their COs know where they are, but they don't know exactly why, and they're not asking. "

  "You sealed the road?" Webster asked.

  Johnson nodded.

  "We're all on our own up here," he said.

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