Never go back, p.33
Never Go Back,
Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
‘They’re not small,’ Reacher said. ‘They’re cropped.’
‘How do you know?’
‘The girl told me. She’s seen them up close.’
‘You talked to her?’
‘She initiated contact, in the diner.’
‘Why would she?’
‘She thinks we’re feds. She’s curious about what’s happening on her street. She thought we might give her the details.’
‘Where did she see the guy with the ears?’
‘At the end of her driveway.’
‘She really doesn’t know what’s happening?’
‘Not even about the paternity suit. My name meant nothing to her. Clearly her mother hasn’t told her about the affidavit. She doesn’t even know her mother is the lawyer’s client. She thinks it’s one of her neighbours.’
‘You shouldn’t have talked to her.’
‘I had no choice. She sat herself at my table.’
‘With a complete stranger?’
‘She feels safe in the diner. The counter man seems to look after her.’
‘What was she like?’
‘She’s a nice kid.’
‘She’s the best candidate yet. She’s about as weird as me. But I still don’t recall a woman in Korea. Not that last time.’
Turner said, ‘Cropped ears?’
‘Like little hexagons,’ Reacher said.
‘I never heard of that.’
‘Me either.’ Reacher took out his phone and dialled Edmonds. It was nine o’clock on the West Coast, which made it midnight on the East Coast, but he was sure she would answer. She was an idealist. Dial tone sounded seven times, and then she picked up, thick-tongued like before, and Reacher said, ‘Got a pen?’
Edmonds said, ‘And paper.’
‘I need you to check two more names with HRC. Almost certainly from the same logistics company at Fort Bragg, but I need confirmation. The first is Jason Kenneth Rickard, and the second is a guy called Shrago. I don’t know if that’s his first or last name. Try to get some background on him. Apparently he has mutilated ears.’
‘The things on the side of his head.’
‘I spoke with Major Sullivan earlier this evening. The office of the Secretary of the Army is pushing for a fast resolution of the Rodriguez issue.’
‘Dropping the charges would be pretty fast.’
‘It’s not going to happen that way.’
‘OK, leave it with me,’ Reacher said. He clicked off the call, and put his phone in his pocket, and went back to driving two-handed. Laurel Canyon Boulevard was a dumb name for the road they were on. It was in Laurel Canyon, for sure, winding its narrow, hilly way through a very desirable and picturesque neighbourhood, but it wasn’t a boulevard. A boulevard was a wide, straight, ceremonial thoroughfare, often planted with rows of specimen trees or other formal landscaping features. From the old French boullewerc, meaning bulwark, because that was where the idea came from. A boulevard was the landscaped top of a rampart, long, wide, and flat, ideal for strolling.
Then they came out on Ventura Boulevard, which was not the same thing as the Ventura Freeway, but was at least wide and straight. The Ventura Freeway lay ahead, and Universal City was to the right, and Studio City was to the left.
Reacher said, ‘Wait.’
Turner said, ‘For what?’
‘The Big Dog’s lawyer was in Studio City. Right on Ventura Boulevard. I remember from the affidavit.’
‘Maybe his locks and his alarm aren’t so great either.’
‘That’s a big step, Reacher. That’s a whole bunch of extra crimes right there.’
‘Let’s at least go take a look.’
‘I’ll be an accessory.’
‘You can have a veto,’ Reacher said. ‘Two thumbs on the button, like a nuclear launch.’
He turned left, and rolled down the road. Then a phone rang. A loud, electronic trill, like a demented songbird. Not his phone, and not Turner’s, but Rickard’s, from the back seat, next to his empty wallet.
REACHER PULLED OVER and squirmed around and picked up the phone. It was trilling loud, and vibrating in his hand. The screen said Incoming Call, which was superfluous information, given all the trilling and vibrating, but it also said Shrago, which was useful. Reacher opened the phone and held it to his ear and said, ‘Hello?’
A voice said, ‘Rickard?’
‘No,’ Reacher said. ‘Not Rickard.’
Reacher said, ‘What were you thinking? A bunch of ware-housemen against the 110th MP? We’re three for three. It’s like batting practice. And you’re all that’s left. And you’re all alone now. And you’re next. How does that even feel?’
Reacher said, ‘But they shouldn’t have put you in this position. It was unfair. I know that. I know what Pentagon people are like. I’m not unsympathetic. I can help you out.’
Reacher said, ‘Tell me their names, go straight back to Bragg, and I’ll leave you alone.’
Silence. Then a fast beep-beep-beep in the earpiece, and Call Ended on the screen. Reacher tossed the phone back on the rear seat and said, ‘I’ll ask twice, but I won’t ask three times.’
They drove on, and then Studio City came at them, thick and fast. The boulevard was lined with enterprises, some of them in buildings all their own, some of them huddled together in strip malls, like the place in North Hollywood, with some of the buildings and some of the malls approached by shared service roads, and others standing behind parking lots all their own. Numbers were hard to see, because plenty of storefronts were dark. They made two premature turns, in and out of the wrong parking lots. But they found the right place soon enough. It was a lime-green mall, five units long. The Big Dog’s lawyer was in the centre unit.
Except he wasn’t.
The centre unit was occupied by a tax preparer. Se Habla Español, plus about a hundred other languages.
Turner said, ‘Things change in sixteen years. People retire.’
Reacher said nothing.
She said, ‘Are you sure this is the right address?’
‘You think I’m mistaken?’
‘You could be forgiven.’
‘Thank you, but I’m sure.’ Reacher moved closer, for a better look. The style of the place was not cutting edge. The signage and the messages and the boasts and the promises were all a little dated. The lawyer had not retired recently.
There was a light on in back.
‘On a timer,’ Turner said. ‘For security. No one is in there.’
‘It’s winter,’ Reacher said. ‘Tax time is starting. The guy is in there.’
‘We could talk to him.’
‘What about? Are you due a refund?’
‘He forwards the old guy’s mail, at least. Maybe he even knows him. Maybe the old guy is still the landlord.’
‘Maybe the old guy died ten years ago. Or moved to Wyoming.’
‘Only one way to find out,’ Reacher said. He stepped up and rapped hard on the glass. He said, ‘At this time of night it will work better if you do the talking.’
Juliet called Romeo, because some responsibilities were his, and he said, ‘Shrago tells me Reacher has Rickard’s phone. And therefore also his gun, I assume. And he knows they’re ware-housemen from Fort Bragg.’
Romeo said, ‘Because of Zadran’s bio. It was an easy connection to make.’
‘We’re down to the last man. We’re nearly defenceless.’
‘Shrago is worth something.’
‘Against them? We’ve lost three men.’
‘Are you worried?’
‘Of course I am. We’re losing.’
‘Do you have a suggestion?’
‘It’s time,’ Juliet said. ‘We know Reacher’s target.
For a spell it looked like Turner was right, and there was no one there, just a light on a security timer, but Reacher kept on knocking, and eventually a guy stepped into view making shooing motions with his arms. To which Reacher replied with beckoning motions of his own, which produced a standoff, the guy miming I don’t do night-time walk-ins, and Reacher feeling like the kid in the movie that gets sent to the doctor’s house in the middle of the night, all Come quickly, old Jeb got buried alive in a pile of W9s. And the guy cracked first. He snorted in exasperation and set off stomping up his store’s centre aisle. He undid the lock and opened the door. He was a young Asian man. Early thirties, maybe. He was wearing grey pants and a red sweater vest.
He said, ‘What do you want?’
Turner said, ‘To apologize.’
‘Interrupting you. We know your time is valuable. But we need five minutes of it. For which we’d be happy to pay you a hundred dollars.’
‘Who are you?’
‘Technically at the moment we work for the government.’
‘May I see ID?’
‘But you want to pay me a hundred dollars?’
‘Only if you have material information.’
‘On what subject?’
‘The lawyer that had this place before you.’
‘What about him?’
‘Congress requires us to verify certain types of information a minimum of five separate ways, and we’ve done four of them, so we’re hoping you can be number five tonight, so we can all go home.’
‘What type of information?’
‘First of all, we’re required to ask, purely as a formality, do you have personal knowledge whether the subject of our inquiry is alive or dead?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘And which is it?’
‘Good,’ Turner said. ‘That’s just a baseline thing. And all we need now is his full legal name and his current address.’
‘You should have come to me first, not fifth. I forward his mail.’
‘No, we tackle the hard ones early. Makes the day go better. Downhill, not up.’
‘I’ll write it down.’
‘Thank you,’ Turner said.
‘It has to be exact,’ Reacher said. ‘You know what Congress is like. If one guy puts Avenue and another guy puts A-v-e, it’s liable to get thrown out.’
‘Don’t worry,’ the guy said.
The lawyer’s full legal name was Martin Mitchell Ballantyne, and he hadn’t moved to Wyoming. His address was still Studio City, Los Angeles, California. Almost walking distance. Turner’s map showed it to be close to the Ventura end of Coldwater Canyon Drive. Maybe where the guy had lived all along.
In which case he had been a lousy lawyer. The address was a garden apartment, probably from the 1930s, which was eight decades of decay. It had been dowdy long ago. Now it was desperate. Dark green walls, like slime, and yellow light in the windows.
Turner said, ‘Don’t get your hopes up. He might refuse to see us. It’s kind of late to come calling.’
Reacher said, ‘His light is still on.’
‘And he might not remember a thing about it. It was sixteen years ago.’
‘Then we’re no worse off.’
‘Unless he calls it tampering with a prosecution witness.’
‘He should think of it as a deposition.’
‘Just don’t be surprised if he throws us out.’
‘He’s a lonely old guy. Nothing he wants more than a couple of visitors.’
Ballantyne neither threw them out nor looked happy to see them. He just stood at his door, rather passively, as if a lot of his life had been spent opening his door late in the LA evening, in response to urgent demands. He looked medium-sized and reasonably healthy, and not much over sixty. But he looked tired. And he had a very lugubrious manner. He had the look of a man who had taken on the world, and lost. He had a scar on his lip, which Reacher guessed was not the result of a surgical procedure. And behind him he had what Reacher took to be a wife. She looked just as glum, but less passive and more overtly hostile.
Reacher said, ‘We’d like to buy fifteen minutes of your time, Mr Ballantyne. How would a hundred bucks work for you?’
The guy said, ‘I no longer practise law. I no longer have a licence.’
‘Four years ago.’
‘It’s an old case we want to talk about.’
‘What’s your interest in it?’
‘We’re making a movie.’
‘How old is the case?’
‘For a hundred bucks?’
‘It’s yours if you want it.’
‘Come in,’ the guy said. ‘We’ll see if I want it.’
They all four crabbed down a narrow hallway, and into a narrow living room, which had better furniture than Reacher expected, as if the Ballantynes had downsized from a better place. Four years ago, perhaps. Disbarred, maybe fined, maybe sued, maybe bankrupted.
Ballantyne said, ‘What if I can’t remember?’
‘You still get the money,’ Reacher said. ‘As long as you make an honest effort.’
‘What was the case?’
‘Sixteen years ago you wrote an affidavit for a client named Juan Rodriguez, also known as the Big Dog.’
Ballantyne leaned forward, all set to give it a hundred dollars’ worth of honest effort, but he got there within about a buck and a quarter.
He sat back again.
Never Go Back by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on46 votes