61 hours, p.34
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       61 Hours, p.34

         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
 

  face, like he was washing. He wiped his palms on his pants. He stared down at the floor. Traced each whorl of muted colour in the rug, one by one. When he reached the centre of each meandering pattern he stopped and raised his eyes. Janet Salter stared back at him. She was diagonally opposite him. A straight line. A vector. Left of the stair post, in through the library door, across its width, to her chair. A small comma had formed below the bullet hole in her forehead. Not really blood. Just ooze. Leakage.

  Each time he looked at her for as long as he could bear, and then he dropped his gaze again, back to the rug.

  I don’t like getting beaten, he had said. Better for all concerned that it just doesn’t happen.

  Protect and serve.

  Never off duty.

  Empty words.

  He was a fraud and a fake and a failure.

  He always had been.

  He sat in the chair. No one came. The house hummed on around him. It didn’t know. It made its noises, oblivious. Water moved in the pipes, a sash rattled in a frame, the busted back door creaked back and forth as it moved in the wind. Outside the foliage hissed and the whole frozen planet shuddered and groaned.

  He picked up the phone.

  He dialled the number he remembered.

  You have reached the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you know your party’s extension, you may dial it at any time.

  He dialled 110.

  A click. A purr. ‘Yes?’

  Reacher said, ‘Susan, please.’

  ‘Who?’

  ‘Amanda.’

  A click. A purr.

  Susan said, ‘Reacher?’

  He didn’t answer.

  ‘Reacher? You OK?’

  He said nothing.

  She said, ‘Talk to me. Or hang up.’

  He asked her, ‘Have you ever been hungry?’

  ‘Hungry? Of course. Sometimes.’

  ‘I was once hungry for six straight months. In the Gulf. Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When we had to go throw Saddam out of Kuwait. We got there right at the beginning. We stayed there right to the end. We were hungry the whole time. There was nothing to eat. My unit, I mean. And some of the other rear echelon people. Which we thought was OK. We sucked it up. A big deal like that, there had to be snafus. Supply chains are always a problem. Better that whatever there was went to the guys doing the fighting. So no one made a big fuss. But it was no kind of fun. I got thin. It was miserable. Then we went home and I ate like a pig and I forgot all about it.’

  ‘And then?’

  ‘And then years later we were on that Russian train. They had American rations. I was bored at the time. We got back and I made it a little project to find out what had been going on. Like a hobby. One thing led to another and I traced it all back. Turned out a logistics guy had been selling our food for ten years. You know, a bit here, a bit there, all over the world. Africa, Russia, India, China, anyone who would pay for crap like that. He was pretty careful. No one noticed, the way the stockpiles were. But the Gulf caught him out. Suddenly there was a huge demand, and the stockpiles just weren’t there any more. He was shipping it to us on paper, but we were starving in the desert.’

  ‘The general?’

  ‘Recent promotion. He was a colonel most of the time. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he was reasonably cautious. His tracks were well covered. But I wouldn’t let it go. It was him against me. It was personal. My people had been hungry because of him. I was in his bank accounts and everything. You know what he spent the money on?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Not much. He saved most of it. For his retirement. But he bought a 1980 Corvette. He thought it was a classic. Like a collector’s item. But the 1980 Corvette was the worst Corvette ever made. It was a piece of shit. They junked the three-fifty and put in a three-oh-five, for emissions. It was making a hundred eighty horsepower. I could run faster than a 1980 Corvette. Something just went off in my head. I mean, starving for some kind of a criminal mastermind would be one thing. Doing it for a complete idiot was something else. A complete, tasteless, clueless, sordid, pathetic little idiot.’

  ‘So you hauled him in?’

  ‘I built that case like it was Ethel Rosenberg. I was out of my mind. I checked it forward and backward and forward again. I could have taken it to the Supreme Court. I brought him in. I told him I was upset. He was in a Class A uniform. He had all kinds of busywork medals. He laughed at me. A kind of patronizing sneer. Like he was better than me. I thought, you bought a 1980 Corvette, asshole. Not me. So who’s better? Then I hit him. I popped him in the gut to fold him over and then I banged his head on my desk.’

  ‘What happened?’

  ‘I broke his skull. He was in a coma for six months. He was never quite all there afterwards. And you were right. I was canned, basically. No more 110th for me. Only the strength of the case saved me. They didn’t want it in the newspaper. I would have been busted big time otherwise. So I moved on.’

  ‘Where to?’

  ‘I don’t remember. I was too ashamed of myself. I did a bad thing. And I blew the best command I ever had.’

  Susan didn’t answer.

  Reacher said, ‘I got to thinking about it afterwards. You know, why had I done it? I couldn’t answer. Still can’t.’

  ‘You did it for your guys.’

  ‘Maybe.’

  ‘You were putting the world to rights.’

  ‘Not really. I don’t want to put the world to rights. Maybe I should, but I don’t.’

  She said nothing.

  He said, ‘I just don’t like people who put the world to wrongs. Is that a phrase?’

  ‘It should be. What happened?’

  ‘Nothing more, really. That’s the story. You should ask for a new desk. There’s no honour in that old one.’

  ‘I mean, what happened tonight?’

  Reacher didn’t answer.

  Susan said, ‘Tell me. I know something happened.’

  ‘How?’

  ‘Because you called me.’

  ‘I’ve called you plenty.’

  ‘When you needed something. So you need something now.’

  ‘I’m OK.’

  ‘It’s in your voice.’

  ‘I’m losing two-zip.’

  ‘How?’

  ‘Two KIA.’

  ‘Who?’

  ‘A cop and an old woman.’

  ‘Two-zip? It isn’t a game.’

  ‘You know damn well it’s a game.’

  ‘It’s people.’

  ‘I know it’s people. I’m looking at one of them right now. And the only thing stopping me putting my gun to my head is pretending it’s a game.’

  ‘You got a gun?’

  ‘In my pocket. A nice old .38.’

  ‘Leave it in your pocket, OK?’

  Reacher said nothing.

  Susan said, ‘Don’t touch it, OK?’

  ‘Give me a good reason.’

  ‘A .38 won’t necessarily get the job done. You know that. We’ve all seen it happen. You could end up like the general.’

  ‘I’ll aim carefully. Square on. I’ll make sure.’

  ‘Don’t do it, Reacher.’

  ‘Relax. I’m not going to shoot myself. Not my style. I’m just going to sit here until my head explodes all on its own.’

  ‘I’m sorry.’

  ‘Not your fault.’

  ‘It’s just that I don’t like to think of it as a game.’

  ‘You know it’s a game. It has to be a game. That’s the only way to make it bearable.’

  ‘OK, it’s a game. What are we in? The final quarter?’

  ‘Overtime.’

  ‘So give me the play by play so far. Brief me. Bring me up to date. Like we were working together.’

  ‘I wish we were.’

  ‘We are. What have we got?’

  He didn’t answer.

  She said, ‘Reacher, what have we got?’

  So Reacher took a breath and began to tell her
what they had, slowly at first, and then faster as he picked up on the old shorthand rhythms he remembered from years of talking to people who understood what he understood, and saw what he saw, and grasped what didn’t need to be spelled out. He told her about the bus, and the meth, and the trial, and the jail, and the police department, and the crisis plan, and the lawyer, and the witness protection, and the riot, and Plato, and the underground storage, and Peterson, and Janet Salter.

  Her first response was: ‘Put your hand in your pocket.’

  He asked, ‘Why?’

  ‘Take out your gun.’

  ‘Now that’s OK?’

  ‘More than OK. It’s necessary. The bad guy saw you.’

  ‘When?’

  ‘While you were alone with Salter in the house. He had five hours.’

  ‘He didn’t come. He was up at the prison the whole time.’

  ‘That’s an assumption. We don’t know that for sure. He could have checked in, dropped off the radio net, slipped away, gone back. And do we even know that they really called the roll at all? A thing like that, sure, it’s in the plan as written, but who’s to say it actually gets done, you know, in real life, in a situation like that, right when the shit is hitting the fan?’

  ‘Whatever, I didn’t see him.’

  ‘He doesn’t know that. If he saw you, he’s going to assume you saw him. He’s going to come after you.’

  ‘That’s a lot of ifs and assumptions.’

  ‘Reacher, think about it. What’s to stop this guy getting away with it? He popped the lawyer, and Peterson, and Salter, three rounds from a throw-down pistol. He’s saving a fourth for you, and then he’s home free. Nobody will ever know who he was.’

  ‘I already don’t know who he was.’

  ‘He’s not sure of that. And he’s not sure you won’t figure it out eventually. You’re his last obstacle.’

  ‘Why hasn’t he come after me already?’

  ‘No safe opportunity yet. That’s the only possible reason. He’s going to be cautious with you. More so than with the others. The lawyer was a patsy, Peterson was a bumpkin, and Salter was a harmless old lady. You’re different.’

  ‘Not so very different.’

  ‘You need to pull back to Rapid City. Hole up somewhere and talk to the FBI.’

  ‘I don’t have a vehicle.’

  ‘You have a telephone. You’re talking on it right now. Put it down and then call the FBI. Keep your guard up until they get there.’

  He didn’t answer.

  She asked, ‘Are you going to do that?’

  ‘I doubt it.’

  ‘You weren’t responsible for those people, you know.’

  ‘Says who?’

  ‘All of this would have happened just the same without you. It’s a million-to-one chance you were there at all.’

  ‘Peterson was a nice guy. And a good cop. He wanted to be a better cop. He was one of those guys who knew enough to know he didn’t know everything. I liked him.’

  Susan said nothing.

  ‘I liked Mrs Salter, too. She was a noble old bird.’

  ‘You need to get out of there. You’re outnumbered. Plato won’t come alone.’

  ‘I hope he doesn’t.’

  ‘It’s dangerous.’

  Reacher said, ‘For him.’

  Susan said, ‘Do you remember as a kid, watching a movie about a creature in a lagoon?’

  ‘Is that thing still in my file?’

  ‘In the back index.’

  ‘And you read it?’

  ‘I was interested.’

  ‘They got it wrong. And they took away my blade, which pissed me off.’

  ‘How did they get it wrong?’

  ‘I wasn’t some kind of a genetic freak. I was born as scared as anyone. Maybe more so. I lay awake crying with the best of them. But I got tired of it. I trained myself out of it. An act of will. I re-routed fear into aggression. It was easy enough to do.’

  ‘At the age of six?’

  ‘No, I was an old hand by then. I was four when I started. I had the job done by the time I was five.’

  ‘Is that what you’re doing now? Re-routing guilt into aggression?’

  ‘I took an oath. Same as you did. All enemies, foreign and domestic. Looks like I’ve got one of each here. Plato, and whoever his bent cop is.’

  ‘Your oath lapsed.’

  ‘It never lapses.’

  She asked, ‘How does a six-year-old have his own switchblade anyway?’

  ‘Didn’t you have one?’

  ‘Of course not.’

  ‘Do you have one now?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘You should get one.’

  She said, ‘And you should go to Rapid City and do this thing properly.’

  ‘We’re short of time.’

  ‘You have no legal standing.’

  ‘So put another tag on my file. Or save them all some effort. Just Xerox it. Three copies, FBI, DEA, and the local South Dakota people. Send them out overnight.’

  ‘You’re not thinking straight. You’re punishing yourself. You can’t win them all. You don’t have to win them all.’

  ‘They put you in charge of the 110th?’

  ‘And I’ll stay in charge. As long as I want.’

  ‘This time it was really important.’

  ‘They’re all important.’

  ‘Not like this. I’m staring at a nice old lady with a hole in her head. She mattered more to me than being hungry.’

  ‘Stop looking at her.’

 
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