Never go back, p.34
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       Never Go Back, p.34

         Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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  He said, ‘The thing with the army?’

  Recognition in his voice. And some kind of misery. As if some bad thing had stirred, and come back from the dead. As if the thing with the army had brought him nothing but trouble.

  ‘Yes,’ Reacher said. ‘The thing with the army.’

  ‘And your interest in it is what, exactly?’

  ‘You used my name, where you had to fill in the blanks.’

  ‘You’re the guy?’ Ballantyne said. ‘In my house? Haven’t I suffered enough?’

  And his wife said, ‘Get the hell out, right now.’ Which apparently she meant, because she kept on saying it, loud and clear and venomous, over and over again, with heavy emphasis on the right now. Which in terms of tone and content Reacher took as clear evidence that consent had been withdrawn, and that trespass had begun, and he had promised Turner two thumbs on the nuclear button, and he was a little mindful of the prosecution witness issue, so he got the hell out, right then, with Turner about a foot behind him. They walked back to the car and leaned on it and Turner said, ‘So it’s all about the filing system.’

  Reacher nodded.

  ‘Fingers crossed,’ he said.

  ‘Are you going to use Sullivan?’

  ‘Would you?’

  ‘Definitely. She’s senior, and she’s right there at JAG, not stuck in HRC.’

  ‘Agreed,’ Reacher said.

  He took out his phone and called Edmonds.

  FIFTY-SIX

  EDMONDS PICKED UP, sleepy and a little impatient, and Reacher said, ‘Earlier tonight you told me Major Sullivan told you the office of the Secretary of the Army is pushing for a fast resolution of the Rodriguez issue.’

  ‘And you’ve woken me up in the middle of the night to give me another witty response?’

  ‘No, I need you to find out exactly who delivered that message to Major Sullivan, or at least which channel it came through.’

  ‘Thank you for thinking of me, but shouldn’t Major Sullivan handle this direct?’

  ‘She’s going to be very busy doing something else. This is very important, captain. And very urgent. I need it done early. So hit up everyone you know, everywhere. As early as you can. While they’re still on the treadmill, or whatever it is people do in the morning.’

  Reacher patted his pockets and found Sullivan’s personal cell number, on the torn-in-half scratch pad page that Leach had given him. He dialled, and counted the ring tones. She picked up after six, which he thought was pretty good. A light sleeper, apparently.

  She said, ‘Hello?’

  ‘This is Jack Reacher,’ he said. ‘Remember me?’

  ‘How could I forget? We need to talk.’

  ‘We are talking.’

  ‘About your situation.’

  ‘Later, OK? Right now we have stuff to do.’

  ‘Right now? It’s the middle of the night.’

  ‘Either right now or as soon as possible. Depending on your level of access.’

  ‘To what?’

  ‘I just spoke with the lawyer who did the Big Dog’s affidavit.’

  ‘On the phone?’

  ‘Face to face.’

  ‘That was completely inappropriate.’

  ‘It was a very short conversation. We left when requested.’

  ‘We?’

  ‘Major Turner is with me. An officer of equal rank and equal ability. An independent witness. She heard it too. Like a second opinion.’

  ‘Heard what?’

  ‘Does your legal archive have a computer search function?’

  ‘Of course it does.’

  ‘So if I typed Reacher, complaint against, what would I get?’

  ‘Exactly what you got, basically. The Big Dog’s affidavit, or similar.’

  ‘Is the search fast and reliable?’

  ‘Did you really wake me up in the middle of the night to talk about computers?’

  ‘I need information.’

  ‘The system is pretty fast. Not a very intuitive search protocol, but it’s capable of taking you straight to an individual document.’

  ‘I mentioned the case to the lawyer and he remembered it immediately. He called it the thing with the army. Then he asked me what my interest was, and I told him, and he said, haven’t I suffered enough?’

  ‘What did he mean by that?’

  ‘You had to be there to hear it. It was all in his tone of voice. The Big Dog affidavit was not just a complaint he mailed in and forgot about. It was not routine. It was a thing. It was a whole story, with a beginning, and a middle, and an end. And I’m guessing it was a bad end. That’s what we heard. He made it sound like a negative episode in his life. He was looking back on it, with regret.’

  ‘Reacher, I’m a lawyer, not a dialogue coach. I need facts, not the way people make things sound.’

  ‘And I’m an interrogator, and an interrogator learns plenty by listening. He asked me what my interest was, as if he was wondering what possible interest was there left to have? Hadn’t all possible interests been exhausted years ago?’

  ‘Reacher, it’s the middle of the night. Do you have a point?’

  ‘Hang in there. It’s not like you have anything else to do. You won’t get back to sleep now. The point is, then he said, haven’t I suffered enough? And simultaneously his wife started yelling and screaming and throwing us out the door. They’re living in reduced circumstances, and they’re very unhappy about it. And the Big Dog was a hot button. Like a defining event, years ago, with ongoing negative consequences. That’s the only way to make sense of the language. So now I’m wondering whether this whole thing was actually litigated at the time, all those years ago. And maybe the lawyer got his butt kicked. And maybe he got his first ethics violation. Which might have been the first step on a rocky road that terminated four years ago, when he got disbarred. Such that neither he nor his wife can bear to hear about that case ever again, because it was the start of all their troubles. Haven’t I suffered enough? As in, I’ve had sixteen years of hell because of that case, and now you want to put me through it all again?’

  ‘Reacher, what are you smoking? You didn’t remember the case. Therefore you didn’t litigate it. Or you’d remember it. And if it was litigated sixteen years ago, to the point where the lawyer got his butt kicked, why are they relitigating it now?’

  ‘Are they relitigating it now?’

  ‘I’m about to hang up.’

  ‘What would happen if someone searched Reacher, complaint against, and ordered up the Big Dog affidavit, and fed it into the system at unit level? With a bit of smoke and mirrors about how serious it was?’

  No answer.

  Reacher said, ‘It would feel exactly like a legal case, wouldn’t it? We’d assemble a file, and we’d all start preparing and strategizing, and we’d wait for a conference with the prosecutor, and we’d hope our strategy survived it.’

  No answer.

  Reacher said, ‘Have you had a conference with the prosecutor?’

  Sullivan said, ‘No.’

  ‘Maybe there is no prosecutor. Maybe this is a one-sided illusion. Designed to work for one minute only. As in, I was supposed to see your file and run like hell.’

  ‘It can’t be an illusion. I’m getting pressure from the Secretary’s office.’

  ‘Says who? Maybe you’re getting messages, but you don’t really know where they’re coming from. Do you even know the Big Dog is dead? Have you seen a death certificate?’

  ‘This is crazy talk.’

  ‘Maybe. But humour me. Suppose it really was litigated sixteen years ago. Without my knowledge. Perhaps one of hundreds, with a specimen case involving some other guy, but I was in the supporting cast. Like class action. Maybe they started some aggressive new policy against ambulance chasers. Which might account for the guy getting his butt kicked so bad. What kind of paperwork would we have seen?’

  ‘If it really was litigated? A lot of paperwork. You don’t want to know.’

  ‘So if I searched
Reacher, defence against complaint, what would I find?’

  ‘Eventually you’d find everything they tagged as defence material, I suppose. Hundreds of pages, probably, in a big case.’

  ‘Is it like shopping on a web site? Does it link from one thing to another?’

  ‘No, I told you. It’s a clunky old thing. It was designed by people over thirty. This is the army, don’t forget.’

  ‘OK, so if I was worried about a guy called Reacher, and I wanted to scare him away, and I was in a big hurry, I could search the archive for Reacher, complaint against, and I could find the Big Dog’s affidavit, and I could put it back in circulation, while being completely unaware it was only a small part of a much bigger file. Because of the way the search function works. Is that correct?’

  ‘Hypothetically.’

  ‘Which is your job, starting right now. You have to test that hypothesis. See if you can find any trace of a bigger file. Search under all the tags you can think of.’

  They got in the car and drove east on the freeway, back to Vineland Avenue, and then south, past the girl’s neighbourhood, to the coach diner. She was gone, inevitably, and so was the blonde waitress, and so were all the other dinner-time customers. Rush hour was definitely over. Late evening had started. There were three men in separate booths, drinking coffee, and there was a woman eating pie. The brunette waitress was talking to the counter man. Reacher and Turner stood at the door, and the waitress broke away and greeted them, and Reacher said, ‘I’m sorry, but I had to run before. There was an emergency. I didn’t pay for my cup of coffee.’

  The waitress said, ‘It was taken care of.’

  ‘Who by? Not the kid, I hope. That wouldn’t be right.’

  ‘It was taken care of,’ the woman said again.

  ‘It’s all good,’ the counter man said. Arthur. He was wiping his counter.

  ‘How much is a cup of coffee?’ Reacher asked him.

  ‘Two bucks and a penny,’ the guy said. ‘With tax.’

  ‘Good to know,’ Reacher said. He dug out two bills and a lone cent, and he put them on the counter, and he said, ‘To return the favour, to whoever it was. Very much appreciated. What goes around comes around.’

  ‘OK,’ the guy said. He left the money where it was.

  ‘She told me she came in often.’

  ‘Who did?’

  ‘Samantha. The kid.’

  The guy nodded. ‘She’s pretty much a regular.’

  ‘Tell her I was sorry I had to run. I don’t want her to think I was rude.’

  ‘She’s a kid. What do you care?’

  ‘She thinks I work for the government. I don’t want to give her a negative impression. She’s a bright girl. Public service is something she could think about.’

  ‘Who do you work for really?’

  ‘The government,’ Reacher said. ‘But not the part she guessed.’

  ‘I’ll pass on the message.’

  ‘How long have you known her?’

  ‘Longer than I’ve known you. So if there’s a choice between her privacy and your questions, I guess I’m going to go with her privacy.’

  ‘I understand,’ Reacher said. ‘I would expect nothing less. But would you tell her one more thing for me?’

  ‘Which would be what?’

  ‘Tell her to remember what I said about the hexagons.’

  ‘The hexagons?’

  ‘The little hexagons,’ Reacher said. ‘Tell her it’s important.’

  They got back in the car and they started it up, but they didn’t go anywhere. They sat in the diner’s lot, their faces lit up pink and blue by the Art Deco neon, and Turner said, ‘Do you think she’s safe?’

  Reacher said, ‘She’s got the 75th MP and the FBI staring at her bedroom window all night long, both of them specifically on the alert for an intruder, which they expect to be me, except it won’t be, because I’m not going there, and neither is Shrago, in my opinion, because he knows what I know. Neither one of us could get in that house tonight. So, yes, I think she’s safe. Almost by accident.’

  ‘Then we should go find ourselves a place to stay. Got a preference?’

  ‘You’re the CO.’

  ‘I’d like to go to the Four Seasons. But we should keep radio silence on the credit cards, as far as our overnight location is concerned. So it’s cash only, which means motels only, which means we should go back to that hot-sheets place in Burbank, where we met Emily the hooker. All part of the authentic experience.’

  ‘Like driving a car on Mulholland Drive.’

  ‘Or shooting a man on Mulholland Drive. That’s in the movies too.’

  ‘You OK?’

  She said, ‘If I have a problem, you’ll be the first to know.’

  The motel was certainly authentic. It had a wire grille over the reception window, and cash was all it took. The room looked like it should feel cold and damp, but it was in Los Angeles, where nothing was cold and damp. Instead it felt brittle and papery, as if it had been baked too long. But it was functional, and not far from comfortable.

  The car was parked five rooms away. No place else to hide it. But safe enough, even if Shrago saw it. He would watch the room in front of it, and then he would break in, and find the wrong people, and assume the car was one step to the side of where it should have been, but left or right was a fifty-fifty chance, which meant if he called it wrong he would have committed three separate burglaries before he even laid eyes on the target, and suppose the car was two steps from where it should have been? How many rooms was that? His head would explode long before he got to five steps. His tiny ears would ping off into the far distance, like shrapnel.

  Reacher figured he had about four hours to sleep. He was sure Edmonds was busting a gut in Virginia, on East Coast time, gathering information, so she could call early and wake him up.

  FIFTY-SEVEN

  EDMONDS’ FIRST CALL came in at two in the morning local time, which was five o’clock Eastern. Reacher and Turner both woke up. Reacher put the open phone between their pillows, and they rolled over forehead to forehead, so they could both hear. Edmonds said, ‘You asked me earlier, about Jason Kenneth Rickard, and a guy called Shrago. Got a pen?’

  Reacher said, ‘No.’

  ‘Then listen carefully. They’re the same as the first two. They’re all deployed with the same company at Fort Bragg. Three teams to a squad, and they’re a team. What that means exactly, I don’t know. Possibly this is skilled work, and they learn to rely on each other.’

  ‘And to keep their mutual secrets,’ Reacher said. ‘Tell me about Shrago.’

  ‘Ezra-none-Shrago, staff sergeant and team leader. Thirty-six years old. Hungarian grandparents. He’s been in the unit since the start of the war. He was in and out of Afghanistan for five years, and since then he’s been based at home, exclusively.’

  ‘What’s up with his ears?’

  ‘He was captured.’

  ‘In North Carolina or Afghanistan?’

  ‘By the Taliban. He was gone three days.’

  ‘Why didn’t they cut his head off?’

 

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