Never go back, p.36
Never Go Back, p.36Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
It was written in the grime on the front passenger’s window. Someone had used a broad fingertip and traced three words, a total of thirteen letters, all of them block capitals, neatly, with the punctuation all present and correct: WHERE’S THE GIRL?
SAMANTHA DAYTON WOKE early, like she often did, and she came down the narrow attic stair and checked the view from the living-room window. The Hummer was gone. In the middle of the night, probably, due on station at the law office. In its place was the purple Dodge Charger, looking way too cool for a cop car. But a cop car it was, nevertheless. Generically speaking, at least. Technically it was a federal agent’s car, she supposed. DEA, or ATF, or FBI. She recognized the driver. She was getting a handle on the rotation. Further on down the street the small white compact was where it always was. And it was the real mystery. Because it was not a cop car. It was a rental, most likely. Hertz or Avis, from LAX, she thought. But the DEA and the ATF and the FBI all had field offices in Los Angeles, with big staffs and cars of their own. Therefore the guy in the small white compact was from an organization important enough to participate, but too small and too specialized to have its own local office. Therefore the guy had flown in, from somewhere else. From D.C., probably, where all the secrets were.
She took her shower, and dressed in her favourite black pants and her favourite jean jacket, but with a fresh blue T-shirt, and therefore blue shoes. She combed her hair out, and checked the view again. It was coming up to what she called zero hour. Twice a day the small white compact moved – for meals, she guessed, or bathroom breaks – and about four times a day the Hummer and the Charger swapped positions, but there was apparently no coordination between the agencies, because once a day in the early morning everyone was missing at the same time, for about twenty minutes. Zero agents, zero hour. The street went back to its normal self. Some kind of logic issue, she supposed, or simple math, like in class, with x number of cars, and y number of locations, and z number of hours to cover. Something had to give.
She looked out and saw that the small white compact was already gone, and then the Charger moved out as she watched. It started up, and eased away from the kerb, and drove away. The street went quiet. Back to its normal self. Zero hour.
Reacher ran through his earlier reasoning one more time: the 75th MP and the FBI were watching her house, and they were specifically on the alert for an intruder. I’m not going there, and neither is Shrago, because neither one of us could get in.
He said, ‘It’s a bluff. He’s trying to get in our heads. He’s trying to draw us out. That’s all. He can’t get anywhere near the girl.’
Turner said, ‘Are you absolutely sure about that?’
‘We can’t go there. You’re still on the shit list, until Sullivan makes it official. And I’m still on the shit list, probably for ever.’
‘We can go there once.’
‘We can’t. They already saw the car once yesterday. Maybe twice. And getting arrested won’t help her or us.’
‘We can get another car. At the Burbank airport. Shrago will know about it inside an hour, but we can use that hour.’
Breakfast was always a problem. There was never anything in the house, and anyway her mother slept late in the morning, all tired and stressed, and she wouldn’t appreciate a lot of crashing and banging in the kitchen. So breakfast was an expedition, which was a word she really liked, in her opinion based on old Latin, ex for out, and ped for foot, like pedal or pedicure or pedestrian, so all put together it meant going out on foot, which is exactly what she usually did, because obviously she couldn’t drive yet, being only fourteen years old, albeit nearly fifteen.
She was looking forward to driving. Driving would be a big advantage, because it would widen her scope. In a car she could go to Burbank or Glendale or Pasadena for breakfast, or even Beverly Hills. Whereas out on foot her choice was limited to the coach diner, south on Vineland, or alternatively the coffee shop near the law office, north on Vineland, and that was about it, because everything else was tacos or quesadillas or Vietnamese, and none of those places was open for breakfast. Which was frustrating.
But not such a big deal on that particular morning, because the federal agents would face the same limited choice, which would make them easier to find. Fifty-fifty, basically, like tossing a coin, and she hoped she tossed it right, because the big one named Reacher seemed willing to talk, about stuff worth listening to, because he was obviously right in the middle of it all, some kind of a senior guy, rushing off after urgent phone calls, and spilling the beans on the man with the ears.
So, heads or tails?
She pulled the blue door shut behind her, and she started walking.
They put the old Range Rover on a kerb in a tow zone outside the rental lot, and they lined up at the desk behind a whitehaired couple just in from Phoenix. When their turn came they used Baldacci’s licence and credit card and picked out a midsize sedan, and after a whole lot of signing and initialling they were given a key. The car in question was a white Ford, dripping wet from washing, parked under a roof, and it was bland and anonymous and therefore adequate in every way, except that its window tints were green and subtle and modern, nothing like the opaque plastic sheets that had been stuck to the Range Rover’s glass. Driving the Ford was going to feel very different. Inward visibility was going to be restricted only by sunshine and reflections. Or not.
Turner had brought her book of maps, and she plotted a route that stayed away from Vineland Avenue until the last possible block. The day dawned bright and fresh in front of them, and traffic stayed quiet. It was still very early. They came out of Burbank on small streets, mostly through office parks, and they rolled through North Hollywood, and they crossed the freeway east of Vineland, and they headed for the neighbourhood at an angle, feeling exposed and naked behind the thin green glass.
‘One pass,’ Turner said. ‘Slow constant speed to the end of the street, no stopping under any circumstances, all the time anticipating normality and the presence of law enforcement vehicles, and if it turns out any different we’ll continue to the end of the street anyway, and we’ll work it out from there. We must not get trapped in front of the house. OK?’
‘Agreed,’ Reacher said.
They turned into the first elbow, and they drove past the grocery, and past the car with no wheels, and they turned left, and then right, and then they were in her street, which stretched ahead long and straight and normal, a narrow metallic lane through nose-to-tail cars, both sides, all parked, all winking in the morning sun.
Turner said, ‘FBI ahead on the right. Purple Dodge Charger.’
‘Got it,’ Reacher said.
‘Plus the last car on the lot ahead on the left. The MP special.’
‘Got it,’ Reacher said again.
‘The house looks normal.’
Which it did. It looked solid and settled, and still, as if there were sleeping people inside. The front door was closed, and all the windows were closed. The old red coupé had not moved.
They rolled on.
Turner said, ‘So far every other vehicle is empty. No sign of Shrago. It was a head fake.’
They kept on going, at a slow and constant speed, all the way to the end of the street, and they saw nothing at all to worry about.
‘Let’s go get breakfast,’ Reacher said.
Romeo called Juliet and said, ‘They rented another car. A white Ford, at the Burbank airport.’
Juliet said, ‘Why? Surely they know they can’t hide from us.’
‘They’re hiding from the FBI and the MPs. Changing cars is a sound tactic.’
‘A white Ford? I’ll tell Shrago immediately.’
‘Is he making progress?’
‘I haven’t heard from him.’
Romeo said, ‘Hold on a minute.’
‘More activity on Baldacci’s card. The gentleman in Long Beach
They looped south of the neighbourhood and came back north on Vineland as far as the coach diner. The white Ford was doing its job. It was turning no heads. It was unremarkable and anonymous and invisible, like a hole in the air. Ideal, except for its transparent windows.
The diner was doing good business, at that time of the morning all of it serious and no-nonsense, with early workers fuelling up ahead of long days of labour. There were no ironic hipsters present. The girl wasn’t there, either. Which wasn’t a surprise, because even though she was pretty much a regular, who ate practically every meal there, it was still very early. Reacher knew almost nothing about fourteen-year-old girls, but he imagined early rising was not among their top ten lifestyle preferences. The guy named Arthur was behind his counter, and the brunette waitress was rushing around. A swing shift, maybe, late night and early morning. The blonde wasn’t there. Maybe she worked peak hours only, starting just before lunch, and finishing just after dinner.
They took the last booth on the right, directly behind the girl’s empty stool. A busboy gave them water, and the brunette gave them coffee. Turner ordered an omelette, and Reacher ordered pancakes. They ate, and enjoyed it, and lingered, and waited. The girl didn’t show. The rest of the clientele changed with the passage of time, office workers and retail workers replacing the labourers, their orders a little more delicate and a little less calorific, their table manners a little less like throwing coal in a furnace. Reacher got four refills of coffee. Turner got toast. The girl didn’t show.
Reacher got up and stepped over and sat down again on the girl’s empty stool. The guy named Arthur tracked the move, like a good counter man should, and he nodded, as if to say I’ll be right with you. Reacher waited, and Arthur served coffee, and orange juice, and he bussed a plate, and he took an order, and then he came over. Reacher asked him, ‘Does Samantha get breakfast here?’
The guy said, ‘Most days.’
‘What time does she come in?’
The guy asked, ‘Would I be wrong if I said you’ll never see forty again?’
‘Generous, not wrong.’
‘Some people say it’s the times we live in, but I think it’s never been any different, which is that when a man in his forties starts asking an unhealthy amount of questions about a girl of fourteen, then most people are going to notice, and some of them might even do something, such as ask questions back.’
‘As they should,’ Reacher said. ‘But who died and made you chairman of the board?’
‘It was me you asked.’
‘I enjoyed talking to her, and I’d like to talk to her again.’
‘She’s curious about a law enforcement situation, which is not a good combination.’
‘The thing on her street?’
‘I thought I might trade her some facts for a promise to stay out the way.’
‘Are you law enforcement?’
‘No, I’m here on vacation. It was this or Tahiti.’
‘She’s not old enough for facts.’
‘I think she is.’
‘Are you authorized?’
‘Am I breathing?’
‘She’s an early riser. She would have been in and out by now. Long ago. I guess she’s not coming today.’
REACHER PAID THE check with Baldacci’s cash, and they got back in the Ford, and Turner said, ‘Either she ate at home today, or she skipped breakfast altogether. She’s a teenage girl. Don’t expect consistency.’
‘She said she ate practically every meal here.’
‘Which is not the same as every meal, period.’
‘The guy said most days.’
‘Which is not the same as every day.’
‘But why would she skip today? She’s curious, and she thinks I’m a source.’
‘Why would she expect you to be here?’
‘Law enforcement has to eat too.’
‘Then the coffee shop would be just as logical, near the lawyer’s office. She knows there are two locations.’
‘We should go take a look.’
‘Too difficult. We wouldn’t see anything from the street, and we can’t go in on foot. Plus she’s an early riser. She’ll have been and gone.’
‘We should cruise her house again.’
‘That wouldn’t tell us anything. The door is shut. We don’t have X-ray vision.’
‘Shrago is out there somewhere.’
Turner said, ‘Let’s go back to the off-ramp.’
Reacher said, ‘In a white car in daylight?’
‘Just for ten minutes. To put our minds at rest.’
In bright daylight the old binoculars were superb. The magnified image was crisp and hyper-vivid. Reacher could see every detail – of the street, of the white compact, of the purple Dodge, of the blue front door. But nothing was happening. Everything looked quiet. Just another sunny day, and just another endless stake-out, boring and uneventful, like most stake-outs are. There was no sign of Shrago. Some of the parked cars had heavy tints or blinding reflections, but they weren’t plain enough to be rentals. And those plain enough to be rentals were empty.
‘He’s not there,’ Turner said.
‘I wish we knew for sure she was,’ Reacher said back.
Then his phone rang. Captain Edmonds, in Virginia. She said, ‘I found another file on Shrago, from five years ago. The decision to keep him out of the Middle East was controversial. We were fighting two wars, we were hurting for numbers, hundreds of people were getting re-upped involuntarily, the National Guard was gone for years at a time, and the idea of paying a loose cannon who couldn’t go to Iraq or Afghanistan was seen as absurd. First choice was involuntary separation, but he was making his case on compassionate grounds, so he had to be heard, and eventually the argument went all the way up the HRC chain of command, to an Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for personnel, who ruled in Shrago’s favour.’
‘And?’ Reacher said.
‘That same Assistant Deputy was also in charge of temporary commands. He was the guy who moved Morgan to Fort Bragg a year later.’
‘I thought so. Which is why I called. Shrago owed him, and Morgan was his chess piece.’
‘What was his name?’
‘What kind of a name is that?’
‘New England blue blood.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘He got promoted. Now he’s a Deputy Chief of Staff in his own right.’
‘Responsible for what?’
‘Personnel,’ Edmonds said. ‘HRC oversight. Technically he’s my boss.’
‘Who moved Morgan to the 110th, this week?’
‘Scully’s second-in-command, I assume. Unless things have changed.’
‘Will you check that for me? And will you check whether Scully has access to Homeland Security intelligence systems?’
‘I don’t think he would have.’
‘I don’t think so either,’ Reacher said. He clicked off the call, and went back to staring at the street.
Juliet called Romeo, because some responsibilities were his, and he said, ‘Shrago tells me they’re not travelling separately. He decided to check the rental depot, and he got there just in time to see the Range Rover getting towed.’
‘More fool them. Using one car limits them. Which is to our advantage.’
‘That’s not the point. The Range Rover is on Baldacci’s credit card. We’ll have to pay the tow fee and the daily rental. It’s another slap in the face.’
‘What else did Shrago see?’
Never Go Back by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on46 votes