Night school, p.36
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       Night School, p.36
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         Part #21 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  his Colt. He had been four rounds down.

  Griezman led the convoy. He had local knowledge. He took the scenic route. The city got serious as the docks approached. It got fast and efficient and hard at work, lit up bright, and crawling with movement. There were acres of stacked containers, and miles of cranes, and queuing semis. There were huge metal sheds, one after another, some with names Reacher knew, and some he didn’t. They moved on, and mile by mile they saw the same kind of things again and again.

  Then they saw a huge metal shed, fat and bulbous in a modern way, with a blazing red old-style neon sign on its roof, on an old-style iron frame, way up high, written in a copperplate script, like an old-time Coca-Cola sign. It said Schuhe Dremmler, which meant Dremmler’s Shoes.

  Griezman dropped his speed and they drove past going slow. The place was lit up like a stadium. On the other side of the shed was the wharf. Presumably shoes came off the ships, into the shed from the far side, into some kind of a routing or packing or inventory system, and then out of the shed again on the road side, where the trucks were loaded for onward delivery. A million pairs a week. Which clearly required an evening shift. But maybe not a full contingent. The place looked to be working about half capacity. Maybe a little more.

  Orozco said, “You sure it’s in there?”

  Reacher said, “What part of wild-ass guess didn’t you get?”

  “Are we going to wait for later?”

  “They might work all night.”

  “There could be fifty people there.”

  “With jobs to do. We could be a hundred yards away. They won’t pay attention. The truck might have a guard detail. But there are four of us. It’s a done deal.”

  “If it’s there.”

  They stopped the cars two units further on, and got out in the damp nighttime air.

  Sinclair said, “Are the missing items recognizable for what they are?”

  “I never saw one,” Reacher said. “But from what Helmsworth told us, they’re fifty-pound metal cylinders in canvas backpacks. They could be anything.”

  “Do they have writing on them?”

  “I’m sure they have codes for serial number and date of manufacture. But not like the back of a car. It won’t say what it is.”

  “Which is why they’re not panicking yet.”

  “Unless they found the code book. That might give them a clue.”

  “It’s in code.”

  “Like the man said. Think about D-Day. I’m sure it’s easy to follow along.”

  “It’s a warehouse full of shoes. I think you guessed wrong. It’s surreal.”

  “So is strapping an atom bomb to a bridge support and running like hell.”

  “That was then.”

  “They don’t know what they got. They were hoping for machine guns. Maybe grenades. They’re scratching their heads in there.”

  “It’s one possibility. But we only get one chance at this.”

  “Then let’s hope it’s the right possibility.”

  “But is it?”

  “Let’s ask Griezman’s opinion,” Reacher said.

  Griezman shrugged. In his opinion Dremmler was a bold and ambitious shit-stirrer and rabble-rouser. The man was a lover of history, and of movements and causes, and of the power accrued by great men who strike when the time is right. Griezman thought one day he might be very dangerous. But so far he was all talk and no action. Thus inexperienced. Thus likely to be overwhelmed by his first major project. No one ever plans for afterward. Thus it was plausible he would pause for breath. In a place of safety. Therefore it was plausible he would choose his own premises. In fact more than plausible. A virtual certainty. He would be in control there. Human nature.

  “If it’s him,” Sinclair said.

  Reacher said, “There’s only one way to know for sure.”

  —

  There was no point in attempted concealment. The dock road was brightly lit. The truck loading areas were brightly lit. The metal sheds were brightly lit. Beyond them the wharf was brightly lit. The only darkness was the water. They turned around in the road and drove back to Dremmler’s Shoes. First Griezman and then Bishop slowed and stopped at the curb. Orozco’s guy Hooper leapfrogged them and drove straight ahead. Level with the red neon sign. To the main gate.

  He turned in.

  Up close the shed was enormous. Some kind of glittery galvanized metal. No slits or windows or portholes. The roof was bigger than the walls. Swelled up and bulbous, like a loaf of country bread. Like a bouffant hairstyle. It was ribbed and stressed and physically complex. Below it the walls looked short. The wall facing the yard had about fifty vehicle entrances. Roll-up doors, like suburban garages, but bigger, in primary colors, with plastic porthole windows. Light blazed out. Maybe thirty doors were open, in an orderly line from the left, reaching beyond halfway. The first twenty or so were busy. Trucks were driving in and out. Then ten doors were open but apparently idle. On the right the last twenty were closed up tight. The evening shift. Maybe rush orders only.

  They drove closer.

  Inside, the shed was as big as a football stadium. There were rushing conveyors, and piles of boxes rising to immense heights, and bustling forklift trucks. And noise, apparently. The guys inside were wearing big yellow ear defenders.

  Which might help.

  Reacher said, “They were paratrooper weapons. Immediate ground combat was anticipated. Therefore stray rounds passing through the backpacks must have been predicted. So they probably don’t explode from that. Almost certainly not. But if possible I would prefer not to test that theory.”

  “If it’s in there,” Orozco said.

  “Let’s go find out.”

  —

  Hooper drove in through the last of the open but idle doors, and turned right, away from the busy end of the warehouse, toward the quiet end, in a vehicle channel marked out with tape. He drove behind the line of closed doors, and braked, and stopped, and Neagley got out. He drove on, and braked again, and Orozco got out. He drove on, and braked for a third time, and Reacher got out.

  Reacher stood and watched Hooper drive away. First thing that hit him was the noise. The conveyors were howling and squealing and rattling. The forklifts were chugging and beeping. The second thing was the smell. A million pairs of new shoes. Like a childhood memory. Like a shoe store on Main Street, but a thousand times stronger.

  Behind him none of the trucks was a panel van. Ahead of him nothing was moving. Nothing was parked. No vehicles were visible. He could see all the way out to the wharf. A long distance, but a clear view. The lights were bright. Nothing there.

  But there were mountains of boxes. Many different places. The smallest was taller than Kansas. The biggest was immense. Jagged, like the Rockies from a distance. A left-to-right panorama. Near the end wall. But not on the end wall. There was space behind it. Not much, visually, against the hugeness all around. But up close and human it might be a useful slice. Maybe as wide as a vehicle.

  Reacher looked back. There were maybe fifty guys working. They were suited up like football players, in high-visibility overalls, and hard hats and ear defenders, with plastic cups over their knees and elbows, like the airport workers. Most were putting their time in. A couple were standing and staring. Unsure. Reacher waved. They waved back, and turned away. An old lesson. Act like you belong there. Like you just bought half the company. Meet the new boss.

  Reacher turned back. Fifty yards ahead Hooper had pulled over. He was waiting. Orozco arrived at Reacher’s elbow. Then Neagley. They had to talk loud, because of the noise. Orozco said, “Either it’s hidden behind the boxes or it ain’t here at all.”

  “No shit, Sherlock.”

  “Argument against would be that’s a lot of boxes to stack on a moment’s notice.”

  “I think they’re permanent,” Neagley said. “I think the office must be back there. I don’t see it anyplace else. They walled themselves off. Peace, quiet, and parking spaces.”

  T
hey walked closer. The smell was intense. Like walking through a department store. The mountain range of boxes was set end-on to the last-but-one roll-up door, blocking it completely. Which meant the very last roll-up door was the office staff’s private driveway. Just like the army.

  They detoured to door number forty-seven, to see how it worked. The good news was it had manual override. An up button and a down button. Both plastic, both brightly colored, both the size of a saucer. Like my first magic mushrooms. The bad news was they were on a panel on the left of the door. The far side of the lane. The rear corner of the commandeered space.

  Orozco said, “It could be parked facing out. Like a fire engine. It could be out of here in a second. If it moves, shoot the tires.”

  Reacher said, “If it moves, shoot the driver. The Davy Crocketts are about two feet tall. Head shots should be safe enough.”

  “If it’s there.”

  Reacher remembered Sinclair’s hand on his chest. A stop sign. But no. An assessment, and then a conclusion. Not remotely trust, or even confidence, or much interest, but a solid gamble. He was worth taking a chance on.

  “Yes,” he said. “If it’s there.”

  Chapter 43

  It was there. Reacher peered around the last corner of the mountain range, one eye only, and he saw the panel van, no longer white, now daubed with imitation graffiti, with balloon-like letters, W and H, and S and L. It was facing out. Its rear door was up. Inside were stout canvas packs, covered with straps, padded and round, in camouflage colors that were still dark and strong. They had never seen the light of day.

  To the left of the truck was a wall of windows, into a large but empty office room. To the right was the back face of the mountain range. Maybe three feet of space either side of the truck. Not cramped at all. Up close the area felt generous.

  There were no people in sight. No guards.

  Reacher pulled back and checked the other way. Another two workers were standing and staring. He stepped back to where Orozco and Neagley were waiting. Hooper was there. He told them the news. They took a look for themselves, one at a time, one eye only. Orozco stepped back and said, “The office suite must be two rooms deep. They must be in the rear section.”

  Reacher said, “Or they went out to get pizza and a pitcher of beer. Why stand guard over a bunch of tin cans? They don’t know what they got.”

  “First priority is the panel van. Not the personnel.”

  “Agreed,” Reacher said.

  “So let’s go steal it back. Right now. We have a key. Like boosting it off the curb while the owner is inside watching the ball game.”

  Reacher nodded. One time he had rotated through an army fight school, where the toughest instructor liked to say the best fights are the fights you don’t have. No risk of defeat, no risk of injury. However slight or unlikely. Plus in this case a political dimension. If the van just disappeared, who could say it ever existed? Deniability was always useful. It would fit the narrative. What crate?

  Clearly the noisiest element would be raising the warehouse door. It was driven by an electric motor, through chains. Long and slow. It would need to open all the way. It was a high-roof van. Thirty seconds, probably. Grinding, rattling, shuffling upward. A very characteristic sound. Like putting a notice in the newspaper. They would come running at once.

  Better to back it out. The other way. Reverse it carefully, deep toward the center of the shed, as far as possible, and then swing it around and escape through the body of the warehouse. Through the nearest of the open doors. The same way Hooper drove in.

  Now seventy yards away four workers were standing and staring.

  Reacher said, “OK, let’s do it. Who wants to drive?”

  Neagley said, “I will.”

  “If they hear the engine they’ll approach on your side. So you’ll need cover. But not from the passenger seat. You could get shot in the face. I’ll walk on the blind side. When you stop reversing I’ll jump in and you can take off forward. Then Hooper and Orozco can tuck in behind.”

  “I plan on reversing faster than you can walk. They’re paratrooper weapons. They can stand a little slamming around. Sit in the passenger seat. Just don’t do the part where you shoot me in the face. It’s not complicated.”

  Reacher glanced the other way. Still four workers watching.

  “Brisk,” he said. “Not crazy. Make it look like regular business. It drove in, and now it’s driving out again.”

  He peered around the corner, one last time. Both eyes. The windows, blank. The truck, waiting. Nothing else. No people.

  Now there were six workers watching. They had moved up a step, into a loose arrowhead. The nearest guy was sixty yards away. Isolated by distance and noise, but staring.

  Reacher gave Neagley the key.

  He said, “Go for it.”

  Orozco and Hooper drifted back toward their blue Opel. They got in and moved it to where they could see into the hidden bay, obliquely, for mission support, but where they wouldn’t impede Neagley’s rearward progress. They left space for her to back up alongside them. Then she would pull forward on full lock, and turn tight in front of them, and drive away. They would fall in close behind, on the same curve.

  Neagley checked the view, and took a breath, and stepped into the hidden bay. Reacher followed. She walked down the blind side of the van to the passenger door. He paused near the tailgate. He watched the office windows. She tried the passenger door. It was unlocked. She opened it wide and climbed across to the driver’s seat. He stretched up tall and caught the strap and inched the rear door down. They’re paratrooper weapons. They can stand a little slamming around. Maybe so. But he didn’t want them spilling out during a violent maneuver. He didn’t want them rolling and bouncing across a Hamburg street corner.

  He tugged on the strap and the door came down quiet and slow and easy, whirring and spooling on nylon bearings. A foot. A foot and a half. Two feet.

  He stopped.

  Shit.

  He caught Neagley’s eye in the mirror and chopped his hand across his throat.

  Abort.

  Now.

  She climbed out over the passenger seat. Out the passenger door. Along the painted flank. She followed him back to safety.

  Orozco and Hooper came back from their car.

  In the other direction a dozen workers were watching. A whole regular crowd. Still a shambling arrowhead. Fifty yards away. Shuffling closer.

  Neagley said, “What happened?”

  “Should be ten bombs in the truck,” Reacher said. “But I only counted nine.”

  —

  Hooper and Reacher had never met before, so Reacher was sure Hooper wouldn’t say it. Or Orozco. Too much old-world courtesy. It would be Neagley who said it. She would assemble a dozen alternative theories, starting with ships sailing back to Brazil, or with trucks rolling on to Berlin. And then ending, either with successful resolutions, or with blast zones and fireballs and a million dead. All depending on one critical question.

  Which she would ask.

  She said, “Are you sure you counted right?”

  He smiled.

  “Let’s use the two-personnel rule,” he said. “Basic nuclear safeguard. Hooper should go. He hardly knows me. He’s still an unbiased observer.”

  So Hooper went. He checked from the corner, one eye, very carefully, and then he stepped into the hidden bay. Reacher replaced him at the corner, one eye, and saw him at the tailgate. He was too short. The height of the load floor plus a couple of feet to the top of the backpacks meant he was looking up at the front rank only.

  Then Reacher saw a man in the corner of the office room. On the right. In the far back. On an exact diagonal from where Reacher was. Which meant the guy couldn’t see Hooper. Not yet. The angle was wrong. The corner of the truck was in the way.

  The guy in the room moved. He was looking for something. He was going from desk to desk, opening drawers, stirring a thick finger through, moving on. He was a big guy. He
looked competent.

  Hooper stepped back and went up on tiptoe.

  The guy moved on, the length of a desk.

  Now the angle was right.

  The noise was loud. Howling, squealing, rattling. Chugging and beeping.

  Reacher called, “Hooper, get in the van.”

  Loud enough to be heard, he hoped, by one and not the other. Hooper froze for a split second, and then he vaulted up on open palms and scrambled over the backpacks into the shadows.

  The guy in the office looked out the window.

  He took a step closer.

  He checked the van. He checked the space behind the van.

  He watched for a moment.

 
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