Never go back, p.40
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       Never Go Back, p.40

         Part #18 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  Romeo called Juliet and said, ‘I kept a flag on the Margaret Vega card, just in case Turner went shopping on her own, and it just bought a night in a hotel here in town.’

  Juliet said, ‘Shrago’s phone will be on again about two minutes from now.’

  ‘Tell him not to take a cab straight there.’

  They saw Shrago come out of the terminal. They were in a cab, twenty yards away. The cab was sixteen feet long and six feet wide, but it was invisible. It was a cab at an airport. Shrago didn’t see it. He just waited in line behind one other person, and got in a cab of his own.

  ‘That’s the guy,’ Reacher said.

  ‘I see him,’ the driver said. The meter was still running from the ride from the hotel. Plus a hundred-dollar tip. Plus another hundred for the fun of it. That was the deal. It wasn’t their money.

  The driver eased off the kerb and stayed about fifty yards behind Shrago’s cab. Which headed for the heart of town, over the bridge and straight on to 14th Street, and across the Mall and through the Federal Triangle. Then it crossed New York Avenue and stopped.

  Shrago got out.

  The cab drove away.

  They were about level with Lafayette Square, which was right in front of the White House, but they were two blocks east, still on 14th Street. Turner said, ‘What’s here?’

  ‘Nothing, apparently,’ Reacher said, because Shrago had started walking, north on 14th, to the corner with H Street.

  He turned left.

  Reacher paid the driver with Billy Bob’s money, three hundred keep-the-change dollars, and they got out and hustled up to the same corner. Shrago was already into his second block. He was moving fast. He was about to pass the corner of Lafayette Square, which would give him nothing to look at on his left. Not in the dark. And only one thing to look at on his right, basically.

  ‘He’s going to our hotel,’ Turner said. ‘An approach on foot, so the cab driver doesn’t remember. Montague has the Vega card too.’

  ‘From the first flight. Smart guy. He kept on tracking it.’

  ‘This derails your strategy a little.’

  ‘No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.’

  They hung back, but Shrago didn’t. He went straight in the hotel door, full speed. Like a busy man with important issues to resolve. Getting himself into the role.

  Turner said, ‘Got a new plan?’

  Reacher said, ‘We’re not in there. He’ll figure that out eventually. Then he’ll come out again.’


  ‘Did you like the first plan, with the cell phones?’

  ‘It was pretty good.’

  ‘Shrago might rescue it for us. Soon as he figures out we’re not in there, he might call his boss immediately. Like a real-time update. Maybe his boss demands it. In which case what happens after that is nothing to do with you and me. We weren’t there. He just told them that. They’re back in the unknown.’

  ‘If he calls.’

  ‘Fifty-fifty. Either he does, or he doesn’t.’

  ‘If we know that he’s called.’

  ‘He might be on the phone as he walks out.’

  ‘He might have called from our empty room.’

  ‘Fifty-fifty. Either we see it, or we don’t. Either we know, or we guess.’

  They hung back in the park’s outer shadows, and waited. It was almost two o’clock in the morning. The weather had not changed. It was cold and damp. Reacher thought about the girl’s laceless sneakers. Not fifty-state shoes. Then he thought about hotel security, the night watch, checking a bogus ID, opening the register, placing a call to the room, heading upstairs with a pass key. Ten minutes, maybe.

  It was nine minutes.

  Shrago came back out through the door.

  There was no phone in his hand.

  Turner said, ‘Heads or tails, Reacher.’

  Reacher stepped out of the shadows and said, ‘Sergeant Shrago, I need you over here. I have some urgent news.’


  SHRAGO DIDN’T MOVE. He stood still, right there on the Street sidewalk. Reacher was directly opposite, on the other sidewalk. It was quiet. Two o’clock in the morning. A company town. Reacher said, ‘Sergeant Shrago, the news is that as of this very moment you fit a demographic otherwise known as shit out of luck. Because now you can’t win. We’re too close. Unless you take us both out, right here and right now. On this street. Which you won’t. Because you can’t. Because you’re not good enough. So you’re not going home with a prize tonight. What you need is damage control. Which you can get. All you need to do is write everything down.’

  Shrago didn’t answer.

  Reacher said, ‘Or you could speak it out loud into a tape recorder, if writing isn’t your thing. But one way or the other they’ll make you tell the story. This is going to be a big scandal. Not just the army asking questions. We’ll have Senate committees. You need to be the first one in. They always let the first one go. Like you’re a hero. You need to be that guy, Shrago.’

  Shrago said nothing.

  ‘You can say you don’t know the top boys. Less stress that way. They’ll believe you. Concentrate on Morgan instead. About how he delivered Moorcroft for the beating. They’ll eat that up with a spoon.’

  No response.

  ‘There are only two choices, sergeant. You can run away, or you can cross the street. And running away buys you nothing. If we don’t get you tonight, we’ll get you tomorrow. So crossing the street is the better option. Which you have to do anyway, whether you want to shake our hands, or take us out.’

  Shrago crossed the street. He stepped off his kerb, and walked, across lanes that could feel small in a car, but which looked pretty wide on foot. Reacher watched him all the way, his eyes and his shoulders and his hands, and he saw a kind of off-Broadway performance, a man seeing the light, a man finally understanding where his duty lay, and it was a pretty good act, but showing through all the time was a plan to get past Reacher long enough to put Turner out of action, which would level the contest at one on one. Reacher could see it in his eyes, which were manic, and in his shoulders, which were tensed and driven forward by adrenalin, and in his hands, which were open but clenching and unclenching, just a quarter inch either way, like the guy couldn’t wait to set things in motion.

  He stepped up on Reacher’s kerb.

  Reacher said nothing. He didn’t push it. He didn’t need to. Either way Shrago was going to talk to Espin. After getting out of a car, or after getting out of a coma. The choice was his. He had been born free.

  But not smart. He passed on the car, and opted for the coma. Which Reacher understood. Immediate action was always the best bet. Shrago lined himself up, with Reacher to his right, and Turner beyond Reacher’s far shoulder. Reacher figured the guy was planning a left-elbow backhand to his throat, which he would use to claw his way onward, as if propelled by an oar, so he could get to Turner instantly, with a free right hand and time for a single decisive blow, which would have to be hard, and would have to be to the centre of her face. Busted nose, maybe cheekbones, maybe orbital sockets, unconsciousness, concussion. Maybe even a cracked skull, or a broken neck.

  Which wasn’t going to happen.

  ‘Ground rules,’ Reacher said. ‘No ear-biting.’

  Up close the guy looked extraordinary. His head was gleaming in the street lights, and his eyes were socketed way back, and the bones in his face looked hard and sharp, like a person could break his hand just by hitting them. The waistband of his pants was cinched in tight with a belt, and below it his thighs ballooned outward, and above it his chest swelled wide. He was maybe fifteen years younger than Reacher, a young bull, hard as a rock, with aggression coming off him like a smell. His ears had the centre whorls intact like any other guy, but the flatter parts around them had been cut away, probably with scissors, very tight in, so that what was left looked like pasta, like uncooked tortellini florets, shiny, the colour of a white man’s flesh. Not exactly hexagons. A hexag
on was a regular shape, with six equal sides, and Shrago’s stubs had been trimmed for extreme closeness, not geometric regularity. They were irregular polygons, more accurately. Reacher figured if the kid had been his, he would have had a discussion. No point in being a pedant, unless you got it exactly right.

  He said, ‘Last chance, sergeant. Time to make the big decision. We know all about Scully, and Montague, and Morgan. The only way to save yourself is to start talking. A soldier’s best weapon is his brain. Time to start using yours. But either way I’m going to break your arm. Full disclosure. Because you hurt the girl in the Berryville Grill. Which was uncalled for. Do you have a problem with women? Was it women who cut your ears off?’

  Shrago planted his feet and twisted from the waist, violently, to his right, and downward a little, so fast that his left arm was flung way beyond him, so far that his bent back showed in the light. Next up would have been the same twist back again, even faster, even more violent, with the left arm carefully marshalled this time, with the elbow aiming for the far side of Reacher’s throat, with extension, so the blow would both do its job and serve as a kind of foothold, to lever himself onward to Turner.

  Would have been.

  Reacher knew it was coming, so he was moving a hair-trigger split second after Shrago was, matching Shrago’s twist with a twist of his own, like two dancers almost coordinated, with Reacher’s giant right fist hooking low to exactly where Shrago’s exposed kidney was about to arrive, because of his big turn, with Reacher all the time trying to parse the emotion, trying to judge how much of it was about the ears, and how much of it was about Scully and Montague, because the degree of passion in a cause’s defence was an indicator of its depth, and in the end he figured a lot of it was the ears, but some of it was defence, of something sweet and cosy and lucrative.

  Then Shrago reached his point of equilibrium, all wound up like a spring, and he started to unwind the violent twist in the opposite direction, with his elbow coming up on target, but before he got even an inch into it Reacher’s right fist landed, a perfect hit, a paralysing blow to the kidney, a sick, stunning, spreading pain, and Shrago staggered, his coordination lost, his stance opening wide, and Reacher was left to unwind his own twist, all by himself in his own good time, which he did, with his left fist coming up low to high and finding the side of Shrago’s neck, below the corner of his jaw, a fast and heavy double tap, one, two, right, left, the kidney, the neck, which rocked Shrago the other way, leaving him upright but good for an eight count, which he didn’t get, because fighting in the dark on the edge of Lafayette Square was not a civilized sport with rules. Instead Reacher looked him over in the dim light and figured only one part of his body was harder than the bones of Shrago’s face, so he skipped in and head-butted him, right on the bridge of his nose, like a bowling ball swung fast, like there was a head on the floor at the end of the maple lane, right there at the point of release. Reacher danced back and Shrago stayed on his feet for a long second, and then his knees got the message that the lights were out upstairs, and he went down in a vertical heap, like he had jumped off a wall. Reacher rolled him on his front, with the sole of his boot, and then he bent down and got hold of a wrist, and twisted it until the arm was rigid and backward, and then he broke the elbow with the same boot sole. He went through the pockets, and found a wallet and a phone, but no gun, because the guy had come straight from the airport.

  Then he stood up and breathed out and looked at Turner and said, ‘Call Espin and tell him to come pick this guy up. Tell him he’ll get what he needs for his warrant.’

  They waited in the shadows at the far corner of the park. Shrago’s phone was the same cheap instrument as Rickard’s, a mission-specific pre-paid throwaway, and it was set up the same way, but with four numbers in the contacts list, not three, the first being Lozano, Baldacci, and Rickard, and the fourth entered simply as Home.

  And the call register showed Shrago had phoned home two minutes before stepping out of the hotel.

  ‘From our empty room,’ Turner said. ‘You guessed right. Your plan survived contact with the enemy.’

  Reacher nodded. He said, ‘They probably sent him searching elsewhere. In which case they won’t expect a call from him, not until he has news. And they won’t call him before morning, probably. Which we won’t answer anyway. Which will leave them a little confused and anxious. We might get twelve hours before they quit on him.’

  ‘We better tell Espin to keep it under the radar. Or Montague will see the arrest. He’s certain to be monitoring the 75th.’ So Turner did that, with a second call to Espin, and then she dialled Sergeant Leach’s cell. She started out with the same good-conscience preamble she had used the first time, advising Leach to hang up and report the call to Morgan, but for the second time Leach didn’t, so Turner gave her the number Shrago had been calling, and asked her to hit up anyone she knew who was capable of a little freelance signals intelligence. From Turner’s tone it was clear Leach was offering a cautiously optimistic outlook. Reacher smiled in the dark. U.S. Army sergeants. There was nothing they couldn’t do.

  Then a car stopped at the other end of the park, a battered sedan like the thing that had dumped Reacher at the motel on the first night, and two big guys got out, in boots and ACUs, and they hauled Shrago out of the bushes and laid him on the rear seat. Not without a little difficulty. Shrago was no lightweight.

  Then the guys got back in their car and drove away. Reacher and Turner paused a decent interval, like a funeral, and then they crossed the street again, and stepped in through the hotel door, and rode up to their room in the elevator.


  THEY SHOWERED AGAIN, purely as a piece of cleansing symbolism, and to use some more towels, of which there were about forty in the bathroom, most of them big enough and thick enough to sleep under. Then they waited for Leach to call back, which they figured would happen either soon or never, because either her network had the right kind of people in it, or it didn’t. But the first phone to ring was Reacher’s, with information from Edmonds. She said, ‘Seven years ago Crew Scully had just made Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, for personnel. He hasn’t changed his billet since. Back then he was based in Alexandria. Now all of HRC is at Fort Knox, in Kentucky. Except for the Deputy Chief’s office, which stayed in the Pentagon. Which is why Scully is still able to live in Georgetown.’

  Reacher said, ‘He sounds like a very boring guy.’

  ‘But Montague doesn’t. Seven years ago Montague was in Afghanistan. He commanded our in-country intelligence effort. All of it. Not just the army’s.’

  ‘Big job.’

  ‘You bet.’


  ‘I can’t prove anything. There’s no surviving paperwork.’


  ‘He must have signed off on Zadran. That’s the way the protocol works. No way did a suspected grenade smuggler go home to the mountains without a say-so from Intelligence. So that question you asked before, about why didn’t they just shoot him anyway? Basically because Montague told them not to, that’s why. So Zadran owed Montague, big time.’

  ‘Or Zadran had something on Montague, big time.’

  ‘Whichever, we can trace the relationship back at least seven years.’

  Reacher said, ‘I should have asked you to look at Morgan seven years ago.’

  Edmonds said, ‘I was surprised you didn’t. So I used my own initiative. Morgan has been in and out of everywhere, basically. He’s the go-to guy for filling a gap. But we live in a random universe, and he’s been in more logistics battalions than randomness alone would predict. None of them supplying Iraq, and all of them supplying Afghanistan. Which is not entirely random either.’

  ‘Was it always Scully who moved him?’

  ‘Every single time.’

  ‘Thank you, captain.’

  ‘What side of history are we on right now?’

  But Reacher hung up without answering, because another phone was ringing. Not Tu
rner’s, but Shrago’s. Like Rickard’s had, with the crazy birdsong. The same kind of phone. Shrago’s was on the hotel dresser, loud and piercing, grinding away like a mechanical toy. The window on the front said: Incoming Call. Which was superfluous information. But then directly below it said: Home.

  The phone rang eight times, and then it stopped.

  Reacher said nothing.

  Turner said, ‘That was anxiety. Simple as that. We haven’t spent any more money, so we haven’t generated any new leads. So they’ve got nothing to tell him.’

  ‘I wonder how long they’ll stay anxious. Before they get real.’

  ‘Denial is a wonderful thing.’ Turner walked over to the window, and peered out between the drapes. She said, ‘When I get back I’m going to have my office steam-cleaned. I don’t want any trace of Morgan left behind.’

  ‘Why did Montague let Zadran go home to the mountains?’

  ‘You would want to say either political reasons or legal reasons.’

  ‘Both of which are possible. But what if it was something else?’

  ‘I can’t see what else. The guy was in his middle thirties at the time, and the youngest of five, which was two strikes against in a very hierarchical culture, and he was a screw-up and a failure, which was strike three, so the guy had no status and no value, and clearly no real
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