Die trying, p.43
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       Die Trying, p.43

         Part #2 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
slower 1  faster
Chapter Forty-Three

  FOR THE FIRST time in twenty years, General Garber had killed a man. He hadn't meant to. He had meant to lay the man out and take his weapon. That was all. The man was part of an inner screen of sentries. They were posted at haphazard intervals in a line a hundred yards south of the courthouse. Garber had trawled back and forth in the woods and scoped them out. A ragged line of sentries, maybe forty or fifty yards between each one, two on the shoulders of the road and the rest in the forest.

  Garber had selected the one nearest to a straight line between himself and the big white building. The man was going to have to move. Garber needed direct access. And he needed a weapon. So he had selected the man and worked nearer to him. He had scraped up a fist-sized rock from the damp forest floor. He had worked around behind him.

  Their lack of training made the whole thing easy. A sentry screen should be mobile. They should be moving side to side along the length of the perimeter they are told to defend. That way, they cover every inch of the territory, and they find out if the next man in line has been ambushed and dumped on the floor. But these men were static. Just standing there. Watching and listening. Bad tactic.

  The selected man was wearing a forage cap. It was camouflaged with the wrong camouflage. It was a black and gray interrupted pattern. Carefully designed to be very effective in an urban environment. Useless in a sun-dappled forest. Garber had come up behind the man and swung the rock. Hit him neatly on the back of the head.

  Hit him too hard. Problem was, people are different. There's no set amount of impact that will do it. Not like playing pool. You want to roll the ball into the corner pocket, you know just about exactly how hard you need to cue. But skulls are different. Some are hard. This man's wasn't. It cracked like an eggshell and the spinal cord severed right up at the top and the man was dead before he hit the ground.

  "Shit," Garber breathed.

  He wasn't worried about the ethics of the situation. Not worried about that at all. Thirty years of dealing with hard men gone bad had defined a whole lot of points for him, ethically. He was worried about buzzards. Unconscious men don't attract them. Dead men do. Buzzards circling overhead spread information. They tell the other sentries: one of your number is dead.

  So Garber changed his plan slightly. He took the dead man's M-16 and moved forward farther than he really wanted to. He moved up to within twenty yards of where the trees petered out. He worked left and right until he saw a rock outcrop, ten yards beyond the edge of the woods. That would be the site of his next cautious penetration. He slipped behind a tree and squatted down. Stripped the rifle and checked its condition. Reassembled it, and waited.

  HARLAND WEBSTER ROLLED back the videotape for the fourth time and watched the action again. The puff of pink mist, the guard going down, the second guard taking off, the camera's sudden jerked zoom out to cover the whole of the clearing, the second guard silently sprawling. Then a long pause. Then Reacher's crazy sprint. Reacher tossing bodies out of the way, slashing at the ropes, bundling McGrath to safety.

  "We made a mistake about that guy," Webster said.

  General Johnson nodded.

  "I wish Garber was still here," he said. "I owe him an apology. "

  "Planes are low on fuel," the aide said into the silence.

  Johnson nodded again.

  "Send one back," he said. "We don't need both of them up there anymore. Let them spell each other. "

  The aide called Peterson and within half a minute three of the six screens in the vehicle went blank as the outer plane peeled off and headed south. The inner plane relaxed its radius and zoomed its camera out to cover the whole area. The close-up of the clearing fell away to the size of a quarter and the big white courthouse swam into view, bottom right-hand corner of the screens. Three identical views on three glowing screens, one for each of them. They hunched forward in their chairs and stared. The radio in Webster's pocket started crackling.

  "Webster?" Borken's voice said. "You there?"

  "I'm here," Webster replied.

  "What's with the plane?" Borken said. "You losing interest or something?"

  For a second, Webster wondered how he knew. Then he remembered the vapor trails. They were like a diagram, up there in the sky.

  "Who was it?" he asked. "Brogan or Milosevic?"

  "What's with the plane?" Borken asked again.

  "Low fuel," Webster said. "It'll be back. "

  There was a pause. Then Borken's voice came back.

  "OK," he said.

  "So who was it?" Webster asked again. "Brogan or Milosevic?"

  But the radio just went dead on him. He clicked the button off and caught Johnson looking at him. Johnson's face was saying: the military man turned out good and the Bureau guy turned out bad. Webster shrugged. Tried to make it rueful. Tried to make it mean: we both made mistakes. But Johnson's face said: you should have known.

  "Could be a problem, right?" the aide said. "Brogan and Milosevic? Whichever one is the good guy, he still thinks Reacher's his enemy. And whichever one is the bad guy, he knows Reacher's his enemy. "

  Webster looked away. Turned back to the bank of screens.

  BORKEN PUT THE radio back in the pocket of his black uniform. Drummed his fingers on the judge's desk. Looked at the people looking back at him.

  "One camera is enough," he said.

  "Sure," Milosevic said. "One is as good as two. "

  "We don't need interference right now," Borken said. "So we should nail Reacher before we do anything else. "

  Milosevic glanced around, nervously.

  "Don't look at me," he said. "I'm staying in here. I just want my money. "

  Borken looked at him. Still thinking.

  "You know how to catch a tiger?" he asked. "Or a leopard or something? Out in the jungle?"

  "What?" Milosevic asked.

  "You tether a goat to a stake," Borken said. "And lie in wait. "

  "What?" Milosevic asked again.

  "Reacher was willing to rescue McGrath, right?" Borken said. "So maybe he's willing to rescue your pal Brogan, too. "

  GENERAL GARBER HEARD the commotion and risked moving up a few yards. He made it to where the trees thinned out and he crouched. Shuffled sideways to his left to get a better view. The courthouse was dead ahead up the rise. The south wall was face-on to him, but he had a narrow angle down the front. He could see the main entrance. He could see the steps up to the door. He saw a gaggle of men come out. Six men. There were two flanking point men, alert, scanning around, rifles poised. The other four were carrying somebody, spread-eagled, facedown. The person had been seized by the wrists and the ankles. It was a man. Garber could tell by the voice. He was bucking and thrashing and screaming. It was Brogan.

  Garber went cold. He knew what had happened to Jackson. McGrath had told him. He raised his rifle. Sighted in on the nearer point man. Tracked him smoothly as he moved right to left. Then his peripheral vision swept the other five. Then he thought about the sentry screen behind him. He grimaced and lowered the rifle. Impossible odds. He had a rule: stick to the job in hand. He'd preached it like a gospel for forty years. And the job in hand was to get Holly Johnson out alive. He crept backward into the forest and shrugged at the two men beside him.

  The Chinook crew had clambered out of their wrecked craft and stumbled away into the forest. They had thought they were heading south, but in their disorientation they had moved due north. They had passed straight through the sentry screen without knowing anything about it and come upon a three-star general sitting at the base of a pine. The general had hauled them down and told them to hide. They thought they were in a dream, and they were hoping to wake up. They said nothing and listened as the screaming faded behind the ruined county offices.

  REACHER AND MCGRATH heard it minutes later. Faintly, at first, deep in the forest to their left. Then it built louder. They moved together level with a gap between huts where they c
ould see across the Bastion to the mouth of the track. They were ten feet into the forest, far enough back to be well concealed, far enough forward to observe.

  They saw the two point men burst out into the sunlight. Then four more men, walking in step, rifles slung, leaning outward, arms counterbalancing something heavy they were carrying. Something that was bucking and thrashing and screaming.

  "Christ," McGrath whispered. "That's Brogan. "

  Reacher stared for a long time. Silent. Then he nodded.

  "I was wrong," he said. "Milosevic is the bad guy. "

  McGrath clicked the Glock's trigger to release the safety device.

  "Wait," Reacher whispered.

  He moved right and signaled McGrath to follow. They stayed deep in the trees and paralleled the six men and Brogan across the clearing. The men were moving slow across the shale, and Brogan's screaming was getting louder. They looped past the bodies and the tent pegs and the cut ropes and walked on.

  "They're going to the punishment hut," Reacher whispered.

  They lost sight of them as the trees closed around the path to the next clearing. But they could still hear the screaming. Sounded like Brogan knew exactly what was going to happen to him. McGrath remembered recounting Borken's end of the conversation on the radio. Reacher remembered burying Jackson's mangled body.

  They risked getting a little closer to the next clearing. Saw the six men head for the windowless hut and stop at the door. The point men turned and covered the area with their rifles. The guy gripping Brogan's right wrist fumbled the key out of his pocket with his spare hand. Brogan yelled for help. He yelled for mercy. The guy unlocked the door. Swung it open. Stopped in surprise on the threshold and shouted.

  Joseph Ray came out. Still naked, his clothes balled in his arms. Dried blood all over the bottom of his face like a mask. He danced and stumbled over the shale in his bare feet. The six men watched him go.

  "Who the hell's that?" McGrath whispered.

  "Just some asshole," Reacher whispered back.

  Brogan was dropped onto the ground. Then he was hauled upright by the collar. He was staring wildly around and screaming. Reacher saw his face, white and terrified, mouth open. The six men threw him into the hut. They stepped in after him. The door slammed. McGrath and Reacher moved closer. They heard screams and the thump of a body hitting the walls. Those sounds went on for several minutes. Then it went quiet. The door opened. The six men filed out, smiling and dusting their hands. The last man darted back for a final kick. Reacher heard the blow land and Brogan scream. Then the guy locked the door and hustled after the others. They crunched over the stones and were gone. The clearing fell silent.

  HOLLY LIMPED ACROSS the raised floor to the door. Pressed her ear onto it and listened. All quiet. No sound. She limped back to her mattress and picked up the spare pair of fatigue trousers. Used her teeth to pick the seams. Tore the material apart until she had separated the front panel of one of the legs. It gave her a piece of canvas cloth maybe thirty inches long and six wide. She took it into the bathroom and ran the sink full of hot water. Soaked the strip of cloth in it. Then she took off her trousers. Squeezed the soaking canvas out and bound it as tight as she could around her knee. Tied it off and put her trousers back on. Her idea was the hot wet cloth might shrink slightly as it dried. It might tighten more. It was as near as she was going to get to solving her problem. Keeping the joint rigid was the only way to kill the pain.

  Then she did what she'd been rehearsing. She pulled the rubber foot off the bottom of her crutch. Smashed the metal end into the tile in the shower. The tile shattered. She reversed the crutch and used the end of the curved elbow clip to pry the shards off the wall. She selected two. Each was a rough triangle, narrow at the base and pointed. She used the edge of the elbow clip to scrape away the clay at the leading point. Left the vitrified white surface layer intact, like the blade of a knife.

  She put her weapons in two separate pockets. Pulled the shower curtain to conceal the damage. Put the rubber foot back on the crutch. Limped back to her mattress, and sat down to wait.

  THE PROBLEM WITH using just one camera was that it had to be set to a fairly wide shot. That was the only way to cover the whole area. So any particular thing was small on the screen. The group of men carrying something had shown up like a large insect crawling across the glass.

  "Was that Brogan?" Webster asked out loud.

  The aide ran the video back and watched again.

  "He's facedown," he said. "Hard to tell. "

  He froze the action and used the digital manipulator to enlarge the picture. Adjusted the joystick to put the spread-eagled man in the center of the screen. Zoomed right in until the image blurred.

  "Hard to tell," he said again. "It's one of them, that's for sure. "

  "I think it was Brogan," Webster said.

  Johnson looked hard. Used his finger and thumb against the screen to estimate the guy's height, head to toes.

  "How tall is he?" he asked.

  "HOW TALL IS he?" Reacher asked suddenly.

  "What?" McGrath said.

  Reacher was behind McGrath in the trees, staring out at the punishment hut. He was staring at the front wall. The wall was maybe twelve feet long, eight feet high. Right to left, there was a two-foot panel, then the door, thirty inches wide, hinged on the right, handle on the left. Then a panel probably seven and a half feet wide running down to the end of the building.

  "How tall is he?" Reacher asked again.

  "Christ, does it matter?" McGrath said.

  "I think it does," Reacher said.

  McGrath turned and stared at him.

  "Five nine, maybe five ten," he said. "Not an especially big guy. "

  The cladding was made up of horizontal eight-by-fours nailed over the frame. There was a seam halfway up. The floor was probably three-quarters board laid over two-by-fours. Therefore the floor started nearly five inches above the bottom of the outside cladding. About an inch and a half below the bottom of the doorway.

  "Skinny, right?" Reacher said.

  McGrath was still staring at him.

  "Thirty-eight regular, best guess," he said.

  Reacher nodded. The walls would be two-by-fours clad inside and out with the plywood. Total thickness five and a half inches, maybe less if the inside cladding was thinner. Call it the inside face of the end wall was five inches in from the corner, and the floor was five inches up from the bottom.

  "Right-handed or left-handed?" Reacher asked.

  "Speak to me," McGrath hissed.

  "Which?" Reacher said.

  "Right-handed," McGrath said. "I'm pretty sure. " The two-by-fours would be on sixteen-inch centers. That was the standard dimension. But from the corner of the hut to the right-hand edge of the door, the distance was only two feet. Two feet less five inches for the thickness of the end wall was nineteen inches. There was probably a two-by-four set right in the middle of that span. Unless they skimped it, which was no problem. The wall would be stuffed with Fiberglas wadding, for insulation.

  "Stand back," Reacher whispered.

  "Why?" McGrath said.

  "Just do it," Reacher replied.

  McGrath moved out of the way. Reacher put his eyes on a spot ten inches in from the end of the hut and just shy of five feet up from the bottom. Swayed left and rested his shoulder on a tree. Raised his M-16 and sighted it in.

  "Hell are you doing?" McGrath hissed.

  Reacher made no reply. Just waited for his heart to beat and fired. The rifle cracked and the bullet punched through the siding a hundred yards away. Ten inches from the corner, five feet from the ground.

  "Hell are you doing?" McGrath hissed again.

  Reacher just grabbed his arm and pulled him into the woods. Dragged him north and waited. Two things happened. The six men burst back into the clearing. And the door of the punishment hut opened. Brogan was framed in the d
oorway. His right arm was hanging limp. His right shoulder was shattered and pumping blood. In his right hand, he was holding his Bureau. 38. The hammer was back. His finger was tight on the trigger.

  Reacher snicked the M-16 to burst fire. Stitched five bursts of three shells into the ground, halfway across the clearing. The six men skidded away, like they were suddenly facing an invisible barrier or a drop off a tall cliff. They ran for the woods. Brogan stepped out of the hut. Stood in a bar of sunshine and tried to lift his revolver. His arm wouldn't work. It hung uselessly.

  "Decoy," Reacher said. "They thought I'd go in after him. He was waiting behind the door with his gun. I knew he was the bad guy. But they had me fooled for a moment. "

  McGrath nodded slowly. Stared at the government-issue. 38 in Brogan's hand. Remembered his own being confiscated. He raised the Glock and wedged his wrist against a tree. Sighted down the barrel.

  "Forget it," Reacher said.

  McGrath kept his eyes on Brogan and shook his head.

  "I'm not going to forget it," he said quietly. "Bastard sold Holly out. "

  "I meant forget the Glock," Reacher said. "That's a hundred yards. Glock won't get near. You'd be lucky to hit the damn hut from here. "

  McGrath lowered the Glock and Reacher handed him the M-16. Watched with interest as McGrath sighted it in.

  "Where?" Reacher asked.

  "Chest," McGrath said.

  Reacher nodded.

  "Chest is good," he said.

  McGrath steadied himself and fired. He was good, but not really good. The rifle was still set to burst fire, and it loosed three rounds. The first hit Brogan in the upper left of his forehead, and the other two stitched upward and blasted fragments off the door frame. Good, but not very. But good enough to do the job. Brogan went down like a marionette with the strings cut. He just telescoped into the ground, right in front of the doorway. Reacher took the M-16 back and sprayed the trees on the edge of the clearing until the magazine clicked empty. Reloaded and handed the Glock back to McGrath. Nodded him east through the forest. They turned together and walked straight into Joseph Ray. He was unarmed and half dressed. Blood dried on his face like brown paint. He was fumbling with his shirt buttons. They were done up into the wrong holes.

  "Women and children are going to die," he said.

  "You all got an hour, Joe," Reacher said back to him. "Spread the word. Anybody wants to stay alive, better head for the hills. "

  The guy just shook his head.

  "No," he said. "We've got to assemble on the parade ground. Those are our instructions. We've got to wait for Beau there. "

  "Beau won't be coming," Reacher said.

  Ray shook his head again.

  "He will be," he said. "You won't beat Beau, whoever you are. Can't be done. We got to wait for him. He's going to tell us what to do. "

  "Run for it, Joe," Reacher said. "For Christ's sake, get your kids out of here. "

  "Beau says that they have to stay here," Ray said. "Either to enjoy the fruits of victory, or to suffer the consequences of defeat. "

  Reacher just stared at him. Ray's bright eyes shone out. His teeth flashed in a brief defiant smile. He ducked his head and ran away.

  "Women and children are going to die?" McGrath repeated.

  "Borken's propaganda," Reacher said. "He's got them all convinced compulsory suicide is the penalty for getting beat around here. "

  "And they're standing still for it?" McGrath asked.

  "He controls them," Reacher said. "Worse than you can imagine. "

  "I'm not interested in beating them," McGrath said. "Right now, I just want to get Holly out. "

  "Same thing," Reacher said.

  They walked on in silence, through the trees in the direction of the Bastion.

  "How did you know?" McGrath asked. "About Brogan?"

  Reacher shrugged.

  "I just felt it," he said. "His face, I guess. They like hitting people in the face. They did it to you. But Brogan was unmarked. I saw his face, no damage, no blood. I figured that was wrong. The excitement of an ambush, the tension, they'd have worked it off by roughing him up a little. Like they did with you. But he was theirs, so he just walked in, handshakes all around. "

  McGrath nodded. Put his hand up and felt his nose.

  "But what if you were wrong?" he said.

  "Wouldn't have mattered," Reacher said. "If I was wrong, he wouldn't have been standing behind the door. He'd have been down on the floor with a bunch of broken ribs, because all that thumping around would have been for real. "

  McGrath nodded again.

  "And all that shouting," Reacher said. "They paraded along, real slow, with the guy shouting his head off. They were trying to attract my attention. "

  "They're good at that," McGrath said. "Webster's worried about it. He doesn't understand why Borken seems so set on getting attention, escalating this whole thing way bigger than he needs to. "

  They were in the woods. Halfway between the small clearing and the Bastion. Reacher stopped. Like the breath had been knocked out of him. His hands went up to his mouth. He stood breathless, like all the air had been sucked off the planet.

  "Christ, I know why," he said. "It's a decoy. "

  "What?" McGrath asked.

  "I'm getting a bad feeling," Reacher said.

  "About what?" McGrath asked him, urgently.

  "Borken," Reacher said. "Something doesn't add up. His intentions. Strike the first blow. But where's Stevie? You know what? I think there are two first blows, McGrath. This stuff up here and something else, somewhere else. A surprise attack. Like Pearl Harbor, like his damn war books. That's why he's set on escalating everything. Holly, the suicide thing. He wants all the attention up here. "

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