Die trying, p.44
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       Die Trying, p.44

         Part #2 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Chapter Forty-Four

  HOLLY WAS STANDING upright and facing her door when they came for her. The tight wrap on her knee was drying stiff. So she had to stand, because her leg would no longer bend. And she wanted to stand, because that was the best way to do it.

  She heard the footsteps in the lobby. Heard them clatter up the stairs. Two men, she estimated. She heard them halt outside her door. Heard the key slide in and the lock click back. She blinked once and took a breath. The door opened. Two men crowded in. Two rifles. She stood upright and faced them. One stepped forward.

  "Outside, bitch," he said.

  She gripped her crutch. Leaned on it heavily and limped across the floor. Slowly. She wanted to be outside before anybody realized she could move better than they thought. Before anybody realized she was armed and dangerous.

  "STRIKE THE FIRST blow," Reacher said. "I interpreted that all wrong. "

  "Why?" McGrath asked urgently.

  "Because I haven't seen Stevie," Reacher said. "Not since early this morning. Stevie's not here anymore. Stevie's gone somewhere else. "

  "Reacher, you're not making any sense," McGrath said.

  Reacher shook his head like he was clearing it and snapped back into focus. Set off racing east through the trees. Talking quiet, but urgently.

  "I was wrong," he said. "Borken said they were going to strike the first blow. Against the system. I thought he meant the declaration of independence. I thought that was the first blow. The declaration, and the battle to secure this territory. I thought that was it. On its own. But they're doing something else as well. Somewhere else. They're doing two things at once. Simultaneous. "

  "What are you saying?" McGrath asked.

  "Attention," Reacher said. "The declaration of independence is focusing attention up here in Montana, right?"

  "Sure," McGrath said. "They planned to have CNN and the United Nations up here watching it happen. That's a lot of attention. "

  "But they'd have been in the wrong place," Reacher said. "Borken had a bookcase full of theory telling him not to do what they expect. A whole shelf all about Pearl Harbor. And I overheard him talking in the mine. When he was fetching the missile launcher. Fowler was with him. Borken told Fowler by tonight this place will be way down the list of priorities. So they're doing something else someplace else as well. Something different, maybe something bigger. Twin blows against the system. "

  "But what?" McGrath asked. "And where? Near here?"

  "No," Reacher said. "Probably far away. Like Pearl Harbor was. They're reaching out, trying to land a killer blow somewhere. Because there's a time factor here. It's all coordinated. "

  McGrath stared at him.

  "They planned it well," Reacher said. "Getting everybody's attention fixed up here. Independence. That stuff they were going to do with you. They were going to kill you slowly, with the cameras watching. Then the threats of mass suicide, women and children dying. A high-stakes siege. So nobody would be looking anywhere else. Borken's cleverer than I thought. Twin blows, each one covering for the other. Everybody's looking up here, then something big happens someplace else, everybody's looking down there, and he consolidates his new nation back up here. "

  "But where is it happening, for God's sake?" McGrath asked. "And what the hell is it?"

  Reacher stopped and shook his head.

  "I just don't know," he said.

  Then he froze. There was a crashing noise up ahead and a patrol of six men burst around a tight thicket of pines and stopped dead in front of them. They had M-16s in their hands, grenades on their belts, and surprise and delight on their faces.

  BORKEN HAD DEPLOYED every man he had to the search for Reacher, except for the two he had retained to deal with Holly. He heard them start down the courthouse stairs. He pulled the radio from his pocket and flipped it open. Extended the stubby antenna and pressed the button.

  "Webster?" he said. "Get focused in, OK? We'll talk again in a minute. "

  He didn't wait for any reply. Just snapped the radio off and turned his head as he tracked the sound of the footsteps on their way outside.

  FROM SEVENTY-FIVE YARDS south, Garber saw them come out the door and down the steps. He had moved out of the woods. He had moved forward and crouched behind the outcrop of rock. He figured that was safe enough, now he had backup of a sort. The Chinook crewmen were thirty yards behind him, well separated, well hidden, instructed to yell if anybody approached from the rear. So Garber was resting easy, staring up the slope at the big white building.

  He saw two armed men, bearded, starting down the steps. They were dragging a smaller figure with a crutch. A halo of dark hair, neat green fatigues. Holly Johnson. He had never seen her before. Only in the photographs the Bureau men had shown him. The photographs had not done her justice. Even from seventy-five yards, he could feel the glow of her character. Some kind of radiant energy. He felt it, and pulled his rifle closer.

  THE M- 16 IN Reacher's hands was a 1987 product manufactured by the Colt Firearms Company in Hartford, Connecticut. It was the A2 version. Its principal new feature was the replacement of automatic fire with burst fire. For the sake of economy, the trigger relocked after each burst of three shells. The idea was to waste less ammunition.

  Six targets, three shells each from the fresh magazine, a total of eighteen shells and six trigger pulls. Each burst of three shells took a fifth of a second, so the firing sequence itself amounted to just one and a fifth seconds. It was pulling the trigger over and over again which wasted the time. It wasted so much time for Reacher that he ran into trouble after the fourth guy was down. He wasn't aiming. He was just tracking a casual left-to-right arc, close range into the bodies in front of him. The opposing rifles were coming up as a unit. The first four never got there. But the fifth and the sixth were already raised horizontal by the time the fourth went back down, two and a quarter seconds into the sequence.

  So Reacher gambled. It was the sort of instinctive gamble you take so fast that to call it a split-second decision is to understate the speed by an absurd factor. He skipped his M-16 straight to the sixth guy, totally sure that McGrath would take the fifth guy with the Glock. The sort of instinctive gamble you take based on absolutely nothing at all except a feeling, which is itself based on absolutely nothing at all except the look of the guy, and how he compares with the look of other people worth trusting in the past.

  The flat crack of the Glock was lost under the rattle of the M-16, but the fifth guy went down simultaneous with the sixth. Reacher and McGrath crashed sideways together into the brush and flattened into the ground. Stared through the sudden dead silence at the cordite smoke rising gently through the shafts of sunlight. No movement. No survivors. McGrath blew a big sigh and stuck out his hand, from flat on the ground. Reacher twisted around and shook it.

  "You're pretty quick for an old guy," he said.

  "That's how I got to be an old guy," McGrath said back.

  They stood up slowly and ducked back farther into the trees. Then they could hear more people moving toward them in the forest. A stream of people was moving northwest out of the Bastion. McGrath raised the Glock again and Reacher snicked the M-16 back to singles. He had twelve shells left. Too few to waste, even with the A2's economy measure. Then they saw women through the trees. Women and children. Some men with them. Family groups. They were marching in columns of two. Reacher saw Joseph Ray, a woman at his side, two boys marching blankly in front of him. He saw the woman from the mess kitchen, marching side by side with a man. Three children walking stolidly in front of them.

  "Where are they going?" McGrath whispered.

  "The parade ground," Reacher said. "Borken ordered it, right?"

  "Why don't they just run for it?" McGrath said.

  Reacher shrugged and said nothing. He had no explanation. He stood concealed and watched the blank faces pass through the dappled woods. Then he touched McGrath's arm and they sprinted on through the
trees and came out behind the mess hall. Reacher glanced cautiously around. Stretched up and grabbed at the roof overhang. Put a foot on the window ledge and hauled himself up onto the shingles. Crawled up the slope of the roof and steadied himself against the bright metal chimney. Raised the stolen field glasses and trained them southeast, down toward the town, thinking: OK, but what the hell else is happening? And where?

  GENERAL JOHNSON'SAIDE had the most aptitude with the computer controls, either from familiarity with such things, or from being younger. He used the rubber knobs and the joystick to focus on the area in front of the courthouse steps. Then he zoomed out a touch to frame the view. He had the western face of the courthouse on the right of the screen and the eastern face of the ruined county office on the left. In between were the two lawns, one abandoned and scrubby, the other still reasonably flat. The road ran vertically up the center of the picture, like a map. The jeep which had brought McGrath in was still there where they had dumped it. The aide used it to check his focus. It came in crisp and clear. It was a military-surplus vehicle. Smudged white stencils. They could see the windshield folded down, and a canvas map case, and a jerrican for fuel and a short-handled shovel clipped on the rear.

  They all saw the two men bring Holly out. From above, they were in a perfect straight diagonal line, with Holly alone in the middle, like the shape you see when a die rolls a three. They brought her out and waited. Then they saw a huge figure lumbering down the courthouse steps behind them. Borken. He stepped into the road and looked up. Right into the camera, invisible seven miles above him. He stared and waved. Raised his right hand high. There was a black gun in it. Then he looked down and fiddled with something in his left hand. Raised it to his ear. The radio on the desk in front of Webster crackled. Webster picked it up and flipped it open.

  "Yes?" he said.

  They saw Borken waving up at the camera again.

  "See me?" he said.

  "We see you," Webster said quietly.

  "See this?" Borken said.

  He raised the gun again. The General's aide zoomed in tight. Borken's huge bulk filled the screen. Upturned pink face, black pistol held high.

  "We see it," Webster said.

  The aide zoomed back out. Borken resumed his proper perspective.

  "Sig-Sauer P226," Borken said. "You familiar with that weapon?"

  Webster paused. Glanced around.

  "Yes," he said.

  "Nine-millimeter," Borken said. "Fifteen shots to a clip. "

  "So?" Webster asked.

  Borken laughed. A loud sound in Webster's ear.

  "Time for some target practice," Borken said. "And guess what the target is?"

  They saw the two men move toward Holly. Then they saw Holly's crutch come up. She held it level with both hands. She smashed it hard into the first man's gut. She whipped it back and swung it. Spun and hit the second man in the head. But it was light aluminum. No weight behind it. She dropped it and her hands went to her pockets. Came out with something in each palm. Things that glinted and caught the sun. She skipped forward and slashed desperately at the face in front of her. Danced and whirled and swung the glinting weapons.

  The aide jerked the zoom control. The first man was down, clutching at his throat and face. Blood on his hands. Holly was spinning fast circles, slashing at the air like a panther in a cage, turning on a stiff leg, the other foot dancing in and out as she darted left and right. Webster could hear distorted breathing and gasping through the earpiece. He could hear shouting and screaming. He stared at the screen and pleaded silently: go left, Holly, go for the jeep.

  She went right. Swung her left hand high and held her right hand low, like a boxer. Darted for the second man. He raised his rifle, but crossways, in a sheer panic move to ward off the slashing blow. He punched the rifle up to meet her arm, and her wrist cracked against the barrel. Her weapon flew off into the air. She kicked hard under the rifle and caught him in the groin. He wheeled away and collapsed. She darted for Borken. Her glittering hand swung a vicious arc. Webster heard a shriek in his ear. The camera showed Borken ducking away. Holly swarming after him.

  But the first man was up again, behind her. Hesitating. Then he was swinging his rifle like a bat. He caught her with the stock flat on the back of her head. She went limp. Her leg stayed stiff. She collapsed over it like she was falling over a gate and sprawled on the road at Borken's feet.

  TWO DOWN. ONE of them was Holly. Reacher adjusted the field glasses and stared at her. Two still standing. A grunt with a rifle, and Borken with a handgun and the radio. All in a tight knot, visible through the trees twelve hundred yards southeast and three hundred feet below. Reacher stared at Holly, inert on the ground. He wanted her. He loved her for her courage. Two armed men and Borken, and she'd gone for it. Hopeless, but she'd gone for it. He lowered the field glasses and hitched his legs around the chimney. Like he was riding a metal horse. The chimney was warm. His upper body was flat on the slope of the roof. His head and shoulders were barely above the ridge. He raised the field glasses again, and held his breath, and waited.

  THEY SAW BORKEN'Sagitated gestures and then the injured man was getting up and moving in with the other who had hit her. They saw them pinning her arms behind her and dragging her to her feet. Her head was hanging down. One leg was bent, and the other was stiff. They propped her on it and paused. Borken signaled them to move. They dragged her away across the road. Then Borken's voice came back in Webster's ear, loud and breathy.

  "OK, fun's over," he said. "Put her old man on. "

  Webster handed the radio to Johnson. He stared at it. Raised it to his ear.

  "Anything you want," he said. "Anything at all. Just don't hurt her. "

  Borken laughed. A loud, relieved chuckle.

  "That's the kind of attitude I like," he said. "Now watch this. "

  The two men dragged Holly up the knoll in front of the ruined office building. Dragged her over to the stump of the dead tree. They turned her and walked her until her back thumped against the wood. They wrapped her arms around the stump behind her. Her head came up. She shook it, in a daze. One man held both wrists while the other fumbled with something. Handcuffs. He locked her wrists behind the tree. The two men stepped away, back toward Borken. Holly fell and slid down the stump. Then she pushed back and stood up. Shook her head again and gazed around.

  "Target practice," Borken said into the radio.

  Johnson's aide fiddled with the zoom and made the picture bigger. Borken was walking away. He walked twenty yards south and turned, the Sig-Sauer pointing at the ground, the radio up at his face.

  "Here goes," he said.

  He turned side-on and raised his arm. Held it out absolutely straight, shoulders turned like a duelist in an old movie. Squinted down the barrel and fired. The pistol kicked silently and there was a puff of dust in the ground, three feet from where Holly was standing still.

  Borken laughed again.

  "Bad shot," he said. "I need the practice. Might take me a while to get close. But I've got fourteen more shells, right?"

  He fired again. A puff of dust from the earth. Three feet the other side of the stump.

  "Thirteen left," Borken said. "I guess CNN is your best bet, right? Call them and tell them the whole story. Make it an official statement. Get Webster to back you up. Then patch them through on this radio. You won't give me my fax line, I'm going to have to communicate direct. "

  "You're crazy," Johnson said.

  "You're the one who's crazy," Borken said. "I'm a force of history. I can't be stopped. I'm shooting at your daughter. The President's godchild. You don't understand, Johnson. The world is changing. I'm changing it. The world must be my witness. "

  Johnson was silent. Stunned.

  "OK," Borken said. "I'm going to hang up now. You make that call. Thirteen bullets left. I don't hear from CNN, the last one kills her. "

  Johnson heard the line go d
ead and looked up at the screens and saw Borken drop the radio on the ground. Saw him raise the Sig-Sauer two-handed. Saw him sight it in. Saw him put a round right between his daughter's feet.

  REACHER RESTED AGAINST the warm chimney and lowered the glasses. Ran a desperate calculation through his head. A calculation involving time and distance. He was twelve hundred yards away to the northwest. He couldn't get there in time. And he couldn't get there silently. He lay chest down on the roof of the mess hall and called down to McGrath. His voice was already quiet and relaxed. Like he was ordering in a restaurant.

  "McGrath?" he said. "Go break into the armory. It's the hut on the end, apart from the others. "

  "OK," McGrath called. "What do you want?"

  "You know what a Barrett looks like?" Reacher called. "Big black thing, scope, big muzzle brake on it. Find a full magazine. Probably next to them. "

  "OK," McGrath said again.

  "And hurry," Reacher said.

  GARBER'S VIEW UP from the south cleared when the two soldiers came back around and stood behind Beau Borken. They hung back, like they didn't want to put him off his aim. Borken was maybe sixty feet from Holly, shooting up the rise of the knoll. Garber was seventy yards away down the steep slope. Holly was just left of straight ahead. Borken was just to the right. His black bulk was perfectly outlined against the whiteness of the south wall of the courthouse. Garber saw that somebody had blanked the upper-story windows with new white wood. Borken's head was framed dead center against one of the new rectangles. Garber smiled. It would be like shooting for a small pink bull's-eye on a sheet of white paper. He snicked the M-16 to burst fire and checked it visually. Then he raised it to his shoulder.

  MCGRATH STRETCHED UP on his toes and passed the Barrett up toward Reacher. Reacher stretched his hand down and pulled it up. Glanced at it and passed it back down.

  "Not this one," he said. "Find one with the serial number ending in five-zero-two-four, OK?"

  "Why?" McGrath called.

  "Because I know for sure it shoots straight," Reacher said. "I used it before. "

  "Christ," McGrath said. He set off again at a dead run. Reacher lay back on the roof, trying to keep his heartbeat under control.

  BORKEN'S TENTH SHOT was still wide, but not by much. Holly jumped as far as her cuffs would allow. Borken took to pacing back and forth in delight. He was pacing and laughing and stopping to shoot. Garber was tracking his huge bulk left and right against the whiteness of the building. Just waiting for him to stop moving. Because Garber had a rule: make the first shot count.

  MCGRATH FOUND THE rifle Reacher had used before and passed it up to the roof. Reacher took it and checked the number. Nodded. McGrath ran like crazy for the mouth of the stony track. Disappeared down it at a sprint. Reacher watched him go. Thumbed the big bullets in the magazine and checked the spring. Pressed the magazine home gently with his palm. Raised the Barrett to his shoulder and balanced it carefully on the ridgeline. Pulled the stock in and ducked his eye to the scope. Used his left thumb to ease the focus out to twelve hundred yards. It racked the lens right out to the stop. He laid his left palm over the barrel. Operated the silky mechanism and put a round in the breech. Stared down at the scene below.

  The telescope on the rifle bunched it all up, but the geometry was fine. Holly was up on the knoll, slightly to the right of dead ahead. Handcuffed to the dead tree. He stared at her face for a long moment. Then he nudged the scope. Borken was below her, maybe sixty feet farther on, firing up the rise at her, slightly to the left. He was walking short arcs, back and forth. But anywhere he chose to stop, there was a hundred miles of empty country behind his head. The courthouse walls were well away from Reacher's trajectory. Safe enough. Safe, but not easy. Twelve hundred yards was a hell of a distance. He breathed out and waited for Borken to stop pacing.

  Then he froze. In the corner of his eye, he caught the gleam of sun on dull metal. Maybe seventy yards farther on down the slope. A rock. A man behind the rock. A rifle. A familiar head, grizzled hair on some of it. General Garber. Garber, with an M-16, behind a rock, moving the muzzle side to side as he tracked his target, who was walking short arcs seventy yards directly in front of him.

  Reacher breathed out and smiled. He felt a warm flood of gratitude. Garber. He had backup. Garber, shooting from just seventy yards. In that split second, he knew Holly was safe. The warm flood of gratitude coursed through him.

  Then it changed to an icy blast of panic. His brain kicked in. The compressed geometry below him exploded into a dreadful diagram. Like something on a page, like a textbook explanation of a disaster. From Garber's angle, the courthouse was directly behind Borken. When Borken stopped moving, Garber was going to fire at him. He might hit, or he might miss. Either way, his bullet was going to hit the courthouse wall. Probably right up there in the southeastern corner, second floor. The ton of old dynamite would go up in a percussive fireball a quarter-mile wide. It would vaporize Holly and shred Garber himself. The shock wave would probably knock Reacher right off the mess hall roof, twelve hundred yards away. How the hell could Garber not know?

  Borken stopped pacing. Stood sideways on and steadied himself. Reacher blew out a lungful of air. He moved the Barrett. He put the crosshairs dead center on Holly Johnson's temple, right where the soft dark hair billowed down toward her eyes. He kept his lungs empty and waited for the next thump of his heart. Then he squeezed the trigger.

  GARBER WATCHED BORKEN'S arm come up. Waited until he had steadied. Squinted down the M-16's sighting grooves and put the pink and white head dead center. It sat there, big and obvious against the blur of sunny white wall behind it. He waited like he'd been taught to a lifetime ago. Waited until his breath was out and his heart was between beats. Then he pulled the trigger.

  GENERAL JOHNSON HAD closed his eyes. His aide was staring at the screen. Webster was watching through a lattice of fingers, mouth open, like a child with a new babysitter watching a horror movie on television, way after his bedtime.

  FIRST THING OUT of the barrel of Reacher's Barrett was a blast of hot gas. The powder in the cartridge exploded in a fraction of a millionth of a second and expanded to a superheated bubble. That bubble of gas hurled the bullet down the barrel and forced ahead of it and around it to explode out into the atmosphere. Most of it was smashed sideways by the muzzle brake in a perfectly balanced radial pattern, like a doughnut, so that the recoil moved the barrel straight back against Reacher's shoulder without deflecting it either sideways or up or down. Meanwhile, behind it, the bullet was starting to spin inside the barrel as the rifling grooves grabbed at it.

  Then the gas ahead of the bullet was heating the oxygen in the air to the point where the air caught fire. There was a brief flash of flame and the bullet burst out through the exact center of it, spearing through the burned air at nineteen hundred miles an hour. A thousandth of a second later, it was a yard away, followed by a cone of gunpowder particles and a puff of soot. Another thousandth of a second later, it was six feet away, and its sound was bravely chasing after it, three times slower.

  The bullet took five hundredths of a second to cross the Bastion, by which time the sound of its shot had just passed Reacher's ears and cleared the ridge of the roof. The bullet had a hand-polished copper jacket, and it was flying straight and true, but by the time it passed soundlessly over McGrath's head it had slowed a little. The friction of the air had heated it and slowed it. And the air was moving it. It was moving it right to left as the gentle mountain breeze tugged imperceptibly at it. Half a second into its travel, the bullet had covered thirteen hundred feet and it had moved seven inches to the left.

  And it had dropped seven inches. Gravity had pulled it in. The more gravity pulled, the more the bullet slowed. The more it slowed, the more gravity deflected it. It speared onward in a perfect graceful curve. A whole second after leaving the barrel, it was nine hundred yards into its journey. Way past McGrath's running figure, but still ov
er the trees. Still three hundred yards short of its target. Another sixth of a second later, it was clear of the trees and alongside the ruined office building. Now it was a slow bullet. It had pulled four feet left, and five feet down. It passed well clear of Holly and was twenty feet beyond her before she heard the hiss in the air. The sound of its shot was still to come. It had just about caught up with McGrath, running through the trees.

  Then there was a second bullet in the air. And a third, and a fourth. Garber fired a full second and a quarter later than Reacher. His rifle was set to auto. It fired a burst of three. Three shells in a fifth of a second. His bullets were smaller and lighter. Because they were lighter, they were faster. They came in at well over two thousand miles an hour. He was nearer the target. Because his bullets were faster and lighter and he was nearer, friction and gravity never really chipped in. His three bullets stayed pretty straight.

  Reacher's bullet hit Borken in the head a full second and a third after he fired it. It entered the front of his forehead and was out of the back of his skull three ten-thousandths of a second later. In and out without really slowing much more at all, because Borken's skull and brains were nothing to a two-ounce lead projectile with a needle point and a polished copper jacket. The bullet was well on over the endless forest beyond before the pressure wave built up in Borken's skull and exploded it.

  The effect is mathematical and concerns kinetic energy. The way it had been explained to Reacher, long ago, was all about equivalents. The bullet weighed only two ounces, but it was fast. Equivalent to something heavy, but slow. Two ounces moving at a thousand miles an hour was maybe similar to something weighing ten pounds moving at three miles an hour. Maybe something like a sledgehammer swinging hard in a man's hand. That was pretty much the effect. Reacher was watching it through the scope. Heart in his mouth. A full second and a third is a long time to wait. He watched Borken's skull explode like it had been burst from the inside with a sledgehammer. It came apart like a diagram. Reacher saw curved shards of bone bursting outward and red mist blooming.

  But what he couldn't see were Garber's three bullets, hurtling through the mess unimpeded, and flying straight on toward the courthouse wall.

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