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61 Hours, Page 2

Lee Child

  Reacher glanced back and saw no oncoming headlights. Not right then. He got up and walked to the front of the bus and saw flat land ahead, all white with snow. No cliffs. No embankment. Therefore no danger from a weight transfer. So he ducked back and started encouraging the geezers to move up the bus towards the front. That way if an eighteen-wheeler slammed into them it might just shear off the rear of the bus without killing anyone. But the geezers were shaken and reluctant to move. They just sat there. So Reacher moved back up front. The driver was inert in his seat, blinking a little and swallowing down his adrenalin rush.

  Reacher said to him, ‘Good work, pal.’

  The guy nodded. ‘Thanks.’

  Reacher said, ‘Can you get us out of this ditch?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Best guess?’

  ‘Probably not.’

  Reacher said, ‘OK, have you got flares?’


  ‘Flares. Right now the back of the bus is sticking out in the traffic lane.’

  The guy was unresponsive for a moment. Dazed. Then he leaned down and unlatched a locker beside his feet and came out with three warning flares, dull red cardboard tubes with steel spikes on the end. Reacher took them from him and said, ‘Got a first-aid kit?’

  The guy nodded again.

  Reacher said, ‘Take it and check the passengers for cuts and bruises. Encourage them to move up front as far as they can. Preferably all together in the aisle. If we get hit, it’s going to be in the ass.’

  The driver nodded for a third time and then shook himself like a dog and got into gear. He took a first-aid kit from another latched compartment and got up out of his seat.

  Reacher said, ‘Open the door first.’

  The guy hit a button and the door sucked open. Freezing air blew in, with thick swirls of snow on it. Like a regular blizzard. Reacher said, ‘Close the door after me. Stay warm.’

  Then he jumped down into the ditch and fought through the ice and the mud to the shoulder. He stepped up on the blacktop and ran to the rear corner of the vehicle. Blowing snow pelted his face. He lined up on the lane markers and ran thirty paces back the way they had come. A curved trajectory. Thirty paces, thirty yards. Ninety feet. Near enough to eighty-eight. Eighty-eight feet per second was the same thing as sixty miles an hour, and plenty of lunatics would be driving sixty even in a snowstorm. He leaned down and jabbed a flare spike into the blacktop. The crimson flame ignited automatically and burned fiercely. He continued the curve and ran another thirty paces. Used the second flare. Ran another thirty and used the third to complete a warning sequence: three seconds, two, one, move the hell over.

  Then he ran back and floundered through the ditch again and hammered on the door until the driver broke off his medical ministrations and opened up. Reacher climbed back inside. He brought a flurry of snow in with him. He was already seriously cold. His face was numb. His feet were freezing. And the interior of the bus itself was already cooling. The windows all along one side were already pasted with clumps of white. He said, ‘You should keep the engine running. Keep the heaters going.’

  The driver said, ‘Can’t. The fuel line could be cracked. From where we scraped.’

  Reacher said, ‘I didn’t smell anything when I was outside.’

  ‘I can’t take the risk. Everyone is alive right now. I don’t want to burn them up in a fire.’

  ‘You want to freeze them to death instead?’

  ‘Take over with the first aid. I’ll try to make some calls.’

  So Reacher ducked back and started checking the old folks. The driver had gotten through the first two rows. That was clear. All four of the window-seat passengers were sporting Band-Aids over cuts from the metal edges around the glass. Be careful what you wish for. Better view, but higher risk. One woman had a second Band-Aid on the aisle side of her face, presumably from where her husband’s head had hit her after bouncing around like a rag doll.

  The first broken bone was in row three. A delicate old lady, built like a bird. She had been swinging right when the bus changed direction and swung left. The window had tapped her hard on the shoulder. The blow had bust her collar bone. Reacher could see it in the way she was cradling her arm. He said, ‘Ma’am, may I take a look at that?’

  She said, ‘You’re not a doctor.’

  ‘I had some training in the army.’

  ‘Were you a medic?’

  ‘I was a military cop. We got some medical training.’

  ‘I’m cold.’

  ‘Shock,’ Reacher said. ‘And it’s snowing.’

  She turned her upper body towards him. Implied consent. He put his fingertips on her collar bone, through her blouse. The bone was as delicate as a pencil. It was snapped halfway along its length. A clean break. Not compound.

  She asked, ‘Is it bad?’

  ‘It’s good,’ Reacher said. ‘It did its job. A collar bone is like a circuit breaker. It breaks so that your shoulder and your neck stay OK. It heals fast and easy.’

  ‘I need to go to the hospital.’

  Reacher nodded. ‘We’ll get you there.’

  He moved on. There was a sprained wrist in row four, and a broken wrist in row five. Plus a total of thirteen cuts, many minor contusions, and a lot of shock reaction.

  The temperature was dropping like a stone.

  Reacher could see the flares out the rear side windows. They were still burning, three distinct crimson puffballs glowing in the swirling snow. No headlights coming. None at all. No traffic. He walked up the aisle, head bent, and found the driver. The guy was in his seat, holding an open cell phone in his right hand, staring through the windshield, drumming his left-hand fingertips on the wheel.

  He said, ‘We’ve got a problem.’

  ‘What kind of a problem?’

  ‘I called 911. The Highway Patrol is all either sixty miles north of here or sixty miles east. There are two big storms coming in. One from Canada, one off the Lakes. There’s all kinds of mayhem. All the tow trucks went with them. They’ve got hundred-car pile-ups. This highway is closed behind us. And up ahead.’

  No traffic.

  ‘Where are we?’

  ‘South Dakota.’

  ‘I know that.’

  ‘Then you know what I mean. If we’re not in Sioux Falls or Rapid City, we’re in the middle of nowhere. And we’re not in Sioux Falls or Rapid City.’

  ‘We have to be somewhere.’

  ‘GPS shows a town nearby. Name of Bolton. Maybe twenty miles. But it’s small. Just a dot on the map.’

  ‘Can you get a replacement bus?’

  ‘I’m out of Seattle. I could get one maybe four days after the snow stops.’

  ‘Does the town of Bolton have a police department?’

  ‘I’m waiting on a call.’

  ‘Maybe they have tow trucks.’

  ‘I’m sure they do. At least one. Maybe at the corner gas station, good for hauling broken-down half-ton pick-up trucks. Not so good for vehicles this size.’

  ‘Maybe they have farm tractors.’

  ‘They’d need about eight of them. And some serious chains.’

  ‘Maybe they have a school bus. We could transfer.’

  ‘The Highway Patrol won’t abandon us. They’ll get here.’

  Reacher asked, ‘What’s your name?’

  ‘Jay Knox.’

  ‘You need to think ahead, Mr Knox. The Highway Patrol is an hour away under the best of circumstances. Two hours, in this weather. Three hours, given what they’re likely dealing with. So we need to get a jump. Because an hour from now this bus is going to be an icebox. Two hours from now these wrinklies are going to be dropping like flies. Maybe sooner.’

  ‘So what gets your vote?’

  Reacher was about to answer when Knox’s cell phone rang. The guy answered it and his face lightened a little. Then it fell again. He said, ‘Thanks,’ and closed the phone. He looked at Reacher and said, ‘Apparently the town of Bolton has a police depar
tment. They’re sending a guy. But they’ve got problems of their own and it will take some time.’

  ‘How much time?’

  ‘At least an hour.’

  ‘What kind of problems?’

  ‘They didn’t say.’

  ‘You’re going to have to start the engine.’

  ‘They’ve got coats.’

  ‘Not good enough.’

  ‘I’m worried about a fire.’

  ‘Diesel fuel is a lot less volatile than gasoline.’

  ‘What are you, an expert?’

  ‘I was in the army. Trucks and Humvees were all diesel. For a reason.’ Reacher glanced back down the aisle. ‘Got a flashlight? Got an extinguisher?’


  ‘I’ll check the underbody. If it looks all clear I’ll knock twice on the floor. You start up, if anything goes on fire I’ll put it out and knock again and you can shut it down.’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Best we can do. And we have to do something.’

  Knox was quiet for a spell and then he shrugged and opened up a couple more compartments and came out with a silver Maglite and an extinguisher bottle. Reacher took them and waited for the door to open and climbed out into the spectral crimson world of the flares. Down into the ditch again. This time he trudged counterclockwise around the front of the bus because the oblique angle put more of the left side above the blacktop than the right. Crawling around in the freezing ditch was not an attractive prospect. Crawling around on the shoulder was marginally better.

  He found the fuel filler door and sat down in the snow and then swivelled around and lay on his back and wriggled into position with his head under the side of the bus. He switched the flashlight on. Found the fat tube running from the filler mouth to the tank. It looked intact. The tank itself was a huge squared-off cylinder. It was a little dented and scraped from the impact. But nothing was leaking out of it. The fuel line running back towards the engine compartment looked OK. Snow soaked through Reacher’s jacket and his shirt and freezing damp hit his skin.

  He shivered.

  He used the butt end of the Mag-lite and banged twice on a frame spar.

  He heard relays clicking and a fuel pump start up. It wheezed and whined. He checked the tank. Checked the line, as far as the flashlight beam would let him. He kicked against the snow and pushed himself further under the bus.

  No leaks.

  The starter motor turned over.

  The engine started. It clattered and rattled and settled to a hammer-heavy beat.

  No leaks.

  No fire.

  No fumes.

  He fought the cold and gave it another minute and used the time to check other things. The big tyres looked OK. Some of the front suspension members were a little banged up. The floor of the luggage hold was dented here and there. A few small tubes and hoses were crushed and torn and split. Some Seattle insurer was about to get a fair-sized bill.

  He scrabbled out and stood up and brushed off. His clothes were soaked. Snow swirled all around him. Fat, heavy flakes. There were two fresh inches on the ground. His footsteps from four minutes ago were already dusted white. He followed them back to the ditch and floundered around to the door. Knox was waiting for him. The door opened and he climbed aboard. Blowing snow howled in after him. He shivered. The door closed.

  The engine stopped.

  Knox sat down in his seat and hit the starter button. Way at the back of the bus Reacher heard the starter motor turning, churning, straining, wheezing, over and over again.

  Nothing happened.

  Knox asked, ‘What did you see down there?’

  ‘Damage,’ Reacher said. ‘Lots of things all banged up.’

  ‘Crushed tubes?’


  Knox nodded. ‘The fuel line is pinched off. We just used up what was left in the pipe, and now no more is getting through. Plus the brakes could be shot. Maybe it’s just as well the engine won’t run.’

  ‘Call the Bolton PD again,’ Reacher said. ‘This is serious.’

  Knox dialled and Reacher headed back towards the passengers. He hauled coats off the overhead racks and told the old folks to put them on. Plus hats and gloves and scarves and mufflers and anything else they had.

  He had nothing. Just what he stood up in, and what he stood up in was soaked and freezing. His body heat was leaching away. He was shivering, just a little, but continuously. Small crawling thrills, all over his skin. Be careful what you wish for. A life without baggage had many advantages. But crucial disadvantages, too.

  He headed back to Knox’s seat. The door was leaking air. The bus was colder at the front than the back. He said, ‘Well?’

  Knox said, ‘They’re sending a car as soon as possible.’

  ‘A car won’t do it.’

  ‘I told them that. I described the problem. They said they’ll work something out.’

  ‘You seen storms like this before?’

  ‘This is not a storm. The storm is sixty miles away. This is the edge.’

  Reacher shivered. ‘Is it coming our way?’

  ‘No question.’

  ‘How fast?’

  ‘Don’t ask.’

  Reacher left him there and walked down the aisle, all the way past the last of the seats. He sat on the floor outside the toilet, with his back pressed hard against the rear bulkhead, hoping to feel some residual heat coming in from the cooling engine.

  He waited.

  Five minutes to five in the afternoon.

  Fifty-nine hours to go.


  FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER THE LAWYER GOT HOME. A LONG, SLOW trip. His driveway was unploughed and he worried for a moment that his garage door would be frozen shut. But he hit the remote and the half-horsepower motor on the ceiling inside did its job and the door rose up in its track and he drove in. Then the door wouldn’t shut after him, because the clumps of snow his tyres had pushed in triggered the door’s child safety feature. So he fussed with his overshoes once more and took a shovel and pushed the snow back out again. The door closed. The lawyer took off his overshoes again and stood for a moment at the mud room door, composing himself, cleansing himself, taking a mental shower. Twenty minutes to six. He walked through to the warmth of his kitchen and greeted his family, as if it was just another day.

  By twenty minutes to six the inside of the bus was dark and icy and Reacher was hugging himself hard and shivering violently. Ahead of him the twenty old people and Knox the driver were all doing pretty much the same thing. The windows on the windward side of the bus were all black with stuck snow. The windows on the leeward side showed a grey panorama. A blizzard, blowing in from the north and the east, driven hard and relentlessly by the winter wind, hitting the aerodynamic interruption of the dead vehicle, boiling over it and under it and around it and swirling into the vacuum behind it, huge weightless flakes dancing randomly up and down and left and right.

  Then: faint lights in the grey panorama.

  White lights, and red, and blue, pale luminous spheres snapping and popping and moving through the gloom. The faint patter of snow chains in the eerie padded silence. A cop car, coming towards them on the wrong side of the divided highway, nosing slow and cautious through the weather.

  A long minute later a cop was inside the bus. He had come through the ditch and in through the door, but he had just gotten out of a heated car and he was wearing winter boots and waterproof pants and gloves and a parka and a plastic rain shield over a fur hat with ear flaps, so he was in pretty good shape. He was tall and lean and had lined blue eyes in a face that had seen plenty of summer sun and winter wind. He said his name was Andrew Peterson and that he was second-in-command over at the Bolton PD. He took off his gloves and moved through the aisle, shaking hands and introducing himself by name and rank over and over again, to each individual and each couple, in a manner designed to appear guileless and