PEOPLE SPEND THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON STEREOS. SOMETIMES tens of thousands. There is a specialist industry right here in the States which builds stereo gear to a standard you wouldn't believe. Tubed amplifiers which cost more than a house. Speakers taller than me. Cables thicker than a garden hose. Some army guys had that stuff. I'd heard it on bases around the world. Wonderful. But they were wasting their money. Because the best stereo in the world is free. Inside your head. It sounds as good as you want it to. As loud as you want it to be.
I was leaning up in my corner running a Bobby Bland number through my head. An old favorite. It was cranked up real loud. "Further On Up the Road. " Bobby Bland sings it in G major. That key gives it a strange, sunny, cheerful cast. Takes out the spiteful sting from the lyric. Makes it a lament, a prediction, a consolation. Makes it do what the blues is supposed to do. The relaxed G major misting it almost into sweetness. Not vicious.
But then I saw the fat police chief walk by. Morrison, on his way past the cells, toward the big office in back. Just in time for the start of the third verse. I crunched the song down into E flat. A dark and menacing key. The real blues key. I deleted the amiable Bobby Bland. I needed a harder voice. Something much more vicious. Musical, but a real cigarettes-and-whiskey rasp. Maybe Wild Child Butler. Someone you wouldn't want to mess with. I wound the level in my head up higher, for the part about reaping what you sow, further on up the road.
Morrison was lying about last night. I hadn't been there at midnight. For a while I had been prepared to accept the possibility of a mistake. Maybe he had seen someone who looked like me. But that was giving him the benefit of the doubt. Right now I wanted to give him a forearm smash to the face. Burst his fat nose all over the place. I closed my eyes. Wild Child Butler and I promised ourselves it would happen. Further on up the road.
I OPENED MY EYES AND SWITCHED OFF THE MUSIC IN MY head. Standing in front of me on the other side of the bars was the fingerprint officer. She was on her way back from the coffee hotplate.
"Can I get you a cup of coffee?" she asked me.
"Sure," I said. "Great. No cream, no sugar. "
She put her own cup down on the nearest desk and went back to the machine. Poured me a cup from the pot and walked back. This was a good-looking woman. About thirty, dark, not tall. But to call her medium would be unfair to her. She had a kind of vitality. It had come across as a sympathetic briskness in that first interview room. A professional bustle. Now she seemed unofficial. Probably was. Probably against the fat chief's rules to bring coffee to the condemned man. It made me like her.
She passed the cup in through the bars. Up close she looked good. Smelled good. I didn't recall that from earlier. I remembered thinking of her like a dentist's nurse. If dentist's nurses all looked that good, I'd have gone more often. I took the cup. I was glad of it. I was thirsty and I love coffee. Give me the chance and I drink coffee like an alcoholic drinks vodka. I took a sip. Good coffee. I raised the cup like a toast.
"Thank you," I said.
"You're welcome," she said, and she smiled, with her eyes too. I smiled back. Her eyes were like a welcome blast of sunshine on a rotten afternoon.
"So you think I didn't do it?" I asked her.
She picked up her own cup from where she'd put it down.
"You think I don't bring coffee to the guilty ones?" she said.
"Maybe you don't even talk to the guilty ones," I said.
"I know you're not guilty of much," she said.
"How can you tell?" I said. "Because my eyes aren't too close together?"
"No, fool," she laughed. "Because we haven't heard from Washington yet. "
Her laugh was great. I wanted to look at her nameplate over her shirt pocket. But I didn't want her to think I was looking at her breasts. I remembered them resting on the edge of the table when she took my photograph. I looked. Nice breasts. Her name was Roscoe. She glanced around quickly and moved closer to the bars. I sipped coffee.
"I sent your prints to Washington over the computer link," she said. "That was at twelve thirty-six. Big database there, you know, FBI? Millions of prints in their computer. Prints that get sent in are checked. There's a priority order. You get checked first of all against the top-ten wanted list, then the top hundred, then the top thousand, you understand? If you'd been near the top, you know, active and unsolved, we'd have heard almost right away. It's automatic. They don't want any big fugitive to slip away, so the system gets right back. But you've been in there almost three hours and we haven't heard. So I can tell you're not on record for anything very bad. "
The desk sergeant was looking over. Disapproving. She was going to have to go. I drained the coffee and handed her the cup back through the bars.
"I'm not on record for anything at all," I said.
"No," she said. "You don't match the deviance profile. "
"I don't?" I said.
"I could tell right away. " She smiled. "You got nice eyes. "
She winked and walked away. Trashed the cups and moved over to her workstation. She sat down. All I could see was the back of her head. I moved into my corner and leaned up against the hard bars. I'd been a lonely wanderer for six months. I'd learned something. Like Blanche in that old movie, a wanderer depends on the kindness of strangers. Not for anything specific or material. For morale. I gazed at the back of Roscoe's head and smiled. I liked her.
BAKER HAD BEEN GONE MAYBE TWENTY MINUTES. LONG enough to get back from Hubble's place, wherever it was. I figured you could walk there and back in twenty minutes. This was a small town, right? A dot on the map. I figured you could walk anywhere and back in twenty minutes. On your hands. Although the town limits were pretty weird. Depended whether Hubble lived in town, or somewhere else within the outer boundaries. According to my experience, you were in town even when you were fourteen miles away. If that fourteen miles extended in all directions, then Margrave was about as big as New York City.
Baker had said Hubble was a family man. A banker who worked in Atlanta. That meant a family house somewhere near town. Near schools and friends for the kids. Near shops and the country club for the wife. An easy drive for him up the county road to the highway. Convenient commute up the highway to the office in the big city. The address sounded like a town address. Twenty-five Beckman Drive. Not too close to Main Street. Probably Beckman Drive ran from the center of town out into the countryside. Hubble was a financial guy. Probably rich. Probably had a big white place on a big lot. Shade trees. Maybe a pool. Call it four acres. A square lot covering four acres was about a hundred and forty yards on a side. Homes on the left and the right of the street put number twenty-five about twelve lots out from town. About a mile, maybe.
OUTSIDE THE BIG PLATE-GLASS DOORS THE SUN WAS FALLING away into afternoon. The light was redder. Shadows were longer. I saw Baker's patrol car yaw and bounce into the driveway. No flashing lights. It came slowly around the semicircle and eased to a stop. Bounced once on its springs. Its length filled the view through the plate glass. Baker got out on the far side and walked out of sight as he rounded the car. He reappeared as he approached his passenger's door. He opened it like a chauffeur. He looked all twisted up with conflicting body language. Part deferential, because this was an Atlanta banker. Part friendly, because this was his partner's bowling buddy. Part official, because this was a man whose phone number had been hidden in a corpse's shoe.
Paul Hubble got out of the car. Baker shut the door. Hubble waited. Baker skipped around him and pulled open the big plate-glass door of the station house. It sucked against the rubber seal. Hubble stepped inside.
He was a tall white man. He looked like a page from a magazine. An advertisement. The sort that uses a grainy photograph of money at play. He was in his early thirties. Trim but not strong. Sandy hair, tousled, receding just enough to show an intelligent brow. Just enough to say: yes, I was a preppie, but hey, I'm a man now. He wore gold-rimmed round eyegl
asses. He had a square jaw. A decent tan. Very white teeth. Many of them were on show as he smiled at the desk sergeant.
He wore a faded polo shirt with a small logo and washed chino pants. The sort of clothes that look old when you buy them for five hundred bucks. He had a thick white sweater draped over his back. The arms were loosely tied in front. I couldn't see his feet because the reception desk was in the way. I was certain he would be wearing tan boat shoes. I made a substantial bet with myself he was wearing them without socks. This was a man who wallowed in the yuppie dream like a pig in shit.
He was in a state of some agitation. He placed his palms on the reception desk and then turned and dropped his hands to his sides. I saw sandy forearms and the flash of a heavy gold watch. I could see his natural approach would be to act like a friendly rich guy. Visiting the station house like our campaigning president would visit a factory. But he was distracted. Uptight. I didn't know what Baker had said to him. How much he had revealed. Probably nothing. A good sergeant like Baker would leave the bombshells to Finlay. So Hubble didn't know why he was here. But he knew some-thing. I was a policeman of sorts for thirteen years and I can smell a worried man a mile away. Hubble was a worried man.
I stayed leaning up on the bars, motionless. Baker signaled Hubble to walk with him around the far side of the squad room. Toward the rosewood office in back. As Hubble rounded the end of the reception desk, I saw his feet. Tan boat shoes. No socks. The two men walked out of sight into the office. The door closed. The desk sergeant left his post and went outside to park Baker's cruiser.
He came back in with Finlay at his side. Finlay walked straight back toward the rosewood office where Hubble waited for him. Ignored me as he crossed the squad room. Opened the office door and went inside. I waited in my corner for Baker to come out. Baker couldn't stay in there. Not while his partner's bowling buddy entered the orbit of a homicide investigation. That would not be ethical. Not ethical at all. Finlay struck me as a guy who would go big on ethics. Any guy with a tweed suit like that and a moleskin vest and a Harvard education would go big on ethics. After a moment the door opened and Baker came out. He walked into the big open room and headed for his desk.
"Hey, Baker," I called. He changed course and walked over to the cells. Stood in front of the bars. Where Roscoe had stood.
"I need to go to the bathroom," I said. "Unless I got to wait until I get up to the big house for that, too?"
He cracked a grin. Grudging, but a grin. He had a gold tooth way back. Gave him a rakish air. A bit more human. He shouted something to the desk guy. Probably a code for a procedure. He took out his keys and activated the electric lock. The bolts popped back. I wondered briefly how they did it if there was a power outage. Could they unlock these gates without electricity? I hoped so. Probably lots of thunderstorms down here. Lots of power lines crashing down.
He pushed the heavy gate inward. We walked to the back of the squad room. Opposite corner to the rosewood office. There was a lobby. Off the lobby were two bathrooms. He reached past me and pushed open the men's room door.
They knew I wasn't their guy. They weren't taking care. No care at all. Out there in the lobby I could have decked Baker and taken his revolver. No problem at all. I could have had his weapon off his belt before he hit the floor. I could have shot my way out of the station house and into a patrol car. They were all parked right out front. Keys in, for sure. I could have got out toward Atlanta before they organized effective opposition. Then I could have disappeared. No problem at all. But I just went into their bathroom.
"Don't lock it," Baker said.
I zipped up and came back into the lobby. Baker was waiting. We walked back to the cell area. I stepped inside my cell. Leaned up in my corner. Baker pulled the heavy gate shut. Operated the electric lock with his key. The bolts snicked in. He walked away into the squad room.
There was silence for the next twenty minutes. Baker worked at a desk. So did Roscoe. The desk sergeant sat up on his stool. Finlay was in the big office with Hubble. There was a modern clock over the front doors. Not as elegant as the antique in the office, but it ticked around just as slowly. Silence. Four thirty. I leaned up against the titanium bars and waited. Silence. Quarter of five.
TIME RESTARTED JUST BEFORE FIVE O'CLOCK. I HEARD A commotion coming out of the big rosewood office in back. Shouting, yelling, things banging. Somebody getting really stirred up. A buzzer sounded on Baker's desk and the intercom crackled. I heard Finlay's voice. Stressed. Asking Baker to get in there. Baker got up and walked over. Knocked and went in.
The big plate-glass door at the entrance sucked open and the fat guy came in. Chief Morrison. He headed straight back to the rosewood office. Baker came out as Morrison went in. Baker hurried over to the reception desk. Whispered a long excited sentence to the desk sergeant. Roscoe joined them. There was a huddle. Some big news. I couldn't hear what. Too far away.
The intercom on Baker's desk crackled again. He headed back to the office. The big front door opened again. The afternoon sun was blazing low in the sky. Stevenson walked into the station house. First time I'd seen him since my arrest. It was like the excitement was sucking people in.
Stevenson spoke to the desk sergeant. He became agitated. The desk sergeant put a hand on Stevenson's arm. Stevenson shook it off and ran toward the rosewood office. He dodged desks like a football player. As he got to the office door it opened. A crowd came out. Chief Morrison. Finlay. And Baker, holding Hubble by the elbow. A light but efficient grip, the same as he'd used on me. Stevenson stared blankly at Hubble and then grabbed Finlay by the arm. Pulled him back into the office. Morrison swiveled his sweating bulk and followed them in. The door slammed. Baker walked Hubble over toward me.
Hubble looked like a different guy. He was gray and sweating. The tan had gone. He looked smaller. He looked like someone had let the air out and deflated him. He was bent up like a man racked with pain. His eyes behind the gold rims were blank and staring with panic and fear. He stood shaking as Baker unlocked the cell next to mine. He didn't move. He was trembling. Baker caught his arm and levered him inside. He pulled the gate shut and locked it. The electric bolts snicked in. Baker walked back toward the rosewood office.
Hubble just stood where Baker had left him. Staring blankly into space. Then he slowly walked backward until he reached the rear wall of the cell. He pressed his back against it and slid to the floor. Dropped his head to his knees. Dropped his hands to the floor. I could hear the rattle of his thumb trembling on the stiff nylon carpet. Roscoe stared in at him from her desk. The sergeant at the reception counter gazed across. They were watching a man fall apart.
I HEARD RAISED VOICES IN THE ROSEWOOD OFFICE IN BACK. The tenor of argument. The slap of a palm on a desk. The door opened and Stevenson walked out with Chief Morrison. Stevenson looked mad. He strode down the side of the open area. His neck was rigid with fury. His eyes were fixed on the front doors. He was ignoring the fat police chief. He walked straight past the reception counter and out through the heavy door into the bright afternoon. Morrison followed him.
Baker came out of the office and walked over to my cell. Didn't speak. Just unlocked the cage and gestured me out. I shrugged my coat tighter and left the newspaper with the big photographs of the president i
n Pensacola on the cell floor. Stepped out and followed Baker back into the rosewood office.
Finlay was at the desk. The tape recorder was there. The stiff cords trailed. The air was still and cool. Finlay looked harassed. His tie was pulled down. He blew out a big lungful of air in a rueful hiss. I sat down in the chair and Finlay waved Baker out of the room. The door closed softly behind him.
"We got us a situation here, Mr. Reacher," Finlay said. "A real situation. "
He lapsed into a distracted silence. I had less than a half hour before the prison bus came by. I wanted some conclusions pretty soon. Finlay looked up and focused again. Started talking, rapidly, the elegant Harvard syntax under pressure.
"We bring this Hubble guy in, right?" he said. "You maybe saw him. Banker, from Atlanta, right? Thousand-dollar Calvin Klein outfit. Gold Rolex. Very uptight guy. At first I thought he was just annoyed. Soon as I started talking he recognized my voice. From the phone call on his mobile. Accuses me of deceitful behavior. Says I shouldn't impersonate phone company people. He's right, of course. "
Another lapse into silence. He was struggling with his ethics problem.
"Come on, Finlay, move along," I said. I had less than a half hour.
"OK, so he's uptight and annoyed," Finlay said. "I ask him if he knows you. Jack Reacher, ex-army. He says no. Never heard of you. I believe him. He starts to relax. Like all this is about some guy called Jack Reacher. He's never heard of any guy called Jack Reacher, so he's here for nothing. He's cool, right?"
"Go on," I said.
"Then I ask him if he knows a tall guy with a shaved head," he said. "And I ask him about Pluribus. Well, my God! It's like I stuck a poker up his ass. He went rigid. Like with shock. Totally rigid. Won't answer. So I tell him we know the tall guy is dead. Shot to death. Well, that's like another poker up the ass. He practically fell off the chair. "
"Go on," I said. Twenty-five minutes before the prison bus was due.
"He's shaking all over the place," Finlay said. "Then I tell him we know about the phone number in the shoe. His phone number printed on a piece of paper, with the word 'Pluribus' printed above it. That's another poker up the ass. "
He stopped again. He was patting his pockets, each one in turn.
"He wouldn't say anything," he went on. "Not a word. He was rigid with shock. All gray in the face. I thought he was having a heart attack. His mouth was opening and closing like a fish. But he wasn't talking. So I told him we knew about the corpse getting beaten up. I asked him who else was involved. I told him we knew about hiding the body under the cardboard. He wouldn't say a damn word. He just kept looking around. After a while I realized he was thinking like crazy. Trying to decide what to tell me. He just kept silent, thinking like mad, must have been forty minutes. The tape was running the whole time. Recorded forty minutes of silence. "
Finlay stopped again. This time for effect. He looked at me.
"Then he confessed," he said. "I did it, he said. I shot him, he said. The guy is confessing, right? On the tape. "
"Go on," I said.
"I ask him, do you want a lawyer?" he said. "He says no, keeps repeating he killed the guy. So I Mirandize him, loud and clear, on the tape. Then I think to myself maybe he's crazy or something, you know? So I ask him, who did you kill? He says the tall guy with the shaved head. I ask him, how? He says, shot him in the head. I ask him, when? He says last night, about midnight. I ask him who kicked the body around? Who was the guy? What does Pluribus mean? He doesn't answer. Goes rigid with fright all over again. Refuses to say a damn word. I say to him, I'm not sure you did anything at all. He jumps up and grabs me. He's screaming I confess, I confess, I shot him, I shot him. I shove him back. He goes quiet. "
Finlay sat back. Folded his hands behind his head. Looked a question at me. Hubble as the shooter? I didn't believe it. Because of his agitation. Guys who shoot somebody with an old pistol, in a fight or in a temper, a messy shot to the chest, they get agitated afterward. Guys who put two bullets in the head, with a silencer, then collect up the shell cases, they're a different class of person. They don't get agitated afterward. They just walk away and forget about it. Hubble was not the shooter. The way he had been dancing around in front of the reception counter proved it. But I just shrugged and smiled.
"OK," I said. "You can let me go now, right?"
Finlay looked at me and shook his head.
"Wrong," he said. "I don't believe him. There were three guys involved here. You persuaded me of that yourself. So which one is Hubble claiming to be? I don't think he's the maniac. I can't see enough strength in him for that. I don't see him as the gofer. And he's definitely not the shooter, for God's sake. Guy like that couldn't shoot pool. "
I nodded. Like Finlay's partner. Worrying away at a problem.
"Got to throw his ass in the can for now," he said. "No option. He's confessed, couple of plausible details. But it definitely won't hold up. "
I nodded again. Sensed there was something more to come. "Go on," I said. With resignation.
Finlay looked at me. A level gaze.
"He wasn't even there at midnight," he said. "He was at some old couple's anniversary party. A family thing. Not far from where he lives. Got there around eight last night. He'd walked down with his wife. Didn't leave until after two o'clock in the morning. Two dozen people saw him arrive, two dozen people saw him leave. He got a ride home from his sister-in-law's brother-in-law. He got a ride because it was already pouring rain by then. "
"Go on, Finlay," I said. "Tell me. "
"His sister-in-law's brother-in-law?" he said. "Drove him home, in the rain, two o'clock in the morning? Officer Stevenson. "