Make me, p.12
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       Make Me, p.12
 

         Part #20 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  about what to do with Keever’s valise. Reacher, unsentimental about possessions, was in favor of trashing it. But Chang saw it as a talisman. Like a beacon of hope. She wanted to keep it with them. In the end they compromised. They stopped at a FedEx in a strip mall on the edge of Colorado Springs, and shipped the valise back to the yellow house on the dead-end street, in the faded development north of Oklahoma City. Chang filled out the form with the address, and then after a long hesitation she checked the box for no signature required.

  That afternoon eight men met at the counter inside the Mother’s Rest dry goods store. The store owner was already there, with his two shirts and his unkempt hair, and the first to join him was the spare-parts guy from the irrigation store, who was followed by the Cadillac driver, and the one-eyed clerk from the motel, and the hog farmer, and the counterman from the diner, and the Moynahan who had gotten kicked in the balls and had his gun taken.

  The eighth man at the meeting came in five minutes later. He was a solid guy, red in the face, fresh from a shower, wearing ironed blue jeans and a dress shirt. He was older than Moynahan and the spare-parts guy and the Cadillac driver, and younger than the motel clerk and the store owner, and about the same age as the hog farmer and the counterman. He had blow-dried hair like a news anchor on TV. The other seven guys stiffened and straightened as he walked in, and fell silent, and waited for him to speak first.

  He got straight to the point.

  He said, “Are they coming back?”

  No one answered. Seven blank looks.

  The eighth guy said, “Give me both sides of the argument.”

  There was some silence and squirming and shuffling, and then the spare-parts guy said, “They won’t come back because we did our jobs. They got nothing here. No evidence, no witnesses. Why would they come back to a dry hole?”

  The Cadillac driver said, “They will come back because this was Keever’s last known location. They’ll come back as many times as it takes. Where else can they start over, when they’re getting nowhere?”

  The eighth guy said, “Are we sure they got nothing here?”

  The counterman said, “No one talked to them. Not a word.”

  The store owner said, “They only used the pay phone once. They tried three numbers, and got no reply from any of them, and then they went away again. That’s not what people do, with red-hot information.”

  “So the consensus is they learned nothing?”

  “The what?”

  “What you all think.”

  The Cadillac driver said, “What we all think is they learned less than nothing. They finished up in my store, chasing some non-existent guy named Maloney. They were nowhere. But they’ll still come back. They know Keever was here.”

  “So they did learn something.”

  The store went quiet.

  The one-eyed guy said, “We agreed. It was supposed to look like he wandered off somewhere. We were never going to deny he was here.”

  The eighth man said, “What was their attitude as they left?”

  The hog farmer said, “The guy was throwing his weight around. Some kind of consolation, I figured. Making himself feel better. Playing the tough guy because he knew he was beat. I think the gal was kind of embarrassed by it.”

  “Are they coming back?”

  “I vote no.”

  “Who votes yes?”

  Only the Cadillac driver raised his hand.

  The eighth man said, “A six-to-one majority. Which is a fair assessment. I think you’re calling it about right. And I’m proud of you all. They came, they learned nothing except what we could afford for them to know, and they went away again. With only a slight chance they’ll be back.”

  The squirming and shuffling turned a little more up-beat. Chests stuck out, and mouths turned down, in self-deprecating aw-shucks grins.

  The eighth man said, “But the world turns on slight chances.”

  The grins turned to solemn nods, seven serious men agreeing gravely with a pearl of wisdom.

  The eighth man asked, “Where did they go?”

  Seven shrugs, and seven blank looks.

  The eighth man said, “It doesn’t really matter. Unless they’re headed for Los Angeles. The journalist is our only point of vulnerability. That’s the only way they can pick the lock, according to what we learned from Keever.”

  “A million to one,” Moynahan said. “How could they even know what they’re looking for? How would Westwood even know what he’s got?”

  “The world turns on million-to-one chances.”

  “We’re supposed to be completely invisible,” the motel clerk said. “Aren’t we? Isn’t that what we pay for?”

  “You don’t pay for it. I pay for it.”

  The store went quiet again, until the spare-parts guy picked it up. He said, “OK, isn’t that what you pay for?”

  “Yes, it is. And more. I pay for assistance as and when I need it. Like the Triple-A. All part of the service.”

  The hog farmer said, “Going outside of us is a big step.”

  “Yes, it is,” the eighth man said again. “There are considerable negatives. But positives too. We should discuss them.”

  Moynahan said, “What kind of assistance?”

  “There’s a menu. I get what I pay for. From a little to a lot.”

  The store owner said, “I think we should start with surveillance. At least. If they get near Westwood at the newspaper, then we need to know right away. So we’re prepared for what comes next. If the million-to-one goes against us.”

  The other six watched the eighth man’s face, waiting for a shoot-down, and when none came they started nodding in agreement, wisely and judiciously.

  The eighth man said, “We should take a vote. All in favor of surveillance?”

  Moynahan asked, “Is that the low end of the menu?”

  The eighth man nodded. “Phones, internet, and physical eyes-on.”

  “How high does the menu go?”

  “All the way to what they call a permanent solution.”

  “We can do that part ourselves.”

  “How’s your brother?”

  “I mean, next time we’ll be ready.”

  “You changing your mind? Now you think there’s a next time?”

  Silence in the store.

  The eighth man said, “Who votes for surveillance?”

  Seven hands went up.

  “I’m glad you agree,” the eighth man said. “Because I already made the call. The surveillance started an hour ago. They sent a man named Hackett. One of their best, they said. Qualified in a number of different areas.”

  Chapter 23

  The car rental company ran a shuttle bus from the returns compound to the passenger terminals, which was convenient, but slow. It added another half hour to an already long day. Reacher and Chang got to the ticket counter in the early evening. There was one LA flight still to go, but it was sold out. No seats at all, and a long queue for standby. Two equipment failures earlier in the day had caused chaos.

  Next availability was eight in the morning. No choice. They took it. Chang had an open return, which she used, and Reacher bought his own seat. The clerk told them boarding would start about forty minutes prior, at about twenty past seven in the morning, and until then there was an airport hotel five minutes away by bus.

  They walked instead, with Reacher carrying Chang’s suitcase rather than rolling it, because he figured the cast-concrete sidewalks would be tough on its wheels. The hotel was a chain, crisp and white on the outside, warm and beige on the inside, with green neon announcing its name and function. There was a small crowd in the lobby. Maybe nine people, not exactly in line for the desk, mostly just standing around, either talking on cell phones, or looking frustrated, or both. Two equipment failures earlier in the day had caused chaos. Reacher was not a frequent flier, but he recognized the signs.

  The clerk at the reception desk beckoned them closer. She was a young woman in a fitted jacket,
with a scarf around her neck. There was some kind of secret urgency in her gesture. She said, “Sir, madam, I have one room left. If you need it, you should probably grab it now.”

  Chang said, “Only one room?”

  “Yes, ma’am, because the airlines had a problem today.”

  “Is there another hotel?”

  “Not in the airport.”

  Reacher said, “We’ll take the room.”

  Chang looked at him, and he said, “We’ll figure it out.”

  He paid, and got a key card in exchange. Fifth floor, room 501, elevators to the left, room service until eleven, breakfast extra, free wifi. Behind them two couples had lined up, about to be disappointed. Reacher and Chang rode up to five and found the room. It was beige and mint green inside, and adequate in every respect. But Chang was quiet about it. Reacher said, “You can use it.”

  She said, “What will you do?”

  “I’m sure I’ll think of something.” He carried her bag inside, and left it by the bed. He gave her the key card, and said, “We should go get dinner. Before the waifs and strays take all the tables.”

  “Let me freshen up. I’ll meet you in the restaurant.”

  “OK.”

  “Do you need to freshen up? You could use the bathroom first, if you like.”

  Reacher glanced in the mirror. Recent haircut, recent shave, recent shower, new clothes. He said, “This is about as good as it gets, I’m afraid.”

  The restaurant was on the ground floor, separated from the reception area by the elevator lobby. It was a pleasant space, with drapes and carpet and blond wood, compromised only a little by stain-proof and scuff-proof and vinyl-coated finishes on every surface. It was capacious, but almost full. Reacher waited at the hostess lectern, and was led to a table for two near a window. There was no real view. Just yellow lights, and a parking lot full of snowplows, mothballed for the summer.

  Chang arrived eight minutes later, face washed, hair brushed, wearing a new T-shirt. She sat down opposite Reacher, looking good, energetic again, clearly invigorated by the simple comfort of running water. But then her face changed, as if suddenly she saw the other side of the equation, which was whatever she had, he didn’t.

  He said, “Don’t worry about it.”

  She said, “Where will you sleep?”

  “I could sleep right here.”

  “In a dining chair?”

  “I was in the army thirteen years. You learn to sleep pretty much anywhere.”

  She paused a beat, and said, “What was the army like?”

  “Pretty good, overall. I have happy memories and no real complaints. Apart from the obvious.”

  “Which was?”

  “The same as yours, I’m sure. The fantastic cascade of bullshit coming down from senior officers with nothing better to do.”

  She smiled. “There was some of that.”

  “Is that why you left?”

  She stopped smiling.

  She said, “No, not exactly.”

  He said, “I’ll tell you if you tell me.”

  “I don’t know if I want to.”

  “What’s the worst thing can happen?”

  She paused a beat, and breathed in, and breathed out, and said, “You first.”

  “They were shedding numbers, and therefore picking and choosing. My record was mixed, and right then some particular guy had it in for me. Given those two circumstances, it wasn’t exactly a huge surprise my file ended up in the out tray.”

  “What particular guy?”

  “He was a light colonel. A fat guy, with a desk job. Public relations, in Mississippi. I was there, with a bad thing going on, and he got all uptight about something ridiculous, and I was mildly impatient with him, verbally, to his face, and he took offense. And got his revenge, simply because the timing worked in his favor. I had gotten away with much worse before, when they weren’t shedding numbers.”

  “Couldn’t you fight it?”

  “I could have called in some IOUs. But the damage was done. It was a zero-sum game. If I won, the colonel would lose, and all the other colonels wouldn’t like that. None of them would want me near them. I would have ended up guarding a radar hut in the far north of Alaska. In the middle of winter. It was a lose-lose proposition. Plus it burst the bubble for me. They really didn’t want me there. I finally realized. So I didn’t fight it. I took an honorable discharge and walked away.”

  “When was this?”

  “A long time ago.”

  “And you’re still walking.”

  “That’s too profound.”

  “You sure?”

  “Deep down I’m very shallow.”

  She didn’t answer. A waitress came by, and they ordered. When she left, Reacher said, “Your turn.”

  “For what?” Chang said.

  “Your story.”

  She paused another beat.

  “Same as yours, in a way,” she said. “A lose-lose proposition. But of my own making. I let myself get backed into a corner. I didn’t see it coming.”

  “Didn’t see what?”

  “Someone broke into my house. They took nothing, searched nothing, broke nothing, and left nothing. Which I didn’t understand at the time. I was working on a money-laundering issue. There was a lot of cash and a mazy chain of shell corporations, like always, but I had the guy. But it was a hard case to prove. Almost impossible, in fact. I was leaning toward forgetting it. There’s no point in recommending a prosecution if there’s no realistic way of winning it. And then the guy came to see me. I was literally on the point of telling him the file was about to be closed. But he spoke first, and he was two steps behind. He told me if I didn’t drop it right away he would claim I had taken a bribe, back at the beginning, to look the other way, but then later on I had changed my mind and stabbed him in the back. And kept the money anyway. He figured my work would be tainted, or even excluded, and he would walk.”

  “People can say all kinds of things. How could he prove it?”

  “He had set up a bank account for me in the Caribbean, in my name, and he wired the bribe money to it. It was right there, large as life. Real money, and a lot of it. It would corroborate everything he was claiming.”

  “Except he opened the account, not you. There must be records.”

  “He told me it was a woman who broke into my house. She took nothing, searched nothing, broke nothing and left nothing. But she used my land line. She opened the account for me, right there in my house, and it’s all over my phone bill. Which left me between a rock and a hard place. How could I prove I didn’t make that call? I figured maybe the foreign bank would have a recording, or the NSA, but two women’s voices might be hard to tell apart on a long-distance line, especially if she was trying to sound like me, which she probably was, because this was a very organized guy. He knew my Social Security Number, for instance, and my mother’s maiden name. That’s my security question, apparently.”

  “So what did you do?”

  “What he told me to. I dropped the case. Right away. I closed his file. But I was going to anyway. I think.”

  “Where is the guy now?”

  “Still in business.”

  “What happened to the bribe money?”

  “It disappeared. I traced it, like he knew I would. I found it in a shell corporation in the Dutch Antilles. Apparently I had purchased a minority position in a financial vehicle, as a long-term investment. He was the majority stockholder. We were tied together forever.”

  “So what next?”

  “I fessed up. I laid it all out for my SAC. I could see he wanted to believe me, but the Bureau doesn’t run on faith. And from that point on I would have been useless as an active agent. My testimony would have been automatically suspect, even years later. I would have been a defense counsel’s wet dream. As in, Special Agent, please tell us about the bribe you can’t prove you didn’t take. So I would have joined you in that radar hut in Alaska. In the middle of winter. It was a lose-lose. So I resi
gned.”

  “That’s tough.”

 
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