61 hours, p.13
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       61 Hours, p.13
 

         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  the window, just a little. The ejection port on a Glock is on the right side of the gun. So he had to be very careful with his position. He had to keep the ejection port inside the car. Kind of cramped. No opportunity to aim down the barrel. Yet he hit the guy right between the eyes. Not easy. Is Knox that good a shot?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘You should try to find out.’

  Peterson said, ‘I figure the shell case hit the door frame or the windshield, at an angle, and bounced away inside Knox’s vehicle.’

  ‘So tell me about Knox’s vehicle.’

  ‘Prearranged. He got to town yesterday and met someone today. Maybe a biker. The biker handed over a vehicle, maybe a pick-up truck. Knox did the deed and returned the vehicle and was walking home when we arrested him.’

  Reacher said nothing.

  Peterson said, ‘The people where we put him last night said he made a point of being out all day. They say he wasn’t very good company. Like he had things on his mind.’

  ‘I met him this morning in the coffee shop.’

  ‘How was he?’

  ‘Not very good company. He said because he wasn’t getting paid as of yesterday. Maybe he was worried about losing his job.’

  ‘He was nervous about his mission.’

  ‘How did he know what the lawyer was driving?’

  ‘Whoever delivered the car told him.’

  ‘How did he know the lawyer was going to be on that road at that time?’

  ‘Simple arithmetic. The decoy appointment was for noon. Easy enough to work backwards in terms of the clock. Easy enough in terms of location, too, given that everyone knew the highway was closed.’

  ‘I just don’t buy how he got here in the first place. It was way too complicated. And he said a car was heading straight at him. He couldn’t prearrange that. He couldn’t invent it, either. He had twenty-one potential witnesses on board.’

  ‘None of them saw it.’

  ‘He couldn’t know that in advance.’

  Peterson said, ‘Maybe there really was a car coming at him. Maybe he made a split second decision to exploit it, instead of faking a breakdown nearer the cloverleaf. Was there any delay before he reacted?’

  Reacher said, ‘I don’t know. I was asleep.’

  Peterson said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘I think you’ve got the wrong guy.’

  ‘Not what cops like to hear.’

  ‘I know. I was a cop. Doesn’t make it any less true.’

  ‘He had a gun in his pocket and he fired it.’

  Reacher asked, ‘Case closed?’

  ‘That’s a big step.’

  ‘But?’

  ‘Right now, yes, I think it is.’

  ‘So put your money where your mouth is. Pull those cops out of Janet Salter’s house.’

  Peterson paused. ‘Not my decision.’

  ‘What would you do if it was?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Will Holland do it?’

  ‘We’ll have to wait and see.’

  Five minutes to three in the afternoon.

  Thirty-seven hours to go.

  SIXTEEN

  HOLLAND DIDN’T DO IT. NOT, HE SAID, BECAUSE HE BELIEVED Knox to be innocent. But because the stakes were high enough for the bad guys to justify a second attempt, and a third, and if necessary a fourth and a fifth. Therefore Janet Salter’s protection would stay in place until the trial had run its course.

  Then Jay Knox started talking, and things changed again.

  Knox said he carried the gun for his own personal protection, and always had. He said he was down and depressed and frustrated about the incident with the bus, and annoyed that his employers were going to dock his pay. He didn’t like the creeps he had been billeted with. He had lingered over his breakfast in the coffee shop as long as he could, but Reacher had disturbed him, so he had set out on a long angry walk. He was trying to burn off his feelings. But he had arrived at a small trestle bridge over an icy stream and seen a road sign: Bridge Freezes Before Road. He had lost his temper and pulled out the Glock and shot the sign. For which he was prepared to apologize, but he added that pretty much every damn road sign he had seen in the area was pockmarked by bullet holes or shotgun pellets.

  He remembered where the bridge was. He remembered where he had been standing. He was fairly exact about it. He could make a pretty good guess about where his spent shell case must have gone.

  Peterson knew where the trestle bridge was, obviously. Its location made geographic sense, given the site of Knox’s arrest. He figured that if Knox had really been out there, then his footprints might still be vaguely visible as smooth dents under the new accumulation. Certainly nobody else would have been walking there. Locals had more sense. He sent a patrol car to check. It had a metal detector in the trunk. Standard equipment, in jurisdictions that had gun crime and snow.

  Ten minutes later the cop from the patrol car called in from the trestle bridge. He had found footprints. And he had found the shell case. It was buried in the snow at the end of a short furrow the length of a finger. It had hissed and burned its way in there. The furrow had been lightly covered by new fall, but was still visible, if you knew what you were looking for. And the cop confirmed that there was a new bullet hole in the warning sign, raw and bright, almost certainly a nine millimetre, in the space between the F of Freezes and the R of Road.

  Peterson conferred with Holland and they agreed the man they were looking for was both still unidentified and already located in the vicinity.

  And only halfway through his business.

  Jay Knox was a free man five minutes later. But he was told his Glock would stay in the police station, just in case, until he was ready to leave town. It was a deal Knox agreed to readily enough. Reacher saw him walk out of the lobby into the snow, reprieved but still defeated, relieved but still frustrated. Peterson and Holland conferred again and put the department on emergency alert. Even Kapler and Lowell were sent back to active duty.

  The entire force was ordered into cars and told to cruise the streets and look for odd faces, odd vehicles, odd behaviour, a mobile expression of any police department’s primal fear: there’s someone out there.

  Peterson pinned the new crime scene photographs to the boards in the small office off the corridor outside the squad room. He put them on the wall opposite the pictures of the black-clad guy lying dead in the snow. Reacher found him in there. Peterson said, ‘We just made fools of ourselves and wasted a lot of time.’

  Reacher said, ‘Not really a lot of time.’

  ‘What would your elite unit do next?’

  ‘We’d speculate about automobile transmissions and cautious people.’

  ‘What does that mean?’

  ‘Apart from Knox not being the guy, I think you were exactly right about how it went down. The absence of footprints in the snow pretty much proves it. Two cars stopped cheek to cheek, just shy of exactly level. The bad guy waved the lawyer down. The lawyer stopped. The question is, why did he stop?’

  ‘It’s the obvious thing to do.’

  Reacher nodded. ‘I agree, on a road like that. In summer, at normal speeds, it wouldn’t happen. But in the snow, sure. You’re crawling along, you figure the other guy either needs your help or has some necessary information for you. So you stop. But if you’re the kind of guy who’s cautious enough to fuss with overshoes and mount an emergency hammer on your dash and listen to AM radio for the weather report and keep your gas tank full at all times, then you’re probably a little wary about that whole kind of thing. You’d keep the transmission in gear and your foot on the brake. So you can take off again right away, if necessary. Maybe you would open your window just a crack. But your lawyer didn’t do that. He put his shift lever in Park and opened his window all the way.’

  ‘Which means what?’

  ‘Which means he was ready for a full-blown transaction. A conversation, a discussion, the whole nine yards. He turned his radio
down, ready for it. Which means maybe he knew the guy who stopped him. Which is possibly plausible, given the kind of people he seems to have been mixing with.’

  ‘So what would you do now?’

  ‘We’d already be tearing his life apart.’

  ‘Difficult for us to do. He lived in the next county. Outside of our jurisdiction.’

  ‘You need to get on the phone and cooperate.’

  ‘Like you used to with the feds?’

  ‘Not exactly,’ Reacher said.

  Plato finished his afternoon walk with a visit to his prisoner. The guy was chained in the open, by his ankle, to a steel post anchored deep in the earth. He was a thief. He had gotten greedy. Plato’s operations were cash businesses, obviously, and vast quantities of bills had to be stored for long periods, in the ground, in cellars, hidden here and there, to the point where damp and rodent damage claimed a ballpark figure of ten per cent of incoming assets. A hundred grand out of every million just fell apart and rotted away. Except this guy’s division was claiming wastage closer to twelve per cent. Which was an anomaly. Which on examination turned out to be caused by the guy skimming, a quarter-million here, a half-million there. To some extent Plato was tolerant of mistakes, but not of disloyalty.

  Hence the guy, chained to the post by the ankle.

  Winter weather a hundred miles from Mexico City was not fiercely hot. There were no biting insects in the air or in the ground, and the snakes were asleep, and the small night mammals were generally timid. So the guy would die of either thirst or starvation, depending on the rains.

  Unless he chose not to.

  There was a hatchet within easy reach. The blade was keen, and the guy’s shin bone was right there. He hadn’t used it yet. But Plato thought he would. It was usually about fifty-fifty. Proof of that proposition was all over the area, some widows, equal numbers of broken men hopping around on crutches.

  In the South Dakota squad room the clock ticked around to five to four in the afternoon. Thirty-six hours to go. Peterson said, ‘Five to four here is five to five in the East. Close of business. Time to call your old unit back. We still need that information.’

  Reacher wandered over to the desk in the corner of the squad room. He sat down. Didn’t dial the phone. Close of business in Virginia was five o’clock, not five to. Precision was important. It had mattered to him, and he had no doubt it mattered to his current successor.

  Peterson asked, ‘What did you think of Mrs Salter?’

  ‘She’s probably very well read.’

  ‘As a witness?’

  ‘Excellent.’

  ‘Is she holding up?’

  ‘She’s scared.’

  ‘Can’t blame her.’

  ‘What about raw material supply to the lab? For that matter, what about intercepting the finished product as they ship it out?’

  ‘We’re trying. But to guarantee anything we’d have to be on that road all day and all night and all week.’

  ‘With the right people, too,’ Reacher said. ‘Some of your guys look asleep at the switch. But whatever, you need to tell Mrs Salter you’re doing everything you can. Right now she feels all the weight is on her shoulders.’

  ‘We told her nothing is obligatory.’

  ‘Some people see obligation in their own way.’ Reacher picked up the phone. Hit nine for a line. Dialled the number he remembered and waited for the start of the recording. If you know your party’s extension, you may dial it at any time. He hit 110. The same male voice answered. The captain, from the South. The same one-word greeting.

  ‘Yes?’

  Reacher said, ‘Amanda, please.’

  There was a click and a purr and a second of dial tone and the voice came on. Warm, husky, breathy, intimate. It said, ‘You’re a pain in the ass.’

  Reacher said, ‘Am I?’

  ‘As if I don’t have enough to do.’

  ‘What’s the problem?’

  ‘Your place five miles west of Bolton isn’t exactly front and centre in the records. There’s nothing listed in the establishments register.’

  ‘There wouldn’t be. It’s abandoned. Maybe never even used in the first place.’

  ‘Was it sold?’

  ‘I don’t know. Maybe just yielded back. It’s on what the cops here call public land.’

  ‘I went back fifty years in the title register and found no transfers.’

  ‘So maybe it’s still ours.’

  ‘In which case it would be costing us something. Biannual inspections and a little maintenance at the least. But there’s no expenditure record.’

  ‘There has got to be something. Not even the army builds places and then forgets all about them.’

  ‘Is it fenced?’

  ‘I don’t know. I’m five miles away. Why?’

  ‘Because not even the army builds places and then forgets all about them. Therefore the absence of records could mean it’s on a different list. It could have been a secret installation.’

  Reacher said, ‘They all were.’

  ‘Some more than others.’

  ‘The old folks here remember a security cordon.’

  ‘There was always a security cordon.’

  ‘How secret could it be? They put construction workers on the site.’

  ‘Secret then, abandoned now. Maybe because it was very weird. Which could be important to you. But if you really want to know, I’m going to have to do some digging.’

  ‘Can you?’

  ‘It’ll cost you.’

  ‘Cost me what?’

  Warm, husky, breathy, intimate. ‘I want to know the story behind the dent in the desk.’

  ‘You don’t have time. You’ve got enough to do.’

  ‘Right now I’m just hanging out, waiting on a call.’

  ‘Something interesting?’

  ‘It’s pretty good.’

  ‘Tell me about it.’

  ‘That’s not the deal. This is about you telling me.’

  ‘I don’t want to talk through a switchboard.’

  ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about. Obviously the colonel’s head was righteous, or you would have been busted at the time. And the statute of limitations ran out long ago on damage to government property.’

  ‘How hard will you dig?’

  ‘As hard as you want me to.’

  ‘When is your call coming through?’

  ‘Soon, I hope.’

  ‘Then we don’t have time for the story. Get me what I need by tomorrow, and I’ll tell you then.’

  ‘You drive a hard bargain.’

  ‘I was hoping for something for nothing.’

  ‘At least give me a hint.’

  ‘OK,’ Reacher said. ‘It wasn’t a colonel. It was a one-star general.’

  Plato decided on an early dinner, because he was hungry, because he had skipped lunch. So he showed up in his kitchen. It was something he liked to do occasionally. He felt it demonstrated solidarity with the people who worked for him. He felt it was inclusive and democratic. But it always came out feudal. His people would bob and bow and scrape and get all flushed and flustered. Probably because they were afraid of him. But they had no reason. He had never victimized his domestic staff. None of them had ever suffered. Not the current generation, anyway. Two of their predecessors were buried on the property, but no one presently in his employ knew anything about that.

  He ordered a cold appetizer and a hot entrée and took a beer from the refrigerator and went to wait in the smaller outdoor dining area. He took out his cell and dialled the walled villa a hundred miles away in the
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