61 hours, p.15
Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
table with a chair next to it. Like phones used to be, back when one instrument was enough for a household and using it was a kind of ceremony.
Reacher dialled the number he remembered. He waited for the recording and dialled 110.
There was a click. Then the voice. No dial tone. She already had the phone in her hand. She said, ‘Either you’re crazy or the world is.’
Reacher said, ‘Or both.’
‘Whichever, I’m about ready to give up on you.’
‘Because the place you’re pestering me about doesn’t exist.’
Five to seven in the evening.
Thirty-three hours to go.
REACHER MOVED ON THE HALLWAY CHAIR AND SAID, ‘THE PLACE exists. For sure. I’d believe stone and eyewitness reports before I believed army paperwork.’
The voice said, ‘But you haven’t actually seen the stone for yourself.’
‘Not yet. But why would anyone invent a story like that?’
‘Then the place must have been unbelievably secret. They built it but never listed it anywhere.’
‘And then they let a construction camp get built right over it? How does that work?’
‘Everything changed, that’s how. It was top secret fifty years ago, and it was totally defunct by five years ago. Typical Cold War scenario. Probably declassified in the early nineties.’
‘I don’t care when it was declassified. I just want to know what it is.’
‘I could get on a plane. But you’re closer.’
Reacher asked, ‘How’s your case?’
‘Still waiting. Which doesn’t encourage me. It will probably fall apart by morning.’
‘You working all night?’
‘You know how it is.’
‘So use the down time. Check Congressional appropriations for me. The purpose will be redacted, but the money will be listed. It always is. We can make a start that way.’
‘You know how big the defence budget was fifty years ago? You know how many line items there were?’
‘You’ve got all night. Look for South Dakota involvement, House or Senate. I don’t see any real strategic value up here, so it could have been a pork barrel project.’
‘Checking those records is a lot of work.’
‘What did you expect? A life of leisure? You should have joined the navy.’
‘We have a deal, Reacher. Remember? So tell me about the one-star general.’
‘You’re wasting time.’
‘I’ve got time to waste. Sounds like you’re the one who hasn’t.’
‘It’s a long story.’
‘The best stories always are. Summarize if you like, but make sure you hit all the main points.’
‘I’m on someone else’s phone here. I can’t run up a big bill.’
The voice said, ‘Wait one.’ There was a click and a second of dead air and then the voice came back. ‘Now you’re on the government’s dime.’
‘You could be working the money for me.’
‘I am. I already put a guy on it thirty-five minutes ago. I maintain standards here, believe me. However good you were, I’m better.’
‘I sincerely hope so.’
‘So, once upon a time, what happened?’
‘I went to Russia,’ he said. ‘Well after the fall of communism. We got a weird invitation to go inspect their military prisons. Nobody had the faintest idea why. But the general feeling was, why not? So we flew to Moscow and took a train way east. It was a big old Soviet-era thing with bunks and a dining car. We were on it for days. The food was awful. But awful in a way that felt familiar. So one night I went for a stroll up and down the train and stopped in at the kitchen. They were serving us American MREs. Our very own meals, ready to eat.’
‘U.S. Army rations? On a Soviet train?’
‘A Russian train by then, technically. They had coal-fired stoves in the kitchen car. Samovars and everything. They were heating pans of water and ripping open MRE packs and mixing them together. They had boxes and boxes of them.’
‘Did they try to hide them?’
‘The cooks didn’t know what they were. They couldn’t read English. Probably couldn’t read anything.’
‘So how had our MREs gotten there?’
‘That’s tomorrow’s instalment. You need to get back to work.’
‘I’m just waiting on a call.’
‘I can’t say.’
‘You know you want to tell me.’
‘An infantry captain killed his wife. Which happens. But this wasn’t any old wife. She had a job with Homeland Security. It’s possible the guy has ties overseas. It’s possible he was stealing documents from her and killed her to cover it up.’
‘What we call non-state actors.’
‘Terrorist organizations, anyway.’
‘Nice. That’s a Bronze Star right there.’
‘If I get the guy. Right now he’s in the wind.’
‘Tell me if he heads for South Dakota.’
She laughed. ‘How old are you, anyway?’
‘Younger than your desk.’
Five miles away in the prison mess hall all traces of the evening meal had been cleared away. But more than fifty men were still seated on the long benches. Some were white, some were brown, and some were black. All wore orange jumpsuits. They were sitting in three segregated groups, far from each other, like three island nations in a sea of linoleum.
Until a white man got up and walked across the room and spoke to a black man.
The white man was white in name only. His skin was mostly blue with tattoos. He was built like a house. He had hair to his waist and a beard that reached his chest. The black man was a little shorter, but probably heavier. He had biceps the size of footballs and a scalp shaved so close it gleamed.
The white man said, ‘The Mexicans owe us two cartons of smokes.’
The black man didn’t react in any way at all. Why would he? White and brown had nothing to do with him.
The white man said, ‘The Mexicans say you owe them two cartons of smokes.’
‘So we’ll collect direct from you. What goes around comes around.’
Which was a technically acceptable proposition. A prison was an economy. Cigarettes were currency. Like dollar bills earned selling a car in New York could be used for buying a TV in Los Angeles. But economic cooperation implied the existence of laws and treaties and détente, and all three were in short supply between black and white.
Then the white man said, ‘We’ll collect in the form of ass. Something tender. The youngest and sweetest you got. Two nights, and then you’ll get her back.’
In Janet Salter’s house the four women cops were handing over. The day watch was going off duty, and the night watch was coming on. One of the night watch came out of the kitchen and took up her post in the hallway. The other headed for the library. The day watch climbed the stairs. Janet Salter herself said she was headed for the parlour. Reacher guessed she wanted to spend some time on her own. Being protected around the clock was socially exhausting for all parties concerned. But she invited him in with her.
The parlour was different from the library in no significant way at all. Similar furniture, similar décor, similar shelves, thousands more books. The window gave a view across the porch to the front. It had almost stopped snowing. The cop in the car on the street had gotten out from time to time to scrape his windows. There was a loaf of snow a foot high on the roof and the hood and the trunk, but the glass was clear. The cop was still awake and alert. Reacher could see his head turning. He was checking ahead, in the mirror, half left, half right. Not bad, for what must have been the twelfth hour of twelve. The
Janet Salter was wearing a cardigan sweater. It was long on her and the pockets were bagged. By, it turned out, a rag and a can of oil. She took them out and put them on a side table. The rag was white and the can was a small old green thing with Singer printed on it.
She said, ‘Go get the book I showed you.’
The night watch cop in the library turned around when Reacher came in. She was a small neat round-shouldered person made wider by her equipment belt. Her eyes flicked up, flicked down, flicked away. No threat. She turned back to the window. Behind her Reacher took the fake book off the shelf and hefted it under his arm. He carried it back to the parlour. Janet Salter closed the door behind him. He opened the leather box on the floor and lifted out the first revolver.
The Smith & Wesson Military and Police model had been first produced in 1899 and last modified three years later in 1902. The average height of American men in 1902 had been five feet seven inches, and their hands had been proportionately sized. Reacher was six feet five inches tall and had hands the size of supermarket chickens, so the gun was small for him. But his trigger finger fit through the guard, which was all that mattered. He pressed the thumb catch and swung the cylinder out. It was empty. He locked it back in and dry fired. Everything worked. But he felt the microscopic grind and scrape of steel that had been greased in the factory many decades earlier and never touched since. So he went to work with the rag and the can and tried again five minutes later and was much happier with the result. He repeated the process on the second gun. He capped the oil and folded the rag. Asked, ‘Where is the ammunition?’
Janet Salter said, ‘Upstairs in my medicine cabinet.’
‘Not a logical place, given that the guns were in the library.’
‘I thought I might have time, if it came to it.’
‘Lots of dead people thought that.’
‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’
‘This is a serious business.’
She didn’t answer. Just got up and left the room. Reacher heard the creak of the stairs. She came back with a crisp new box of a hundred Federal .38 Specials. Semi-wadcutters with hollow points. A good choice. She had been well advised by somebody. The 158-grain load was not the most powerful in the world, but the mushrooming effect of the hollow points would more than make up for it.
Reacher loaded six rounds into the first gun and kept the second empty. He said, ‘Look away and then look back and point your finger straight at me.’
Janet Salter said, ‘What?’
‘Just do it. Like I’m talking in class.’
‘I wasn’t that kind of teacher.’
‘Pretend you were.’
So she did. She made a good job of it. Maybe undergraduate students at Oxford University hadn’t been exactly what the world imagined. Her finger ended up pointing straight between his eyes.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Now do it again, but point at my chest.’
She did it again. Ended up pointing straight at his centre mass.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘That’s how to shoot. The gun barrel is your finger. Don’t try to aim. Don’t even think about it. Just do it, instinctively. Point at the chest, because that’s the biggest target. Even if you don’t kill him, you’ll ruin his day.’
Janet Salter said nothing. Reacher handed her the empty gun.
‘Try the trigger,’ he said.
She did. The hammer rose, the cylinder turned, the hammer fell. Nice and easy. She said, ‘I suppose there will be a certain amount of recoil.’
Reacher nodded. ‘Unless the laws of physics changed overnight.’
‘Will it be bad?’
Reacher shook his head. ‘The .38 Special is a fairly friendly round. For the shooter, I mean. Not much bang, not much kick.’
She tried the trigger again. The hammer rose, the cylinder turned, the hammer fell.
‘Now do it over and over,’ he said.
She did. Four, five, six times.
She said, ‘It’s tiring.’
‘It won’t be if it comes to it. And that’s what you’ve got to do. Put six rounds in the guy. Don’t stop until the gun is empty.’
‘This is awful,’ she said.
‘It won’t be if it comes to it. It’ll be you or him. You’ll be surprised how fast that changes your perspective.’
She passed the gun back to him. He asked her, ‘Where are you going to keep it?’
‘In the book, I guess.’
‘Wrong answer. You’re going to keep it in your pocket. At night you’re going to keep it under your pillow.’ He loaded six rounds into it. Locked the cylinder in place and passed it back. He said, ‘Don’t touch the trigger until you’re ready to kill the guy.’
‘I won’t be able to.’
‘I think you will.’
She asked, ‘Are you going to keep the other one?’
He nodded. ‘I’ll be sure to turn it in before I leave.’
Five to eight in the evening.
Thirty-two hours to go.
The prison siren started to wail.
THE SIREN WAS FIVE MILES AWAY TO THE NORTH, BUT ITS SOUND came through the frigid night very clearly. It was somewhere between loud and distant, somewhere between mournful and urgent, somewhere between everyday and alien. It shrieked and howled, it rose and fell, it screamed and whispered. It rolled across the flat land and down the silent snowy streets and shattered the crystal air it passed through.
The cops in the house reacted instantly. They had rehearsed, probably physically, certainly mentally. They had prepared themselves for the tough choice. The woman from the hallway ducked her head into the parlour. Conflict was all over her face. There was the sound of footsteps from the floor above. The day watch was scrambling. The woman from the library ran straight for her parka on the hat rack. Outside on the street the nearest cop car was already turning around. Broken slabs of snow were sliding off its roof and its hood and its trunk. The car from the mouth of the road was backing up fast. There were running feet on the stairs.
The woman from the hallway said, ‘Sorry.’
Then she was gone. She grabbed her coat and spilled out the door, the last to leave. The cop cars had their doors open. Reacher could hear furious radio chatter. The cops from the house threw themselves into the cars and the cars spun their wheels and slewed and churned away down the street. Reacher watched them go. Then he stepped back and closed the front door. His borrowed coat had fallen to the floor in the scramble. He put it back on a hook. It hung all alone on the rack.
The siren wailed on.
But the house went absolutely silent.
The house stayed silent for less than a minute. Then over the sound of the siren Reacher heard the patter of chains on snow and the grind of a big engine revving fast and urgent in a low gear. He checked the parlour window. Bright headlights. A Crown Vic. Unmarked. Black or dark blue. Hard to say, in the moonlight. It crunched to a stop at the end of the driveway and Chief Holland climbed out. Parka, hat, boots. Reacher tucked his gun in his waistband at the back and draped his sweater over it. He stepped out to the hallway. He opened the front door just as Holland made it up on the porch.
Holland looked surprised.
He said, ‘I didn’t know you were here.’
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes