Make me, p.15
Part #20 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Chang said, “Yes, really, because there’s a lot of regular East Coast traffic, plus all the shuttles between D.C. and New York and Boston. Now can we move on? Can we dial the next number?”
Westwood dialed the next number, which was the fourth, which was 901 for Memphis. The first land line, probably. They heard the dialing noises, and then the ring tone, loud in the room.
The call was answered.
There was a hollow clonk as a heavy handset was lifted, and a male voice said, “Yes?”
Westwood sat up straight again, and ran through the same bullshit as before, his name, the LA Times, the returned call, the apology for the delay.
The voice said, “Sir, I’m not sure I understand.”
The guy was old, Reacher figured, slow-spoken and courtly, and if he wasn’t from Memphis, he was from somewhere very close by.
Westwood said, “You called me at the LA Times, two or three months ago, with something on your mind.”
The old guy said, “Sir, if I did, I surely have no recollection of it. And if I offended you in any way at all, why then, certainly I apologize.”
“No, you didn’t offend me, sir. No apology required. I want to know more about your concerns. That’s all.”
“Oh, I have very few concerns. My situation is blessed.”
“Then why did you call me?”
“I really can’t answer that question. I’m not even certain I did.”
Westwood glanced at Chang, and back to the screen, and took a breath ready to speak again, but there was a muffled sound on the speaker, and another clonk, apparently as the handset was wrestled away, because at that point a woman’s voice came on the line and said, “Who is this, please?”
Westwood said, “Ashley Westwood, ma’am, at the LA Times, returning a call from this number.”
“A recent call?”
“Two or three months ago.”
“That will have been my husband.”
“May I speak with him?”
“You just were.”
“I see. He didn’t remember the call.”
“He wouldn’t. Two or three months is a very long time.”
“Would you have any idea what the call might have been about?”
Westwood didn’t answer.
The woman said, “I’m not judging you. If I could tune him out, I would. Are you a political writer or a science writer?”
Westwood said, “Science.”
“Then it will have been about granite countertops being radioactive. That’s this year’s topic. Which they are, as a matter of fact, but it’s a question of degree. I’m sure he asked you to write a story about it. You and many others.”
“Do you know how many others?”
“A small number compared to the population of the United States, but a large number compared to how many hours an old man should spend on the telephone.”
Westwood said, “Ma’am, is it possible he hired a private detective?”
The woman said, “For what?”
“To help him with his investigations into the granite situation.”
“No, it would be most unlikely.”
“Can you be certain?”
“The facts are not in dispute. There’s nothing to investigate. And he has no access to money. He couldn’t hire anybody.”
“Not even cash?”
“Not even. Don’t ask. And don’t get old.”
“Does your husband have a cell phone?”
“Could he have gotten one, maybe from a drugstore?”
“No, he never leaves the house.”
“Have people died because of the granite?”
“He says so.”
“How many, exactly?”
“OK,” Westwood said. “Thank you. I’m sorry for disturbing you.”
“My pleasure,” the woman said. “Makes a change, talking to someone else.”
They heard a slow pause, and a final clonk, as the big old handset was put back in its cradle.
Westwood said, “Welcome to my life.”
Chang said, “It’s better than hers.”
Westwood dialed the fifth number. Area code 773, which was Chicago. It rang and rang, way past the point where an answering machine would have cut it short. Then suddenly an out-of-breath woman came on the line, and said, “City Library, Lincoln Park, volunteer room.” She sounded very young and very cheerful, and very busy.
Westwood introduced himself and asked who he was talking to. The kid gave a name, no hesitation at all, but said she had never called the LA Times, and knew no private detectives. Westwood asked her if the phone they were on was used by other people, and she said yes, by all the volunteers. She said she was one of them. She said the volunteer room was where they left their coats and took their breaks. There was a phone in there, and time to use it, occasionally. She said the Lincoln Park library was a little ways north of downtown Chicago, and it had dozens of volunteers, always changing, young and old, men and women, all of them fascinating. But no, none of them seemed to be obsessed about anything scientific. Not overtly. Certainly not to the extent of calling distant newspapers.
Westwood checked his list, for the name against the 773 number, as recorded contemporaneously in the company database. He said, “Do you know a volunteer called McCann? I’m not entirely sure if it would be Mr. or Ms.”
“No,” the kid said. “I never heard that name.”
Westwood asked, “How long have you volunteered there?”
“A week,” the kid said, and Westwood thanked her, and she said he was welcome, and he said he guessed he should let her go, and she said well yes, she had things to do, and Westwood hung up.
He dialed the last number. Area code 505, which was New Mexico.
The New Mexico number rang four times, and was answered by a man with a quiet, defeated voice. Westwood gave his name and ran through his standard preamble, the LA Times, the returned call, the apology for the delay, the sudden revival of interest in the issue. There was a long pause, and the quiet man on the other end of the line said, “That was then. It would be a different story now.”
Westwood said, “How so?”
“I know what I saw. At first no one would listen, including you, I’m afraid. But then the police department sent a detective. A young man, casually dressed, but keen. He said he was from a special confidential unit, and he took my report. He said I should sit tight and do nothing more. But then a week later I saw him in uniform, on traffic duty. He was writing parking tickets. He wasn’t a detective at all. The police department had fobbed me off with a rookie. To keep me quiet, I suppose. To head me off.”
Westwood said, “Tell me again exactly what you saw.”
“A spacecraft in the desert, just landed, with six passengers disembarking. They resembled humans, but weren’t. And the important thing was the craft looked to have no means of taking off again. It was a landing module only. Which meant those creatures were set to stay. Which begged a question. Were they the first? If not, how many came before them? How many are already here? Do they already control the police department? Do they already control everything?”
Westwood said nothing.
The quiet man said, “So now the story would be psychological, rather than purely scientific. How does an individual cope, when he knows something, but is forced to pretend he doesn’t?”
Westwood asked, “Did you hire a private detective?”
“I tried to. The first three I called wouldn’t take on extraterrestrial investigations. Then I realized it would be safer to lie low. That’s the issue now. The stress. I suppose many of us are in the same boat. We know, but we feel like the only one, because we can’t talk to each other. Maybe that’s what you should write about. The isolation.”
“What happened to the spaceship?”
“I couldn’t find it agai
“Has anyone died as a result?”
“I don’t know. Possibly.”
“One or two, conceivably. I mean, a controlled landing implies considerable energy. Flames from retro rockets, and so on. It might have been dangerous, inside a certain perimeter. And no one knows what they do later, after they settle in.”
“Do you have a cell phone?”
“No, the radiation is too dangerous. It can cause brain cancer.”
“Does the name Keever mean anything to you? Is he one of the folks you called?”
“No, I never heard that name.”
“Thank you,” Westwood said. “I’ll be back in touch.”
He hung up.
Chang said, “I know, welcome to your life.”
Westwood said, “Welcome to New Mexico.”
He deleted the third, the fourth, and the sixth numbers from his temporary list. He said, “Beam boy and granite guy and close encounters guy aren’t it, agreed? Which leaves us the abandoned cell phone in Louisiana, and the abandoned cell phone in Mississippi, and the volunteer room in Chicago. We cut the odds in half, at least.”
He neatened up the new three-line layout on his screen. At the top was the Louisiana number, which ten weeks ago had belonged to a person named Headley, according to the database, and below it was the Mississippi number, with the name Ramirez, and below that was the Chicago rec room, one user of which had been the elusive Mr. McCann, according to the database, or Ms. McCann, neither of which the out-of-breath kid had ever heard of.
Westwood printed the page and handed it to Chang.
She said, “Try the Maloney number again.”
Westwood dialed it, beep-boop-bap, and it rang and rang, and it wasn’t answered, and voice mail didn’t cut in.
He hung up, after another whole minute of trying.
Reacher said, “We need a list of everything you published in the last six months.”
Westwood said, “Why?”
“Because why else would the guy call you? He saw something you wrote. We need to know what it was.”
“That won’t help us find him.”
“I agree. It won’t. But we need to know what kind of guy we’re dealing with when we get there. We need to know what his problem is.”
“All my stuff is on the web site. You can check it, going back years.”
“OK,” Reacher said. “Many thanks for your help.”
“We’ll figure something out. Like you said, we cut the odds in half. We have three to choose from. We’ll track them down.”
“Here’s another theory,” Westwood said. “I checked Keever’s web page, obviously, and Ms. Chang’s too. It all looks very competent. I’m sure you have all kinds of resources available to you, including your own private databases, and reverse phone directories, and possibly your own sources inside the phone companies themselves. Therefore my new theory is you don’t need me anymore. My theory is you’ll cut me out completely now.”
“We won’t,” Chang said. “We’ll keep you in the loop.”
“Why would you?”
“We don’t want the book rights.”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“I’m too busy and he can barely write his own name with a crayon.”
Reacher said nothing.
Westwood said, “So I stay in?”
Chang said, “All for one and one for all.”
“Cross my heart.”
“But only if it’s a good story. Please don’t bring me beams or granite or spaceships.”
Reacher and Chang left Westwood in his office, and rode the elevator back to the street. Chang had a laptop computer in her suitcase, and all she needed was a quiet space and a wifi connection, and then she could get to work, with her private databases, and her reverse phone directories, and her list of sources inside the phone companies themselves. Which meant a hotel, which meant finding a taxi. There was one parked at the curb across the street, and Reacher whistled and waved at it, but for some reason it took off fast in the other direction without them. Every city had its own hailing protocol, and it was hard to keep track. They walked north toward the children’s museum and found cabs lined up and ready to go. The kind of places Reacher knew in LA weren’t notably quiet and might not have had wifi, so he let Chang decide their destination. She told the driver West Hollywood, and the guy set out through the traffic.
Ten minutes later, twenty miles south of Mother’s Rest, the man with the ironed jeans and the blow-dried hair took a third call on his land line. This time his contact was in a chatty mood. The guy said, “It was a gift. They met in the LA Times office for nearly an hour. Which is an old building with thick walls. But Hackett got lucky. Apparently most of the business was done on the phone, and apparently Westwood uses his phone in a dock on his desk, and his desk is under his window, so Hackett had an amplified signal blasting straight through the glass. His scanner nearly blew up. They made seven calls in total. Two were expired cell phones, one was a cell phone that didn’t answer, and one was a public phone in Chicago. The other three were weirdoes they gave up on. Keever’s name was mentioned once, and private detectives in general all three times, plus once more to the shared number in Chicago, where Westwood also asked about the name McCann.”
The man south of Mother’s Rest was quiet for a very long time.
Then he said, “But no real progress?”
“That’s for you to decide. They got three possibles. I’m sure one of them was Keever’s client, and I’m sure you know which. They got phone data, which can be checked. I’ve seen things go bad from less.”
“I need to know if they contact the phone companies. Like a distant early warning system. And if they do, I need to know what the phone companies tell them.”
“That would cost extra, I’m afraid. Phone companies can be secretive. Palms would need to be greased.”
“Then what happened?”
“Then it got a little comical.”
“Westwood stayed inside and Reacher and Chang left.”
“Where did they go?”
“That’s where it got comical. Hackett lost them. He was posing as a cab driver. No better cover in a city. But Reacher tried to hail him, so he had to take off fast.”
“That’s not good.”
“He has Chang’s phone in his system. As soon as she makes a call, he’ll know exactly where they are.”
The address in West Hollywood that Chang chose was a motel, not unlike the one in Mother’s Rest, except its more glamorous location made it hip and ironic rather than old and sad. Reacher paid cash for a room, which had a desk and a chair and a choice of wired or wireless connection. But best of all it had a king-size bed, flat and wide and firm. They both looked at it, and kissed, meaning it, but only briefly, like people who knew they had work to do first. Chang sat down and plugged in her laptop. She unfolded the paper Westwood had printed. Three names, three numbers. She said, “Are you a gambling man?”
Reacher said, “Louisiana is right next to Arkansas, which could
Make Me by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes