61 hours, p.16
Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Reacher said, ‘It made more sense. There are empty beds here and Kim Peterson doesn’t need protection.’
‘Was this Andrew’s idea or yours?’
‘Is Mrs Salter OK?’
‘Let me see her.’
Reacher stepped back and Holland stepped in and closed the door. Janet Salter came out of the parlour. Holland asked her, ‘Are you OK?’
She nodded. She said, ‘I’m fine. And I’m very grateful that you came. I appreciate it very much. But really you should be on your way to the prison.’
Holland nodded. ‘I was. But I didn’t want you to be alone.’
‘Rules are rules.’
‘I’ll be fine. I’m sure Mr Reacher will prove more than capable.’
Holland glanced back at Reacher. Wretched conflict in his face, just like the cop from the hallway. Reacher asked him, ‘What’s happening up there?’
Holland said, ‘Blacks and whites having at it. A regular prison riot.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘Bottom line, what happens if you don’t go?’
‘The department is disgraced, and I get fired. After that, no one really knows.’
‘I don’t want to.’ A simple statement. The way Holland said it and the way he stood there afterwards made Reacher think he had more on his mind than his duty to Mrs Salter. He wanted to stay indoors, comfortable, in the warm, where he was safe.
Holland was scared.
Reacher asked him, ‘Have you ever worked a prison before?’
Holland said, ‘No.’
‘There’s nothing to it. You’ll be on the fence and in the towers. Anyone tries to get through, you shoot them dead. Simple as that. They know the rules. And they won’t try, anyway. Not at a moment’s notice in this kind of weather. They’ll stay inside, fighting. They’ll burn out eventually. They always do. You’re going to get cold and bored, but that’s all.’
‘Have you worked prisons?’
‘I’ve worked everything. Including personal protection. And with all due respect, I can do at least as good a job as you. So you should let me. That way everyone wins.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I can look after the situation here, you can take care of your people up there.’
‘It could last for hours. Even days.’
‘Actually it could last for weeks. But if it looks like it’s going to, then you can regroup.’
Reacher nodded. ‘You can’t work around the clock for days on end. Not all of you. No one could expect that. You can establish some flexibility after the first panic is over.’
Holland didn’t answer. Outside the siren suddenly died. It just cut off mid-wail and absolute silence came crashing back. A total absence of sound, like the air itself was refreezing.
Reacher said, ‘That probably means you’re all supposed to be up there by now.’
Holland nodded, slow and unsure, once, then twice. He looked at Janet Salter and said, ‘At least come with me in the car. I need to know you’re safe.’
Janet Salter said, ‘That’s not permitted, Chief Holland. Rules are rules. But don’t worry. I’ll be safe here, with Mr Reacher.’
Holland stood still a moment longer. Then he nodded a third time, more decisively. His mind was made up. He turned abruptly and headed out the door. His car was still running. A thin cloud of exhaust was pooling behind the trunk. He climbed in and K-turned and drove away and out of sight. White vapour trailed after him and hung and dispersed. The small sound of his chains on the packed snow died back to nothing.
Reacher closed the door.
The house went quiet again.
Tactically the best move would have been to lock Janet Salter in the basement. But she refused to go. She just stood in the hallway with her hand on the butt of the gun in her pocket. She looked all around, one point of the compass, then the next, as if she suddenly understood that the four walls that were supposed to protect her were really just four different ways in. There were doors and windows all over the place. Any one of them could be forced or busted in an instant.
Second best would have been to stash her in her bedroom. Second-floor break-ins were much less common than first-floor. But she wouldn’t go upstairs, either. She said she would feel she had nowhere to run.
‘You won’t be running,’ Reacher said. ‘You’ll be shooting.’
‘Not while you’re here, surely.’
‘Twelve holes in the guy are better than six.’
She was quiet for a beat. She looked at him like he was an alien.
She asked, ‘Shouldn’t you be patrolling outside?’
‘It would take me far too long to get from front to back, if I had to. And my finger wouldn’t fit in the trigger guard with gloves on. And it’s too cold to go out without gloves.’
‘So we just wait in here?’
Reacher nodded. ‘That’s right. We wait in here.’
They waited in the parlour. Reacher figured it was the best choice. It overlooked the front, and given the snow on the ground, frontal approach was the most likely. And even if an actual approach was not attempted, the parlour was still the best room. The way it looked out under the lip of the porch roof and across the whole of its depth meant that a potential sniper would have to line up front and centre to get a shot. He would be spotted twenty paces before he even raised the rifle to his eye.
There were many other possible dangers. Bombs or fire bombs were top of the list. But if that kind of thing was coming their way, it didn’t really matter which room they were in.
The clock ticked past nine and marked the end of their first hour alone. The street outside was deserted. Reacher made a careful sweep of the interior perimeter. The front door, locked. The first floor windows, all closed. The French doors in the library, locked. The back door, locked. Second storey windows, all good. Most of them were inaccessible without a ladder. The only viable possibility was a bedroom window at the front, which had the back edge of the porch roof directly under its sill. But there was a lot of snow out there. The porch roof itself would be slippery and treacherous. Safe enough.
The weather was changing. A light wind was getting up. The night sky was clearing. The moon was bright and stars were visible. The temperature felt like it was dropping. Every window Reacher checked had a layer of air in front of it that was pulsing with cold. The wind didn’t help. It found invisible cracks and made invisible draughts and sucked heat out of the whole structure.
The wind didn’t help safety, either. It made strange sounds. Rustling, cracking, crackling noises, the brittle chafing of frozen foliage, hollow clicks and clonks from frozen tree limbs, a faint keening from the weird shapes on the power lines. In absolute terms the sounds were quiet, but Reacher could have done without them. He was depending on hearing the soft crunch and slide of feet on snow, and the chances of doing that were diminishing. And Janet Salter was talking from time to time, which made things worse, but he didn’t want to shut her up. She was nervous, understandably, and talking seemed to help her. He got back from a circuit of the house and she asked him, ‘How many times have you done this kind of thing before?’
He kept his eyes on the window and said, ‘Once or twice.’
‘And clearly you survived.’
He nodded. ‘So far.’
‘What’s your secret of success?’
‘I don’t like getting beaten. Better for all concerned that it just doesn’t happen.’
‘That’s a heavy burden to carry, psychologically. That kind of burning need for dominance, I mean.’
‘Are there people who enjoy getting beaten?’
‘It’s not black and white. You wouldn’t have to enjoy it.
‘Doesn’t work that way. Not in my line of work. You win some, and then you lose one. And then it’s game over.’
‘You’re still in the army, aren’t you?’
‘No, I’ve been out for years.’
‘In your head, I mean.’
‘Don’t you miss it?’
‘I heard you on the phone, with the woman in Virginia. You sounded alive.’
‘That was because of her. Not the army. She’s got a great voice.’
She didn’t answer. The clock ticked on. Nobody approached the house.
After an hour and a half Reacher had made four security sweeps and felt he knew the house pretty well. It had been built for an earlier generation, which had been in some ways tougher, and in some ways gentler. The windows had catches and the doors had locks, all solid well-machined pieces of brass, but nothing like the armour on sale at any modern hardware store. Which meant that there were forty-three possible ways in, of which fifteen were realistically practical, of which eight might be anticipated by a solo opponent of normal intelligence, of which six would be easy to defeat. The remaining two would be difficult to beat, but feasible, made harder by Janet Salter’s wandering presence. Lines of fire were always complicated. He thought again about insisting she lock herself downstairs, but she saw him thinking and started talking again, as if to head him off. He was at the parlour window, craning left, craning right, and she asked, ‘Was it your mother or your father who was a Marine?’
He said, ‘Excuse me?’
‘You told me you grew up on Marine Corps bases. I was wondering which of your parents made that necessary. Although I suppose it could have been both of them. Was that permitted? A husband and wife serving together?’
‘I don’t imagine so.’
‘So which one was it?’
‘It was my father.’
‘Tell me about him.’
‘Not much to tell. Nice guy, but busy.’
‘He probably thought I was. There were a hundred kids on every base. We ran around all day. We were in a world of our own.’
‘Is he still alive?’
‘He died a long time ago. My mother, too.’
‘It was the same for me,’ Janet Salter said. ‘I made myself distant. I was always reading.’
He didn’t reply, and she went quiet again. He watched the street. Nothing happening. He moved to the library and checked the yard. Nothing happening. The last of the cloud was moving away and the moon was brightening. It was a blue, cold, empty world out there.
Except that it wasn’t empty.
But nobody came.
Hide and seek. Maybe the oldest game in the world. Because of ancient thrills and fears buried deep in the back of every human’s brain. Predator and prey. The irresistible shiver of delight, crouching in the dark, hearing the footsteps pass by. The rush of pleasure in doubling back and wrenching open the closet door and discovering the victim. The instant translation of primeval terrors into modern-day laughter.
This was different.
There would be no laughter. There would be short seconds of furious gunfire and the stink of smoke and blood and then sudden deafened silence and a world-stands-still pause to look down and check yourself for damage. Then another pause to check your people. Then the shakes and the gulps and the need to throw up.
And this wasn’t hide and seek. Nobody was really hiding, and nobody was really seeking. Whoever was out there knew full well where Janet Salter was. An exact address would have been provided. Maybe turn-by-turn directions, maybe GPS coordinates. And she was just sitting right there, waiting for him. No art. Just brutality. Which disappointed Reacher a little. He was good at hide and seek. The real-world version, not the children’s game. Good at hiding, better at seeking. His former professional obligations had led him in that direction. He had been a good hunter of people. Fugitives, mainly. He had learned that empathy was the key. Understand their motives, their circumstances, their goals, their aims, their fears, their needs. Think like them. See what they see. Be them. He had gotten to the point where he could spend an hour with a case file, a second hour thinking, a third with maps and phone books, and then predict pretty much the exact building the guy would be found in.
He checked the view to the front.
No one there.
Just an empty white world that seemed to be frozen solid.
He glanced back at Janet Salter and said, ‘I need you to watch the front for me.’
‘I’ll be in the hallway for a spell. Anyone comes in through the kitchen or the library, I can get them in the corridor.’
‘Stay back in the shadows, but keep your eyes peeled.’
‘You see anything at all, you call out to me, loud and clear, with concise information. Numbers, location, direction, and description.’
‘And do it standing up.’
‘So if you fall asleep on the job I’ll hear you fall down.’
She took up a good position, well back in the room, invisible from outside, but with a decent angle. Her hand was still on the gun in her pocket. He stepped out to the hallway and moved the chair to the other side of the telephone table, so he could sit facing the rear of the house. He put his gun in his lap. Picked up the phone. Dialled the number he remembered.
A pause. A click. The voice. It said, ‘You have got to be kidding me. Two hours ago you gave me two weeks’ worth of work, and already you’re calling me for a result?’
‘No, I’m not, but I can’t give you two weeks anyway. I need something by tomorrow at the latest.’
‘What are you, nuts?’
‘You said you were better than me, and I could have done it in a day. So a night should be good enough for you.’
‘What is that, psychology? You took motivation classes up at West Point?’
Reacher kept his hand on his gun and his eyes on the kitchen door. He asked, ‘Did you catch your guy yet?’
‘No, can’t you tell?’
‘Where are you looking?’
‘All the airports, plus boats on the Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and New Orleans.’
‘He’s in a motel a little ways north of Austin. Almost certainly Georgetown. Almost certainly the second motel north of the bus depot.’
‘What, he’s wearing a secret ankle bracelet I don’t know about?’
‘No, he’s scared and alone. He needs help. Can’t get it anyplace except the overseas folks he’s in bed with. But he’s waiting to call them. They’ll help him if he’s clean, they’ll ditch him if he’s compromised. Maybe they’ll even kill him. He knows that. A fugitive from the law, that’s OK with them. A political fugitive, not so much. They’d worry about us tracking him all the way home, wherever home is. So he needs to know the news. He needs a media market that covers Fort Hood’s business. If it stays a plain vanilla domestic homicide, he’ll make the call. If it doesn’t, he’ll end up putting his gun in his mouth.’
‘We haven’t released the background.’
‘Then he’ll take a day or two to be sure, and then he’ll call them.’
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes