Personal, p.16
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       Personal, p.16
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         Part #19 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  I said, ‘What am I, a doctor?’

  ‘We have to find a hospital.’

  ‘Hospitals have the cops on speed dial.’

  ‘We could dump the truck at the door, and run.’

  I drove on, with no real idea where I was headed, taking the easy option at every junction, going with the flow, on roads that seemed endlessly long but never straight. I guessed we were aiming basically north, away from the river. I guessed Romford was somewhere on our right. We passed all kinds of places, including every kind of no-name fast food, kebabs, fried chicken, pizza, hamburgers, and every kind of insurance bureau, and phone shops, and carpet shops. No hospitals. If the guy had stopped breathing, he had died minutes ago.

  I pulled off into a lumpy blacktop rectangle boxed in on two sides by two rows of single-car garages. The space between them was empty, but for a broken and rusted bicycle. No people. No activity. I stopped the van and fumbled the shift into neutral and turned around.

  And looked.

  And waited.

  The guy wasn’t breathing.

  The other guy was staring at me. The bottom part of his face was a mask of red. The top part was pale. Now he was white. His nose was badly busted. His eyes were wide open. I said to him, ‘I’m going to come around and open up. You mess with me in any way at all, I’ll do to you what I did to him.’

  He didn’t answer.

  I said, ‘Do you understand?’

  He said, ‘Yes.’

  Little bubbles of blood formed at the corners of his mouth.

  I opened the door and climbed out and walked around. Casey Nice did the same thing on her side. I turned the rear handle and opened up. The guy who was breathing was on the left, and the guy who wasn’t was on the right. I put my arm in, as a test. No reaction. So I found a wrist on the right and checked for a pulse.

  Nothing there.

  I leaned right in and knelt up and felt for the neck. The guy was still warm. I pulled his collar down a little and got my fingers in behind the point of his jaw. I kept them there a good long time, just in case. I looked here and there, waiting. The guy had a twice-pierced ear. And a small tattoo on his neck, just peeking out from under his collar. It looked like a leaf twisting in the wind.

  He was dead.

  I said, ‘We should search his pockets. We should search both of them.’

  I stepped sideways, to start in on the live guy.

  She said, ‘I can’t do that.’

  I said, ‘Do what?’

  ‘Search a dead man.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Too creepy.’

  ‘Want to swap?’

  ‘Could you do both?’

  ‘Sure,’ I said. So I did. The live guy had suspiciously little in his pockets. And what he had was a little suspicious. By the time I had finished with his pants I was sure he wasn’t a cop. He had too much cash money, for one thing. Hundreds and hundreds of British pounds, maybe even thousands, in a huge greasy roll. Cops are public servants, which doesn’t make them paupers, but they live lives of payments and budgets and credit cards bending under the strain. Added to which the guy had no communication device. Nothing at all. Nowhere. No cell phone, no radio. Which was unthinkable, for a cop during work hours.

  I kept his money and passed his ID wallet to Nice and said, ‘Check it out.’

  Then I started in on the dead guy, and came away with an identical haul. Cash money, and an ID wallet. I kept the money and gave the wallet to Nice. She had the first one in pieces. She said, ‘I guess you were right. This is phoney. The plastic is deliberately scratched, and I think the yellowing is a highlighter pen. The ID card is a Word document, and the shield is a low-resolution image printed off a website, I imagine.’

  I looked back at the dead guy’s tattoo. Maybe it wasn’t a twisted leaf. Because why would a big tough guy want a twisted leaf? Or any kind of a leaf? Unless he was a conservationist, which I was sure he wasn’t.

  Maybe it was something else.

  I said, ‘Watch this.’

  I leaned in and untied the guy’s tie, and snaked it out of his collar, and ripped open the first four buttons on his shirt, and folded it back like a guy at a disco way back in the day.

  The tattoo was not a leaf. It was a curlicue, a little decorative flourish adorning the top left corner of a letter of the alphabet, a capital, which started the first word of a two-word name or label, written in a curve high on his chest, where a woman would wear a necklace.

  Romford Boys.

  ‘In case they go to prison,’ I said. ‘The other guys leave them alone.’

  I closed the doors again and checked the handle.

  Secure.

  Casey Nice said nothing.

  ‘What?’ I said.

  ‘It was too big of a risk. Suppose you were wrong? It was only words.’

  ‘It was people looking away. Because they know what’s good for them. Maybe they’re used to it. Maybe those black vans mean only one thing in that neighbourhood. Maybe that’s how people disappear, never to be seen again.’

  She said nothing.

  ‘And there were only two of them. If we were being chased up as unacknowledged foreign assets, they’d have given the job to Special Branch, who need to justify their enormous budget, plus they love drama anyway, so they’d have brought half a dozen SWAT teams, with tear gas. We’d have been outnumbered fifty to one. It would have been a war zone. It’s not like the movies any more. They don’t walk around town wearing trench coats.’

  ‘When did you know?’

  ‘They should have used a sedan. And they should have said they were MI5. You expect all kinds of bullshit from those guys.’

  We got back in the front of the van and I leaned over and checked the glove box. There were two cell phones in there, both pre-paid burners with a set number of pre-paid minutes, both still in their drugstore packaging, effectively untraceable if bought with cash, which I was sure they had been. Diligent security, overall. Clearly the Romford Boys ran a tight ship. Any kind of operation was a point of vulnerability. Even picking up two unsuspecting strangers outside a cheap hotel. Anything could have happened. We might have struggled, and an unbribed cop might have driven by, at exactly the wrong moment. Hence no guns, and no knives, and no used phones. Less latitude for the prosecutor, less data for the files.

  I waggled the stick, left, and up, and bumped across the blacktop, back to the road.

  We drove south a mile, and then turned east for Romford. I like trash talk as much as the next guy, and I wanted to find the best place for a statement. I wanted the van found after a day of worry, and I wanted to see who did the finding, and I wanted to see it from a safe and secure location. So we put those three moving parts in play and cruised around until we found a spot that checked the boxes. Which was a cracked concrete parking lot behind a small supermarket. In turn behind the lot was the back of a guest house. The guest house was carved out of two old townhouses made into one, and it had plenty of windows. Casey Nice got a map on her phone and checked the area. It was satisfactory. The guest house was on a major north–south road, and there were turns east and west close by.

  She said, ‘But they’ll have eyes in there, surely. Obviously they did in the minicab company. In exchange for a discount on their protection money, probably. Maybe a big discount. The guy who took us to Wallace Court must have phoned it in immediately.’

  ‘Because Wallace Court was on their radar,’ I said. ‘This place isn’t. And they think they’ve got us now, anyway. They won’t start looking again until they find this van. So we’re OK for the time being.’

  We circled once more and pulled up a hundred yards short of the parking lot entrance. I told Casey Nice I would meet her on the corner. She said, ‘There might be a camera in the parking lot.’

  I said, ‘I’ll keep my head down.’

  ‘Not enough. You’re very distinctive.’

  ‘We’ll be out of the country before they look at the tapes.’

&nb
sp; She didn’t answer. Just got out and walked away. I knew exactly what we had touched, and I wiped it all with the dead guy’s tie, exterior handles, interior handles, steering wheel, shifter, column stalks, seat latch, seat-belt latch, glove-box latch. I dumped the tie in the gutter and shrugged my coat down off my shoulders and pulled the sleeves down over my hands, and I drove like that through the last short stretch and parked in a random slot near the supermarket’s loading door. I stopped the engine, and pulled the key, and blipped the lock, and walked away, bent at the neck and staring at the concrete beneath my feet.

  Nice was waiting on the corner, and we walked another block and turned again, on a road that was wider and busier than most, with four lanes, with buses and trucks and bumper-tobumper traffic. We found the guest house’s front door, exactly where it should have been. We went in, and found a lobby that might have been fresh and clean about thirty years ago, but wasn’t any more. We asked for a room on the back. We said we were worried about noise from the road. We said the airline had lost our bags, and was supposed to bring them over. I paid in cash from the dead guy’s roll, and we got a big brass key, and we headed upstairs.

  The room was cold, and a little damp, but the window was big, and we got an excellent view. The lot was right there, about forty-five degrees below us. The van was clearly visible, its back to us. Casey Nice sat on the bed, and I used a chair from a dressing table, set far from the window. I didn’t want someone to glance up and see two pale ovals pressed against the glass. Always better to be well back in the dark, like John Kott in Paris, on the dining-room table.

  We waited, like I had many times before. Waiting was a big part of law enforcement, and a big part of army life generally. Long slow periods of nothing much, with occasional bursts of something. I was good at it, and Casey Nice turned out to be good at it too. She stayed awake, which was the main thing. She rested easy, not staring intently, but keeping her gaze where she would notice movement. At one point she used the bathroom, and I wondered about pills, but I didn’t say anything.

  Then she asked the inevitable question. She said, ‘Do you feel bad about the guy?’

  I said, ‘What guy?’

  ‘The guy who died.’

  ‘You mean the guy I killed in cold blood?’

  ‘I suppose.’

  ‘Some tough guy he was.’

  ‘Do you feel bad?’

  ‘No,’ I said.

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Do you?’

  ‘A little.’

  ‘You didn’t do anything to him.’

  ‘Even so.’

  ‘He had a choice,’ I said. ‘He could have spent his days helping old ladies across the street. He could have volunteered in the library. I expect they have a library here. He could have raised funds for Africa, or wherever they need funds these days. He could have done a whole lot of good things. But he didn’t. He chose not to. He chose to spend his days extorting money and hurting people. Then finally he opened the wrong door, and what came out at him was his problem, not mine. Plus he was useless. A waste of good food. Too stupid to live.’

  ‘Stupidity isn’t a capital crime. And there’s no death penalty here, anyway.’

  ‘There is now.’

  She didn’t reply to that, and we lapsed back into silence. The afternoon light faded, and a yellow vapour lamp came on in the parking lot below us. It was up on a tall pole, and it caught most of the black panel van. Other cars came and parked and went away again. Every one of their drivers glanced at the van, and then looked away. At first I thought it was because they must know whose van it was, and were therefore unsettled. Then I realized there must be another reason.

  I said, ‘The other guy must be banging and hollering.’

  Which was a mistake on my part. I should have told him not to. Or made sure he couldn’t. It was going to screw up my time line. I wasn’t going to drop a day of worry on them. Couple hours, at most. Although initially there seemed to be a marked lack of enthusiasm among the population of Romford for playing the Good Samaritan. No one did a damn thing for the guy. They all just glanced away and got out the lot as fast as they could. Proof once again, I supposed, that tyrants inspire no love or loyalty.

  Casey Nice said, ‘I’m hungry.’

  I said, ‘I’m sure there’s food on the block. Kebabs, fried chicken, pizza, hamburgers, whatever you want. This place seems to be the fast-food capital of the world.’

  ‘Should we get something?’

  ‘Eat when you can. That’s the golden rule.’

  ‘Are you hungry?’

  ‘A little.’

  ‘What would you prefer?’

  ‘Pizza,’ I said. ‘Plain cheese. Smaller chance of rats and pigeons among the ingredients. Or cats and dogs.’

  ‘Something to drink?’

  ‘Whatever was made in a factory and comes in a sealed container.’

  ‘Will I be safe?’

  ‘Depends what you order.’

  ‘I mean, walking around here.’

  ‘You worried about getting mugged?’

  ‘I’m worried about getting spotted by a Romford Boy.’

  ‘They aren’t looking for us. They think they’ve got us.’

  ‘There’s a difference between actively looking for us and accidentally spotting us.’

  ‘If you had seven words to describe yourself, what would you say?’

  ‘You mean physically or psychologically?’

  ‘I mean, suppose you were the minicab driver, diming us out.’

  ‘I’m not sure.’

  ‘Female, average height, ponytail, brown leather jacket. That’s what he said. Nothing you can do about your height or your gender, but you can take out your ponytail and lose your jacket. Then you’re just a twenty-something woman in jeans and a T-shirt. Of which there are a hundred thousand around here. Safe as houses.’

  So she reached up behind her and pulled out whatever elastic band she had in there, and she shook her head, and her hair fell loose. She slipped the jacket off one shoulder, and then the other, and she pulled it down over her arms, and she laid it on the bed, and she turned back to face me.

  Did she look like Dominique Kohl? Yes and no. Not really, in that she shaded towards the Scandinavian end of the gene pool, and Kohl was closer to the Mediterranean. Kohl had darker skin, and darker hair, and darker eyes. The weeks I had known her had been exceptionally hot, even for D.C. in the summer, and she had gotten browner and dustier as the days went by. She had worn shorts most of the time, and a T-shirt. And it was the T-shirt that connected her to Nice. Kohl’s had been olive green, and Nice’s was white, but under those flimsy garments were young, fit women in the peak of condition, lean, smooth, somehow flexible and fluent and elastic, somehow identical. Outwardly, at least. Inwardly was different. Where Nice was diffident, Kohl had been bolder, completely sure of her capabilities, notably self-confident, absolutely ready to beat the world.

  It hadn’t saved her.

  I said, ‘Take care.’

  Nice said, ‘I’ll be back in ten.’

  She left, and I heard her footsteps fade in the hallway. I ducked away from the window for a second and put my hand in her jacket pocket. I pulled out the orange plastic bottle.

  She had three pills left.

  TWENTY-NINE

  I SAT ALONE and watched the little supermarket’s parking lot, and I saw the same things repeated over and over again. Drivers would park their cars, and get out, and glance at the black van, suddenly startled and unsure, and then they would avert their eyes and hustle inside the store. They would come out again minutes later and drive away as fast as they could.

  Ten minutes passed, and Casey Nice didn’t come back.

  The sky behind the light on the pole went full dark, and a little night mist came down, and a scrim of dew formed on the black van, which rocked and bounced from time to time. The live guy inside must have been getting desperate. Maybe he needed the bathroom.

  Fifteen minutes gone,
and Casey Nice didn’t come back.

  Then finally a driver parked his car, and got out, and glanced at the black van, and didn’t walk away. He was a young guy, maybe twenty, with a pudding-bowl haircut all slicked down with grease. He took a cautious step towards the van and cocked his head and listened. He took another step and peered in through the driver’s window, from the side, and then he craned his neck and peered in through the windshield, from the front.

  He took his cell phone out of his pocket. Contract labour, maybe, anxious to prove his worth. He listened again, presumably to the live guy
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