Personal, p.18
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       Personal, p.18
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         Part #19 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  Casey Nice bought a toothbrush in the lobby shop, and we rode up in the elevator. I saw her to her door, and waited until it locked behind her, and then I continued on to my own room, which justified its top-tier status not by being notably large, but by having its bed more or less completely hidden under fat chintzy pillows. I swept them all to the floor, and threw my clothes after them, and climbed under the covers, and went straight to sleep.

  I was woken up eleven hours later by Casey Nice on the room phone. She sounded bright and cheerful. Whether that was due to eleven hours of sleep or better living through chemistry, I didn’t know. She said, ‘Do you want to get breakfast?’

  The clock in my head was showing just after eight in the morning, and there was bright daylight outside my window. I said, ‘Sure, come knock on my door when you’re ready.’

  Which she did, about ten minutes after I was showered and dressed. She was in the same outfit as the day before, obviously, but she didn’t seem unduly perturbed by it. We rode down to the restaurant, and got a table for two in the far corner. The place was full of sleek types discussing agendas and doing deals, some of them face to face, some of them on cell phones. I ordered British food, heavy on fat and sugar, but with coffee, not tea. Casey Nice chose lighter fare, and laid her phone next to her napkin, for easy reference.

  She said, ‘According to General O’Day, as of this morning neither MI5 nor the local police department knows anything about a casualty among the Romford Boys. Seems like Charlie White is playing it close to his vest.’

  I nodded. Par for the course. Standard procedure. The dead guy would have gone into a car crusher in a back street or a pig trough in a local Essex farm about the same time I was going to sleep.

  She said, ‘And General O’Day says so far six out of the eight nations have attempted undercover contact with the outer cordon, and they’ve all failed.’

  I nodded again. A no-brainer. The Romford Boys would be erring on the side of caution. They would take the small risk of missing a genuine deal, in order to protect their mission.

  She said, ‘We’ll get a full roster of names later today. And locations, but that data is difficult. There are lots of potential locations, including remote rural places. Plus we assume by now they’re already exploiting Karel Libor’s infrastructure. Which would give them more options.’

  I nodded for a third time. Kott and Carson were needles in one of about a hundred unknown haystacks, and they would stay that way for the time being.

  She said, ‘And the best approach to the Serbians is through a pawn shop in a place called Ealing. Which is an outer suburb, to the west, a little less than halfway back to the airport. I looked it up on the map.’

  ‘You’ve been busy. I hope you slept.’

  ‘I did,’ she said. ‘I feel great.’

  I didn’t ask about pills.

  She said, ‘You knew the minicab company was bent. Didn’t you? Right at the beginning.’

  I said, ‘Educated guess.’

  ‘You used them to attract attention. Like having them pick us up at the hotel and take us to Wallace Court. Which was the plan you made on the plane. You decided to make the cordon come to us.’

  Which was giving me more credit than I was due. Largely because of the word plan. I said, ‘I wasn’t sure what to expect. No one ever is. It’s all about reacting.’

  She paused a beat. ‘Are you saying you don’t have a plan?’

  ‘I have an overall strategic objective.’

  ‘Which is what?’

  ‘To get out of here before they check the tapes.’

  She said, ‘Let’s go to Ealing.’

  We started back at the St James’s Park subway station, where the map showed us the same District Line we had come in on then continued westward, all the way to a station called Ealing Broadway, which Casey Nice’s phone showed was the one we wanted, which we figured was extremely convenient. So we waited in the station, which was literally tubular, like the local name, the Tube, and we got on the train, and we settled in for the long journey. I said, ‘Talk to me.’

  She said, ‘What do you want me to say?’

  ‘Tell me where you were born. Where you grew up. The name of your pony.’

  ‘I didn’t have a pony.’

  ‘Did you have a dog?’

  ‘Most of the time. Sometimes more than one.’

  ‘With names?’

  ‘Why do you want to know?’

  ‘I want to hear you say it.’

  She said, ‘I was born in downstate Illinois. I grew up in downstate Illinois. On a farm. The dogs were usually named after presidents from the Democratic party.’

  I said, ‘Where was I born?’

  ‘West Berlin. You told that guy in Arkansas.’

  ‘Where did I grow up?’

  ‘All over the world, according to your file.’

  ‘Could you tell that by the sound of my voice?’

  ‘You sound like you don’t really come from anywhere.’

  ‘Therefore you’re going to do the talking in the pawn shop. Your accent is better than mine. Presumably these Serbian guys worry about entrapment, so any British accent would be an alarm bell. The person could be an undercover cop. Being foreign is better. And you sound really American. Assuming the Serbian ear can tell the difference.’

  ‘OK,’ she said, cheerful enough. Pills or no pills, she was doing fine so far.

  We clattered onward, rocking a little with the motion, and then the train came out from under the ground and rode along on the surface, through the daylight, slow and stately, like any other local service. We got out at the Ealing Broadway terminal, which looked like any other regular aboveground railroad facility, and we stepped out to the street. Ealing looked like the places we had seen equally far to the east, once remote rural settlements, then swallowed up, and looking a little awkward about it. There was a long commercial strip, and some big public buildings, and some small parades of mom-and-pop stores, one of them with its window whitewashed over and a sign saying Ealing Minicabs on it, and right next to that was a place where either mom or pop or both were in the business of lending money against small and valuable securities, because there were iron bars on the windows and a sign saying Ealing Cash Loans. I had been expecting to see an arrangement of three golden spheres hanging on a black gallows, which I understood was the traditional British symbol for a pawn shop, but I had to make do with a small neon replica high in the window. Which was otherwise full of abandoned securities, some of them small, some of them valuable, some of them both, some of them neither.

  ‘Ready?’ I asked.

  ‘As I’ll ever be,’ she answered.

  I opened the door, and let her step in past me, and I followed her into a place that looked nothing like it would in the movies. It was a bland, rectangular space, mostly dirty white, with laminate everywhere, and fluorescent tubes on the ceiling. Operationally it was laid out like a horseshoe, with waist-high counters running around three sides, with glass panels in the counters, showing artless displays inside of yet more abandoned pledges.

  There was a guy behind the counter, at the eleven o’clock position, a medium-size man maybe forty or fifty years old, very dark and unshaven, wearing a rust-coloured sweater that must have been knitted with fat wooden needles. He was bent over, polishing something small, a bracelet maybe, with a rag held between his thumbs. He turned his head sideways, like a swimmer, and looked at us, in a way that was neither hostile nor interested. After a long minute we realized the stare was all the greeting we were going to get, so I hung back and Casey Nice stepped up, and she said, ‘Do you mind if I browse?’

  Which focused all the guy’s attention on her, because of the singular pronoun. I, not we. Clearly I was not a potential browser. I was nobody. Her driver, maybe. The guy behind the counter said nothing, but he nodded, a single upward jerk of his head, which because of his position came out sideways, which seemed appropriate in the low-ceilinged space, and partly encouraging,
as if to say, have at it, but also partly discouraging, as if to say, but what you see is all we got.

  I stood where I was, and Nice moved around, peering down, occasionally laying a fingertip on the glass, as if to isolate something for closer consideration, and then moving on, as yet unsatisfied. She went left to right, and then all the way back again, right to left, before straightening up and saying, ‘I don’t see the kind of thing I’m looking for.’

  The guy in the sweater didn’t answer.

  She said, ‘My friend in Chicago told me this is where she came.’

  The guy in the sweater said, ‘For what?’

  He wasn’t English. That was for sure. He wasn’t French or Dutch or German. Or Russian or Ukrainian or Polish. Serbian was entirely plausible.

  Casey Nice said, ‘My friend had concerns about her personal safety. You know, in a foreign city for the first time. Without the precautions she would be legally entitled to take at home.’

  The guy in the sweater said, ‘Are you from America?’

  ‘Yes, from Chicago.’

  ‘This is not a gymnasium, lady. We don’t teach self-defence here.’

  ‘My friend said you have certain items for sale.’

  ‘You want a gold watch? Take two or three. Use them to bargain for your life.’

  ‘My friend didn’t buy a watch.’

  ‘What did she buy?’

  Nice put her hand out, low down, away from her side, slightly behind her. She clicked her fingers. My cue, I supposed. The driver. Or the help. Or the bagman. I stepped forward and took out the dead guy’s cash roll, and held it lightly between thumb and index finger, and I tapped it end-on against the glass counter, and I held it there, upright, a fat greasy cylinder as big as a whisky glass, sour and dense with paper money. The guy took a good long look at it, and then he glanced at me, and then he turned back to Casey Nice.

  He said, ‘Who is he?’

  ‘My bodyguard,’ she said. ‘But he couldn’t get his gun through the X-ray machine.’

  ‘There are laws here.’

  ‘There are laws everywhere. But the same thing gets past them all.’

  The guy looked back at the money.

  He said, ‘Go wait in the minicab office. Next door. Someone will drive you.’

  ‘Drive me where?’

  ‘We don’t keep those items here. Too many police. They search us all the time. There are laws.’

  ‘Where do you keep them?’

  The guy didn’t answer. He took out his phone and dialled. He said a short sentence in a low tone and a fast foreign language. Not French or Dutch or German. Or Russian or Ukrainian or Polish. Serbian was still top of the list. The guy clicked off his call and shooed us away and said, ‘Go. They will drive you.’


  WE WENT, AND they drove us. In the minicab office there was a guy already on his way around the counter as we stepped inside. He was a version of the guy in the pawn shop next door, a little younger, a little straighter, a little heavier, but just as dark and unshaven. A cousin, possibly, or just a guy from the same little village in the old country. He showed us to a Skoda sedan at the kerb. A taxi. We got in the back, he got in the front. Behind the wheel. He started it up, and hit the gas, and we took off, and we heard the click of the locks, as we passed a certain pre-set speed.

  There was no point asking where we were going. No way would we get an answer. A silent driver was all part of the theatre. Not that it mattered, anyway. We knew generically, if not specifically. We were heading north, clearly. We didn’t need the exact name of the next-but-one overrun manor that lay in that direction, as long as we could picture it. Or picture part of it. The important part. A storage unit, possibly, in a bland and deserted business park on the dismal edge of a blighted part of town, or a barn-like structure on open land near a tangle of streets, or maybe a real barn, way out in the country, an hour or more north of town. Maybe we were in for a long trip. By the sound of it the Skoda had a diesel engine. Which would be economical. I leaned forward and checked the gas. It was full.

  Outside the window the traffic was slow and the view stayed suburban for a good long time, and then I saw the arch of the big soccer stadium, which meant we had made it to a place called Wembley. Still heading north. But we didn’t settle in for a long trip out of town. We turned pretty soon, and looped around a little, almost back on ourselves, and I saw a sign to a place called Wormwood Scrubs. Which was the name of a famous London prison, I thought, which gave me a clue about the kind of neighbourhood we were headed for.

  But we didn’t go all the way to the prison. The streets we passed got a little darker and gloomier, but we turned off the main drag some ways short of the worst of it. We took a sudden left, and then another, through a gate in a brick wall, and then straight inside a large brick building, that could have been a streetcar depot a hundred years before, or a factory, back when people made things in cities, other than noise and money. Now the place was being used as an auto repair shop, by the look of it specializing in fast and dirty fixes for the minicab trade. There were piles of part-worn tyres, all grey and dusty, and every car I saw was similar to the Skoda we were riding in. Battered sedans everywhere, one of them up on a hoist, some of them with dented panels cut away, all of them presumably being brought back to whatever kind of code was demanded of telephone cars. We could lose our licence, the guy in Barking had said, and I guessed there were more ways of losing it than just taking the wrong kind of booking.

  We came to a stop in an empty workshop bay, as if we wanted our oil changed or our tracking checked. The sound of our engine was loud against the walls. Behind us a guy came out of the shadows and walked across the floor and hit a big green button. A chain-driven security shutter started clattering down over the opening we had driven through. The daylight was sliced thinner and thinner until it disappeared completely, leaving us with nothing but the dim glow of electric bulbs, in fixtures slung from the rafters high above our heads.

  The guy who had driven us turned off the motor and climbed out, and he opened Casey Nice’s door for her, either because of some old-world Balkan courtesy, or because he was impatient. Nice got out, and I got out on my side, and I stepped over tools and air hoses into clear space at the rear of the car. The guy who had closed the roller door came back, and two more guys came out of a boxed-off room, and we ended up in an informal little cluster, outnumbered four to two. They were all of a kind, not young, not old, all dark and unshaven, all a useful size, all silent and wary. There were no mechanics at work. No men with wrenches, in oil-stained overalls. Sent away, I guessed, temporarily, while the secret business was done.

  One of the two from the boxed-off room seemed to be the main man. He looked us up and down, and said, ‘We need to know who you are.’

  Casey Nice said, ‘We’re Americans, with money, who want to buy something from you.’

  ‘How much money do you have?’

  ‘Enough, I’m sure.’

  ‘You’re very trusting,’ the guy said. ‘To come here, I mean. We could take your money from you for nothing.’

  ‘You could try.’

  ‘Are you wearing wires?’


  ‘Can you prove that?’

  ‘You want me to take my shirt off? Because that ain’t going to happen.’

  The guy said nothing in reply to that, but his mouth got a little wet and mobile, as if he thought making her take her shirt off would be an excellent idea. I said, ‘You can take a look at our passports, and you can figure out how likely it is that the British authorities would employ foreign citizens for an undercover sting, and then you can take a look at the money, and then we’ll take a look at the merchandise. That’s how it’s going to go.’

  ‘Is it?’ the guy said.

  ‘Pretty much,’ I said.

  He looked at me, hard, and I looked right back at him. The first staring contest of his day, probably, but one he was destined to lose. Staring isn’t difficult. I
can do it all day long. Without blinking, if I want to, which is sometimes painful, but always useful. The trick is to not really look at them, but to focus ten yards beyond, on nothing, which produces a glassy effect, which makes them worry, mostly about what’s going on behind your empty eyes.

  The guy said, ‘OK, show me your passports.’

  I went first, with my stiff blue booklet, very new, but indisputably genuine. The guy flicked back and forth through it, and felt the paper, and checked the photograph. And the printed data too, apparently, because he looked up at me and said, ‘You weren’t born in America.’

  I said, ‘Only technically. Children of serving military are considered born in America for all legal and constitutional purposes.’

  ‘Serving military?’

  ‘You remember us, I’m sure. We came and kicked your ass in Kosovo.’

  The guy paused a beat, and said, ‘And now you’re a bodyguard?’

  I nodded.

  I said, ‘You better believe it.’

  He handed my passport back. He didn’t look at Casey Nice’s. One was enough. He said, ‘Come in the room and we’ll talk.’

  The room was a semi-tight fifteen-by-fifteen space, walled off from the workshop many decades previously, in a fairly arbitrary position, to do with power lines, possibly. The walls looked like single-skin brick, plastered smooth and painted with shiny institutional paint, dull green in colour, like pea soup. There was a window with a metal frame, with a desk under it, and three armchairs. No gun cabinets. No closets. Just a place for doing business, like a salesman’s office behind a lot full of ten-year-old cars.

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