61 hours, p.19
Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Twenty-one hours to go.
Seventeen hundred miles south it was five to eight in the morning. Plato had finished his breakfast and was about to break the habit of a lifetime. He was about to cut out his middleman in the walled city villa and call his guy in the States direct.
He got an answer.
He asked, ‘Is the witness dead yet?’
There was a pause on the line. His guy said, ‘You know there was always going to be a delay between the two.’
‘How long has that delay been so far?’
His guy knew what to say. ‘Too long.’
‘Correct,’ Plato said. ‘I arranged a riot at the prison last night.’
‘Evidently you didn’t make use of it.’
‘There was a man in the house.’
‘I had no instructions.’
‘That’s your answer? You needed instructions?’
‘I thought perhaps there were complexities I wasn’t grasping.’
Plato breathed out. ‘How can I hurt you?’
His guy knew what to say. ‘In ways I don’t want to be hurt.’
‘Correct,’ Plato said. ‘But I need you to be more specific. I need you to focus on what’s at stake.’
His guy said, ‘You’ll kill the person nearest and dearest to me.’
‘Yes, I will, eventually. But first there will be a delay, which seems to be a concept you’re very familiar with. I’ll cripple her and mutilate her and let her live for a year or so. Then I’ll kill her. Do you understand me?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘So for your own sake, get the job done. I don’t care about bystanders. Wipe out the entire damn town if you have to. The entire state, for all I care. How many people live in South Dakota anyway?’
‘About eight hundred thousand.’
‘OK. That’s your upper limit for collateral damage. Get it done.’
‘I will. I promise.’
Plato hung up and poured himself another cup of coffee.
The spare unmarked was another dark Crown Vic. It smelled dusty and tired inside. Its heater was set to seventy degrees and the fan was blowing hard in a desperate attempt to get there. The weather was way down in a whole new dimension. The temperature was dropping fast. The ground was bone hard and the air was solid with microscopic nubs of snowflakes borne on the wind. They were chilled and shrivelled to sharp fragments. They hurled themselves against the windshield and made complex frozen traceries. The wipers wouldn’t shift them. The blades just scraped over them. Reacher set the heater on defrost and waited until the blown air melted oval holes of clarity.
Then he left.
He K-turned across the width of Janet Salter’s street. The ruts were frozen solid. The Crown Vic’s tyres bumped up and down. The stake-out car at the end of the road backed up to let him squeeze by. He turned right and drove away from town. The wheel ruts that had been soft the day before were now as hard as concrete trenches. It was like driving a train on a track. He didn’t need to steer. The chains on the back dug in and splintered the ice and the front tyres hammered left and right and kept him basically straight. The world outside was entirely white. There was pale light in the sky but no sun. The air was too full of ice. It was like dust. Like mist. The wind was blowing right to left in front of him. Small streamlined drifts had built up and frozen solid, against fence posts and power poles. The weird shapes on the power lines had shifted to the east, as if the whole world was tilted.
Reacher found the turn a mile short of the cloverleaf. Getting out of the frozen ruts was difficult. He had to slow to a walk and turn the wheel way over and churn his way out one tyre at a time, four separate climbs, four separate drops. He found new ruts running west and settled in for five more miles of autopilot. He repeated the escape manoeuvre at the next turn and headed north towards the camp. The new road was different. It hadn’t seen much traffic. There were no established ruts. It was just a narrow ribbon of frozen snow. The front wheels skated and wandered a little. The blowing ice pattered left to right against the driver’s window. The road humped and dipped and curved left and right for no apparent reason. The camber tilted one way, then the other. Not a great piece of civil engineering. Reacher slowed a little and concentrated hard. To slide into a ditch would be fatal. No chance of a tow before he froze. Even a blown tyre would be a disaster. The wheel nuts were probably frozen solid.
Five slow careful miles, then six, then seven. Then the horizon changed. Up ahead the road widened and straightened and flattened. Dramatically. Radically. In the murky distance it looked as broad and flat as a freeway. Maybe even broader and flatter. It looked like a sixteen-lane superhighway. It was a magnificent, surreal piece of road. It was built up slightly proud of the land around it, it was absolutely flat, and it was absolutely straight, for two whole miles.
And it was ploughed.
There was not a speck of snow on it. Just smooth grey concrete, scraped and brushed and salted. High piles of snow had been pushed to the sides, and smoothed, and shaped, so that the frozen prairie wind was launching off the western berm and not landing again until it was past the eastern. The tiny fragments of ice were howling past five feet in the air. The road surface itself was clear and dry, like the middle of summer.
Reacher slowed and bumped up on to it. The chains thumped and chattered. The front end tracked straight and true. He kept to a steady thirty and peered ahead. He could make out blond smudges on the horizon. Wooden huts, in a neat row. Two miles away. The car pattered and juddered. The chains were not good on dry concrete.
He kept on going.
Half a mile out he saw activity ahead. A hundred yards out he saw what it was. Pick-up trucks with plough blades lowered were grinding back and forth. A lot of them. Maybe thirty or forty. Beyond them bulky black-clad figures with shovels were working in a line. Other bulky figures were walking backwards, hurling stuff from their cupped hands in long arcs, like farm labourers feeding chaff to chickens. Salt, presumably. Or grit, or sand, or some other kind of de-icing chemical. Or all of the above. They were clearing the whole camp. They wanted the whole place immaculate. As good as the road.
The huts were raw lumber, bleached and faded a little, but not much. Not brand new, but not old either. On the left behind the first row of huts Reacher saw the roof of the old stone building. It was tall and peaked and made of slate. It was covered with a foot of snow. It had twin ornate chimneys. The huts themselves were roofed with tarpaper. They had stove pipe vents. There were power lines running from gable to gable. There were concrete paths running from door to door. All were swept clear of snow. What had not been removed completely was piled neatly left and right. In front of the huts was a long line of shapes under black tarpaulins, side by side, like dominoes. Motorcycles, presumably. Big ones. Maybe thirty of them. Harleys, probably, laid up for winter.
Reacher slowed and came to a stop fifty yards out. People had stopped working and were staring at his car. Gloved hands were stacked on shovel handles. Chins were resting on the hands. The salt throwers had paused. One after the other the pick-up trucks came to rest. Their idling exhaust was carried away on the wind.
Reacher took his foot off the brake and inched forward. Nobody moved. Reacher kept on coming, ten yards, then twenty. He stopped again. He was close enough. He didn’t switch off. The Crown Vic’s dash was showing the outside temperature at twelve degrees below zero. If he switched the engine off he might never get it started again. He had read a book set above the Arctic Circle where you had to thaw the engine block with blowlamps.
He jammed his watch cap down on his ears and pulled his hood up. Zipped his coat to his chin. Put his gloves on, left and then right.
He climbed out of the car.
Twenty yards ahead the crowd had gotten larger. Men, women, and children. Maybe a hundred people in total. As advertised. They were all shapeless and hidden in coats and hats and mufflers. Th
Twenty yards ahead a guy threaded through the crowd. Sidestepping, shuffling, leading with his left shoulder, then his right. Black coat, hat, gloves. His body language was like every interrupted workman in the world. Irritated, but curious. He swiped his padded forearm across his brow and paused and thought and moved forward again. He stepped out of the ranks and stopped a yard in front of the crowd.
Reacher said, ‘Who the hell are you?’
The guy said, ‘Piss off.’
Reacher stepped forward. One pace, two, three.
‘You’re not very polite,’ he said.
‘Show me where it says I have to be.’
‘Well, you’re walking around on my property.’
‘I’m from the army. I’m here to check on our real estate. A two-year maintenance inspection. Your tax dollars at work.’
‘That’s a joke.’
Reacher said, ‘Whatever, I need to take a look around.’
‘I told you to piss off.’
‘I know. But what are the odds I’m going to take you seriously?’
‘You can’t fight a hundred people.’
‘I won’t need to. Looks like two-thirds of you are women and children. That leaves maybe thirty guys. Or forty, say. But half of them look too fat to move. They pitch in, they’re going to get all kinds of coronaries. The others, maybe half of them are pussies. They’ll run away. That leaves maybe eight or ten guys, max. And one of me is worth eight or ten of you, easy.’
‘Plus, I’m from the army. You mess with me, the next guy you see will be driving a tank.’
Silence for a beat. Just the scouring howl of the wind, and the rattle of ice particles against wood. The guy in front looked at Reacher, at his clothes, at his car, and came to some kind of a decision. He asked, ‘What do you need to see?’
Reacher said, ‘The stone building.’
‘That’s not ours.’
‘None of this is yours.’
‘I mean, we’re not using it.’
‘You shouldn’t be using anything.’
‘Squatters’ rights. It’s an abandoned facility. We know the law.’
Reacher said nothing. Just stepped left and skirted the crowd. They all stood still and let him by. No move to block him. A policy decision. He glanced at the corner hut. It was a plain, utilitarian structure. Maybe fifty feet long, its blank slab siding pierced only by two small square windows. It had a door in its narrow end. All around it the snow had been cleared away meticulously. Directly behind it was the stone building. There was no snow around it, either. Just clear, swept paths.
Reacher turned around.
He said, ‘If you’re not using it, why clear the snow?’
The same guy came out of the crowd again.
He said, ‘For the satisfaction of a job well done.’
The stone building was a strange little thing. It could have been copied from the plans for a small but fairly ornate and old-fashioned suburban house. It had all kinds of details and mouldings and curlicues and gables and rain gutters and eaves. Like a Gothic folly a rich man might put in his garden for guests.
But there were crucial differences, too. Where a guest house in a garden would have windows, the stone building had recesses only. Like an optical illusion. The right size and shape, but not filled with glass. Filled instead by unbroken expanses of stone, the same neat mortared blocks as the rest of the walls. There was a portico, but the front door under it made no attempt at illusion. It was just a meaty steel slab, completely plain. It had huge hinges. It would open outward, not inward. Like a blast door. A pressure wave outside would hold it shut, not burst it open. It had a handle and a keyhole. Reacher tried the handle. It didn’t move. The keyhole was large. Smaller than the hole for a church key, bigger than the hole for a house key. The steel around it was rimed with frost. Reacher rubbed it away with his gloved thumb, and saw no nicks or scratches in the metal. The lock was not in regular use. No key had been inserted and withdrawn, day in and day out.
He asked, ‘You know what this place is?’
The guy who had followed him said, ‘Don’t you?’
‘Of course I do. But I need to know how our security is holding up.’
The guy said, ‘We heard things.’
‘The construction guys that were here before.’
‘About atomic bombs.’
‘They said there were nuclear weapons in here?’
‘No. They said it was a clinic.’
‘What kind of a clinic?’
‘They said if we had been attacked in winter, in a city, like New York or Chicago, people would have been in coats and gloves, so only their faces would have been burned. You know, miles from the centre. Closer in, you would have been vaporized. But if you survived, you could come here and get a new face.’
‘Like plastic surgery?’
‘No, like prosthetics. Like masks. They said that’s what’s in there, thousands and thousands of plastic faces.’
Reacher walked on around the strange little structure. It was the same on all four sides. Heavy stone, fake windows, details, mouldings. A bizarre parody. Entertaining, but not instructive without getting inside. Which wasn’t going to happen.
He walked away. Then on a sudden whim he stopped at the nearest hut. The first in the back row, which was in line with the second in the front row. The crowd had followed him in a long untidy straggle that looped all the way back to where he had started. Like a thin question mark, curling through the gaps and the passages. Steam hung above it. Nearest to him was the guy who had done all the talking. He was about six feet away.
Reacher pushed the hut’s door. It swung halfway open.
The guy close to him said, ‘That’s not yours.’
‘It’s bolted down on army concrete. That’s good enough for me.’
‘You got no warrant.’
Reacher didn’t answer. He was all done talking. It was too cold. His face was numb and his teeth were hurting. He just pushed the door all the way open and took a look inside.
The hut was dark. And warm. There was a paraffin stove going. Reacher could smell the sweet wet kerosene. There were twelve cots in the room, six to a side, and a boxed-in section at the far end that might have been a bathroom. Plain grey blankets on the cots, cardboard shipping cartons filled with folded clothes, burlap drapes at the small square windows.
There was a young woman sitting on the furthest cot on the right. No coat, because of the heat. No hat. She was maybe eighteen or twenty. She looked a little sullen and grimy, but behind that she was pretty. Long fair hair, strong vivid features. Tall, and slender. For a second Reacher thought he had seen her before. But he hadn’t. She was a type, that was all. Like Kim Peterson. A South Dakotan. Wherever this bunch was from, they had picked up local recruits.
Reacher backed out and pulled the door shut behind him. Turned to the guy six feet away and said, ‘Want to show me the other huts?’
‘Whatever.’ No reluctance. The guy just started his limbs moving inside his heavy clothing and trudged on down the paths and pushed open one door after another. Fourteen of the fifteen huts were the same. Rows of cots, crude drapes, paraffin stoves, grey blankets, shipping boxes, folded clothes. No benches, no work tables, no glass vessels, no gas rings, no laboratory equipment of any kind. No people, either. The girl in the first hut was the only one not outside and working. Maybe she was sick.
The last hut in the back row was a kitchen. It had two domestic stoves
There was no laboratory equipment.
Reacher hunched down in his coat and came out between two huts. His car was still there, idling faithfully. Beyond it the ploughed road narrowed into the distance, high, wide, and handsome. As flat as glass. Fifty summers, fifty winters, it hadn’t heaved or cracked at all. The voice from Virginia had asked: You know how big the defence budget was fifty years ago? They had poured maybe four hundred thousand yards of concrete, and then forgotten all about them.
‘Have a nice day,’ Reacher said, and headed for his car.
Five minutes to nine in the morning.
Nineteen hours to go.
THE DRIVE BACK WAS THE SAME AS THE DRIVE OUT, EXCEPT FOR A strange slow-motion near-collision at the first turn. Reacher had driven the wide ploughed road fast and the next eight narrow snow-bound miles slow, and then he had coasted and tried to work out a trajectory to get himself through the left turn and into the eastbound ruts on the old road that ran parallel with the highway. But at the same time a fuel tanker was trying to get out of those same ruts for a left turn of its own up towards the camp. It was a squat vehicle with a company name painted along its flank. Paraffin for the heaters, maybe, or gasoline for the pick-up trucks, or diesel for a generator. It changed down to a low gear and turned very early and came right across Reacher’s lane. He braked
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes