The hard way, p.21
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       The Hard Way, p.21

         Part #10 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  "If you were them, what would you have done?"

  "I would have moved to my left and outflanked you to the east. With at least half my force, maybe more. I would have stayed in the weeds and moved around and come out at you maybe from the four o'clock position. Coordinated attacks. Two directions. You wouldn't have known which was your front and which was your flank."

  Hobart nodded. A small painful motion that brought out all the tendons in his scrawny neck.

  "We anticipated exactly that," he said. "We figured they'd be tracking the One O'clock Road with half their force on the right shoulder and the other half on the left shoulder. We figured about two miles out the half that was on the right shoulder as we were looking at it would wheel ninety degrees to its left and attempt an outflanking maneuver. But that meant that maybe five thousand guys would have to cross the Two O'clock Road. Spokes in a wheel, right? We'd see them. The Two O'clock Road was dead-straight. Narrow, but a clear cut through the trees for fifty miles. We could see all the way to the horizon. It was going to be like watching a crosswalk in Times Square."

  "So what happened?" Pauling asked.

  "Knight and I had been together forever. And we had been Recon Marines. So we volunteered to set up forward OPs. We crawled out about three hundred yards and found a couple of good depressions. Old shell holes, from back in the day. Those places are always fighting. Knight set up with a good view of the One O'clock Road and I set up with a good view of the Two O'clock Road. Plan was if they didn't attempt to outflank us we'd take them head-on and if we were making good progress with that our main force would come out to join us. If their attack was heavy Knight and I would fall back to the city limit and we'd set up

  a secondary line of defense there. And if I saw the outflanking maneuver in progress we'd fall back immediately and reorganize on two fronts."

  Reacher asked, "So where did it all go wrong?"

  "I made two mistakes," Hobart said. Just four words, but the effort of getting them out seemed to suddenly exhaust him. He closed his eyes and his lips tightened against his toothless gums and he started wheezing from the chest.

  "He has malaria and tuberculosis," his sister said. "You're tiring him out.

  "Is he getting care?" Pauling asked.

  "We have no benefits. The VA does a little. Apart from that I take him to the Saint Vincent's ER."

  "How? How do you get him up and down the stairs?"

  "I carry him," Dee Marie said. "On my back."

  Hobart coughed hard and dribbled blood-flecked spittle down his chin. He raised his severed wrist high and wiped himself with what was left of his bicep. Then he opened his eyes.

  Reacher asked him, "What two mistakes?"

  "There was an early feint," Hobart said. "About ten point men came out of the trees a mile ahead of Knight. They were going for death or glory, you know, running and firing unaimed. Knight let them run for about fifteen hundred yards and then he dropped them all with his rifle. I couldn't see him. He was about a hundred yards away but the terrain was uneven. I crawled over to check he was OK."

  "And was he?"

  "He was fine."

  "Neither of you had been wounded?"

  "Wounded? Not even close."

  "But there had been small arms fire?"


  "Go on."

  "When I got to Knight's position I realized I could see the Two O'clock Road even better from his hole than from mine. Plus I figured when the shooting starts it's always better to be paired up. We could cover each other for jams and reloads. So that was my first mistake. I put myself in the same foxhole as Knight."

  "And the second mistake?"

  "I believed what Edward Lane told me."



  REACHER ASKED , "What did Edward Lane tell you?"

  But Hobart couldn't answer for a minute. He was consumed with another bout of coughing. His caved chest heaved. His truncated limbs flailed uselessly. Blood and thick yellow mucus rimed his lips. Dee Marie ducked back to the kitchen and rinsed her cloth and filled a glass with water. Wiped Hobart's face very carefully and let him sip from the glass. Then she took him under the arms and hauled him into an upright position. He coughed twice more and then stopped as the fluid settled lower in his lungs.

  "It's a balance," Dee Marie said, to nobody in particular. "We need to keep his chest clear but coughing too much wears him out."

  Reacher asked, "Hobart? What did Lane tell you?"

  Hobart panted for a moment and fixed his eyes on Reacher's in a mute appeal for patience. Then he said, "About thirty minutes after that first feint Lane showed up in Knight's foxhole. He seemed surprised to see me there, too. He checked that Knight was OK and told him to stay with the mission. Then he turned to me and told me he had definitive new intelligence that we were going to see men crossing the Two O'clock Road but that they would be government troops coming in from the bush and circling around to reinforce us through the rear. He said they had been on a night march and were taking it slow and stealthy because they were so close to the rebels. Both sides were incoming on parallel tracks less than forty yards apart. No danger of visual contact because of how thick the vegetation was, but they were worried about noise. So Lane told me to sit tight and watch the road and just count them cross it, and the higher the number was the better I should feel about it, because they were all on our side."

  "And you saw them?"

  "Thousands and thousands of them. Your basic ragtag army, all on foot, no transport, decent firepower, plenty of Browning automatic rifles, some M60s, some light mortars. They crossed two abreast and it took hours."

  "And then?"

  "We sat tight. All day, and into the night. Then all hell broke loose. We had night scopes and we could see what was happening. About five thousand guys just stepped out of the trees and assembled on the One O'clock Road and started marching straight toward us. At the same time another five thousand stepped out of the brush just south of the four o'clock position and came straight at us. They were the same guys I had counted earlier. They weren't government troops. They were rebels. Lane's new intelligence had been wrong. At least that's what I thought at first. Later I realized he had lied to me."

  "What happened?" Pauling said.

  "At first nothing computed. The rebels started firing from way too far away. Africa's a big continent but most of them probably missed it. At that point Knight and I were kind of relaxed. Plans are always bullshit. Everything in war is improvisation. So we expected some suppressing fire from behind us to allow us to fall back. But it never came. I was turned around staring at the city behind me. It was just three hundred yards away. But it was all dark and silent. Then I turned back and saw these ten thousand guys coming at me. Two different directions ninety degrees apart. Dead of night. Suddenly I had the feeling Knight and I were the only two Westerners left in-country. Turns out I was probably right. The way I pieced it together afterward, Lane and all the other crews had pulled out twelve hours before. He must have gotten back

  from his little visit with us and just hopped straight into his jeep. Mounted everyone up and headed due south for the border with Ghana. Then to the airport at Tamale, which was where we came in."

  Reacher said, "What we need to know is why he did that."

  "That's easy," Hobart said. "I had plenty of time to figure it out afterward, believe me. Lane abandoned us because he wanted Knight dead. I just happened to be in the wrong foxhole, that's all. I was collateral damage."

  "Why did Lane want Knight dead?"

  "Because Knight killed Lane's wife."



  PAULING ASKED, "Did Knight confess that to you directly?"

  Hobart didn't answer. Just waved the stump of his right wrist, weakly, vaguely, a dismissive little gesture.

  "Did Knight confess to killing Anne Lane?"

  Hobart said, "He confessed to about a hundred thousand different things." Then he smiled, ruefully. "Yo
u had to be there. You had to know how it was. Knight was raving for four years. He was completely out of his mind for three. Me too, probably."

  "So how was it?" Pauling asked. "Tell us."

  Dee Marie Graziano said, "I don't want to hear this again. I can't hear this again. I'm going out." Pauling opened her purse and took out her wallet. Peeled off part of her wad. Didn't count it. Just

  handed the sheaf of bills straight to Dee Marie.

  "Get stuff," she said. "Food, medicine, whatever you need." Dee Marie said, "You can't buy his testimony."

  "I'm not trying to," Pauling said. "I'm trying to help, that's all."

  "I don't like charity."

  "Then get over it," Reacher said. "Your brother needs everything he can get."

  "Take it, Dee," Hobart said. "Be sure to get something for yourself."

  Dee Marie shrugged, then took the money. Jammed it in the pocket of her shift and collected her keys and walked out. Reacher heard the front door open. The hinges squealed where he had damaged them. He stepped into the hallway.

  "We should call a carpenter," Pauling said, from behind him.

  "Call that Soviet super from Sixth Avenue," Reacher said. "He looked competent and I'm sure he moonlights."

  "You think?"

  Reacher whispered, "He was with the Red Army in Afghanistan. He won't freak when he sees a guy with no hands and no feet."

  "You talking about me?" Hobart called.

  Reacher followed Pauling back to the living room and said, "You're lucky to have a sister like that." Hobart nodded. The same slow, painful movement.

  "But it's hard on her," he said. "You know, with the bathroom and all. She has to see things a sister shouldn't see."

  "Tell us about Knight. Tell us about the whole damn thing."

  Hobart laid his head back on the sofa cushion. Stared up at the ceiling. With his sister gone, he seemed to relax. His ruined body settled and quieted.

  "It was one of those unique moments," he said. "Suddenly we were sure we were alone, outnumbered ten thousand to two, dead of night, in no man's land, in the middle of a country we had no right be in. I mean, you think you've been in deep shit before, and then you realize you have absolutely no conception of how deep shit can really be. At first we didn't do anything. Then we just looked at each other. That was the last moment of true peace I ever felt. We looked at each other and I guess we just took an unspoken decision to go down fighting. Better to die, we figured. We all have to die sometime, and that looked like as good an occasion as any. So we started firing. I guess we figured they'd lay some mortar rounds on us and that would be that. But they didn't. They just kept on coming, tens and twenties, and we just kept on firing, putting them down. Hundreds of them. But they kept on coming. Now I guess it was a tactic. We started to have equipment problems, like they knew we would. Our M60 barrels overheated. We started to run short of ammunition. We only had what we had been able to carry. When they sensed it, they all charged. OK, I thought, bring it on. I figured bullets or bayonets right there in the hole would be as good as mortar rounds from a distance."

  He closed his eyes and the little room went quiet.

  "But?" Reacher said.

  Hobart opened his eyes. "But it didn't happen that way. They got to the lip of the hole and stopped and just stood there. Waited in the moonlight. Watched us floundering around looking for fresh clips. We didn't have any. Then the crowd parted and some kind of an officer walked through. He looked down at us and smiled. Black face, white teeth, in the moonlight. It hit us then. We thought we'd been in deep shit before, but that was nothing. This was deep shit. We'd just killed hundreds of their guys and we were about to be captured."

  "How did it go down?"

  "Surprisingly well, at the beginning. They stole everything of any value immediately. Then they slapped us around a little bit for a minute, but it was really nothing. I had worse from the NCOs in boot camp. We had these little Stars and Stripes patches on our BDUs, and I thought maybe they counted for something. The first few days were chaos. We were chained all the time, but that was more out of necessity than cruelty. They had no jail facilities. They had nothing, really. They'd been living in the bush for years. No infrastructure. But they fed us. Appalling food, but it was the same as they were eating, and it's the thought that counts. Then after a week it was clear the coup had succeeded, so they all moved into O-Town proper and took us with them and put us in the city prison. We were in a separate wing for about four weeks. We figured they were maybe negotiating with Washington. They fed us and left us alone. We could hear bad stuff elsewhere in the building, but we figured we were special. So altogether the first month was a day at the beach compared to what came later."

  "What came later?"

  "Evidently they gave up on Washington or stopped thinking we were special because they took us out of the separate wing and tossed us in with some of the others. And that was bad. Real bad. Incredible overcrowding, filth, disease, no clean water, almost no food. We were skeletons inside a month. Savages after two. I went six months without even lying down, the first cell was so crowded. We were ankle deep in shit, literally. There were worms. At night the place crawled with them. People were dying from disease and starvation. Then they put us on trial."

  "You had a trial?"

  "I guess it was a trial. War crimes, probably. I had no idea what they were saying."

  "Weren't they speaking French?"

  "That's for government and diplomacy. The rest of them speak tribal languages. It was just two hours of noise to me, and then they found us guilty. They took us back to the big house and we found out that the part we'd already been in was the VIP accommodations. Now we were headed for general population, which was a whole lot worse. Two months later I figured I was about as low as I could go. But I was wrong. Because then I had a birthday."

  "What happened on your birthday?"

  "They gave me a present."

  "Which was?"

  "A choice."

  "Of what?"

  "They hauled out about a dozen guys. I guess we all shared the same birthday. They took us to a courtyard. First thing I noticed was a big bucket of tar on a propane burner. It was bubbling away. Real hot. I remembered the smell from when I was a kid, from when they were blacktopping roads where I lived. My mother believed some old superstition that said if a kid sniffed the tar smell it would protect him from getting coughs and colds. She would send us out to chase the trucks. So I knew the smell real well. Then I saw next to the bucket was a big stone block, all black with blood. Then some big guard grabbed a machete and started screaming at the first guy in line. I had no idea what he was saying. The guy next to me spoke a little English and translated for me. He said we had a choice. Three choices, actually. To celebrate our birthdays we were going to lose a foot. First choice, left or right. Second choice, long pants or short pants. That was a kind of joke. It meant we could be cut above the knee or below. Our choice. Third choice, we could use the bucket or not. Our choice. You plunge the stump in there, the boiling tar seals the

  arteries and cauterizes the wound. Choose not to, and you bleed out and die. Our choice. But the guard said we had to choose fast. We weren't allowed to mess around and hold up the queue behind us."

  Silence in the tiny room. Nobody spoke. There was no sound at all, except faint incongruous New York

  City sirens in the far distance.

  Hobart said, "I chose left, long pants, and yes to the bucket."



  FOR A LONG time the small room stayed quiet as a tomb. Hobart rolled his head from side to side to ease his neck. Reacher sat down in a small chair near the window.

  Hobart said, "Twelve months later on my next birthday I chose right, long pants, and yes to the bucket." Reacher said, "They did this to Knight, too?"

  Hobart nodded. "We thought we had been close before. But some things really bring you together." Pauling was leaning up in the kitchen doorway, white as a sheet.
"Knight told you about Anne Lane?"

  "He told me about a lot of things. But remember, we were doing seriously hard time. We were sick and starving. We had infections. We had malaria and dysentery. We were out of our heads for weeks at a time with fevers."

  "What did he tell you?"

  "He told me he shot Anne Lane in New Jersey."

  "Did he tell you why?"

  "He gave me a whole bunch of different reasons. Different day, different reason. Sometimes it was that he had been having an affair with her, and she broke it off, and he got mad. Other times it was that Lane was mad at her and asked him to do it. Other times he said he was working for the CIA. Once he said she was an alien from another planet.''

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