61 hours, p.21
Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
‘I’m thinking about February of 1936,’ Reacher said. ‘Minus fifty-eight degrees, the height of the Depression, dust storms, droughts, blizzards, why the hell didn’t you all move to California?’
‘Lots of folks did. The others had no choice but to stay. And that year had a warm summer, anyway.’
‘Peterson told me. A hundred-seventy-eight-degree swing.’
‘Did he tell you about the chinooks?’
‘Chinooks are hot winds out of the Black Hills. One day in January of 1943 it was minus four degrees, and then literally two minutes later it was plus forty-five. A forty-nine-degree swing in a hundred and twenty seconds. The most dramatic ever recorded in America. Everyone had broken windows from the thermal shock.’
‘Wartime,’ Reacher said.
‘The hinge of fate,’ Janet Salter said. ‘That exact day the Germans lost control of the airfields at Stalingrad, many thousands of miles away. It was the beginning of the end for them. Maybe the wind knew.’
They trudged onward. Peterson stayed well ahead, one of the women cops stayed well behind, the other kept pace directly across the street. They got level with the restaurant parking lot. It was full of people heading in and out. Most of them were inadequately dressed and all of them looked thoroughly miserable.
‘Prison visitors,’ Janet Salter said. ‘We seem to get more passing trade now than anywhere in the state except Mount Rushmore.’ Which made Reacher think about the replacement bus from Minneapolis, due to leave town at two o’clock. He had no particular interest in oversized sculptures, but he knew there was a road there that led south. And south was Nebraska, then Kansas, then Oklahoma, then Texas, where it was warm. Or alternatively a person could turn left in Kansas, and then cross Missouri, and the southern tip of Illinois, and Kentucky, and end up in Virginia.
Janet Salter said, ‘You’re thinking about her, aren’t you?’
Reacher said, ‘No.’
He turned left and right from the waist. Scanned all around. There were more people up ahead than he had seen in a long time. And more cars. They were snuffling slowly along the frozen roads. Huge sheets of ice were creaking and cracking under their weight. Multiple threats, but all of them were trapped into ponderous slow motion by the weather. And there were cop cars among them. Every tenth or twelfth vehicle was a police cruiser, driving slow on a random endless loop, cautious and vigilant.
Reacher asked, ‘Where are we going?’
Janet Salter asked, ‘Where would you like to go?’
‘This is your trip.’
‘Bolton is a relatively dull town. We lack exciting destinations.’
‘We could get lunch.’
‘It’s too early.’
‘Brunch is a combination of breakfast and lunch, and I’ve already had breakfast. Therefore brunch is no longer an option today.’
‘Cup of coffee?’
‘Everywhere is full up. Visiting days are difficult. We’d never get a table for five.’
‘Then let’s head back.’
Reacher didn’t answer. For a moment it looked like she would keep on going, maybe for ever, but then she stopped and nodded. Reacher tried to whistle ahead to Peterson, but his lips were too cold and cracked to make a sound. So they waited side by side until Peterson turned around to check. Reacher waved, everyone turned back, and the little procession retraced its steps, with the woman cop now in the lead and Peterson trailing behind.
Five minutes to noon.
Sixteen hours to go.
Seventeen hundred miles south it was lunch time. For the second day in succession Plato wasn’t eating. And for the second time in succession he was breaking the habit of a lifetime. He was dialling his guy in South Dakota. And his guy was answering. Which annoyed Plato considerably, because it meant his guy had his phone switched on, which meant his guy wasn’t at that very moment in the act of killing the damn witness.
His guy said, ‘She wasn’t in the house.’
Plato said, ‘Find her.’
Heading back put the westerly wind on Reacher’s other cheek, which was a wash in terms of comfort. Otherwise the inbound trip compared to the outbound was both better and worse. Better, because they were moving away from the populated areas, and fewer people meant fewer threats. Worse, because whatever threats remained were behind Reacher’s back. He couldn’t easily check over his shoulder. His torso tended to move independently inside the giant coat. A backward glance merely put his whole face inside his hood. So he was forced to rely on Peterson’s vigilance behind him. He walked on, regarding each completed safe step as a separate minor triumph.
Janet Salter said, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I was inconsiderate. I’ve put you all to a lot of trouble.’
‘All part of a day’s work. No reason why you shouldn’t go out once in a while.’
They crunched onward, slipping and sliding occasionally, forming up in single file where the footstep trail narrowed around obstacles. Reacher had a high pile of ploughed snow between himself and the roadway. After most steps his left foot came down on its lower slope. It was like limping. He kept his eyes on the oncoming traffic. There wasn’t much. A few pick-up trucks, a few old-model SUVs, a few salt-caked cars. Nothing to worry about. Then Lowell drove by in his squad car, and slowed in surprise, and waved. Janet Salter waved back. Lowell speeded up again. Then came nothing for a spell, and then came a big dark sedan, heading north towards them. A Ford Crown Victoria. Navy blue. Easy to be sure in the bright clear light. Chief Holland’s car. The guy stopped the width of a traffic lane away and rolled down his window. He ignored Reacher completely. Looked straight at Janet Salter, some kind of concern in his face. She stopped and faced him. She said, ‘I’m out for a walk. That’s all. Nothing to worry about. Mr Peterson is doing a fine job.’
Holland said, ‘You heading home now?’
‘We’re on our way.’
‘Can I offer you a ride?’
‘Thank you, but I would rather walk. A measure of fresh air and exercise was the point of this little adventure.’
‘But please join us back at the house, for coffee, if you like.’
‘OK,’ Holland said again.
He checked his mirrors and U-turned across the width of the road. Frozen ruts splintered under his wheels. He got lined up in the southbound lane but didn’t race on ahead. He kept pace instead, crawling slowly, holding a lateral line with himself on the left behind the wheel, then his empty passenger seat, then the berm of ploughed snow, then Reacher, then Janet Salter. His front tyres were made of hard winter compound, and they crunched and scrabbled slowly. He had chains on the back. Each link rotated into position and made its own distinct sound. He put his flashing lights on, to warn the traffic behind him of his low speed. He had strobes concealed in the rear parcel shelf, matched by more behind the radiator grille. Reacher guessed they would do the job. From a distance the unmarked car would look like a regular police cruiser.
Janet Salter said, ‘This is ridiculous.’
Reacher said, ‘He’s just doing his job.’
‘I don’t like the attention.’
‘You’re important to him.’
‘Only because he can use me.’
‘You’re a prominent citizen. You’re the kind of person a chief of police worries about.’
Janet Salter said, ‘The only prominent citizens in this town are the prison staff. Believe me. That’s how it works now.’
They walked on, with the idling car crunching slowly alongside them. Where there were no buildings on their right the wind blew in hard and strong and uninterrupted, a mass of frozen air whistling relentlessly over the flat land, with nothing in its path to roil it up or make it turbulent. It was still carrying tiny spicules of ice. They came in horizontal and pattered against the side of Reacher’s hood. They could have been airborne f
Janet Salter asked, ‘Are you cold?’
Reacher smiled, as much as his numb face would let him.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘This is nothing.’
They got back in the house and peeled off layers and endured the pain of thawing. Reacher’s ears burned and his nose and chin prickled and itched. Peterson and the two women cops had to have been feeling the same, but they showed no signs of distress. Probably a matter of local South Dakota pride. Chief Holland was entirely OK. He had been riding in a heated car, out of the wind. But still he gave a theatrical shiver as soon as he stepped into the hallway. Relief, Reacher figured, now that Janet Salter’s exposure was over and they had gotten away with it.
The two women cops took up their established positions. Janet Salter went to work with her percolator. Reacher and Peterson and Holland watched her from the hallway. Then the phone rang. Janet Salter asked someone to pick it up. Peterson got it. He listened for a second and held the receiver out to Reacher.
‘For you,’ he said. ‘It’s the woman from the 110th MP.’
Reacher took the phone. Peterson and Holland trooped into the kitchen and left him alone. Instinctive politeness. Reacher put the phone to his ear and the voice from Virginia said, ‘I called a guy in the air force.’
‘We’re getting there. Slowly, but not because it’s a secret. Quite the opposite. Because the place was abandoned and forgotten years ago. It fell off the active list when God’s dog was still a puppy. Nobody can remember a thing about it.’
‘Not even what it was?’
‘All the details are archived. All my guy has seen so far is a report about how hard it was to build. The design was compromised several times during construction because of the kind of terrain they found. Some kind of schist. You know what that is?’
‘Bedrock, I guess,’ Reacher said. ‘Probably hard, if it caused difficulties.’
‘It proves they were excavating underground.’
‘That’s for sure. Not a bad result, for the first two hours.’
‘One hour,’ the voice said. ‘I took a nap first.’
‘You’re a bad person.’
‘Last time I checked, you’re not my boss.’
‘I got a hit on a Florida cop called Kapler. Miami PD, born there thirty-six years ago, upped and quit two years ago for no apparent reason. No health issues, not in debt. I’ll get more when I’m in the Miami PD records.’
‘You can do that with Google?’
‘No, I’m using a few other resources. I’ll let you know.’
‘Thanks,’ Reacher said. ‘Anything else?’
There was a pause. ‘My guy isn’t talking.’
‘From Fort Hood?’
‘Not a word.’
‘Where is he?’
‘Back on post, in a cell.’
‘Did he live on-post or off-post?’
‘So he’s looking at Texas law for the homicide or the Uniform Code for the treason. That’s a rock and a hard place. Either way he’s going to fry. He doesn’t have an incentive to talk.’
‘What would you do?’
‘What’s your goal?’
‘The non-state actors. Who he’s talking to, and how, and why.’
‘The why is easy. He probably served in Iraq or Afghanistan and got seduced by all the humanitarian bullshit and made friends and got played like a fish. The how will be cell phone or e-mail or an encrypted web site. The who will be very interesting, I agree.’
‘So how do I get him to talk?’
‘Order him to. You outrank him. He’s trained to obey.’
‘That won’t be enough. It never is.’
‘Are his parents still alive?’
‘A younger brother, training with the navy SEALs.’
‘That’s good. That’s close to perfect, in fact. You need to bring your boy north, and sit him down, and offer him a deal.’
‘I can’t do that.’
‘You can, in terms of publicity. Tell him he’s going to fry, no question, but for what is up to him. Domestic violence by returning officers is up what, a thousand per cent? Nobody condones it, but most folks kind of understand it. So tell him if he cooperates, that’s all the world will know about him. But tell him if he doesn’t cooperate, then you’ll do the treason thing out in the open. His parents will be ashamed and mortified, his brother will have to quit the SEALs, his old high school will disown him.’
‘Will that work?’
‘All he’s got left is his name. He’s Fourth Infantry. That stuff matters over there.’
‘Believe me,’ Reacher said. ‘Let him get out with honour.’
‘Domestic violence is honourable?’
‘Compared to the alternative.’
‘OK, I’ll give it a try.’
‘Don’t forget about me,’ Reacher said. ‘I need to know what the air force built here. The scope, purpose and architecture, same as I always did. As soon as possible.’
‘Are you married?’
She hung up without answering.
All six people that were awake and in the house had coffee. Janet Salter herself, Holland, Peterson, Reacher, and the two women cops. Maybe they joined in because they needed to get warm. They all got halfway through their first cup, and then Holland’s cell phone rang. He balanced his mug and opened the phone one-handed and listened for a minute. Then he closed the phone again and stuffed it back in his pocket.
‘Highway Patrol,’ he said. ‘The bikers are leaving. Right now. Thirty-six pick-up trucks just hit the highway.’
Five to one in the afternoon.
Fifteen hours to go.
REACHER RODE BACK TO THE STATION HOUSE WITH HOLLAND and got the story on the way. The Highway Patrol was out in force on the highway to check that there were no remaining weather problems. One of their number had been parked on the eastbound shoulder. He had been watching the traffic coming and going, but then in the left corner of his eye had seen a long fast convoy heading down the snowy ribbon that led from the construction camp. It was quite a sight. Between thirty and forty pick-up trucks driving nose to tail, each one with three people in the cab and a tarp-covered motorbike and piles of boxes strapped down in the load bed. They had slowed and turned and then streamed and snaked and swooped around the cloverleaf and merged on to the highway and accelerated west. Like a train, the officer had said. Like the Northern Pacific itself. The convoy looked a quarter-mile long and was taking twenty whole seconds to pass any given point.
The desk sergeant confirmed the news. Highway Patrol cruisers were calling in reports, one after the other. The convoy was now ten miles west of Bolton, and still moving fast. But not fast enough to get ticketed. They were holding to an easy sixty-five, driving straight and true, still steadfastly keeping their noses clean.
They used the office with the crime scene photographs. Four desks boxed together, four chairs. Holland and Peterson sat side by side, and Reacher sat facing Holland, with his back to the pictures of the dead guy dressed in black. He asked, ‘You happy to just let them go?’
Holland asked, ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘They were selling meth.’
‘This is a small town at heart,’ Holland said. ‘We operate under small town rules. If I see the back of a thing, that’s generally as good as solving it.’
Peterson said, ‘End of problem.’
‘Not really,’ Reacher said. ‘They cleaned up and got out because the real estate closing is about to happen. And a closing needs a good title. Janet Salter is the last little smudge on it. She’s in more danger now than she ever was. She’s the only thing standing between someone and a lot of money.’
‘Plato the Mexican.’
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes