61 hours, p.22
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       61 Hours, p.22
 

         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  ‘We’re doing everything we can,’ Holland said. ‘We have seven officers in place, and they’re staying there. We’ll be OK.’

  ‘Unless the siren goes off again.’

  ‘You say it won’t.’

  Reacher said, ‘An educated guess is still a guess. Just remember, this is the time to start worrying, not to stop.’

  Holland said, ‘You see me relaxing, I hereby give you permission to kick my butt. We may have our problems, and we may not be the U.S. Army, but we’ve struggled along so far. You should remember that.’

  Reacher nodded. ‘I know. I’m sorry. Not your fault. It’s the mayor’s fault. Who would sign off on a plan like that?’

  ‘Anyone would,’ Holland said. ‘Those are jobs that can’t be shipped overseas. Which is the name of the game right now.’

  The room went quiet for a moment.

  Peterson said, ‘The motels are all full.’

  Reacher said, ‘I know that.’

  ‘So where is the bad guy sleeping?’

  ‘In his car. Or in the next county.’

  ‘Where is he eating?’

  ‘Same answer.’

  ‘So should we use roadblocks? There are only three ways in.’

  ‘No,’ Holland said. ‘False premise. We set up a static perimeter, he might be already behind us. We have to stay mobile.’ Then he went quiet again, as if he was running through a mental agenda and checking that all the items on it had been covered. Which they must have been, because his next move was to stand up and walk out of the room without another word. Reacher heard the slap of his boot soles against the linoleum and then the slam of a door. His office, presumably. Work to do.

  Peterson said, ‘We should get lunch. You could come back to the house. You could be company for Kim. She would like that.’

  ‘Because she’s lonely?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Then you and I shouldn’t be the only human specimens she sees all day. Go pick her up and we’ll have lunch in town, the three of us.’

  ‘Hard to get a table.’

  ‘I’ll wait on line while you’re on the road.’

  ‘Where?’

  ‘The coffee shop where you found me yesterday. Across the square.’

  Peterson said, ‘But,’ and then nothing more.

  ‘I know,’ Reacher said. ‘I can see the police station from there. I can see when the bus is ready to leave.’

  The walk across the square to the coffee shop was short, but it was straight into the wind. The blowing ice hurt for the first few steps, like tiny needles, but then Reacher’s face went numb and he didn’t feel them any more. The line for a table was out the door. Reacher took his place behind a woman and a child wrapped in comforters that were probably borrowed from their motel beds. A guy commits a federal crime in Florida or Arizona, ends up in prison in South Dakota, the family has to follow. For the first year or two, anyway. After that, maybe not. A lot to lose.

  The line moved slowly but steadily and Reacher got level with the steamed window. Inside he could see vague shapes bustling about. Two waitresses. Steady wages, maybe not much in tips. Families of prisoners didn’t have much money. If they did, they weren’t families of prisoners. Or, worst case, their guy was in a Club Fed somewhere, doing woodwork for a year, or reading books.

  The mother and child squeezed their motel comforters in through the door. Reacher waited his turn on the sidewalk. He was pressed up against the building and out of the wind. Then a woman with three kids straggled out and Reacher ducked in. He waited at the register until a waitress glanced at him. He mouthed the word three and held up three fingers. The waitress nodded and swiped a rag across a table and beckoned him over. He dumped his coat on the back of a chair and peeled off his hat and gloves. He sat down and saw Peterson’s car stop outside on the kerb, a long black and white shape through the fog on the glass. He saw Peterson cross the sidewalk. His wife wasn’t with him. Peterson cut to the head of the line and stepped in through the door. No one complained. Peterson was in uniform.

  Reacher stayed in his seat and Peterson shed his coat and sat down to an awkward silence that was broken only by the arrival of the waitress with an order pad in her hand. Not the kind of place that offered extra minutes for study of the menu. Peterson ordered a hamburger and water and Reacher got grilled cheese and coffee. Reacher was facing the window, and Peterson turned around to look at it, and then turned back with a satisfied smile.

  ‘I know,’ Reacher said. ‘It’s all steamed up. But a bus is a pretty big thing. I’ll be able to make it out.’

  ‘You won’t leave.’

  ‘I haven’t decided yet.’

  ‘Kim didn’t want to come. She doesn’t care much for crowds, either.’

  ‘Crowds, or this kind of crowd?’

  ‘Both.’

  They were two people at a table for four, and the line was still out the door, but nobody wanted to sit with them. People came in, glanced over, maybe took half a step, and then stopped and looked away. The world was divided into two halves, people who liked cops and people who didn’t. The military had been exactly the same. Reacher had eaten next to empty chairs, many, many times.

  Peterson asked, ‘What would you do, if you were me?’

  ‘About what?’

  ‘The department.’

  ‘It’s not yours.’

  ‘I’m next in line.’

  ‘I would start some serious training. Then I would renegotiate the deal with the prison. Their crisis plan is completely unsustainable.’

  ‘It worked OK last night, apart from the thing with Mrs Salter.’

  ‘That’s the point. That’s like saying it worked OK, except it didn’t. You have to plan for the contingencies.’

  ‘I’m not much of a politician.’

  ‘Please tell me there’s a review period built in.’

  ‘There is. But they’ll say it’s rare that our help is needed. And if we get through this month with Mrs Salter we won’t have any negatives to show them.’

  There was no more conversation. Peterson kept quiet, and Reacher had nothing more to say. Without Kim there, the whole thing was a bust. But the food was OK. The coffee was fresh. No real alternative, given the turnover of customers. There were three flasks behind the counter and all three of them were constantly dripping and emptying. The sandwich was nicely fried, and Reacher was ready for the calories. Like throwing coal into a furnace. Being cold was like being on a diet. He understood why all the locals he met looked basically the same, all lean and fair and slender. Fair, because of their genetic inheritance. Lean and slender, because they were freezing their asses off for half the year.

  First Reacher and then Peterson finished eating, and immediately they felt the covetous stares from the people lining up inside the door. So Reacher paid, and left a generous tip, which earned him a tired smile from the waitress. Then he and Peterson stepped out to the sidewalk, just in time to see a big yellow bus pull up in the police station lot.

  Five to two in the afternoon.

  Fourteen hours to go.

  The bus was the same size and shape and style as the vehicle that had crashed two days earlier. Same amenities. It had blanked-out windows at the rear, where the washroom was. Same number of seats. Same kind of door. It had entered the lot from the north, so the door was facing away from the police station lobby. Reacher stood with Peterson in the square with the wind on his back and watched a thin line of wrapped-up old folks come out and walk around. There were all kinds of grateful farewells going on. The locals, shaking hands, getting hugged, giving out addresses and phone numbers. He saw the lady with the busted collar bone. She was in a coat with one empty sleeve. He saw the woman with the cracked wrist. She was cradling one hand and someone else was carrying her bag. Most of the others had their Band-Aids off. Their cuts were all healed up. The new driver was crouching down and slotting suitcases into the hold under the floor. The old folks were detouring around him one after the other and grippin
g the handrails carefully and climbing slowly up the step. Reacher saw them inside through the windows, white cotton-ball heads moving down the aisle, pausing, choosing their places, getting settled.

  Last aboard was Jay Knox himself, once the driver, now just a passenger. He walked down the aisle and dumped himself in a window seat three rows behind the last of the seniors. Reacher’s seat. Near the rear wheels, where the ride was roughest. No point in travelling, if you’re not feeling it.

  The new driver latched the hold compartments and bounced up the step. A second later the door sucked shut behind him. The engine started. Reacher heard the heavy diesel rattle. Heard the air brake release and the snick of a gear. The engine roared and the bus moved away, out of the lot, on to the road. The icy wind battered at it. It headed south towards the highway. Reacher watched it go, until it was lost to sight.

  Peterson clapped him on the back.

  Reacher said, ‘A viable mode of transportation just left town without me on it. I just broke the habit of a lifetime.’

  Plato dialled his guy again. Direct. A risk, but he was enough of an analyst to know that caution sometimes had to be abandoned. To know that chronology couldn’t be beaten. To know that timing was everything. The clock ticked on, whoever you were. Even if you were Plato.

  His guy answered.

  Plato asked, ‘Do you have news for me?’

  ‘Not yet. I’m sorry.’

  Plato paused. ‘It almost seems like it would be easier just to do the job than find new ways of delaying it.’

  ‘It’s not like that.’

  ‘It seems like you’re working very hard to save the wrong life.’

  ‘I’m not.’

  ‘Focus on the life you really want to save.’

  ‘I will. I am.’

  ‘You have a deadline. Please don’t let me down.’

  Reacher walked back to the station. Peterson drove. They met in the silent lobby and stood there for a second. They had nothing to do, and both of them knew it. Then Holland came out of his office and said, ‘We should go up to the camp. To take a look around. Now that it’s empty. While we’ve still got daylight.’

  TWENTY-SIX

  THEY WENT IN HOLLAND’S CAR. IT WAS A BET TER FIT FOR THREE people than Peterson’s cruiser, because it had no security screen between the front seats and the rear. Reacher rode in the back, sprawled sideways, comfortable, watching the roads he had driven that morning. Conditions were still bad. The wind was still strong. The snow was frozen so hard it looked like part of the earth, and it was being scoured into long sharp ridges and runnels. It was blinding white under the pale afternoon sun. Like the Ice Age.

  They turned on to the old road parallel with the highway and again on to the wandering two-lane up towards the camp. The first eight miles were as bad as before. Icy humps and dips, reversed cambers, constant deviations from straight. Then, as before, the horizon changed. The clear grey concrete, massively wide, infinitely long, the aerodynamic berms of snow, the visible wind howling above the surface.

  Holland slowed and bumped up on the new level and stopped and kept his foot on the brake, like a plane waiting to launch. He said, ‘You see what you want to see, don’t you? I was here a dozen times in my life and thought this was just a road. Kind of fancy, maybe, but I guess I figured hey, that’s the military for you.’

  ‘It used to be narrower,’ Peterson said. ‘That’s what made it hard to see. The winds put dirt all over it. Only the middle part was ever used. These guys ploughed it for the first time in fifty years. Not just snow. They pushed the dirt off.’

  ‘It’s a piece of work,’ Holland said. ‘That’s for sure.’

  ‘That’s for damn sure,’ Reacher said. ‘It’s got to be a yard thick. By volume it’s probably the largest manmade object in South Dakota.’

  They all looked a minute longer and then Holland took his foot off the brake and the snow chains chattered and the car rolled on. Two whole miles. The tan shapes of the huts loomed up, with the slate roof of the stone building standing tall behind them, under its cap of snow. Holland parked about where Reacher had. The scene ahead was different. No people. No trucks. No bikes. Just the empty ploughed spaces, and the wooden huts all forlorn and abandoned among them.

  They all got out of the car. Put their hats on, put their gloves on, zipped up their coats. The temperature was still dropping. Way below zero degrees, and the wind made it worse. The cold struck upward through the soles of Reacher’s boots. His face went numb after seconds. Holland and Peterson were putting on a show of taking it in their stride, but Reacher knew they had to be hurting. Their faces were mottled red and white, and they were blinking, and they were coughing and gasping a little.

  They all headed straight for the stone building. It looked no different from how it had in the morning. Partly forbidding, partly just plain weird. Peterson tried the door. It didn’t move. He rubbed the new frost off the keyhole with his thumb, the same way Reacher had. He said, ‘There are no scratches here. The lock wasn’t in regular use.’

  ‘Didn’t need to be,’ Reacher said. ‘They unlocked it a year ago and relocked it this morning.’

  ‘So where’s the key?’

  ‘That’s a good question.’

  Holland said, ‘They took it with them.’

  Reacher said, ‘I don’t think they did.’

  ‘Why wouldn’t they?’

  ‘Because this place is getting sold. Wouldn’t they have been told to leave the key for the new owner?’

  ‘So where is it?’

  ‘Under the mat, probably.’

  ‘There is no mat.’

  ‘Under a flowerpot, then.’

  ‘What flowerpot?’

  ‘Figure of speech,’ Reacher said. ‘People leave keys in prearranged locations.’

  All three of them turned a slow circle, looking at everything there was to see. Which wasn’t much. Just snow, and concrete, and the huts, and the building itself.

  ‘What’s it going to look like?’ Peterson asked. ‘Just a key?’

  ‘Big,’ Reacher said. ‘It’s a blast door, so the lock will be complex. Lots of moving parts. Hard to turn. So the key will be big and strong. Probably T-shaped, like a clock key, probably made out of some kind of fancy steel. Probably cost the Pentagon a thousand bucks all on its own.’

  ‘Maybe they buried it in the snow. We have a metal detector in the car.’

  ‘But I’m guessing the Russian guy from Brooklyn doesn’t. Which means it isn’t in the snow. That’s no kind of customer relations. You can’t ask a guy to dig around in a snow bank for an hour.’

  ‘So where is it?’

  There were stone ledges and carved mouldings and Gothic features all over the building. Eye-level and below was too obvious. Reacher walked a circuit and ran his hands along everything up to about eight feet off the ground. Nothing there. And anything higher would be inaccessible, unless the Russian was figuring on bringing a folding ladder.

  Reacher stopped walking and looked around all over again and said, ‘It has to be somewhere definite. Like under the third thing from the left or the fourth thing from the right.’

  Peterson said, ‘What kind of thing?’

  ‘Hut, bed, anything.’

  ‘Can’t we just jimmy the door with a tyre iron?’

  ‘It’s a blast door. Designed to stand up to a big pressure wave.’

  ‘But we’d be pulling outward, not pushing inward.’

  ‘Pressure waves are followed by vacuums. Compression and then rarefaction. Compression pushes in, rarefaction sucks back out, and just as hard. Both ways around, that’s a strong door.’

  Peterson said, ‘So we better start searching.’

  ‘What’s your lucky number?’

  ‘Three.’

  ‘So start with the third hut, under the third mattress.’

  ‘Counting from where?’

  Reacher paused. ‘That’s another good question. Front row, from the left, probably. But ultimately
any counting system could be called subjective. And therefore potentially confusing. The only real objectivity would be in saying the nearest or the farthest.’

  ‘From where?’

  ‘Here. The locked door.’

  ‘That’s assuming it’s in a hut at all.’

  ‘It’s not in the snow and it can’t be in the building itself. What else is there?’

  Peterson headed for the nearest hut. The first in the back row, opposite the second in the front row. The first one Reacher had checked that morning. The door was unlocked. Peterson pushed it open and stepped inside. Reacher and Holland followed him. The burlap drapes were still at the windows. Everything else portable was gone. There was nothing to see except the twelve cots, now stripped back to striped blue mattress ticking and dull iron frames. The place looked sad and abandoned and empty.

  But it was warm.

 
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