Make me, p.22
Part #20 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Deeply unconscious. Or comatose. Was there a difference? Reacher wasn’t sure.
Chang said, “We should assume reinforcements sooner or later.”
Reacher said, “This guy could tell us things.”
“We don’t have time.”
“So at least let’s get what we can.”
They got a fancy cell phone, as thin as Chang’s, and a rental car key, and a hotel key card, and eighty-five cents, and a wallet, all from the pockets, and a Heckler & Koch P7, from the holster on the back of the belt. The P7 was small enough to hide, but big enough to use. It shared the same Parabellum rounds as the Ruger, which was logistically sensible. The wallet contained more than a hundred dollars in cash, and a California driver’s license, and a bunch of credit cards. Chang kept the cell phone, for the call log, and Reacher kept the cash, for future expenses, and the P7, for a number of reasons. They wiped what they were leaving behind, and everything else they had touched. They put their loot in their pockets.
Chang said, “Do we need anything else?”
Reacher took a last look around.
He said, “One more thing, perhaps.”
“Which would be what?”
“I think we can forget about organic food and honey bees. Look at this place. There’s sugary breakfast cereal and factory milk. And two candy bars. That’s what he eats. He wears polyester pants. He doesn’t care what he puts in his body and he’s not a tree-hugger. Therefore the LA Times article he reacted to was the Deep Web thing. About the internet. Which would make total sense, with all these computers.”
“You want to take a computer?”
“Did you hear what the neighbor lady said? Before she closed her door?”
“She said she thought Peter installed his computers himself. You hadn’t convinced her. It was a very polite parting shot.”
“She got the words right. Computers are installed, are they not? And she called him Peter. I would have expected an old lady like that to call him Mr. McCann. They must be good friends. Like long-time neighbors sometimes are. In which case maybe they talk about personal matters. And if she knows about computers, maybe he’s told her what’s on his mind. Because she’d understand.”
“We don’t have time to ask her. There could be more of these guys in this building at any minute. And then the cops.”
“I agree,” Reacher said. “We don’t have time to ask her. Not here, anyway. Therefore she’s the extra thing I want to bring with us. The neighbor. We should take her out for a cup of coffee. Away from here. And we should ask her there.”
It was not a fast process. Not a high-speed getaway. There was some skepticism. Some reluctance. In the end Chang had to play the FBI card, literally. Then there was a search for a coat, even though they told her the weather was warm. But it was a matter of manners. She said she wasn’t completely old-fashioned. She wouldn’t insist on gloves and a hat.
Then came the long, unsteady walk down the steep flights of stairs, and out to the street, where it was the Town Car that overcame her last real reluctance. Its gleaming black paint and its driver in his neat gray suit finally sealed the deal. It was governmental. She had seen such cars on the evening news.
Then came Reacher’s search for the right kind of place. Many pleasant candidates were rejected. Finally one was chosen, a traditional Chicago coffee shop, perhaps discreetly updated by a respectful grandson and heir. It had a pleasant atmosphere as well as a full roster of all the required virtues. Which were nearby parking for the Town Car, and inside seating, and a TV screen on the wall.
McCann’s neighbor seemed happy with it. Maybe it reminded her of the places she used to frequent. She folded her bony self into a booth, and let herself be hemmed in by Chang, who slid in next to her. Reacher sprawled on the opposite bench, sideways, as unthreatening as he could be.
All-around introductions revealed her name to be Mrs. Eleanor Hopkins, widow, previously a wife and a laboratory researcher at the university, not only technically literate, but the technical literature with which she was familiar was written, she said, in a very small number of very small ways, in some of the cracks and the edges, by herself, or by people she knew. Or knew of, or might have known of, if she had taken some other job at some other time. She said her career had overlapped an interesting period, in terms of technical progress.
Then she said Peter McCann had lived in her building for a good many years, and they had grown close, in a gruff and occasional and good-fences kind of a way. She said she had last seen him three or four weeks ago. Which often happened. Which was not a cause for concern. She went out very rarely, and it would be a matter of sheer coincidence if she met him in the hallway. And he was gone a lot, anyway, often for days at a time. She had no idea where. She had never inquired. She was his neighbor, not his sister. Yes, he was an unhappy man. Things often turned out badly.
The TV on the coffee shop wall was tuned to local news. Reacher watched it in the corner of his eye. Mrs. Hopkins ordered coffee and a slice of cake, and Chang told her it was possible Mr. McCann had gotten himself into some kind of trouble. Of a sort no one knew. Did she?
Reacher asked, “Did he seem obsessed about something?”
Mrs. Hopkins asked, “When?”
“Yes, I would say he did.”
“For how long?”
“About the last six months.”
Outside there were distant sirens, and the dull beat of helicopter blades, maybe a mile away. Reacher asked, “Do you know what Mr. McCann’s problem was?”
“No, I don’t. We spoke very little of personal matters.”
“Was it connected to his son?”
“It might have been, although that tended not to be an up-and-down situation.”
The TV screen showed a helicopter shot of green lawns. Trees. A park.
Reacher asked, “What was the issue with his son?”
Mrs. Hopkins said, “He didn’t talk of it in detail.”
“Did you know he hired a private detective?”
“I knew he intended to take concrete steps.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you and he talk about technical matters? Given your background and his evident interest?”
“Yes, we talked frequently about technical matters. Over coffee and cake, sometimes. Like this. We explored the issues together. We rather enjoyed it. I helped him grasp the basic structures, and he helped me understand the uses to which they are now often put.”
“Was his obsession a technical obsession?”
“I think not at its core, but there were technical aspects.”
“Was it something to do with the internet?”
On the TV, under the unsteady green picture, was a ticker-tape ribbon, with the words Shooting Victim Found in Park.
The old lady looked up and said, “By a dog walker, I expect. That’s how it usually happens, I think. In parks.”
Reacher said, “What was McCann’s interest in the internet?”
“There were aspects he wanted to understand. Like most laymen he thought of things in physical terms. As if the internet was a swimming pool, chock-full of floating tennis balls. The tennis balls representing individual web sites, naturally. Which is wrong, of course. Web sites are not physical things. The internet has no physical reality. It has no dimensions, and no boundaries. No up or down, no near or far. Although one might argue it has mass. Digital information is all ones and zeroes, which means memory cells are either charged or not charged. And charge is energy, so if one believes Einstein’s e=mc2, where e is energy, and m is mass, and c is the speed of light, then one must also believe that m equals e divided by c2, which is the same equation expressed differently, and which would imply that charge has detectable mass. The more songs and the more photos you put on your phone, the heavier it gets. Only by a trillion-billionth of the tiniest fraction of an ounce, but still.”
Reacher asked, “What exactly did McCann want to understand?”
The old lady said, “He wanted to know why some web sites can’t be found. Which was fundamentally a question about search engines. His image of the swimming pool became useful. He imagined millions of tennis balls, some bobbing up on the water, some trapped deeper down by the weight of the others. So I asked him to imagine a search engine as a long silk ribbon, being pulled up and down and in and out, weaving through the balls every which way, sliding over their wet fuzzy surfaces at tremendous speed. And then to imagine that some balls had been adapted, to have spikes instead of fuzz, like fish hooks, and that other balls had been adapted to have no fuzz at all, to be completely smooth, like billiard balls. Where would the silk ribbon snag? On the spikes, of course. It would slide over the billiard balls completely. That’s what Peter needed to understand about search engines. It’s a two-way street. A web site must want to be found. It must work hard to develop effective spikes. People call it search engine optimization. It’s a very important discipline now. That said, it’s equally hard work to be a billiard ball. Staying secret isn’t easy either.”
Chang said, “Secret web sites imply illegality.”
“Indeed,” the old lady said. “Or immorality, I suppose. Or both at once. I’m naïve about such things, but one imagines pornography of the most unpleasant sort, or mail-order cocaine, and so forth. It’s called the Deep Web. All those smooth billiard balls. Millions of them. No spikes, no hooks, nothing but going about their business with no one watching. The Deep Web might be ten times bigger than the Surface Web. Or a hundred. Or more. No one knows. How could they? Not to be confused with the Dark Web, of course, which is merely out-of-date sites with broken links, like dead satellites whirling through space forever. Which makes the Dark Web more like ancient archaeology, and the Deep Web more like the wrong side of the tracks. Not that either one is actually dark or deep or either side of any actual tracks, you understand. The internet is not a physical place. There are no physical characteristics to it at all.”
On the TV screen an ambulance rolled into the overhead shot, slowly over the grass, lights flashing forlornly, being followed by what looked like a coroner’s wagon. People got out, and joined the cops.
Chang asked, “So how can a person find secret web sites?”
“A person can’t,” the old lady said. “Not from the outside, anyway. You can’t use a search engine, because the sites are smooth. You need the exact address. Not just CoffeeShop.com, but something like CoffeeShop123xyz.com. Or much worse, of course, in reality. A unique resource locator combined with a super-secure password, all rolled into one. Apparently such addresses circulate through certain communities by word of mouth.”
On the TV screen a dark blue Crown Vic bumped over the grass and parked. Two men in suits climbed out. Detectives, presumably. The ticker changed to Lincoln Park Homicide. Reacher could hear more helicopters in the air, about a mile away. Rival channels, late to the party.
He asked, “Did McCann tell you what kind of a web site he was looking for?”
The old lady said, “No.”
On the screen men squatted by the black-clad figure on the grass. Detectives and the medical examiner, Reacher supposed. He knew the drill. He had squatted by horizontal figures many times. Some had been alive. This one wasn’t, he knew. There was no urgency. No hustle. No shouting voices. No backboards, no IV lines, no breathing tubes, no chest compressions.
Lincoln Park Homicide.
The old lady said, “That’s Peter, isn’t it? Why else would you be asking me about him? Why else would the FBI be interested in me?”
Chang didn’t answer either question, and Reacher said nothing, because as the old lady spoke the TV picture changed. To a house. An undistinguished brownstone, on an undistinguished street. Peter McCann’s brownstone. The old lady’s house. Where they had been, moments before. It was recognizable. It was familiar. The front of it was all lit up by flashing red lights. Cops were running up the stoop.
Much too soon for a connection to have been made. The cops in the park hadn’t even looked in McCann’s pockets yet. They hadn’t found a wallet, hadn’t checked the driver’s license, didn’t know who he was, and didn’t know where he lived. They were still waiting for the all-clear from the medical examiner. Reacher knew how it worked. He had sat back on his heels many times, just waiting. Death had to be pronounced, before the body became evidence.
Not yet connected. A separate investigation. The ticker changed to Anti-Terror Cops Storm Chicago Dwelling.
Reacher turned back to the old lady and asked, “Did you call 911?”
The old lady said, “Yes, I did.”
“As soon as I closed my door on you.”
“I didn’t like the look of you.”
“Neither one of us?”
“You especially. You don’t look like what you say you are. Not like an FBI agent on the television.”
“I was undercover. Pretending to be a bad guy.”
“Your act was convincing.”
“So you called 911.”
“What did you say?”
“I had armed terrorists in my house.”
“This is Chicago. That’s the only way to get a response in less than four hours.”
Chang said, “We should probably get going.”
Reacher said, “No, let’s stay a little longer. Five more minutes can’t hurt.”
They got refills of coffee, and the old lady wanted more cake, so Reacher and Chang got more too, to keep her company. The TV changed to a split screen, with the park on the left, and the house on the right, over individual labels saying Lincoln Park Homicide and Terror Alert, both of those labels centered over the main ticker, which said Busy Day for Cops.
The second cup of coffee was as good as the first. As was the cake. A body bag showed up in the park, and an ambulance arrived at the house. The body bag was zipped up and carried to the coroner’s wagon, and EMTs came out of the ambulance and ran up the stoop and in the house. Later they came out again with an injured man on a gurney. Hackett, presumably, although it was hard to be sure. The guy’s face was bandaged from the neck up, like an Egyptian mummy, and his clothes were covered with a sheet.
Then like a slow-burn visual effect in a movie the cops drove out of the park, and four long minutes later they showed up at the house, in the same cars, all the way from the left of the screen to the right, a short electronic hop but a circuitous real-world route. The same detectives got out and rushed up the stoop and went inside the house, and a minute later they came back out again, talking urgently on their cell phones.
The ticker changed to Official Says Cases Are Connected.
Reacher said, “Ma’am, I’m very sorry for your loss, and I’m very sorry for the intrusion you’re about to suffer. The Chicago PD will want to ask you questions. And it’s not like it is in the television shows. The FBI can’t come in and take over their case. We have to leave them alone. So we’d appreciate it if you don’t even tell them we’ve talked. There are all kinds of sensitivities there. Better not to tell them about us at all. Even about us being at the house earlier. They don’t need to know we beat them to it.”
“Are you asking me to lie to them?”
“I will, if they ask me who told them terrorists, and why.”
“Then very well, I will too,” the old lady said.
“Do you really have no idea what McCann’s problem was?”
“I told you, I’m his neighbor, not his sister. You should really ask her.”
“He has a sister?”
“I told you before.”
“I thought it was a figure of speech.”
“No, she’s real. They’re very close. She’d be the one he shared secrets with.”
They sent Mrs. Hopkins home in the Town Car, and told the driver that was the last of his engagements for the day, and therefore he was off-duty thereafter, free to go home, or back to the garage, or wherever else it was he was supposed to go. The guy took the news cheerfully. But Reacher figured his last engagement wouldn’t be his finest. He figured they wouldn’t make it all the way. They would get within a couple of streets of the old lady’s house, and then they would hit the roadblocks. If the old lady could produce proof of name and address, she would be allowed to continue on foot. Or in the back of a real government car, depending how much sooner or later they wanted to talk to the neighbor. Either way she would end up cool and comfortable, plied with water and coffee, talking to polite young women.
Chang switched on her cell phone. Also safe enough. Hackett’s tracking operation was out of business, at least temporarily. And they needed maps, and satellite images, and flight schedules, and search engines. Mrs. Hopkins had told them Peter McCann’s sister was a woman named Lydia Lair. She was younger by a number of years. She had married a doctor and moved away, to a tony suburb outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Her husband was rich, but McCann had asked for nothing except her time and her ear. There was a street address for her, a scribbled note intended for the old lady’s Christmas card list, still wedged in a pocket diary in her purse. But there was no phone number. Chang found the husband’s
Make Me by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes