61 hours, p.23
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       61 Hours, p.23
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         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  The paraffin heater had its burner turned to the off position, but it was still giving out plenty of residual heat. It was glorious. Reacher stripped off his gloves and held his hands out to it. Simple physics meant that it had to be cooling all the time, and maybe in three hours’ time it would be merely lukewarm, and three hours after that it would be stone cold, but right then it was completely magnificent. Still too hot to touch, in fact. The combination of cast iron and recent hydrocarbon combustion was a wonderful thing. Reacher said, ‘You guys go search somewhere else. I’m staying right here.’

  Peterson said, ‘With a bit of luck they’ll all be the same.’

  They were. All three of them hustled to the farthest hut to check it out, and they found the same situation. Empty room, stripped beds, warm stove. They started the serious search right there. The warmth made them patient and painstaking. They checked every mattress, every cot frame, every nook, and every cranny. They checked the toilet tank in the bathroom area. They looked for loose boards, listened for hollows in the walls, and opened every bulkhead light fixture.

  They found nothing.

  Five to three in the afternoon.

  Thirteen hours to go.

  They searched the kitchen next. Reacher figured it was a strong possibility. A kitchen was an unambiguous location. A singularity. There was only one of them. Even more definite than the first hut or the last. But the key wasn’t in it. The jars of flour and sugar and coffee were still there, but too empty to hide a metal object from even the most cursory of shakes. It wasn’t shoved to the back of the shelves, it wasn’t taped to the underside of a table, it wasn’t in the cornflake dregs like a toy, it wasn’t nested in a pile of bowls.

  After the kitchen they worked back towards the stone building, hut by hut. They got better and faster at searching each step of the way, from sheer practice and repetition, because each hut was identical to all the others. They got to where they could have done it blindfold, or asleep. But even so, they got the same result everywhere. Which was no result at all.

  They arrived back where they had begun, in the hut nearest the stone building. They were reluctant to start searching it, because they felt sure they would be disappointed, and drawing a blank in the last of fifteen places carried with it some kind of finality. Reacher walked through the space, stopping at the stove, moving on to the last bed on the right.

  He said, ‘There was a girl sitting here this morning.’

  Holland stepped alongside him. ‘What girl?’

  ‘Just a biker, maybe nineteen or twenty. The only one I saw inside. The others were all out working on the snow.’

  ‘Was she sick?’

  ‘She looked OK to me.’

  ‘Was she locked up?’

  ‘No, the door was open.’

  ‘Maybe she was guarding the key. Like that was her function.’

  ‘Maybe she was. But where did she leave it?’

  ‘What did she look like?’

  ‘Tall and thin and blond, like the rest of you.’

  ‘You think she was local?’

  ‘Meth is a rural thing,’ Reacher said. Then he thought: Tall and thin and blond. He asked, ‘Are you getting a cell signal out here?’

  ‘Sure,’ Holland said. ‘Flat land all around. Wind and dust and microwaves, they’re all the same to us.’

  ‘Let me use your phone.’

  Holland handed it over and Reacher dialled the number he remembered.

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘Amanda, please.’

  A click. A purr. The voice. It said, ‘Where the hell are you?’

  Reacher said, ‘What? Now you’re my mother?’

  ‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you.’

  ‘I’m out at the air force place. Trying to get in. Looking for the key. I need to know the top twenty ingenious places you’ve ever found a small hidden object.’

  ‘VCR slot, kettle, shoe, inside a TV set, the battery compartment of a transistor radio, a hollowed-out book, cut into the foam inside the seat of a car, in a bar of soap, in a tub of cream cheese.’

  ‘That’s only nine. You’re hopeless.’

  ‘Give me time.’

  ‘There isn’t any of that kind of stuff here.’

  ‘So what is there?’

  Reacher walked around the hut and described everything he was seeing.

  The voice said, ‘The toilet tank.’

  ‘Checked them all.’

  ‘Any torn mattresses?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Loose boards?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘So burn the place down and sift the ashes. An air force key is probably made of the same stuff as warheads. It would survive, easy.’

  ‘Why were you trying to get hold of me?’

  ‘Because I know what that place is.’

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  PETERSON AND HOLLAND HAD HEARD THE THIN SQUAWK OF HER words from the earpiece. They stepped closer. Reacher sat down on the bed, where the biker girl had been. The voice on the phone said, ‘That place was built as an orphanage.’

  Reacher said, ‘Underground?’

  ‘It was fifty years ago. The height of the Cold War. Everyone was going nuts. My guy faxed me the file. The casualty predictions were horrendous. The Soviets were assumed to have missiles to spare, by the hundreds. A full-scale launch, they’d have been scratching their heads for targets. We ran scenarios, and it all came down to the day of the week and the time of the year. Saturday or Sunday or during the school vacations, it was assumed everyone would get it pretty much equally. But weekdays during the semester, they predicted a significant separation between the adult population and the juvenile, in terms of physical location. Parents would be in one place, their kids would be in another, maybe in a shelter under a school.’

  ‘Or under their desks,’ Reacher said.

  ‘Wherever,’ the voice said. ‘The point is that the survival numbers two weeks after the launch were very skewed. They showed a lot more kids than adults. Some guy on House Appropriations started obsessing about it. He wanted places for these kids to go. He figured they might be able to get to undamaged regional airports and be flown out to remote areas. He wanted combination radiation shelters and living accommodations built. He talked to the air force. He scratched their backs, they scratched his. He was from South Dakota, so that’s where they started.’

  ‘The local scuttlebutt is about a scandal,’ Reacher said. ‘Building an orphanage doesn’t sound especially scandalous.’

  ‘You don’t understand. The assumption was there would be no adults left. Maybe a sick and dying pilot or two, that’s all. Some harassed bureaucrat with a clipboard. The idea was that these kids would be dumped out of the planes and left alone to lock themselves underground and manage the best they could. On their own. Like feral animals. It wasn’t a pretty picture. They got reports from psychologists saying there would be tribalism, fighting, killing, maybe even cannibalism. And the median age of the survivors was supposed to be seven. Then the psychologists talked to the grown-ups, and it turned out that their worst fear was that they would die and their kids would live on without them. They needed to hear that things would be OK, you know, with doctors and nurses and clean sheets on the bed. They didn’t want to hear about how things were really going to be. So there was a lot of fuss and then the idea was dropped, as a matter of civilian morale.’

  ‘So this place just stood here for fifty years?’

  ‘Something about the construction compromises made it useless for anything else.’

  ‘Do we know what the compromises were?’

  ‘No. The plans are missing.’

  ‘So is the place empty?’

  ‘They filled it with junk they needed to store and then they forgot all about it.’

  ‘Is the stuff still in there?’

  ‘I’m assuming so.’

  ‘What is it?’

  ‘I don’t know yet. That’s in another file. But it can’t be very exciting. It’s som
ething that was already surplus to requirements fifty years ago.’

  ‘Are you going to find out?’

  ‘My guy has requested the file.’

  ‘How’s my weather?’

  ‘Stick your head out the door.’

  ‘I mean, what’s coming my way?’

  A pause. ‘It’ll be snowing again tomorrow. Clear and cold until then.’

  ‘Where would a bunch of bikers have hidden a key?’

  ‘I don’t know. I can’t help you.’

  Five minutes to four in the afternoon.

  Twelve hours to go.

  Reacher handed the phone back to Holland. The light from the window was dimming. The sun was way in the west and the stone building was casting a long shadow. They set about searching the hut. Their last chance. Every mattress, every bed frame, the toilet tank, the floorboards, the walls, the light fixtures. They did it slowly and thoroughly, and got even slower and more thorough as they approached the end of the room and started running out of options.

  They found nothing.

  Peterson said, ‘We could get a locksmith, maybe from Pierre.’

  Reacher said, ‘A bank robber would be better. A safe cracker. Maybe they’ve got one up at the prison.’

  ‘I can’t believe they never used the place. It must have cost a fortune.’

  ‘The defence budget was practically unlimited back then.’

  ‘I can’t believe they couldn’t find an alternative use for it.’

  ‘The design was compromised somehow.’

  ‘Even so. Somebody could have used it.’

  ‘Too landlocked for the navy. We’re close to the geographic centre of the United States. Or so they said on the bus tour.’

  ‘The Marines could have used it for winter training.’

  ‘Not with South in the name of the state. Too chicken. The Marines would have insisted on North Dakota. Or the North Pole.’

  ‘Maybe they didn’t want to sleep underground.’

  ‘Marines sleep where they’re told. And when.’

  ‘Actually I heard they do their winter training near San Diego.’

  ‘I was in the army,’ Reacher said. ‘Marine training makes no sense to me.’

  They braved the cold again and took a last look at the stone building and its stubborn door. Then they walked back to the car and climbed in and drove away. Two miles along the runway, where battered planes were to have spilled ragged children. Then eight miles on the old two-lane, up which no adult would have come to the rescue. The Cold War. A bad time. In retrospect, probably less dangerous than people imagined. Some Soviet missiles were mere fictions, some were painted tree trunks, some were faulty. And the Soviets had psychologists too, preparing reports in the Cyrillic alphabet about seven-year-olds of their own, and about tribalism and fighting and killing and cannibalism. But at the time things had seemed very real. Reacher had been two years old at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. In the Pacific. He had known nothing about it. But later his mother had told him how she and his father had calculated the southern drift of the poisoned wind. Two weeks, they thought. There were guns in the house. And on the base there were corpsmen with pills.

  Reacher asked, ‘How accurate are your weather reports?’

  Peterson said, ‘Usually pretty good.’

  ‘They’re calling for snow again tomorrow.’

  ‘That sounds about right.’

  ‘Then someone’s going to show up soon. They didn’t plough that runway for nothing.’

  Far to the east and a little to the south a plane was landing on another long runway, at Andrews Air Force Base in the state of Maryland. Not a large plane. A business jet, leased by the army, assigned to an MP prisoner escort company. It was carrying six people. A pilot, a copilot, three prisoner escorts, and a prisoner. The prisoner was the Fourth Infantry captain from Fort Hood. He was in civilian clothes and was hobbled by standard restraint chains around his wrists and waist and ankles, all interconnected. The plane taxied and the steps were lowered and the prisoner was hustled down them to a car parked on the apron. He was put in the back seat. Waiting for him there was a woman officer in a Class A army uniform. An MP major. She was a little above average height. She was slender. She had long dark hair tied back. Tanned skin, deep brown eyes. She had intelligence and authority and youth and mischief in her face, all at the same time. She was wearing ribbons for a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.

  There was no driver in the front of the car.

  The woman said, ‘Good afternoon, captain.’

  The captain didn’t speak.

  The woman said, ‘My name is Susan Turner. My rank is major, and I command the 110th MP, and I’m handling your case. You and I are going to talk for a minute, and then you’re going to get back on the plane, and you’re either going to head back to Texas, or straight over to Fort Leavenworth. One or the other. You understand?’

  Her voice was warm. It was a little husky, a little breathy, a little intimate. All in her throat. It was the kind of voice that could tease out all kinds of confidences.

  The infantry captain knew it.

  He said, ‘I want a lawyer.’

  Susan Turner nodded.

  ‘You’ll get one,’ she said. ‘You’ll get plenty. Believe me, before long you’re going to be completely up to your ass in lawyers. It’s going to be like you wandered into a Bar Association convention with a hundred dollar bill tied around your neck.’

  ‘You can’t talk to me without a lawyer.’

  ‘That’s not quite accurate. You don’t have to say anything to me without a lawyer. I can talk to you all I want. See the difference?’

  The guy said nothing.

  ‘I have some bad news,’ Susan Turner said. ‘You’re going to die. You know that, right? You are completely busted. You are more busted than the most busted person who ever lived. There’s no way anyone can save you. That’s exactly what you’re going to hear from the lawyers. No matter how many you get. They’re all going to say the same thing. You’re going to be executed, and probably very soon. I won’t give you false hope. You’re a dead man walking.’

  The guy said nothing.

  Turner said, ‘Actually you’re a dead man sitting, at this point. Sitting in a car, and listening to me. Which you should do, because you’ve got two very important choices coming up. The second is what you eat for your last meal. Steak and ice cream are the most popular picks. I don’t know why. Not that I give a shit about dietary issues. It’s your first choice I’m interested in. Want to guess what that is?’

  The guy said nothing.

  ‘Your first choice is what you go down for. Either Texas will kill you for killing your wife, or Leavenworth will kill you for betraying your country. I’ll be frank with you, in my opinion neither one does you much credit. But the Texas issue, maybe people will understand it a little bit. Combat stress, multiple tours of duty, all that kind of thing. All that post-traumatic stuff. Some people might even call you a kind of victim.’

  The guy said nothing.

  Turner said, ‘But the treason issue, that’s different. There’s no excuse for that. Your mom and your dad, they’re going to have to sell their house and move. Maybe change their name. Maybe they won’t be able to sell, and they’ll just hang themselves in the basement.’

  The guy said nothing.

  Turner said, ‘Not much ceiling height in a basement. It’ll be slow. Like strangulation. Maybe they’ll hold hands.’

  The guy said nothing.

  Turner moved in her seat. Long legs, sheathed in dark nylon. ‘And think about your kid brother. All those years of looking up to you? All gone. He’ll have to leave the navy. Who would trust him on their team? The brother of a traitor? That’s a life sentence for him, too. He’ll end up working construction. He’ll drink. He’ll curse your rotten name every day of his life. Maybe he’ll kill himself too. Gunshot, probably. In the mouth or behind the ear.’

  The guy said nothing.

  Turne
r said, ‘So here’s the deal. Talk to me now, answer all my questions, full and complete disclosure, all the details, and we’ll keep the treason absolutely private.’

 
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