Running blind, p.26
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       Running Blind, p.26
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         Part #4 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Chapter 26

  LEIGHTON WALKED THE length of the room and sat down at the table, in the right-hand chair. Same chair as Reacher had used. He put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. Same gesture.

  "First thing, there was no list," he said. He looked up at Harper. "You asked me to check thefts where the women worked, so I needed a list of the women to do that, obviously, so I tried to find one, but I couldn't, OK? So I made some calls, and what happened was when your people came to us a month ago, we had to generate a list from scratch. It was a pain in the ass, trawling through all the records. So some guy had a bright idea, took a shortcut, called one of the women herself, some bullshit pretext. We think it was actually Alison Lamarr, and she supplied the list. Seems they'd set up a big support group among themselves, couple of years ago. "

  "Scimeca called them her sisters," Reacher said. "Remember that? She said four of my sisters are dead. "

  "It was their own list?" Harper said.

  "We didn't have one," Leighton said again. "And then Kruger's records started coming in, and the dates and places didn't match. Not even close. "

  "Could he have falsified them?"

  Leighton shrugged. "He could have. He was an ace at falsifying his inventories, that's for damn sure. But you haven't heard the kicker yet. "

  "Which is?"

  "Like Reacher said, Special Forces to supply battalion needs some explaining. So I checked it out. He was a top boy in the Gulf. Big star, a major. They were out in the desert, behind the lines, looking for mobile SCUD launchers, small unit, bad radio. Nobody else had any real clear idea of where they were, hour to hour. So they start the artillery barrage and Kruger's unit gets all chewed up under it. Friendly fire. Bad casualties. Kruger himself was seriously hurt. But the Army was his life, so he wanted to stay in, so they gave him the promotion all the way up to bird colonel and stuck him somewhere his injuries wouldn't disqualify him, hence the desk job in supply. My guess is we'll find he got all bitter and twisted afterward and started running the rackets as a kind of revenge or something. You know, against the Army, against life itself. "

  "But what's the kicker?" Harper asked.

  Leighton paused.

  "The friendly fire," he said. "The guy lost both his legs. "

  Silence.

  "He's in a wheelchair. "

  "Shit," she said.

  "Yeah, shit. No way he's running up and down any stairs to any bathrooms. Last time he did that was ten years ago. "

  She stared at the wall.

  "OK," she said slowly. "Bad idea. "

  "I'm afraid so, ma'am. And they're right about Cooke. I checked her too, and she never held anything heavier than a pen, her whole short career. That was something else I was going to have to tell you. "

  "OK," she said again.

  She examined the wall.

  "But thanks anyway," she said. "And now we're out of here. Back to Quantico, face the music. "

  "Wait," Leighton said. "You need to hear about the paint. "

  "More bad news?"

  "Weird news," Leighton said. "I started a search for reports about missing camo green, like you asked me to. Only definitive thing was hidden in a buried file, closed-access. A theft of a hundred and ten three-gallon cans. "

  "That's it," Harper said. "Three hundred thirty gallons. Eleven women, thirty gallons each. "

  "Evidence was clear," Leighton said. "They fingered a supply sergeant in Utah. "

  "Who was he?"

  "She," Leighton said. "She was Sergeant Lorraine Stanley. "

  Total silence.

  "But that's impossible," Harper said. "She was one of the victims. "

  Leighton shook his head. "I called Utah. Got hold of the investigating officer. I got him out of bed. He says it was Stanley, no doubt about it. Means and opportunity. She'd tried to cover her tracks, but she wasn't smart enough about it. It was clear-cut. They didn't proceed against her because it was politically impossible right then. She'd just come off of the harassment thing, not long before. No way were they going to start in on her at that point. So they just watched her, until she quit. But it was her. "

  "One victim stole the paint?" Reacher said. "And another provided the list of names?"

  Leighton nodded, somber. "That's how it was, I promise you. And you know I wouldn't bullshit one of Garber's boys. "

  Reacher just nodded.

  THERE WAS NO more conversation. No more talk. The room went silent. Leighton sat at the table. Harper dressed mechanically. Reacher put his coat on and found the Nissan keys in Harper's jacket. Went outside and stood in the rain for a long moment. Then he unlocked the car and slid inside. Started the motor and waited. Harper and Leighton came out together. She crossed to the car and he walked back to his. He waved, just a brief motion of his hand. Reacher put the Nissan in drive and pulled slowly out of the lot.

  "Check the map for me," he said.

  "I-295 and then the Turnpike," she said.

  He nodded. "I know it after that. Lamarr showed me. "

  "Why the hell would Lorraine Stanley steal the paint?"

  "I don't know," he said.

  "And you want to tell me why?" she asked. "You knew this Army thing was nothing, but you made us spend thirty-six hours on it. Why?"

  "I already told you," he said. "It was an experiment, and I needed time to think. "

  "About what?"

  He didn't answer. She went quiet for a spell.

  "Good job we didn't go all the way celebrating," she said.

  He didn't reply to that either. Didn't speak again, the whole way. He just found the right roads and drove on through the rain. He had new questions in his head, and he tried to think of some answers, but nothing would come. The only thing in his mind was the feel of her tongue in his mouth. It felt different from Jodie's. Tasted different. He guessed everybody's was different.

  HE DROVE FAST and it took a fraction under three hours from the outskirts of Trenton all the way back to Quantico. He turned in at the unmarked road off 95 and drove through the Marine checkpoints in the dark and waited at the vehicle barrier. The FBI sentry shone a flashlight on their badges and their faces and raised the striped pole and waved them through. They eased over the speed bumps and wound slowly through the empty parking lots and pulled up opposite the glass doors. It had stopped raining back in Maryland. Virginia was dry.

  "OK," Harper said. "Let's go get our asses chewed. " Reacher nodded. Killed the motor and the lights and sat in the silence for a beat. Then they looked at each other and slid out of the car and stepped to the doors. Took a deep breath. But the atmosphere inside the building was very calm. It was quiet. Nobody was around. Nobody was waiting for them. They went down in the elevator to Blake's underground office. Found him sitting in there at his desk with one hand resting on the telephone and the other holding a curled sheet of fax paper. The television was playing silently, political cable, men in suits at an impressive table. Blake was ignoring it. He was staring at a spot on his desk equidistant from the fax paper and the phone and his face was totally blank. Harper nodded to him, and Reacher said nothing.

  "Fax in from UPS," Blake said. His voice was gentle. Amiable, even benign. He looked crestfallen, adrift, confused. He looked beaten.

  "Guess who sent the paint to Alison Lamarr?" he said.

  "Lorraine Stanley," Reacher said.

  Blake nodded.

  "Correct," he said. "From an address in a little town in Utah, that turned out to be a self-storage facility. And guess what else?"

  "She sent all of it. "

  Blake nodded again. "UPS has got eleven consecutive consignment numbers showing eleven identical cartons going to eleven separate addresses, including Stanley's own place in San Diego. And guess what else?"

  "What?"

  "She didn't even have her own place when she first put the paint in the storage facility. She waited the best part of a year until she was se
ttled, then she went back up to Utah and dispatched it all. So what do you make of that?"

  "I don't know," Reacher said.

  "Neither do I," Blake said.

  Then he picked up the phone. Stared at it. Put it down again.

  "And Poulton just called," he said. "From Spokane. Guess what he had to say?"

  "What?"

  "He just got through interviewing the UPS driver. The guy remembers pretty well. Isolated place, big heavy box, I guess he would. "

  "And?"

  "Alison was there when he called. She was listening to the ball game too, radio on in the kitchen. She asked him inside, gave him coffee, they heard the grand slam together. A little hollering, a little dancing around, another coffee, he tells her he's got a big heavy box for her. "

  "And?"

  "And she says oh, good. He goes back out and wheels it off the tail lift on a hand truck, she clears a space for it in the garage, he brings it in, he dumps it, and she's all smiles about it. "

  "Like she was expecting it?"

  Blake nodded. "That was the guy's impression. And then what does she do?"

  "What?"

  "She tears off the 'Documents enclosed' thing and carries it back to the kitchen with her. He follows, to finish up his mug of coffee. She pulls the delivery note out of the plastic, and she shreds it up into small pieces, and she dumps them in the trash, along with the plastic. "

  "Why?"

  Blake shrugged. "Who the hell knows? But this guy worked UPS four years, and six times out of ten people were home for him, and he never saw such a thing before. "

  "Is he reliable?"

  "Poulton thinks so. Says he's a solid guy, clear, articulate, ready to swear the whole damn thing on a stack of Bibles. "

  "So what's your take?"

  Blake shook his head. "I had any idea, you'd be the first to know. "

  Nighttime silence in the office.

  "I apologize," Reacher said. "My theory led us nowhere. "

  Blake made a face. "Don't think twice. It was our call. It was worth a try. We wouldn't have let you go, otherwise. "

  "Is Lamarr around?"

  "Why?"

  "I should apologize to her, too. "

  Blake shook his head. "She's at home. She hasn't been back. Says she's a wreck, and she's right. Can't blame her. "

  Reacher nodded. "A lot of stress. She should get away. "

  Blake shrugged. "Where to? She won't get on a damn plane. And I don't want her driving anyplace, the state she's in. "

  Then his eyes hardened. He seemed to come back down to earth.

  "I'm going to look for another consultant," he said. "When I find one, you're out of here. You're getting nowhere. You'll have to take your chances with the New York people. "

  Reacher nodded.

  "OK," he said.

  Blake looked away and Harper took her cue and led Reacher out of the office. Into the elevator, up to ground level, up to the third floor. They walked together through the corridor to the familiar door.

  "Why was she expecting it?" Harper said. "Why was Alison expecting the box of paint, when all the others weren't?"

  He shrugged. "I don't know. "

  Harper opened his door.

  "OK, good night," she said.

  "You mad at me?"

  "You wasted thirty-six hours. "

  "No, I invested thirty-six hours. "

  "In what?"

  "I don't know, yet. "

  She shrugged. "You're a weird guy. "

  He nodded. "So people say. "

  Then he kissed her chastely on the cheek, before she could duck away. He stepped into his room. She waited until the door swung shut before she walked back to the elevator.

  THE SHEETS AND the towels had been changed. There was new soap and shampoo. A new razor and a fresh can of shaving cream. He upended a glass and put his toothbrush in it. Walked to the bed and lay down, fully dressed, still in his coat. Stared up at the ceiling. Then he rolled up onto one elbow and picked up the phone. Dialed Jodie's number. It rang four times, and he heard her voice, slow and sleepy.

  "Who is it?" she said.

  "Me," he said back.

  "It's three o'clock in the morning. "

  "Nearly. "

  "You woke me up. "

  "I'm sorry. "

  "Where are you?"

  "Locked up in Quantico. "

  She paused, and he heard the hum of the line and the faraway night sounds of New York. Faint isolated car horns, the whoop of a distant siren.

  "How's it going?" she asked.

  "It's not," he said. "They're going to replace me. I'll be home soon. "

  "Home?"

  "New York," he said.

  She was silent. He heard a quiet, urgent siren. Probably right there on Broadway, he thought. Under her window. A lonely sound.

  "The house won't change anything," he said. "I told you that. "

  "It's the partnership meeting tomorrow," she said.

  "So we'll celebrate," he said. "When I get back. As long as I'm not in jail. I'm still not out of the woods with Deerfield and Cozo yet. "

  "I thought they were going to forget about it. "

  "If I delivered," he said. "And I haven't delivered. "

  She paused again.

  "You shouldn't have gotten involved in the first place. "

  "I know that. "

  "But I love you," she said.

  "Me too," he said. "Good luck for tomorrow. "

  "You too. "

  He hung up and lay back down and resumed his survey of the ceiling. Tried to see her up there, but all he saw instead were Lisa Harper and Rita Scimeca, who were the last two women he'd wanted to take to bed but couldn't, for force of circumstance. Scimeca, it would have been totally inappropriate. Harper, it would have been an infidelity. Perfectly sound reasons, but reasons not to do something don't kill the original impulse. He thought about Harper's body, the way she moved, the guileless smile, her frank engaging stare. He thought about Scimeca's face, the invisible bruises, the hurt in her eyes. Her rebuilt life out there in Oregon, the flowers, the piano, the shine of her furniture wax, the buttoned-up defensive domesticity. He closed his eyes and then opened them and stared hard at the white paint above him. Rolled onto his elbow again and picked up the phone. Dialed 0, hoping to get a switchboard.

  "Yes?" said a voice he had never heard before.

  "This is Reacher," he said. "Up on the third floor. "

  "I know who you are and where you are. "

  "Is Lisa Harper still in the building?"

  "Agent Harper?" the voice said. "Hold, please. "

  The line went quiet. No music. No recorded advertisements. No your call is very important to us. Just nothing. Then the voice came back.

  "Agent Harper is still here," it said.

  "Tell her I want to see her," Reacher said. "Right away. "

  "I'll pass that message on," the voice said.

  Then the line went dead. Reacher swung his feet to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed, facing the door, waiting.

  THREE O'CLOCK IN the morning in Virginia was midnight on the Pacific coast, and midnight was Rita Scimeca's habitual bedtime. She followed the same routine every night, partly because she was naturally an organized person, and partly because that aspect of her nature had been rigorously reinforced by her military training, and anyway when you've always lived alone and always will, how many ways are there of getting yourself to bed?

  She started in the garage. Turned off the power to the door opener, slid the bolts into place, checked the car was locked, turned off the light. Locked and bolted the door through to the basement, checked the furnace. Walked upstairs, turned off the basement light, locked the door out to the hallway. Checked the front door was locked, did the bolts, put the chain on.

  Then she checked the windows. There were fourteen windows in the house, and all of
them had locks. Late fall and cold, they were all closed and locked anyway, but still she checked each one of them. It was her routine. Then she returned to the front parlor with a rag for the piano. She had played four hours, mostly Bach, mostly half speed, but she was getting there. Now she had to wipe down the keyboard. It was important to remove the acid from the skin of her fingers. She knew the keys were actually some kind of sophisticated plastic and were probably impervious, but it was a devotional thing. If she treated the piano right, it would reward her.

  She wiped the keyboard vigorously, rumbling down at the bass end, tinkling all the way up to the top of the eighty-eight keys. She closed the lid and turned out the light and returned the rag to the kitchen. Turned out the kitchen light and felt her way in the dark up to her bedroom. Used the bathroom, washed her hands, her teeth, her face, all in her usual strict order. She stood at an angle to the sink, so she didn't have to look at the tub. She hadn't looked at the tub since Reacher had told her about the paint.

  Then she stepped through to her bedroom and slid under the covers. Pulled her knees up and hugged them. She was thinking about Reacher. She liked him. She really did. It had been good to see him. But then she rolled the other way and put him out of her mind, because she didn't expect ever to see him again.

  HE WAITED TWENTY minutes before the door opened and Harper came back. She didn't knock, just used her key and walked right in. She was in shirtsleeves, rolled up to the elbows. Her forearms were slim and tanned. Her hair was loose. She wasn't wearing a bra. Maybe it was still in the motel room in Trenton.

  "You wanted me?" she asked.

  "You still on the case?" he asked.

  She stepped into the room and glanced at herself in the mirror. Stood next to the dresser and turned to face him.

  "Sure," she said. "Advantage of being a plain-vanilla agent, you don't get the blame for other people's crazy ideas. "

  He was silent. She looked at him.

  "What did you want?" she said.

  "I wanted to ask you a question," he said. "What would have happened if we'd already known about the paint delivery and we'd asked Alison Lamarr about it instead of the UPS guy? What would she have said?"

  "The same as he said, presumably. Poulton told us the guy is solid. "

  "No," Reacher said. "He's solid, but she would have lied to us. "

  "She would? Why?"

  "Because they're all lying to us, Harper. We've spoken to seven women, and they all lied to us. Vague stories about roommates and mistakes? All bullshit. If we'd gotten to Alison before, she'd have given us the same kind of a story. "

  "How do you know?"

  "Because Rita Scimeca was lying to us. That's for damn sure. I just figured that out. She didn't have any roommate. Never. It just doesn't fit. "

  "Why not?"

  "Everything's wrong about it. You saw her place. You saw how she lives. All buttoned up and prissy? Everything was so neat and clean and polished. Obsessive. Living like that, she couldn't stand anybody else in her house. She even threw us out pretty damn quick, and I was her friend. And she didn't need a roommate for money. You saw her car, some big new sedan. And that piano. You know how much a grand piano costs? More than the car, probably. And did you see the tools on her pegboard? The pegs were all held in with little plastic loops. "

  "You're basing this on loops in her pegboard?"

  "On everything. It's all indicative. "

  "So what are you saying?"

  "I'm saying she was expecting the delivery, just like Alison was. Just like they all were. The cartons came, they all said oh good, just like Alison did, they all made space, they all stored their cartons. "

  "It's not possible. Why would they?"

  "Because the guy has got some kind of a hold over them," Reacher said. "He's forcing them to participate. He forced Alison to give him their own list of names, he forced Lorraine Stanley to steal the paint, he forced her to hide it in Utah, he forced her to send it out at the right time, he forced each one of them to accept the delivery and then store it until he was ready. He forced each one of them to destroy the delivery notes immediately and he had each of them ready to lie about it afterward if anything unraveled before he got to them. "

  Harper stared at him. "But how? How the hell? How would he do all that?"

  "I don't know," Reacher said.

  "Blackmail?" she said. "Threats? Fear? Is he saying, play along and the others die but you live? Like he's conning them all separately?"

  "I just don't know. Nothing fits. They weren't an especially fearful bunch, were they? Certainly Alison didn't look it. And I know Rita Scimeca isn't afraid of much. "

  She was still staring at him.

  "But it's not just participation, is it?" she said. "It's more than that. He's forcing them to be happy about it too. Alison said oh good when her carton came. "

  Silence in the room.

  "Was she relieved or something?" she said. "Did he promise her, you get your carton by UPS instead of FedEx or in the afternoon instead of the morning or on some particular day of the week it means you're definitely going to be OK?"

  "I don't know," he said again.

  Silence.

  "So what do you want me to do?" Harper asked.

  He shrugged. "Just keep on thinking, I guess. You're the only one can do anything about it now. The others won't get anywhere, not if they keep on heading the direction they've been going. "

  "You've got to tell Blake. "

  He shook his head. "Blake won't listen to me. I've exhausted my credibility with him. It's up to you now. "

  "Maybe you've exhausted your credibility with me, too. "

  She sat down on the bed next to him, like she was suddenly unsteady on her feet. He was looking at her, something in his eyes.

  "What?" she said.

  "Is the camera on?"

  She shook her head. "They gave up on that. Why?" "Because I want to kiss you again. "

  "Why?"

  "I liked it, before. "

  "Why should I want to kiss you again?"

  "Because you liked it before too. "

  She blushed. "Just a kiss?"

  He nodded.

  "Well, OK, I guess," she said.

  She turned to him and he took her in his arms and kissed her. She moved her head like she had before. Pressed harder and put her tongue against his lips and his teeth. Into his mouth. He moved his hand down to her waist. She laced her fingers into his hair. Kissed harder. Her tongue was urgent. Then she put her hand on his chest and pushed herself away. Breathed hard.

  "We should stop now," she said.

  "I guess," he said.

  She stood up, unsteady. Bent forward and back and tossed her hair behind her shoulders.

  "I'm out of here," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow. "

  She opened the door. Stepped outside. He heard her wait in the corridor until the door swung shut again. Then he heard her walk away to the elevator. He lay back on the bed. Didn't sleep. Just thought about obedience and acquiescence, and means and motives and opportunities. And truth and lies. He spent five solid hours thinking about all of those things.

  SHE CAME BACK at eight in the morning. She was showered and glowing and wearing a different suit and tie. She looked full of energy. He was tired, and crumpled and sweaty and hot and cold all at the same time. But he was standing just inside the door with his coat buttoned, waiting for her, his heart hammering with urgency.

  "Let's go," he said. "Right now. "

  Blake was in his office, at his desk, same as he had been before. Maybe he'd been there all night. The UPS fax was still at his elbow. The television was still playing silently. Same channel. Some Washington reporter was standing on Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House behind his shoulder. The weather looked good. Bright blue sky, clear cold air. It would be an OK day for travel.

  "Today you work the files again," Blake said.

&nbs
p; "No, I need to get to Portland," Reacher said. "Will you lend me the plane?"

  "The plane?" Blake repeated. "What are you, crazy? Not in a million years. "

  "OK," Reacher said.

  He moved to the door. Took a last look at the office and stepped into the corridor. Stood still and quiet in the center of the narrow space. Harper crowded past him.

  "Why Portland?" she asked.

  He looked at her. "Truth, and lies. "

  "What does that mean?"

  "Come with me and find out. "

 
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