61 hours, p.26
Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Five minutes to seven in the evening.
Nine hours to go.
PETERSON KEPT CHECKING HIS WATCH. REACHER KEPT TIME IN his head. Seven o’clock. Five past. Ten past. A quarter past. No activity on the street. The view out from under the lip of the porch stayed the same. Snow, ice, wind, Peterson’s parked car, the lookout police cruiser, its vigilant driver. Peterson took the Glock out of his holster and checked it over and put it back. Reacher had the Smith & Wesson in his trouser pocket. He didn’t need to check it was there. He could feel its weight.
Peterson was at the window. Reacher sat down, in Janet Salter’s chair. He was thinking about the runway, and the old stone building, and the wooden huts.
The first wooden hut, in particular.
He asked, ‘Does Kim have a sister?’
Peterson said, ‘No.’
‘A niece or a cousin?’
‘No nieces. Some cousins. Why?’
‘That girl I saw in the hut, sitting on the bed. She looked familiar. At first I thought I had seen her before. But I don’t see how. So now I’m trying to pin it down. Either she was just a local type, or she looks like someone else I saw.’
‘There’s no real local type here.’
‘You think? You and Chief Holland look the same.’
‘Apart from that.’
‘A little, maybe. But there’s no local type.’
‘Then that girl looked like someone I saw. On my first night here, I think. And the only woman I saw on my first night here was Kim.’
‘And the old ladies on the bus.’
‘The waitress in the restaurant?’
‘Kim doesn’t have sisters. Or nieces. And I think all her cousins are boys.’
‘OK,’ Reacher said.
‘Maybe you saw a guy. Brothers and sisters can look alike. Lowell has a sister who looks just like him. Remember him? The officer you met?’
‘Tough on her,’ Reacher said.
‘What did this mystery girl look like anyway?’
‘Tall and thin and blond.’
‘We’re all tall and thin and blond.’
‘My point exactly.’
‘But you can tell us apart.’
Reacher said, ‘If I concentrate.’
Peterson smiled briefly and turned back to the window. Reacher joined him there. Twenty past seven. All quiet.
Far to the east and a little to the south Susan Turner dialled her phone again. Her guy in the air force answered on the first ring. He said he had been about to pick up the phone and call her himself. Because he had news. The relevant file had just come through.
‘So what’s down there under the ground?’ Susan asked.
He told her. ‘That’s vague,’ she said. ‘Is there any way you can get more detail?’
‘You told me this was private and off the record.’
‘You sound like your next promotion depends on it.’
‘I’m trying to help someone, that’s all. And vagueness won’t do it.’
‘Who are you trying to help?’
Susan Turner paused.
‘A friend,’ she said.
‘How good of a friend?’
‘I don’t know yet.’
‘How good do you want him to be?’
‘Good enough to be worth checking some more.’
Her guy said, ‘OK, I’ll check some more. I’ll get back to you.’
At seven thirty Janet Salter started moving around. Reacher heard her in the hallway. He heard the cop on the bottom stair say that dinner had been great. He heard Janet Salter reply politely. Then she came into the parlour. Reacher wanted to put her in the basement, but he decided to wait until the siren sounded. That would be the time she would be most likely to comply, he thought, when she heard that banshee wail again.
She asked, ‘What is about to happen?’
Peterson asked, ‘Why do you think something is about to happen?’
‘Because you’re here, Mr Peterson, instead of being home with Mrs Peterson and your children. And because Mr Reacher has gone even quieter than usual.’
Peterson said, ‘Nothing is going to happen.’
Reacher said, ‘There’s an eight o’clock head count up at the jail. We think they’re going to come out one short. They’re going to hit the panic button.’
‘At eight o’clock?’
‘Maybe one minute past.’
Peterson said, ‘We think it might have already happened. They’ll find out when they count heads.’
‘I won’t leave,’ Peterson said.
‘I’m grateful for your concern. But I shall make you leave. You’re our next chief of police. For the town’s sake, nothing must stand in the way of that.’
‘No, it’s how good decisions are made. One must take oneself out of the equation.’
‘I can’t do it.’
‘A deal is a deal, even if Chief Holland didn’t stick to his with me.’
‘I won’t go.’
The United States Air Force Security Forces were headquartered at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. They had no direct equivalent of the army’s MP Corps 110th Special Unit. The closest they came was the Phoenix Raven programme, which was an integrated set of specialized teams. One of those teams was led by a guy who had just gotten off the phone with Susan Turner in Virginia, and gotten back on the phone with a file clerk a thousand miles away in a records depository.
The clerk said, ‘What I gave you is all I have.’
‘It is what it is.’
‘There has got to be more.’
‘How hard have you looked?’
‘Staring at a piece of paper won’t make words appear on it.’
‘Where did the delivery originate?’
‘You want me to trace one particular cargo flight from fifty years ago?’
‘Not a hope. I’m sorry, major. But we’re talking ancient history here. You might as well ask me what Neanderthal Man had for lunch a million years ago last Thursday.’
By ten to eight Janet Salter’s house had gone absolutely silent. Some kind of drumbeat of dread had passed between one inhabitant and the next. The cop in the hallway had gotten up off the bottom stair and was standing behind the door. The cop in the library had stepped closer to the window. Peterson was watching the street. Janet Salter was straightening books on the parlour shelves. She was butting their spines into line. Small, nervous, exact movements with the knuckles of her right hand.
Reacher was lounging in a chair. Eyes closed. Nothing could happen before the siren sounded.
The clock ticked on.
Five to eight in the evening.
Eight hours to go.
THE CLOCK IN REACHER’S HEAD HIT EIGHT EXACTLY. NOTHING happened. The world outside stayed icy and quiet. Nothing to hear except the sound of the wind, and the brush and rattle of frozen evergreens, and the creaking and stirring of tree limbs, and the primeval tectonic shudders as the earth itself got colder.
One minute past eight.
Two minutes past eight.
No one came.
Peterson glanced at Reacher. Reacher shrugged. Janet Salter looked out the window. No action on the street. The cop in the hallway moved. Reacher heard the boards creak under her feet.
Three minutes past eight.
Four minutes past.
No sound, no sire
Nothing at all.
At a quarter past eight they gave it up and stopped worrying. Peterson was certain the head count could not have been delayed. Prisons ran on strict routines. If the cells weren’t locked for the night at eight exactly, there would be entries to be made in operational logs, and reports to be filed in triplicate, and supervisors called upon to explain. Way too much trouble for any reason short of a riot in progress, and if a riot was in progress the siren would have sounded anyway. Therefore the bid had failed. Or the lawyer had been blowing smoke.
‘You sure?’ Reacher asked.
‘Absolutely,’ Peterson said.
‘So prove it. Put your money where your mouth is.’
And Peterson did. He spun it out until twenty past, and then he put his coat on and crunched down the driveway and climbed in his car and drove away. Janet Salter stopped straightening books and started reading one instead. The cop in the hallway went back to her perch on the bottom stair. The cop in the library stepped back from the glass. Reacher sat in the kitchen and tried to decide whether to disturb Janet Salter by asking permission, or whether just to go ahead and make more coffee himself. He knew how to work a percolator. His mother had had one, even though she was French. In the end he went ahead and fired it up unbidden. He listened to it gulp and hiss and when it quieted down he poured himself a mug. He raised it in a mock salute to his reflection in the window and took a sip.
At eight thirty the phone rang in the hallway. The cop got up from the bottom stair and answered it. It was for Reacher. The voice from Virginia. The cop put two forked fingers under her eyes and then pointed them at the door. You watch the front, and I’ll give you some privacy. Reacher nodded and sat down and picked up the phone.
The voice said, ‘Forty tons of surplus aircrew requirements left over from World War Two.’
‘Tell me about it. My guy did his best for me, but that’s all he knows.’
‘What kind of surpluses did they have after World War Two?’
‘Are you kidding? All kinds of things. The atom bomb changed everything. They went from having lots of planes carrying small bombs to a few planes carrying big bombs. They could have had forty spare tons of pilots’ underwear alone. Plus they changed from prop planes to jets. They got helmets. It could be forty tons of those old-style leather hats.’
‘I wish I had one of those right now.’
‘What’s the temperature here?’
A pause. ‘Minus fourteen degrees.’
‘It’s going to get worse. The Weather Channel radar looks horrible.’
‘Thanks for sharing.’
‘Hey, you asked.’
‘Hats and underwear?’
‘Got to be something to do with a generational change of equipment or a reduced number of aircrew. Or both.’
‘Anything on the size or architecture of the place itself?’
‘That stuff disappeared a long time ago.’
‘OK,’ Reacher said. ‘Thanks.’
‘My guy talked. From Fort Hood. Like you said he would.’
‘I owe you.’
‘No, we’re even.’
‘No, I do. It’s my first major score.’
‘Really? How long have you been in the job?’
‘I had no idea. You sound like you’ve been there for ever.’
‘I’m not sure that’s a compliment.’
‘It was meant as one,’ Reacher said. ‘Then I thank you.’
‘You should be out celebrating.’
‘I sent my people out.’
‘Good move. Give them all the credit. They’ll appreciate it, but the brass will always know who really did the work. You’ll win both ways around.’
‘Is that how you did it?’
‘Always. I made out that I did nothing much. A lot of the time that was true, of course.’
‘Not what your file suggests.’
‘You still looking at that old thing?’
‘It’s a saga.’
‘Not fair. This is a very asymmetrical relationship in terms of information.’
‘Dude, life sucks.’
‘What did you just call me?’
‘I was trying to sound blond and Californian.’
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes