61 hours, p.28
Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Reacher nodded. Said nothing.
Reacher went out to the hallway and climbed into his giant coat. Checked the pockets for hat and gloves and gun. All present and correct. The telephone rang. The woman from the bottom stair answered it. She handed the receiver to Reacher without a word.
‘Yes?’ he said, expecting Peterson.
The voice from Virginia said, ‘We got a partial cargo manifest.’
‘And I’m going to spend the rest of my life paying off the favour. You know how hard it must have been to find? An irrelevant piece of paper from fifty years ago?’
‘They’ve got clerks, the same as we did. What else have they got to do?’
‘They claim plenty.’
‘Don’t believe them. What’s on the manifest?’
‘Forty tons of war surplus flown in from the old Eighth Air Force bases in the United Kingdom. From the old World War Two bomber fields in East Anglia. They closed a bunch down in the middle fifties. Runways weren’t long enough any more.’
‘Does it specify what kind of surplus?’
‘Yes and no. Generically it says aircrew requirements, and specifically there’s a manufacturer’s name that no one remembers, and a code that no one understands any more.’
‘Not even the Lackland guys?’
‘Not even them. This is ancient history we’re dealing with here.’
‘The way I remember my ancient history, we didn’t bring World War Two surplus back from Europe. We either junked it over there or sold it off over there. Kept the money in the local currencies and used it for Fulbright scholarships. Two birds with one stone. We got rid of a lot of old crap and we spread peace and brotherhood and understanding all at the same time. Through educational exchange.’
‘Those were the days.’
‘What was the code?’
‘Means nothing to me.’
‘Means nothing to anyone. Could be underwear. Or hats.’
‘We wouldn’t have flown forty tons of underwear or hats all the way back from Europe. No sense in that. Cheaper just to give them away, or burn them.’
‘So maybe it was something we couldn’t give away. Or sell. Or burn. For security reasons. Sidearms, maybe. I think World War Two pilots carried them. In case they were shot down over enemy territory.’
‘What was the manufacturer’s name?’
‘Some outfit called Crown Laboratories.’
Reacher said, ‘Oh, shit.’
‘Forty tons? They have got to be kidding me.’
‘I got to go.’
As soon as he saw the leading edge of Peterson’s headlight beams on the street he stepped out the door and crossed the porch and hustled down the driveway. The cold hit him like a hammer. Peterson’s tyres crunched and crackled over the frozen snow. The car pulled up and Reacher climbed in. The heater was blowing lukewarm air. Reacher kept his hat and gloves on. Peterson K-turned and bounced across the ruts and headed back to the main drag. Turned right and drove south, slower than he would in summer, faster than he would in traffic. There was nothing else on the road. Only nine in the evening, but the whole state seemed closed up for the night. People were all huddled inside, and Peterson’s car was the only thing moving across the landscape.
They made the turn ten miles later and drove on, parallel with the highway. The cloud was thin and high and there was plenty of moonlight. There was still ice on the wind, coming steadily at them out of the west. It crusted on the windshield, a thin abrasive layer that the wipers couldn’t shift. Like diamond dust. Peterson put the heater on defrost and ducked his head to look through warmed circles that got smaller with every mile.
They turned right again on the wandering county two-lane. Now the wind was on their left hand side and the screen cleared again. The old runway loomed up ahead, grey and massive in the night. It was still clear. They bumped up on it and the tyre chains ground and rattled.
They drove two fast miles.
Saw red tail lights ahead.
A parked car. Its tail lights faced them and beyond its dark end-on bulk was a pool of white from its headlights. There was a swirl of exhaust from its pipes, pooling, eddying, drifting, then blowing away.
Peterson slowed and put his lights on bright. The parked car was empty. It was a Ford Crown Victoria. No markings. Either dark blue or black. Hard to say, in the glare.
‘Chief Holland’s car,’ Peterson said.
They parked alongside it and climbed out into the stunning cold and found Holland himself at the first hut’s door. Fur hat, zipped parka, thick gloves, heavy boots, moving stiff and clumsy in all the clothing, his breath clouding in front of him.
Holland wasn’t pleased to see them.
He said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’
He sounded angry.
Peterson said, ‘Reacher figured out where the key is.’
‘I don’t care who figured out what. You shouldn’t have come. Neither one of you. It’s completely irresponsible. Suppose the siren goes off?’
‘It can’t. Can it? The cells are locked and the head counts are done.’
‘You trust their procedures?’
‘You’re an idiot, Andrew. You need to stop drinking the damn Kool-Aid. That place is a complete mess. Especially the county lock-up, which is what we’re interested in right now. If you think they do a proper head count every night, then I’ve got a beachfront lot to sell you. Fifty bucks an acre, about a mile from here.’
‘It’s a brand new place.’
‘Brand new metal and concrete. Same old human beings working there.’
‘So what are you saying? The head count could be faulty?’
‘I’m saying dollars to doughnuts there was no head count at all. I’m saying at five to eight they sound a horn and expect everyone to wander home and then at eight the cell doors lock up electronically.’
‘Even if that’s true, there’s no danger until morning.’
‘They do night patrols, son. Ten scheduled, one an hour. I’m guessing they skip nine of them. But at some point they walk around with flashlights, checking beds, doing what they were supposed to do at eight o’clock.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Human nature, Andrew. Get used to it.’
‘Should we go back?’
Holland paused a beat. ‘No, we have to go back that way anyway. Worst case, Mrs Salter will be alone for five minutes. Maybe ten. It’s a gamble. We’ll take it. But I wish you hadn’t come in the first place.’
Reacher asked, ‘Why are you here?’
Holland looked at him. ‘Because I figured out where the key is.’
‘Not really. Anyone with a brain could figure it out on a night like this.’
‘Where is it?’ Peterson asked.
It was inside the paraffin stove in the first hut. A fine hiding place, with built-in time-delayed access. Too hot to think about searching earlier, now cool to the touch. Like Peterson’s own banked wood stove. The voice from Virginia had said, 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. And the voice had been right. The key had survived. It was fine. It had been dropped on the burner core and it had heated and cooled with no bad consequences. It was a large T-shaped device about three inches across. Complex teeth, the dull glitter of rare and exotic metal. Titanium, maybe.
From way back, when paranoia permitted no sceptical questions about cost.
Reacher fished it out of the stove. He handed it to Holland. Holland carried it to the stone building’s door. He slipped it into the lock. Turned it. The lock sprang back.
REACHER TRIED THE HANDLE. IT TURNED DOWNWARD SIXTY degrees with a hefty motion that was halfway between precise and physical. Like an old-fashioned bank vault. The door itself was very heavy. It felt like it weighed a ton, literally. Its outer skin was a two-inch-thick steel plate. Inset by two inches in every direction on the back was a ten-inch-deep rectangular protuberance that socketed home between the jambs and the lintel and the floor saddle. The protuberance was like a welded steel box. Probably packed with ceramics. When closed, the whole thing would make a seamless foot-thick part of the wall. The hinges were massive. But not recently oiled. They shrieked and squeaked and protested. But the door came open. Reacher hauled it through a short two-foot arc and then slipped in behind it and leaned into it and pushed it the rest of the way. Like pushing a broken-down truck.
Nothing but darkness inside the stone building.
‘Flashlights,’ Holland said.
Peterson hustled back and visited both cars and returned with three flashlights. They clicked on one after the other and beams played around and showed a bare concrete bunker maybe twenty feet deep and thirty feet wide. Two storeys high. The stone was outside veneer only. For appearances. Underneath it the building was brutal and utilitarian and simple and to the point. In the centre of the space it had the head of a spiral stair that dropped straight down through the floor into a round vertical shaft. The air coming up out of it smelled still and dry and ancient. Like a tomb. Like a pharaoh’s chamber in a pyramid. The hole for the stairwell was perfectly circular. The floor was cast from concrete two feet thick. The stairs themselves were welded from simple steel profiles. They wound round and down into distant blackness.
‘No elevator,’ Peterson said.
‘Takes too much power,’ Reacher said. He was fighting the pedantic part of his brain that was busy pointing out that a spiral was a plane figure. Two dimensions only. Thus a spiral staircase was a contradiction in terms. It was a helical staircase. A helix was a three-dimensional figure. But he didn’t say so. He had learned not to. Maybe Susan in Virginia would have understood. Or maybe not.
‘Can you imagine?’ Holland said, in the silence. ‘You’re seven years old and you’re looking to head down there and you know you won’t be coming back up until you’re grown?’
‘If you got here at all,’ Reacher said. ‘Which you wouldn’t have. The whole concept was crazy. They built the world’s most expensive storage facility, that’s all.’
Close to the stairwell shaft there were two wide metal ventilation pipes coming up through the floor. Maybe two feet in diameter. They came up about a yard and stopped, like broad chimneys on a flat roof. Directly above both of them were circular holes in the concrete ceiling. One shaft would have been planned as an intake, connected to one of the building’s fake chimneys, fitted with fans and filters and scrubbers to clean the poisoned air. The other would have been the exhaust, to be vented up and out through the second fake chimney. An incomplete installation. Never finished. Presumably the fake chimneys were capped internally. Some temporary fix that had lasted fifty years. There was no sign of rain or snow inside the bunker.
Reacher stepped over to one of the pipes and shone his flash-light beam straight down. Like looking down a well. He couldn’t see bottom. The pipe was lined on the inside with stainless steel. Smooth and shiny. Efficient air movement. No turbulence. No furring, no accumulation of dirt. Regular cleaning had not been on the agenda. There would have been no one left alive to do it.
Reacher stepped back and leaned over the stair rail and shone his flashlight beam straight down the stairwell. Saw nothing except stairs. They wound on endlessly, wrapped around a simple steel pipe. No hand rail on the outer circumference. The space was too tight.
‘This place is very deep,’ he said.
His voice echoed back at him.
‘Probably needed to be,’ Holland said.
The stairs had once been painted black, but their edges were worn back to dull metal by the passage of many feet. The safety rail around the opening was scuffed and greasy.
Peterson said, ‘I’ll go first.’
Five to ten in the evening.
Six hours to go.
Reacher waited until Peterson’s head was seven feet down, and then he followed. The stairs were in a perfectly round vertical shaft lined with smooth concrete. Space was cramped. There had been construction difficulties. The voice from Virginia had read him notes from faxed files: The design was compromised several times during construction because of the kind of terrain they found. Clearly the terrain had meant they hadn’t drilled beyond the bare minimum. The diameter was tight. Reacher’s shoulders brushed the concrete on one side and the central pipe on the other. But it was his feet that were the major problem. They were too big. A helical staircase has treads that narrow from the outside to the inside. Reacher was walking on his heels the whole way. Coming back up, he would be walking on his toes.
They went down, and down, and down, Peterson first, then Reacher, then Holland. Fifty feet, then seventy-five, then a hundred. Their flashlight beams jerked and stabbed through the gloom. The steel under their feet clanged and boomed. The air was still and dry. And warm. Like a mine, insulated from the surface extremes.
Reacher called, ‘See anything yet?’
Peterson called back, ‘No.’
They kept on going, corkscrewing down, and down, and down, their flashlight beams turning perpetually clockwise, washing the trowelled concrete wall. They passed through strange acoustic nodes where the whole shaft resonated like the bore of an oboe and the sound of their feet on the metal set up weird harmonic chords, as if the earth’s core was singing to them.
Two hundred feet.
Then Peterson called, ‘I’m there, I think.’
Reacher clattered on after him, two more full turns.
Then he came to a dead stop, deep underground.
He sat down, on the second to last step.
He used his flashlight, left, right, up, down.
He heard the voice from Virginia in his head again: Something about the construction compromises made it useless for anything else.
Damn straight they did.
The stairwell shaft ended in an underground chamber made of concrete. It was perfectly circular. Like a hub. Maybe twenty feet in diameter. The size of a living room. But round. Like a living room in a movie about the future. It had eight open doorways leading off to eight horizontal corridors, one at each point of the compass, like bicycle spokes. The corridors were dark. Deep in shadow. The doorways were straight and square and true. The chamber’s floor was hard and flat and dry and smooth. The walls were hard and flat and dry and smooth. The ceiling was hard and flat and dry and smooth. Altogether the whole place was a neat, crisp, exact piece of construction. Well designed, well engineered, well built. Ideal for its intended purpose.
Which was an orphanage.
What made it useless for anything else was that the ceiling was only five feet six inches above the floor. That was all. Bad terrain. The round chamber and the accompanying spoked corridors had been burrowed laterally into a thin and ungenerous seam between upper and lower plates of unyielding hard rock. The low ceiling was a necessary concession to reality. And a professional disappointment, probably. But theoretically adequate for a pack of unaccompanied kids, all runty and starving. Reacher could picture the engineers confronting the unexpected problem, poring over geological surveys, looking up tables of average height versus age, shrugging their shoulders, revising their plans, signing off on the inevitable. Technically acceptable, they would have said, which was the only standard military engineers understood.
But the place was not acceptable for anything else, technically or otherwise. Not even close. Not acceptable for Marine training or any other kind of military purpose. Not acceptable for any kind of full grown adult. Peterson had advanced maybe ten feet into the space and he was
And Peterson was three inches shorter than Reacher.
Reacher stood up again. He was on the bottom step. Nine inches above the round chamber’s floor. Its ceiling was level with his waist. His whole upper body was still inside the shaft.
Holland came on down and crowded in behind him. Said, ‘We won’t hear the siren way down here.’
‘Does your cell phone work?’
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes