Running blind, p.29
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       Running Blind, p.29
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         Part #4 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Chapter 29

  THE PLANE LANDED at Portland International like any other Boeing, but it stopped rolling some way short of the terminal and waited on a distant apron. A pickup with a staircase bolted to the load bed came slowly out to meet it. The pickup was followed by a minivan. Both vehicles were shiny clean and painted in Boeing's corporate colors. The flight crew stayed on board to analyze computer data. The minivan took Reacher and Harper around to the arrivals lane, where the taxis waited. Head of the line was a battered Caprice with a checkerboard stripe down the side. The driver wasn't local. He needed to check his map to find the road east toward the tiny village on the slopes of Mount Hood.

  SHE WAS IN the house all of five minutes, and then the doorbell went. The cop was back. She came out of the kitchen and walked the length of the hallway and unlocked the door. Opened it up. He was standing there on the porch, not saying anything, trying to communicate his request with the rueful expression on his face.

  "Hi," she said.

  Then she just looked at him. Didn't smile or anything.

  "Hi," he said back.

  She waited. She was going to make him say it anyway. It was nothing to be embarrassed about.

  "Guess what?" he said.

  "What?"

  "Can I use the powder room?"

  Cold air was swirling in around her legs. She could feel it striking through her jeans.

  "Of course," she said.

  She closed the door behind him, to keep some warmth in. Waited next to it, while he disappeared and then came back again.

  "Nice and warm in here," he said.

  She nodded, although it wasn't really true. She kept the house as cold as she could stand it. For the piano tone. So the wood didn't dry out.

  "Cold out there in the car," he said.

  She nodded again.

  "Run the motor," she said. "Get the heater going. "

  He shook his head. "Not allowed. Can't idle the engine. Some pollution thing. "

  "So take off for a spell," she said. "Drive around, get warm. I'll be OK here. "

  Clearly it wasn't the invitation he was looking for, but he thought about it. Then he shook his head again.

  "They'd take my badge," he said. "I've got to stay here. "

  She said nothing.

  "Sorry to bother you with that padre," he said, making the point he'd intervened, and gotten rid of him.

  She nodded.

  "I'll bring you some hot coffee," she said. "Five minutes, OK?"

  He looked pleased. A shy smile.

  "Then I'll need the powder room again," he said. "Goes right through me. "

  "Whenever," she said.

  She closed the door on him and went back to the kitchen and set her coffee machine going. Waited on the stool next to the shopping bags until it was done. She found the biggest mug she owned and poured the coffee. Added cream from the refrigerator and sugar from the cupboard. He looked like a cream-and-sugar guy, young, a little fat. She carried the mug outside and walked down the path. Steam swirled off the coffee and hung in a thin horizontal band all the way to the sidewalk. She tapped on his window and he turned and smiled and buzzed the glass down. He took the cup, awkwardly, two-handed.

  "Thanks," he said.

  He touched it to his lips like an extra gesture of politeness and she walked away, into the driveway, up the path, in through the door. She closed it behind her and locked it and turned around to find the visitor she was expecting standing quietly at the head of the stairs from the garage.

  "Hello, Rita," the visitor said.

  "Hello," she said back.

  THE TAXI DROVE south on 205 and found the left turn east on 26. It rode like its next trip should be to the scrap heap. The colors inside the door seams didn't match the outside. It had probably already done three years in New York, and maybe three more in the suburbs of Chicago. But it moved along steadily enough, and its meter clicked a lot slower than it would have in New York or Chicago. And that was important, because Reacher had just realized he had almost no money in his pockets.

  "Why is a demonstration of mobility important?" Harper asked.

  "That's one of the big lies," Reacher said. "We just swallowed it whole. "

  SCIMECA STOOD THERE inside her front door, calmly. The visitor gazed back at her from the other end of the hallway, eyes inquiring.

  "Did you buy the paint?"

  She nodded.

  "Yes, I did," she said.

  "So, are you ready?"

  "I'm not sure. "

  The visitor watched her a moment longer, just gazing, very calm, eyes steady.

  "Are you ready now?"

  "I don't know," she said.

  The visitor smiled.

  "I think you're ready. I really do. What do you think? Are you ready?"

  She nodded, slowly.

  "Yes, I'm ready," she said.

  "Did you apologize to the cop?"

  She nodded again. "Yes, I told him I was sorry. "

  "He has to be allowed in, right?"

  "I told him, whenever he needs it. "

  "He has to find you. He has to be the one. That's the way I want it. "

  "OK," Scimeca said.

  The visitor was silent for a long moment, just standing there, saying nothing, watching carefully. Scimeca waited, awkward.

  "Yes, he should be the one to find me," she said. "If that's the way you want it. "

  "You did good with the padre," the visitor said.

  "He wanted to help me. "

  "Nobody can help you. "

  "I guess not," Scimeca said.

  "Let's go into the kitchen," the visitor said.

  Scimeca moved away from the door. Squeezed past the visitor in the narrow hallway and led the way into her kitchen.

  "The paint is right here," she said.

  "Show me. "

  Scimeca took the can out of the bag and held it up by the wire handle.

  "It's olive green," she said. "Closest they had. "

  The visitor nodded. "Good. You did very well. "

  Scimeca blushed with pleasure. A tiny pink flush under the white of her skin.

  "Now you need to concentrate," the visitor said. "Because I'm going to give you a lot of information. "

  "What about?"

  "About what I want you to do. "

  Scimeca nodded.

  "OK," she said.

  "First thing, you have to smile for me," the visitor said. "That's very important. It means a lot to me. "

  "OK," Scimeca said.

  "So can you smile for me?"

  "I don't know. "

  "Try it, OK?"

  "I don't smile much anymore. "

  The visitor nodded, sympathetic. "I know, but just try now, OK?"

  Scimeca ducked her head and concentrated and came back up with a shy, weak smile. Just a faint new angle to her lips, but it was something. She held it, desperately.

  "That's nice," the visitor said. "Now remember, I want you smiling all the time. "

  "OK. "

  "Got to be happy in our work, right?"

  "Right. "

  "We need something to open the can. "

  "My tools are downstairs," Scimeca said.

  "Have you got a screwdriver?"

  "Of course," Scimeca said. "I've got eight or nine. "

  "Go get a big one for me, would you?"

  "Sure. "

  "And don't forget the smile, OK?"

  "Sorry. "

  THE MUG WAS too big for the Crown Vic's cup holder, so he drank all the coffee straight off because he couldn't put it down between sips. That always happened. At a party, if he was standing up holding a bottle, he drank it much faster than if he was sitting at a bar where he could sometimes rest it on the napkin. Like smoking. If there was an ashtray to rest the butt in, the cigarette lasted much longer than if he was walking around with it, whereupo
n he demolished it in about a minute and a half.

  So he was sitting there with the empty mug resting on his thigh, thinking about carrying it back up to the house. Here's your mug back, he could say. Thanks very much. It would give him another chance to drop a hint about how cold he was. Maybe he could get her to put a chair in the hallway, and he could finish his shift inside. Nobody could complain about that. Better protection that way.

  But he was nervous about ringing the bell again. She was an uptight character, that was for damn sure. Who knows how she might react, even though he was being real polite, just returning her mug? Even though he'd gotten rid of the chaplain for her? He bounced the mug up and down on his knee and tried to balance out between how cold he was and how offended she might get.

  THE TAXI DROVE on, through Gresham, through Kelso, through Sandy. Route 26 picked up a name, Mount Hood Highway. The grade steepened. The old V-8 dug deep and rumbled upward.

  "Who is it?" Harper asked.

  "The key is in Poulton's report from Spokane. "

  "It is?"

  He nodded. "Big and obvious. But it took me some time to spot it. "

  "The UPS thing? We went through all of that. "

  He shook his head. "No, before that. The Hertz thing. The rental car. "

  SCIMECA CAME BACK up the basement stairs with a screwdriver in her hand. It was the third-largest she had, about eight inches long, with a blade fine enough to slip between the can and the lid, but broad enough to make an effective lever.

  "I think this is the best one," she said. "You know, for the purpose. "

  The visitor looked at it from a distance. "I'm sure it's fine. As long as you're comfortable with it. You'll be using it, not me. "

  Scimeca nodded.

  "I think it's good," she said.

  "So where's your bathroom?"

  "Upstairs. "

  "Want to show me?"

  "Sure. "

  "Bring the paint," the visitor said. "And the screwdriver. "

  Scimeca went back to the kitchen and picked up the can.

  "Do we need the stirring stick too?" she called.

  The visitor hesitated. New procedure, needs a new technique.

  "Yes, bring the stirring stick. "

  The stick was about twelve inches long, and Scimeca clasped it together with the screwdriver in her left hand. Picked up the can by the handle with her right.

  "This way," she said.

  She led the way out of the kitchen and up the stairs. Across the upstairs hallway and into her bedroom. Across the bedroom and into the bathroom.

  "This is it," she said.

  The visitor looked it over, and felt like an expert on bathrooms. This one was the fifth, after all. It was medium-budget, probably. A little old-fashioned. But it suited the age of the house. A fancy marble confection would have looked wrong.

  "Put the stuff down on the floor, OK?"

  Scimeca bent and put the can down. The metal made a faint liquid clonk as it hit the tile. She folded the wire handle down and balanced the screwdriver and the stick across the lid. The visitor came out with a folded garbage sack, black plastic, from a coat pocket. Shook it out and held it open.

  "I need you to put your clothes in here. "

  HE GOT OUT of the car, with the mug in his hand. Walked around the hood and into the driveway. Up the looping path. Up the porch steps. He juggled the mug into the other hand, ready to ring the bell. Then he paused. It was very quiet inside. No piano music. Was that good or bad? She was kind of obsessive, always playing the same thing over and over again. Probably didn't like being interrupted in the middle of it. But the fact that she wasn't playing might mean she was doing something else important. Maybe taking a nap. The Bureau guy said she got up at six. Maybe she took a siesta in the afternoon. Maybe she was reading a book. Whatever she was doing, she probably wasn't just sitting there hoping he'd come to her door. She hadn't shown any inclinations along those lines before.

  He stood there, indecisive, his hand held out a foot away from her bell. Then he dropped it to his side and turned around and went back down the steps to the path. Back down the path to the driveway. Back around the hood of his car. He got in and leaned over and stood the mug upright in the passenger footwell.

  SCIMECA LOOKED CONFUSED.

  "What clothes?" she asked.

  "The clothes you're wearing," the visitor said.

  Scimeca nodded, vaguely.

  "OK," she said.

  "I'm not happy with the smile, Rita," the visitor said. "It's slipping a little. "

  "Sorry. "

  "Check it out in the mirror, tell me if that's a happy face. "

  Scimeca turned to the mirror. Gazed for a second and started working on the muscles in her face, one by one. The visitor watched her reflection.

  "Make it a big one. Real cheerful, OK?"

  Scimeca turned back.

  "How's this?" she said, smiling as wide as she could.

  "Very good," the visitor said. "You want to make me happy, right?"

  "Yes, I do. "

  "So put your clothes in the bag. "

  Scimeca took off her sweater. It was a heavy knit item with a tight neck. She hauled the hem up and stretched it over her head. Shook it right side out and leaned over and dropped it in the bag. Second layer was a flannel blouse, washed so many times it was soft and shapeless. She unbuttoned it all the way down and pulled the tails out of the waistband of her jeans. Shrugged it off and dropped it in the bag.

  "Now I'm cold," she said.

  She unbuttoned the jeans and undid the zip and pushed them down her legs. Kicked off her shoes and stepped out of the jeans. Rolled the shoes and the jeans together and put them in the bag. Peeled off her socks and shook them out and threw them in, one at a time.

  "Hurry up, Rita," the visitor said.

  Scimeca nodded and put her hands behind her back and unhooked her bra. Pulled it off and tossed it in the bag. Slipped her panties down and stepped out of them. Crushed them into a ball and threw them into the bag. The visitor closed the neck of the bag and dropped it on the floor. Scimeca stood there, naked, waiting.

  "Run the bath," the visitor said. "Make it warm, since you're cold. "

  Scimeca bent down and put the stopper in the drain. It was a simple rubber item, secured by a chain. She opened the faucets, three-quarters hot and one-quarter cold.

  "Open the paint," the visitor said.

  Scimeca squatted down and picked up the screwdriver. Worked the tip into the crack and levered. Rotated the can under the screwdriver, once, twice, until the lid sucked free.

  "Be careful. I don't want any mess. "

  Scimeca laid the lid gently on the tile. Looked up, expectant.

  "Pour the paint in the tub. "

  She picked up the can, both hands. It was wide, not easy to hold. She clamped it between her palms and carried it to the tub. Twisted from the waist and tipped it over. The paint was thick. It smelled of ammonia. It ran slowly over the lip of the can and poured into the water. The swirl from the faucets caught it. It eddied into a spiral pattern and sank like a weight. The water started dissolving the edges of the spiral and thin green color drifted through the tub like clouds. She held the can upside down until the thick stream thinned, and then stopped.

  "Careful," the visitor said. "Now put the can down. And don't make a mess. "

  She turned the can the right way up and squatted again and placed it gently on the tile next to the lid. It made a hollow, empty sound, damped slightly by the residue coating the metal.

  "Now get the stirring stick. Mix it up. "

  She picked up the stick and knelt at the edge of the tub. Worked the stick into the thick sunken mass and stirred.

  "It's mixing," she said.

  The visitor nodded. "That's why you bought latex. "

  The color changed as the paint dissolved. It went from dark olive to the co
lor of grass growing in a damp grove. It thinned, all the way down to the consistency of milk. The visitor watched carefully. It was OK. Not as dramatic as the real thing, but it was dramatic enough to be using paint at all, in the circumstances.

  "OK, that'll do. Put the stick in the can. No mess. "

  Scimeca pulled the stick out of the green water and shook it carefully. Reached back and stood it upright in the empty can.

  "And the screwdriver. "

  She stood the screwdriver next to the stick.

  "Put the lid back on. "

  She picked the lid up by the edge and laid it across the top of the can. It canted up at a shallow angle, because the stirring stick was too tall to let it go all the way down.

  "You can turn the faucets off now. "

  She turned back to the tub and shut off the water. The level was up to within six inches of the rim.

  "Where did you store your carton?"

  "In the basement," she said. "But they took it away. "

  The visitor nodded. "I know. But can you remember exactly where it was?"

  Scimeca nodded in turn.

  "It was there for a long time," she said.

  "I want you to put the can down there," the visitor said. "Right where the carton was. Can you do that?"

  Scimeca nodded.

  "Yes, I can do that," she said.

  She raised the metal hoop. Eased it up alongside the unsteady lid. Carried the can out in front of her, one hand on the handle, the other palm down against the lid, securing it. She went down the stairs and through the hallway and down to the garage and through to the basement. Stood for a second with her feet on the cold concrete floor, trying to get it exactly right. Then she stepped to her left and placed the can on the floor, in the center of the space the carton had occupied.

  THE TAXI WAS struggling on a long hill past a small shopping center. There was a supermarket, with rows of stores flanking it. A parking lot, mostly empty.

  "Why are we here?" Harper asked.

  "Because Scimeca is next," Reacher said.

  The taxi labored onward. Harper shook her head.

  "Tell me who. "

  "Think about how," Reacher said. "That's the absolute final proof. "

  SCIMECA MOVED THE empty can an inch to the right. Checked carefully. Nodded to herself and turned and ran back upstairs. She felt she ought to hurry.

  "Out of breath?" the visitor asked.

  Scimeca gulped and nodded.

  "I ran," she said. "All the way back. "

  "OK, take a minute. "

  She breathed deeply and pushed her hair off her face.

  "I'm OK," she said.

  "So now you have to get into the tub. "

  Scimeca smiled.

  "I'll get all green," she said.

  "Yes," the visitor said. "You'll get all green. "

  Scimeca stepped to the side of the tub and raised her foot. Pointed her toe and put it in the water.

  "It's warm," she said.

  The visitor nodded. "That's good. "

  Scimeca took her weight on the foot in the water and brought the other in after it. Stood there in the tub up to her calves.

  "Now sit down. Carefully. "

  She put her hands on the rim and lowered herself down.

  "Legs straight. "

  She straightened her legs and her knees disappeared under the green.

  "Arms in. "

  She let go of the rim and put her hands down beside her thighs.

  "Good," the visitor said. "Now slide down, slowly and carefully. "

  She shuffled forward in the water. Her knees came up. They were stained green, dark and then pale where little rivulets of paint flowed over her skin. She lay back and felt the warmth moving up her body. She felt it lap over her shoulders.

  "Head back. "

  She tilted her head and looked up at the ceiling. She felt her hair floating.

  "Have you ever eaten oysters?" the visitor asked.

  She nodded. She felt her hair swirl in the water as she moved her head.

  "Once or twice," she said.

  "You remember how it feels? They're in your mouth, and you just suddenly swallow them whole? Just gulp them down?"

  She nodded again.

  "I liked them," she said.

  "Pretend your tongue is an oyster," the visitor said.

  She glanced sideways, puzzled.

  "I don't understand," she said.

  "I want you to swallow your tongue. I want you to just gulp it down, real sudden, like it was an oyster. "

  "I don't know if I can do that. "

  "Can you try?"

  "Sure, I can try. "

  "OK, give it a go, right now. "

  She concentrated hard, and tried. Gulped it back, suddenly. But nothing happened. Just a noise in her throat.

  "Doesn't work," she said.

  "Use your finger to help," the visitor said. "The others all had to do that. "

  "My finger?"

  The visitor nodded. "Push it back in there with your finger. It worked for the others. "

  "OK. "

  She raised her hand. Thin paint ran off her arm, with thicker globules where the mixing wasn't perfect.

  "Which finger?" she asked.

  "Try the middle," the visitor said. "It's the longest. "

  She extended her middle finger and folded the others. Opened her mouth.

  "Put it right under your tongue," the visitor said. "And push back hard. "

  She opened her mouth wider and pushed back hard.

  "Now swallow. "

  She swallowed. Then her eyes jammed open in panic.

 
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