61 hours, p.29
Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
‘Not a chance.’
‘Then we better be quick.’
‘After you,’ Holland said. ‘Mind your head.’
Reacher had a choice. He could shuffle along on his knees or scoot along on his butt. He chose to scoot on his butt. Slow and undignified, but less painful. He snaked downward off the last stair like a clumsy gymnast and sat down and scuttled a cautious yard, heels and knuckles and ass, like a kid playing at being a crab. Ahead of him the two ventilation shafts came down through the low ceiling and ended a stubby foot below the concrete. Three separate parallel bores, one wide for the stairs, two narrow for the pipes, all ending the prescribed distance below the surface in a ludicrous horizontal slot burrowed laterally and grudgingly into the rock.
Reacher said, ‘I was already taller than this when I was seven.’
His voice came back to him with a strange humming echo. The acoustics were weird. The concrete he was sitting on was neither warm nor cold. There was a faint smell of kerosene in the air. And a draught. Air was coming down the stairwell shaft and circulating back up through the ventilation shafts. A venturi effect. The stone building’s door was open more than two hundred feet above them and the wind was blowing hard across it and sucking air out of the bunker. The same way a spray gun sucks paint out of a reservoir or a carburettor sucks gas out of a fuel line. But nature abhors a vacuum, so some circulatory layer was feeding air right back in, just as fast.
‘Move,’ Holland said.
Reacher scuttled another yard. Holland ducked down and stepped off the last stair and came after him, crouching like Peterson, spinning slowly, playing his flashlight beam around a whole wide circle.
‘Eight doorways,’ he said. ‘Eight choices. Which one has the lab?’
The same strange, humming echo, like Holland’s voice was everywhere and nowhere.
Reacher said, ‘There is no lab.’
‘Has to be. Where there’s meth there’s a lab.’
‘There was a lab,’ Reacher said. ‘Once upon a time. But it wasn’t here. It was a big place in New Jersey or California or somewhere. It had a sign outside.’
‘What are you talking about?’
Reacher played his flashlight beam low across the floor. Started at the bottom step and followed a faint track of dirt and scuffs that curled counterclockwise across the concrete to a doorway more or less opposite where he was sitting. South, if he was north, or north, if he was south. He had been turned around so many times by the staircase he had lost his bearings.
‘Follow me,’ he said.
He scooted off. He found it faster to turn around and travel backwards. Push with his feet, pivot on his hands, dump down on his ass, and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. It was warm work. He pulled off his hat and his gloves and unzipped his coat. Then he resumed. Holland and Peterson followed him all the way, bent over, crouching, waddling, always in his view. He could hear knee joints popping and cracking. Ligaments, and fluid. Holland’s, he guessed. Peterson was younger and in better shape.
He made it to the doorway and swivelled around and shone his flashlight down the length of the corridor. It was a tunnel maybe a hundred feet long, perfectly horizontal, like a coal seam. It was five feet six inches high, and about the same in width. The left hand half was an unobstructed hundred-foot walkway. The right hand half was built up into a long low continuous concrete shelf, a hundred feet long, about two feet off the floor. A sleeping shelf, he guessed. He imagined bedrolls laid head to toe all along its length, maybe twenty of them. Twenty sleeping children. Five feet each.
But the place had never been used. There were no bedrolls. No sleeping children. What was on the shelf instead was the war surplus flown back fifty years earlier from the old U.S. bomber bases in Europe. Aircrew requirements. Hundreds and hundreds of bricks of white powder, wrapped smooth and tight in yellowing glassine, each packet printed with the crown device, the headband, the three points, the three balls representing jewels. A registered trademark, presumably, for a now defunct but once entirely legitimate and government-contracted outfit called Crown Laboratories, whoever and wherever they had been.
Peterson said, ‘I don’t believe it.’
The packs looked to be stacked ten high and ten deep in groups of a hundred and there were maybe a hundred and fifty groups along the whole length of the shelf. A total of fifteen thousand, minus those already removed. The stack was a little depleted at the near end. It looked like a brick wall in the process of patient demolition.
Holland asked, ‘Is this forty tons?’
‘No,’ Reacher said. ‘Not even close. This is only about a third of it. There should be another two stacks just like this.’
‘How many packs in forty tons?’ Peterson asked.
‘Nearly forty-five thousand.’
‘That’s insane. That’s forty-five billion in street value.’
‘Your granddaddy’s tax dollars at work.’
‘What was it for?’
‘World War Two aircrew,’ Reacher said. ‘Bombers, mostly. None of us have any idea what that war was like for them. Towards the end they were flying twelve-hour trips, sometimes more, Berlin and back, deep into Germany, day after day after day. Every trip they were doing stuff that had never been done before, in terms of precision and endurance. And they were in mortal danger, every single minute. Every second. Casualties were terrible. They would have been permanently terrified and demoralized, except they were always too exhausted to think. Pep pills were the only way to keep them in the air.’
‘These aren’t pills.’
‘Delivery method was up to the medical officers. Some made it up into pills, some preferred drinking it dissolved in water, some recommended inhaling it, some liked suppositories. Probably some prescribed all four ways at once.’
‘I had no idea.’
‘It was general issue, like boots or ammunition. Like food.’
‘Can’t have been good for them.’
‘Some of the planes had little wires soldered near the end of the throttle travel. The last quarter inch. War boost, it was called. If you needed it, you hauled the throttle back and busted the wire and got maximum power. It strained the engine, which wasn’t good, but it saved your life, which was good. Same exact principle with the dope.’
‘How much did they get through?’
‘Way more than we can guess. The air force in Europe was hundreds of thousands strong back then. And demand was pretty strong, too. It was a tough gig. I’m sure I would have snorted my body weight before my first tour was half done.’
‘And this much was left over?’
‘This could have been a month’s supply. Suddenly not needed any more. Shutting down production was pretty haphazard at the end.’
‘Why is it here?’
‘Couldn’t just junk it. Couldn’t sell it. Certainly couldn’t burn it. The whole of Europe would have gotten high as kites off the smoke.’
They went quiet. Just stared.
Then Holland said, ‘Let’s find the rest.’
The rest was shared between the next two tunnels to the left. The same hundred-foot shelves, the same meticulous stacks of packets, the same dull flashlight reflections off the yellowed glassine. A full fifteen thousand bricks in the second tunnel, another full fifteen thousand in the third.
Holland dropped to his knees. Clenched his fists. Smiled wide.
‘Close to ninety thousand pounds, all told,’ he said. ‘The damn DEA will have to listen to us now. This has got to be the biggest drug bust in history. And we did it. Little old us. The Bolton PD, in South Dakota. We’re going to be famous. We’re going to be legends. No more poor relations. The damn prison staff can kiss my ass.’
‘Congratulations,’ Reacher said.
‘But it’s not all good. Plato found it a year before you did.’
‘Rumour and logic, I guess. He knew it had been used in the war, and he knew there was likely to be sur
Peterson said, ‘I can’t believe the bikers left it all sitting here. The temptation to take some with them must have been huge.’
Reacher said, ‘I get the impression that if Plato tells you to leave something, you leave it.’ He shuffled a little further into the tunnel, picturing a long line of sweating men fifty years ago passing the two-pound packets hand to hand to hand and then stacking them neatly like craftsmen. Probably the shortest guys had been detailed for the work. He didn’t know what the air force’s height requirement had been fifty years earlier. But probably some of the guys had been standing straight, and some of them hadn’t. They had probably roped the packs down the ventilation tubes in kitbags. Five or ten at a time, maybe more. Trestles and pulleys on the surface. Some kind of an improvised system. Too laborious to carry them all down the stairs one by one. Probably the bikers had brought them back up the same way. The fact that the ventilation pipes were unfinished and open at both ends must have been too obvious to ignore.
He shuffled a little further in and made another discovery.
There was a lateral link feeding sideways off the main tunnel. Like part of a circle’s circumference butting up against its radius. He squeezed down it and came out in the next tunnel along. He shuffled deeper in and found two more lateral links, one to the left, one to the right. The whole place was a warren. A maze. There was a total of eight spokes, and three separate incomplete rings. Each ring had its own curved shelf. Lots more linear feet for sleeping children. Lots of corners. Some turned only left, some turned only right. There were no four-way junctions. Everything was a T, upright at the far end of the spokes, rotated randomly left or right at the other turns. A bizarre layout. The plan view on the blueprint must have looked like a Celtic brooch. Maybe there had been more construction compromises than just the ceiling height. Possibly the whole thing was supposed to be like an odd truncated underground version of the Pentagon itself, but rounded off, not angular, and with some of the links between rings and spokes not made.
The wedges of solid rock separating the spokes and the rings had been hollowed out in ten separate places. Bathrooms, maybe, never installed, or kitchens, never installed, or storerooms for subsistence rations, never supplied. Everything was faced with smooth crisp concrete. It was dry and dusty. The air smelled old. The whole place was absolutely silent.
Peterson called, ‘Take a look at this.’
Reacher couldn’t locate his voice. It came through all the tunnels at once, from everywhere, humming and singing and fluttering and riding the walls.
Reacher called, ‘Where are you?’
Peterson said, ‘Here.’
Which didn’t help. Reacher threaded his way back to the main circular hall and asked again. Peterson was in the next tunnel along. Reacher scooted over and joined him there. Peterson was looking at a fuel tank. It was a big ugly thing that had been welded together out of curved sections of steel small enough to have been dropped down the ventilation shafts. It was sitting on a shelf. It was maybe forty feet long. It was big enough to hold maybe five thousand gallons. It was sweating slightly and it smelled of kerosene. Not original to the place. The welds were crude. Technically unacceptable. Air force mechanics would have done better work.
Peterson stooped forward and rapped it with his knuckles. The sound came back dull and liquid. Reacher thought back to the fuel truck that had nearly creamed him in the snow at the bottom of the old county two-lane.
‘Great,’ he said. ‘We’re two hundred feet underground with five thousand gallons of jet fuel in a home-made tank.’
‘Why jet fuel? It smells like kerosene.’
‘Jet fuel is kerosene, basically. So it’s one or the other. And there’s way more here than they need for the heaters in the huts. And they just got it. After they already knew they were leaving. And after ploughing the runway. So a plane is coming in. Probably soon. It’s going to refuel. Holland needs to tell the DEA about that. They’re going to need to be fast.’
‘It won’t come in the dark. There are no runway lights.’
‘Even so. Time is tight. How far away is the nearest DEA field office?’
Peterson didn’t answer. Instead he asked, ‘How did they fill a tank all the way down here?’
‘They backed the fuel truck to the door and dropped the hose down the air shaft.’
‘That would need a long hose.’
‘They have long hoses for houses with big yards.’
Then Holland called out, ‘Guys, take a look at this.’
His voice reached them with a strange hissing echo, all around the circular room, like a whispering gallery. He was in a tunnel directly opposite. Reacher scooted and Peterson stooped and scuffled and they made their way over to him. He was playing his flashlight beam close and then far, all the way down the hundred-foot length and back again.
It was like something out of a fairy tale.
Like Aladdin’s cave.
HOLLAND’S FLASHLIGHT BEAM THREW BACK BRIGHT REFLECTIONS off gold, off silver, off platinum. It set up glitter and refraction and sparkle off brilliant diamonds and deep green emeralds and rich red rubies and bright blue sapphires. It showed old muted colours, landscapes, portraits, oils on canvas, yellow gilt frames. There were chains and lockets and pins and necklaces and bracelets and rings. They were coiled and piled and tangled and tossed all the way along the shelf. Yellow gold, rose gold, white gold. Old things. New things. A hundred linear feet of loot. Paintings, jewellery, candlesticks, silver trays, watches. Small gold clocks, tiny suede bags with drawstrings, a cut-glass bowl entirely filled with wedding bands.
‘Unredeemed pledges,’ Peterson said. ‘In transit, from Plato’s pawn shops.’
‘Barter,’ Reacher said. ‘For his dope.’
‘Maybe both,’ Holland said. ‘Maybe both things are the same in the end.’
They all shuffled down the tunnel. They were unable to resist.
The shelf was a hundred feet long and maybe thirty-two inches wide. More than two hundred and fifty square feet of real estate. The size of a decent room. There was no space on it large enough to put a hand. It was more or less completely covered. Some of the jewellery was exquisite. Some of the paintings were fine. All of the items were sad. The fruits of desperation. The flotsam and jetsam of ruined lives. Hard times, addiction, burglary, loss. Under the triple flashlight beams the whole array flashed and danced and glittered and looked simultaneously fabulous and awful. Someone’s dreams, someone else’s nightmares, all secret and buried two hundred feet down.
A hundred pounds’ weight, or a thousand.
A million dollars’ worth, or ten.
‘Let’s go,’ Reacher said. ‘We’ve got better things to do. We shouldn’t waste time here.’
The climb back to the surface was long and hard and tiring. Reacher counted the steps. There were two hundred and eighty of them. Like walking up a twenty-storey building. He had to take each step on his toes. Good exercise, he guessed, but right then he wasn’t looking for exercise. The air got colder all the way. It had been maybe thirty degrees underground. It was about minus twenty on the surface. A fifty-degree drop. One degree every five or six steps. Fast enough to notice, but no sudden shock. Reacher zipped his coat and put on his hat and his gloves about a third of the way up. Holland surrendered next. Peterson made it halfway up before he succumbed.
They rested inside the stone building for a minute. Outside the moonlight was still bright. Peterson collected the flash-lights and shut them down. Holland stood with his hand on the stair rail. He was red in the face from exertion and breathing hard.
Reacher said to him, ‘You need to make a call.’
‘The siren could have come and gone while we were downstai
‘In which case we’re already too late.’ Holland pulled out his cell and dialled. Identified himself, asked a question, listened to the reply.
‘All clear,’ he said. ‘Sometimes you gamble and win.’
Then he waited until Peterson left to carry the flashlights back to the cars. He watched him go and turned back to Reacher and said, ‘You and I figured out the key. You knew the meth was there. But I want to give Andrew the credit. He’s going to be the next chief. A thing like this, it would help him with the guys. And the town. A thing like this, it would set him up right.’
‘No question,’ Reacher said.
‘So would you be OK with that?’
‘Fine with me,’ Reacher said.
Reacher pushed the door closed against the yowling hinges and Holland locked it up and pocketed the key. They walked together back to the cars and Holland pulled his right glove off in the freezing air and offered his hand to Peterson. Peterson snatched his own glove off and shook.
‘Now listen up,’ Holland said.
He leaned into his car and unhooked his radio mike from the dash and pulled it out all the way until the cord went straight and tight. He thumbed the key and called in an all-points code and spoke.
He said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight Deputy Chief Peterson broke open what I’m sure will prove to be our country’s largest ever drug bust. Start of business tomorrow he’ll be calling the DEA in Washington with the details and about thirty seconds after that this department will be among the most celebrated in the nation. He has my congratulations. As do you all. Just another fine night’s work in a long and distinguished tradition.’
He clicked off and tossed the mike on his seat.
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes