Make me, p.29
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       Make Me, p.29
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         Part #20 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  Reacher said, “We’re losing him.”

  The fat man threw his cigar on the ground.

  Chang’s phone dinged.

  She checked the screen.

  She said, “Oh, come on.”

  “What?”

  “She wants me to zoom in. She wants a close-up.”

  “What is this, the Supreme Court?”

  She raised her phone again and did something with her fingers, like the opposite of a pinch, and she got the fat man as big as she could, and steadied him in the center of the frame, and clicked the picture. Reacher turned around to get the Ruger off the floor in back. Just in case. He heard the whoosh of her text, or her e-mail, or whatever it was. He kept the gun low and smuggled it between the seats to his lap. A solid weapon. Nothing fancy. The firearm equivalent of a domestic sedan. Like the rental Chevrolet they were sitting in. The suppressor was an aftermarket item, with a custom mount. The magazine was two rounds short. From the old guy in the booth. The chest and the head. I hope you folks have a wonderful afternoon.

  Reacher waited.

  Then the fat man levered his hips forward. A special technique, clearly. He was going to jack himself straight, like a plank, and then walk himself upright with his hands. Or push off from behind, and hope to totter away. Neither maneuver easy. But one or the other obviously possible. The guy hadn’t spent his whole life in the same spot.

  Reacher said, “We’re out of time.”

  But then the Hispanic guy spoke.

  Maybe a heartfelt statement, full of apology and contrition, full of promises of future reform, and likely polite, and certainly short, but apparently there was something in it the fat man wanted to either rebut or comment on further, because he settled back down, amid much asynchronous wobbling and shaking, and he started talking again.

  Chang’s phone dinged.

  She checked the screen.

  She said, “We’re a hundred percent sure that’s Merchenko.”

  Chapter 43

  She drove twenty yards down the street, and then she U-turned, sidewalk to sidewalk, and came back slow, easing to a stop on the curb just shy of the first possible line of sight out the open half of the gate. Which put Reacher about sixty feet from the target. Twenty to the gate, and forty in the yard. A right-hand turn. He opened his door, and climbed out. There was no easy way to hide a silenced pistol, so he carried it down by his leg, long and threatening, mid-thigh to mid-calf. Completely unambiguous. But the acoustic benefits would be worth it, he hoped, during business hours, close to the center of America’s sixth-largest city.

  Six paces on the sidewalk, and then he turned in at the yard. No guards behind the gate. The trash containers dead ahead. Then the garden. Then the fat man. Still talking. Not looking. Not yet. The Hispanic guy still standing, chin up, eyes level, still taking it. Reacher kept walking, brisk but not urgent, the gun still down, his heels loud on the concrete, so loud it was impossible the fat man wasn’t already staring at him, but he wasn’t. He was still talking, audible now, the same flat tones from the telephone, scolding, belittling, humiliating, his head jerking above the vast wattle of his neck.

  Then he was staring. He turned his head, completely independent of his immobile body, and his mouth came open, and Reacher stepped over the token foot-high picket fence, to the shiny grass, and he raised the gun, and he took one step more.

  In the tall tales told by firelight there was always a brief and laconic conversation. Because the bad guy had to be told why he had to die, as if reference to injured parties like Emily Lair and Peter and Lydia McCann and the gate guard’s grandchildren could conjure up spirits and console them, and also because the bad guy had to be given the chance to either repent or snarl further defiance, either of which could turn a story classic, depending on the hero’s next reply.

  But tales were tales, and not the real world.

  Reacher said nothing, and shot the fat man in the head, twice, a double tap, pop pop, and then he watched the kitchen door.

  Which stayed shut.

  The suppressor worked pretty well, out in the open air.

  Reacher turned back, and stepped over the foot-high fence.

  Behind him the Hispanic guy said, “Gracias, hombre.”

  Reacher smiled. Pretty much manna from heaven for that guy. Pretty much exactly what he was praying for every minute. To the letter. His exact words. Dear Lord, please send someone to shoot this bastard in the head right now. A miracle. He would go to mass on Sunday.

  Reacher walked away through the yard, the same route, the same speed, brisk but not urgent. He wiped the gun as he went, on his shirt, and dumped it in the first trash container he came to. Then he continued, out through the gate, and as soon as Chang saw him she eased the car forward, and he climbed in, and she drove away.

  Westwood had chosen a fancy place out by Scottsdale, and traffic was slow because of the afternoon rush hour, so it was getting dark when they arrived. They found the guy in the bar, looking just the same, with his tousled hair and his tangled beard, in his papery clothes full of zippers, with his enormous satchel at his feet. He was reading a book about marijuana. Maybe his next subject after wheat.

  Chang settled in to give him the so-far play-by-play, and Reacher went to wash more gunshot residue off his hands. When he got back Westwood asked him, “Do you believe journalists have ethics?”

  Reacher said, “I’m sure it varies.”

  “You better hope I’m one who doesn’t. Because a reasonable interpretation of what Ms. Chang just told me is you committed four homicides today.”

  “One of them twice,” Reacher said.

  “Not funny.”

  “Feel free to go home whenever you want. They’re your book rights, not mine. Someone else can pick over the story after it happens.”

  “Is there a story?”

  “There are only three parts we’re not sure about.”

  “Which are?”

  “The beginning, the middle, and the end.”

  Westwood was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, “I heard the name Merchenko before. Back when I was working on the Deep Web piece. Allegedly he offered a menu of services. He would guarantee invisibility for your web site, and he would handle problems if they arose. It was like a subscription thing. The Ukrainians were into on-line stuff early. I didn’t write about him in the paper because nothing was proved. Legal wouldn’t let me.”

  “How many clients did Merchenko have?”

  “People said ten, or thereabouts. Kind of boutique.”

  “That guy wasn’t boutique. He wouldn’t know boutique if it ran up and bit him on his fat ankle. He had a strip club bigger than Dodger Stadium. It was pink and covered in balloons. He liked excess. He liked volume.”

  “Ten is what I heard.”

  “Then the volume must have come from revenue. Those ten clients must have been earning a fortune.”

  “Possible,” Westwood said. “The Deep Web could be five hundred times bigger than the surface web. Very little of it makes money, I imagine, but very little of it needs to, in a universe that large. To earn a fortune overall, I mean.”

  Chang said, “Has the government built a search engine capable of seeing the Deep Web?”

  Westwood said, “No.”

  “That was what McCann was calling about.”

  “Then he was asking the wrong question. Or the right question the wrong way. I start to tune out when a caller talks about the government. Like a litmus test for common sense. I mean, who builds search engines? Software writers, that’s who. Coders. A tough project needs the best coders, and the best coders are rock stars now. They have agents and managers. They get paid a lot of money. The government can’t afford them. The alternative is kids. Rock stars still in their hungry years. But the government doesn’t hire them either. Too far outside its playbook. Those kids are weird.”

  “What would have been the right question the right way?”

  “He should have looked at Silicon Valle
y, not the government.”

  “Has someone in Silicon Valley built a search engine capable of seeing the Deep Web?”

  Westwood said, “No.”

  “McCann felt there was a hint in your piece.”

  “I asked what the motivation would be, for one of the big guys like Google. Which is not obvious. It would help law enforcement, but there’s no money to be made. By definition. If Deep Web people wanted advertising and promotion, they could come up to the surface web and grab it right now. The point is they actively don’t want it. They’re actively declining to become customers. And they always will. A better search engine will drive them deeper down. That’s all. It will turn into an arms race, with no money to be made, ever. Why would anyone do that?”

  “McCann called you eighteen times. The hint must have been positive.”

  “I said someone else would do it. He must have thought I meant the government. But I didn’t. The big guys like Google weren’t always big. Once they were two kids in a garage. Or a dorm room. Some of them set out to be billionaires from the get-go, but some of them didn’t. Some of them got just caught up in solving an interesting problem, which happened to be worth billions later. It’s a personality thing. It’s about the solving, not the problem. It’s a compulsion. Who knows where it will strike?”

  “Are you saying some kid in a dorm room has built a search engine that can see the Deep Web?”

  “Not exactly,” Westwood said. “Not a kid, not a dorm room, and not exactly built. Like I told you, it’s a compulsion. They can’t explain it. But sooner or later a problem speaks to them, and they have to solve it. They won’t be beat. But nine times out of ten there’s no commercial application, so they get a day job and it becomes a hobby. But they keep coming back to it every now and then. They keep tinkering. It will never be finished, because of time and money. But that’s not a problem, for a hobby. In fact that’s the point of a hobby.”

  Chang asked, “Who?”

  “He’s a start-up guy in Palo Alto. Already a veteran figure. Twenty-nine years old. Currently doing well with retail payment systems. But as an undergrad someone told him he couldn’t search the Deep Web, and that was all she wrote. It was like a red rag to a bull. Some weird intellectual spark. No money in it, he knew. Always a hobby. He admits it was mostly arrogance. Some geeks are like that. They need to be better than the other geek.”

  “How far along is he now?”

  “That’s an impossible question. How could he know? He can see some of it, clear as day. But is that all of it, or only a tiny part?”

  “I don’t understand why you didn’t say more in your piece. This is a big part of the story, right? Progress has been made.”

  “The guy wouldn’t let me. He was scared of retaliation from the Deep Web people. Some of those sites really don’t want to be found. He was the guy who told me about Merchenko. A hobby project makes him an easy target. He’s not a team. He’s just one guy. And he was right to be scared, according to you. I wasn’t sure at the time. It could have been drama. They’re in a world of their own.”

  Reacher said, “We need to meet this guy.”

  “Not easy.”

  “Right now all we have is second-hand hearsay. But the consensus seems to be that Michael McCann used the Deep Web, and Michael McCann got off a train in a place called Mother’s Rest. We need to know if one thing led to the other. Did he get off the train because of the internet, or was he going to get off anyway?”

  “You think Mother’s Rest is luring people in through the Deep Web?”

  “We saw two people arrive by train. They spent a night in the motel and were driven away the next morning in a white Cadillac.”

  Chang said, “They don’t even have cell service. They can’t be an internet powerhouse, surely.”

  Westwood paused a beat, and then he said, “We should go somewhere more private.”

  Twenty miles south of Mother’s Rest, the man with the ironed jeans and the blow-dried hair was pacing. Waiting for his phone to ring. Trying not to jump the gun. The last time he called ahead of schedule he had been made to feel small. Let us do what we’re good at, OK? Not that they had been. Not yet.

  Couldn’t wait.

  He picked up the phone.

  He dialed.

  He got no answer.

  Westwood had called ahead with the reservations, not knowing, so he had gotten Reacher and Chang a room each. On realizing his mistake he was neither embarrassed nor worried about the overspend. He simply chose the room with the stronger wifi and called it an office. He pulled his metal computer out of his bag and set it up on a desk. Reacher and Chang sat on the bed.

  Westwood said, “You mentioned Mother’s Rest before. Way back at the beginning. And you were right. A smart science editor would try to get a jump. So I did. It’s a grain-loading station and a trading post. There’s some technical stuff in the record. But a good reporter likes two sources. So I checked Google Earth, and sure enough, it’s right there on the satellite pictures. Right where it should be. And it looks exactly like a grain-loading station and a trading post. But it’s in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It’s like LA County had one crossroads and the rest of it was empty. It was fascinating. So I messed around a little. I zoomed out to check how far it was from anywhere else, just for the fun of it, and I happened to see a neighbor about twenty miles south. The only neighbor. Even more isolated. So naturally I zoomed in to take a look.”

  He turned his computer to face the bed.

  He said, “And this is what I saw.”

  What he saw was bright daylight, of course, even though it was dark outside. Satellite photographs were not live. Or up to date, necessarily. Things can change. Or not. Reacher guessed the things on the screen hadn’t changed in years. He was seeing a farm, surrounded by a sea of wheat. The farm had a dwelling and a bunch of outbuildings. As far as could be told from a vertical straight-down harshly-shadowed view, everything looked solid and squared away. The place was more or less self-sufficient. There were hogs and chickens and vegetable gardens. There was what looked like a generator building, for electricity. The house itself looked sturdy. It had a place to park cars at one end, and four satellite dishes at the other. And what looked like a well. And a phone line.

  Westwood said, “I remembered the satellite dishes later. What are they for?”

  Reacher said, “TV.”

  “Two of them are. The other two are looking at different birds.”

  “Foreign TV.”

  “Or satellite internet, maybe. All the bandwidth they want to pay for. Very fast. Doubled up for safety. With their own electricity. That would be an internet powerhouse right there.”

  “Can we tell by the way the dishes are set?”

  “We’d need to know what day and time Google clicked the picture. To work out the angle of the shadows.”

  “Then we need to look from the inside. We need the search engine. If they’re posting from there, we need to read what they’re saying.”

  “All I can do is ask.”

  “Tell him Merchenko is dead. Tell him you had him whacked, as a service to software developers everywhere. Tell him he owes you a favor.”

  Westwood said nothing.

  Reacher turned back to the screen.

  He said, “Where is this place exactly?”

  Westwood said, “Twenty miles south of Mother’s Rest,” and he leaned around from behind and pinched and swiped, making the farm smaller and the wheat bigger, no doubt intending to continue until Mother’s Rest itself slid into view above, to show the distant geographic relationship. But before that happened the picture was clipped across the bottom corner by a dead-straight line, and Reacher said, “What’s that?”

  Westwood said, “The railroad track.”

  “Show me.”

  So Westwood came around from behind the screen and set it up properly. The farm and the railroad, centered, in their correct proportions. Maybe three-quarters of a mile apart. The middle dis
tance, for most human eyes.

  Reacher said, “I remember that farm. From when I arrived. It was the first human habitation the train passed in hours. Twenty miles before it finally got to Mother’s Rest. They were running a machine with lights. A tractor, maybe. At midnight.”

  “Is that normal?”

  “I have no idea.”

  Chang said, “We figured the Cadillac drove twenty miles. Remember that? Twenty miles there, and twenty miles back. Now we know where it was going. There’s nowhere else it could go, twenty miles from Mother’s Rest. So that’s where the folks from the train went. The man and the woman, with their bags. But then where?”

  No one answered.

  Westwood said, “Do farmers use the Deep Web?”

  “Someone does,” Reacher said. “We need the search engine.”

  “The guy gets paid for his time.”

  “No one likes to work for free. That’s something I learned.”

  “He won’t come here. We’ll have to go to San Francisco.”

 
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