61 hours, p.3
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       61 Hours, p.3
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         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  frank and enthusiastic, like a good old country boy just plain delighted to help out in an emergency. But Reacher was watching those lined blue eyes and thinking that his front was false. Reacher was thinking that Peterson was actually a fairly shrewd man with more things on his mind than a simple road rescue.

  That impression was reinforced when Peterson started asking questions. Who were they all? Where were they from? Where had they started today? Where were they headed tonight? Did they have hotel reservations up ahead? Easy answers for Knox and the twenty old folks, a tour group, from Seattle, hustling from one scheduled stop at the Dakotaland Museum to the next at Mount Rushmore, and yes, they had confirmed reservations at a tourist motel near the monument, thirteen rooms, for the four married couples, plus four pairs who were sharing, plus four individuals who had paid a singles supplement, plus one for Knox himself.

  All true information, but not exactly necessary, in the circumstances.

  Peterson made Knox show him the motel paperwork.

  Then he turned to Reacher. Smiled and said, ‘Sir, I’m Andrew Peterson, from the Bolton PD, deputy chief. Would you mind telling me who you are?’

  Plenty of heartland cops were ex-military, but Reacher didn’t think Peterson was. He wasn’t getting the vibe. He figured him for a guy who hadn’t travelled much, a straight-arrow kid who had done well in a local high school and who had stuck around afterwards to serve his community. Expert in a casual way with all the local stuff, a little out of his depth with anything else, but determined to do his best with whatever came his way.

  ‘Sir?’ Peterson said again.

  Reacher gave his name. Peterson asked him whether he was part of the group. Reacher said no. So Peterson asked him what he was doing on the bus. Reacher said he was heading west out of Minnesota, hoping to turn south before too long, hoping to find better weather.

  ‘You don’t like our weather?’

  ‘Not so far.’

  ‘And you hitched a ride on a tour bus?’

  ‘I paid.’

  Peterson looked at Knox, and Knox nodded.

  Peterson looked back at Reacher and asked, ‘Are you on vacation?’

  Reacher said, ‘No.’

  ‘Then what exactly is your situation?’

  ‘My situation doesn’t matter. None of this matters. None of us expected to be where we are right now. This whole thing was entirely unpredictable. It was an accident. Therefore there’s no connection between us and whatever it is that’s on your mind. There can’t be.’

  ‘Who says I have something on my mind?’

  ‘I do.’

  Peterson looked at Reacher, long and hard. ‘What happened with the bus?’

  ‘Ice, I guess,’ Reacher said. ‘I was asleep at the time.’

  Peterson nodded. ‘There’s a bridge that doesn’t look like a bridge. But there are warning signs.’

  Knox said, ‘A car coming the other way was sliding all over the place. I twitched.’ His tone was slightly defensive. Peterson gave him a look full of sympathy and empty of judgement and nodded again. He said, ‘A twitch will usually do it. It’s happened to lots of people. Me included.’

  Reacher said, ‘We need to get these people off this bus. They’re going to freeze to death. I am, too.’

  Peterson was quiet for a long second. There’s no connection between us and whatever it is that’s on your mind. Then he nodded again, definitively, like his mind was made up, and he called out, ‘Listen up, folks. We’re going to get you to town, where we can look after you properly. The lady with the collar bone and the lady with the wrist will come with me in the car, and there will be alternative transportation right along for the rest of you.’

  The step down into the ditch was too much for the injured women, so Peterson carried one and Reacher carried the other. The car was about ten yards away, but the snow was so thick by then that Reacher could barely see it, and when he turned back after Peterson had driven away he couldn’t see the bus at all. He felt completely alone in the white emptiness. The snow was in his face, in his eyes, in his ears, on his neck, swirling all around him, blinding him. He was very cold. He felt a split second of panic. If for some reason he got turned around and headed in the wrong direction, he wouldn’t know it. He would walk until he froze and died.

  But he took a long step sideways and saw the crimson haloes of the flares. They were still burning valiantly. He used them to work out where the bus must be and headed for it. Came up against its leeward side and tracked around the front, back into the wind, through the ditch to the door. Knox let him in and they crouched together in the aisle and peered out into the darkness, waiting to see what kind of a ride had been sent for them.

  Five to six in the evening.

  Fifty-eight hours to go.

  At six o’clock the fourteen criminal proposals finally made it to paper. The guy who had answered the lawyer’s call was plenty bright in a street-smart kind of way, but he had always figured that the best part of intelligence was to know your limitations, and his included a tendency to get a little hazy about detail when under pressure. And he was going to face some pressure now. That was for damn sure. Turning proposals into actions was going to require the sanction of some seriously cautious people.

  So he wrote everything down, fourteen separate paragraphs, and then he unplugged a brand-new untraceable pay-as-you-go cell from its charger and started to dial.

  The ride that had been sent for them was a school bus, but not exactly. Definitely a standard Blue Bird vehicle, normal size, normal shape, regular proportions, but grey, not yellow, with heavy metal mesh welded over the windows, and the words Department of Corrections stencilled along the flanks.

  It looked almost new.

  Knox said, ‘Better than nothing.’

  Reacher said, ‘I’d go in a hearse if it had a heater.’

  The prison vehicle K-turned across all three lanes and sawed back and forth for a while until it was lined up exactly parallel with the dead bus, with its entrance step about halfway down the dead bus’s length. Reacher saw why. The dead bus had an emergency exit, which was a window panel ready to pop out. Peterson had seen the ditch and the passengers and the panel, and had made a good decision and called ahead. Peterson was a reasonably smart guy.

  Normally eighteen random seniors might have needed an amount of coaxing before stepping through an open hatch into a blizzard and the arms of a stranger, but the bitter cold had quieted their inhibitions. Knox helped them up top, and Reacher lifted them down. Easy work, apart from the cold and the snow. The lightest among the passengers was an old guy not more than ninety-five pounds. The heaviest was a woman closer to two hundred. The men all wanted to walk the short distance between the two vehicles. The women were happy to be carried.

  The prison bus might have been almost new, but it was far from luxurious. The passenger area was separated from the driver by a bright steel cage. The seats were narrow and hard and faced with shiny plastic. The floor was rubber. The mesh over the windows was menacing. But there was heat. Not necessarily a kindness from the state to its convicts. But the bus manufacturer had built it in, for the school kids that the vehicle was designed to carry. And the state had not ripped it out. That was all. A kind of passive benevolence. The driver had the temperature turned up high and the blower on max. Peterson was a good advance man.

  Reacher and Knox got the passengers seated and then they ducked back out into the cold and hauled suitcases out of the dead bus’s luggage hold. The old folks would need nightwear and prescriptions and toiletries and changes of clothes. There were a lot of suitcases. They filled the prison bus’s spare seats and most of the aisle. Knox sat down on one. Reacher rode standing next to the driver, as close to a heater vent as he could get.

  The wind buffeted the bus but the tyres had chains and progress was steady. They came off the highway after seven miles and rumbled past a rusted yield sign that had been peppered by a shotgun blast. They hit a long straight county two-lan
e. They passed a sign that said Correctional Facility Ahead. Do Not Stop For Hitchhikers. The sign was brand new, crisp and shiny with reflective paint. Reacher was not pleased to see it. It would make moving on in the morning a little harder than it needed to be.

  The inevitable question was asked less than a minute later. A woman in the front seat looked left, looked right, looked a little embarrassed, but spoke anyway. She said, ‘We’re not going to be put in jail, are we?’

  ‘No, ma’am,’ Reacher said. ‘A motel, probably. I expect this was the only bus free tonight.’

  The prison driver said, ‘Motels are all full,’ and didn’t speak again.

  Five to seven in the evening.

  Fifty-seven hours to go.

  The county two-lane ran straight for more than ten miles. Visibility was never more than ten yards at a time. The falling snow was bright in the headlight beams, and beyond it was guesswork. Flat land, Reacher figured, judging by the unchanging engine note. No hills, no dales. Just prairie, flattened further by what was surely going to be a whole extra foot of snow by the morning.

  Then they passed a sign: Bolton City Limit. Pop. 12,261. Not such a small place after all. Not just a dot on the map. The driver didn’t slow. The chains chattered onward, another mile, then another. Then there was the glow of a street lamp in the air. Then another. Then a cop car, parked sideways across the mouth of a side street, blocking it. The car had its red roof lights turning lazily. The car had been stationary for a long time. That was clear. Its tyre tracks were half full of fresh snow.

  The bus clattered on for another quarter-mile and then slowed and turned three times. Right, left, right again. Then Reacher saw a low wall, with a loaf of snow on top and a lit sign along its length: Bolton Police Department. Behind the wall was a big parking lot half full with civilian vehicles. Sedans, trucks, crew-cab pick-ups. They all looked recently driven and recently parked. Fresh tyre tracks, clear windshields, melting slush on their hoods. The bus eased past them and slowed and came to a stop opposite a lit entrance lobby. The engine settled to a noisy idle. The heater kept on going. The police station was long and low. Not a small operation. The roof was flat and had a forest of antennas poking up through the snow. The lobby door was flanked by a pair of trash cans. Like two proud sentinels.

  The lobby looked warm.

  The prison driver hauled on a handle and opened the bus door and a guy in a police parka came out of the lobby with a snow shovel and started clearing the path between the trash cans. Reacher and Knox started hauling suitcases out of the aisle, out of the bus, into the police station. The snow was letting up a little but the air was colder than ever.

  Then the passengers made the transfer. Knox helped them down the step, Reacher helped them along the path, the guy in the parka saw them in through the door. Some sat down on benches, some stayed standing, some milled around. The lobby was a plain square space with dull linoleum on the floor and shiny paint on the walls. There was a reception counter in back and the wall behind it was covered with cork boards and the cork boards were covered with thumbtacked notices of different sizes and types. Sitting in front of them on a stool was an old guy in civilian clothes. Not a cop. An aide of some kind.

  The guy in the parka disappeared for a moment and came back with a man Reacher took to be Bolton’s chief of police. He was wearing a gun belt and a uniform with two metal bars stuck through the fabric on both peaks of his shirt collar. Like an army captain’s insignia. The guy himself was what Peterson was going to be about fifteen years into the future, a tall lean plainsman going a little stooped and soft with age. He looked tired and preoccupied, and beset by problems, and a little wistful, like a guy more content with the past than the present, but also temporarily happy, because he had been handed a simple problem that could be easily solved. He took up a position with his back against the counter and raised his hands for quiet, even though no one was talking.

  He said, ‘Welcome to Bolton, folks. My name is Chief Tom Holland, and I’m here to see that you all get comfortable and taken care of tonight. The bad news is that the motels are all full, but the good news is that the people of Bolton are not the kind of folks who would let a group of stranded travellers such as yourselves sleep a night on cots in the high school gymnasium. So the call went out for empty guest rooms and I’m glad to say we got a good response and we have more than a dozen people right here, right now, ready to invite you into their homes just like honoured visitors and long-lost friends.’

  There was a little low talking after that. A little surprise, a little uncertainty, then a lot of contentment. The old folks brightened and smiled and stood taller. Chief Holland ushered their hosts in from a side room, five local couples and four local men and four local women who had come alone. The lobby was suddenly crowded. People were milling about and shaking hands and introducing themselves and grouping together and hunting through the pile for their suitcases.

  Reacher kept count in his head. Thirteen knots of people, which implied thirteen empty guest rooms, which exactly mirrored the thirteen Mount Rushmore motel rooms on Knox’s official paperwork. Peterson was a good advance man.

  Reacher wasn’t on Knox’s official paperwork.

  He watched as the lobby emptied. Suitcases were hoisted, arms were offered, the doors were opened, pairs and threesomes and foursomes walked out to the waiting vehicles. It was all over inside five minutes. Reacher was left standing alone. Then the guy in the parka came back in and closed the doors. He disappeared down a doglegged corridor. Chief Holland came back. He looked at Reacher and said, ‘Let’s wait in my office.’

  Five to eight in the evening.

  Fifty-six hours to go.


  HOLLAND’S OFFICE WAS LIKE A THOUSAND REACHER HAD SEEN before. Plain municipal décor, tendered out, the job won by the underbidder. Sloppy gloss paint all over the place, thick and puckered and wrinkled, vinyl tile on the floor, a veneered desk, six last-generation file cabinets in an imperfect line against the wall under an institutional clock. There was a framed photograph centred on the cabinets under the clock. It showed Chief Holland as a straighter, stronger, younger man, standing and smiling with a woman and a child. A family portrait, maybe ten or more years old. The woman was attractive in a pale, fair-haired, strong-featured way. Holland’s wife, presumably. The child was a girl, maybe eight or nine, her face white and indistinct and unformed. Their daughter, presumably. There was a pair of dice on the desk. Big old bone cubes, worn from use and age, the dots rubbed and faded, the material itself veined where soft calcium had gone and harder minerals had remained. But apart from the photograph and the dice there was nothing personal in the room. Everything else was business.

  Holland sat down behind the desk in a worn leather chair. There was an undraped picture window behind his head, triple-glazed against the cold. Clean glass. Darkness outside. Snow on the outer sill, a heater under the inner sill.

  Reacher took a visitor chair in front of the desk.

  Holland didn’t speak.

  Reacher asked, ‘What am I waiting for?’

  ‘We wanted to offer you the same hospitality we offered the others.’

  ‘But I was a harder sell?’

  Holland smiled a tired smile. ‘Not really. Andrew Peterson volunteered to take you in himself. But he’s busy right now. So you’ll have to wait.’

  ‘Busy doing what?’

  ‘What cops do.’

  Reacher said, ‘This is a bigger place than I expected. The tour bus GPS showed it as a dot on the map.’

  ‘We grew. That GPS data is a little out of date, I guess.’

  The office was overheated. Reacher had stopped shivering and was starting to sweat. His clothes were drying, stiff and dirty. He said, ‘You grew because you got a prison built here.’

  ‘How do you figure that?’

  ‘New prison bus. New sign after the highway.’

  Holland nodded. ‘We got a brand-new federal facility. We competed for it. Eve
rybody wanted it. It’s like getting Toyota to open an assembly plant. Or Honda. Lots of jobs, lots of dollars. Then the state put their new penitentiary in the same compound, which was more jobs and more dollars, and the county jail is there too.’

  ‘Which is why the motels are full tonight? Visiting day to-morrow?’

  ‘Total of three visiting days a week, all told. And the way the bus lines run, most people have to spend two nights in town. Heads on beds six nights a week. Motel owners are like pigs in shit. And the diners, and the pizza parlours, and the shuttle bus people. Like I told you, jobs and dollars.’

  ‘Where’s the compound?’

  ‘Five miles north. The gift that keeps on giving.’

  ‘Lucky you,’ Reacher said.

  Holland was quiet for a beat. Then he said, ‘I learned a long time ago, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.’

  The guy in the parka knocked and walked straight in and handed Holland a closed file folder. The clock on the wall showed eight in the evening, which was about right according to the clock in Reacher’s head. Holland swivelled his chair and opened the file folder ninety degrees and kept it tilted up at an awkward angle, to stop Reacher seeing the contents. But they were clearly reflected in the window glass behind Holland’s head. They were crime scene photographs, glossy colour eight-by-tens with printed labels pasted in their bottom corners. Holland leafed through them. An establishing shot, then a progressive sequence of close-ups. A sprawled black-clad body, large, probably male, probably dead, snow on the ground, blunt force trauma to the right temple. No blood.

  In the tour bus Knox had closed his cell phone and said: The town of Bolton has a police department. They’re sending a guy. But they’ve got problems of their own and it will take some time.

  Holland closed the file. Said nothing. A reserved, taciturn man. Like Reacher himself. In the end they just sat opposite each other without speaking. Not a hostile silence, but even so there was an undercurrent to it. Holland kept his palm on the closed file and glanced from time to time between it and his visitor, as if he wasn’t yet sure which represented his bigger problem.

  Eight o’clock in the evening in Bolton, South Dakota, was nine o’clock in the evening in Mexico City. Seventeen hundred miles south, sixty degrees warmer. The man who had taken the call from the untraceable pay-as-you-go cell was about to make a call of his own, from his walled city villa to a walled rural compound a hundred miles away. There another man would listen without comment and then promise a decision within twelve hours. That was how it usually went. Nothing worthwhile was achieved without reflection and rumination. With reflection and rumination impulsive mistakes could be avoided, and bold strokes could be formulated.

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