Deep down, p.3
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         Part #16.5 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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  weirdly interested in the end results. She asked about head shots and chest shots, about how it felt to wait while the bullet flew, about what they saw through the scope afterwards. The effect was almost pornographic.

  Alice Vaz asked mostly wider questions. The others debated rifle stocks made of composite materials, which wouldn’t shrink or swell no matter the conditions, and she asked about the conditions. Where in the world was this rifle likely to go? How hot? How cold? How high? How wet? She didn’t get clear answers, and after a spell she gave up. There were no A.V. attributions in the last twenty pages of the transcript.

  Christopher asked, ‘Gut feeling?’

  Reacher said, ‘Just from this?’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Then I would say it’s Christine Richardson. She sounds like the prime mover. She wants everything spelled out every which way. No secrets with that woman.’

  ‘I could say she’s trying to sell it. I could say she thinks the political guys will find that stuff interesting.’

  ‘No, she knows they don’t. But she keeps on talking anyway. She won’t let them leave anything vague or unspecified. Why is that?’

  ‘Maybe she has OCD.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘Obsessive compulsive disorder. Like alphabetizing your underwear.’

  ‘How do you alphabetize underwear?’

  ‘Figure of speech.’

  ‘So you’re happy with Richardson?’

  ‘No,’ Christopher said. ‘We think it’s her too. From the externalities in the transcripts, at least. The issue is going to be proving it.’

  The woman with the fanny pack and the headband was on Mass Ave, approaching Scott Circle, and the man in the car was on 16th Street, approaching Scott Circle. Their average speeds for the last many minutes had been more or less identical, at ten miles an hour, her progress steady and resolute and relentless, his frustratingly stop-start-fast-fast-slow. She was pushing hard, ready for an iconic athletic breakthrough, desperate for it, and he was agitated about the time, anxious about being late, wishing he could have parked and taken the Metro without getting back at the end of the day to find all his wheels had been stolen.

  It happened like this: she was on the left-hand sidewalk, on Mass Ave, and he was at right angles to her, in 16th Street’s extreme right lane, wanting to come off into the circle. She was looking straight ahead, watching the traffic, watching the upcoming crosswalk lights, trying to time it, suddenly convinced that if she got held up there her bid was over. He was looking beyond the three cars ahead, to the far left, diametrically away from her, watching the traffic coming into the circle, which would have prior right of way. He was looking for an upcoming gap, trying to time it, hoping to roll up to the line and squirt on through, one unbroken move.

  She sprinted, hard, hard, hard, and he moved up, craning left, looking for the gap that would be his, seeing half a gap, rolling, rolling, the cars ahead of him clearing, the gap tightening, not really a gap at all, but his last chance, so he went for it, hitting the gas, wrenching the wheel, smashing into her as she sprinted into the space she had been sure would remain, because surely no driver would try to use it.

  She went up in the air and down on his windshield rail, impossibly loud metallic thumps and crashes, and he braked hard and she spun on the shiny roof and clattered over the inclined tailgate and landed head first on the blacktop.

  Reacher butted all the paperwork into a neat stack and put it back on Christopher’s desk. Christopher said, ‘Almost time to get down to business. Do you know the committee room number?’

  Reacher said, ‘Yes.’

  ‘Do you know where it is?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Good. I’m not going to tell you. I want you wandering around like a little lost country boy. I want everything about this thing to be realistic from the get-go.’

  ‘Nothing about this thing is realistic. And nothing about this thing is going to work.’

  ‘Look on the bright side. You might get lucky. One of them might be into rough trade. All on the army’s dime, too.’

  Reacher said nothing. He used the door on F Street and turned right and left on to New Jersey Avenue, and then the Capitol Building was right there in front of him, half a mile ahead, big and white and shining in the sun. He looped around into the plaza and went up the steps. A Capitol cop looked at his ID and gave him a barrage of directions so confusing that Reacher knew he would need a couple of refreshers along the way. Which he got, first from another guard, and then from a page.

  The designated committee room had an impressive door made from polished mahogany, and inside it had an impressive table made from the same wood. Around the table were seated four people. One was the transcriber. He was in shirtsleeves and had a court-reporter machine in front of him. The other three were clearly the army procurement officer, and the Marine Corps procurement officer, and the Marine sniper. The two officers were in uniform, and the sniper was in a cheap suit. Probably a Recon Marine. A Delta wannabe. The officers shook hands, and the sniper gave a millimetric nod, which Reacher returned, equally briefly, which for two alleged snipers was effusive, and for a dogface and a jarhead meeting for the first time was practically like rolling around on the floor in an ecstatic bear hug.

  There was no one else in the room. No political staffers, none of the liaison women. The clock in Reacher’s head said the meeting was due to start inside a minute. The clock on the wall was a minute fast, so the meeting was already under way, according to Capitol time. But nothing was happening. No one seemed to care. The Marine sniper was mute, and the procurement guys were clearly as happy to waste time sitting quiet as to waste it talking up a storm about a lost cause.

  The clock ticked. No one spoke. The jarhead stared into space, infinitely still. The officers moved in their chairs and got comfortable. Reacher copied the jarhead.

  Then eventually the staffers came in, followed by three women in army Class A uniform. Three women, not four. Class A uniform, female officer, the nameplate is adjusted to individual figure differences and centred horizontally on the right side between one and two inches above the top button of the coat. Reacher scanned the black plastic rectangles. DeWitt, Vaz and Walker were there. Richardson was not. A and B and D were present, but C was missing. No Christine.

  The four staffers looked a little upset, and the three women looked very unhappy. They all sat down, in what were clearly their accustomed places, leaving one chair empty, and the guy at the head of the table said, ‘Gentlemen, I’m afraid we have some very upsetting news. Earlier today Colonel Richardson was struck by a car as she was running to work. At Scott Circle.’

  Reacher’s first thought was: Running? Why? Was she late? But then he understood. Jogging, fitness, shower and dress at the office. He had seen people do that.

  The guy at the head of the table said, ‘The driver of the car is a postal worker from the Capitol mail room. Eyewitness accounts suggest risks were taken by both parties.’

  The army procurement officer asked, ‘But how is she? How’s Christine?’

  The guy at the head of the table said, ‘She died at the scene.’

  Silence in the room.

  The guy said, ‘Head trauma. From when she hit the windshield rail, or from when she finally fell to the ground.’

  Silence. No sound in the room, except the patter of the transcriber’s machine, as he caught up with what had been said. Then even he went quiet.

  The guy at the head of the table said, ‘Accordingly, I suggest we close down this process and resume it at a more suitable time.’

  The army procurement officer asked, ‘When?’

  ‘Let’s schedule it for the next round of budget discussions.’

  ‘When are those?’

  ‘A year or so.’

  Silence.

  Then Briony Walker said, ‘No, sir. We have a duty to fulfil. The process must be completed. Colonel Richardson would have wanted it no other way.’

&nb
sp; No answer.

  Walker said, ‘The army deserves to have its case made properly and its needs and requirements placed in the record. People would quickly forget our reason for abandoning this process. They would assume we had not been truly interested. So I propose we complete our mission by making certain every detail and every parameter have been adequately clarified and accurately recorded. Then at least our legislators will know exactly what they are approving. Or rejecting, as the case may be.’

  The guy at the head of the table said, ‘Does anyone wish to speak against the proposal?’

  No answer.

  ‘Very well,’ the guy said. ‘We will do as Major Walker suggests, and spend the rest of the day going over everything one more time. Just in case there’s something we missed.’

  And go over it they did. Reacher recognized the sequence of individual discussions from the transcripts. They started at the beginning and worked their way through. Most items were simply reiterated and reconfirmed, but there were some lingering live debates. Briony Walker was all out for bolt action. The naval family. The accuracy issue. A bolt action was operated manually, as gently as you liked, so the gun stayed still afterwards, with no microscopic tremors running through it. On the other hand a semi-automatic action was operated by gunpowder explosions, and was absolutely guaranteed to put tremors into the gun afterwards. Perhaps for a critical length of time.

  ‘How long?’ one of the staffers asked.

  ‘Would be critical?’ Walker asked back.

  ‘No, how long do these tremors last?’

  ‘Some fractions of a second, possibly.’

  ‘How big are they?’

  ‘Certainly big enough to hurt accuracy at a thousand yards or more.’

  The staffer looked across the table and said, ‘Gentlemen?’

  The army procurement guy looked at his Marine counterpart, who looked at his sniper, who stared into space. Then everyone looked at Reacher.

  Reacher said, ‘What was the first item you discussed?’

  The staffer said, ‘Cold shot accuracy.’

  ‘Which is important why?’

  ‘Because a sniper will often get just one opportunity.’

  ‘With a bullet that was chambered when?’

  ‘I think we heard testimony that it can have been several hours previously. Long waits seem to be part of the job.’

  ‘Which means any tremors will have disappeared long ago. You could chamber the round with a hammer. If you assume the money shots are always going to be singles, and widely spaced, possibly by hours or even days, then the action doesn’t matter.’

  ‘So you’d accept a semi-automatic sniper rifle?’

  ‘No, sir,’ Reacher said. ‘Major Walker is correct. Possibly the money shots won’t always be the first shots. And accuracy is always worth pursuing wherever possible. And bolt actions are rugged, reliable, simple, and easy to maintain. They’re also cheap.’

  So then came a debate about which bolt action was best. The classic Remington had fans in the room, but so did Winchester and Sako and Ruger. And at that point Alice Vaz started up with more of her big-picture questions. She said, ‘The way to understand our requirements, for not only actions but also stocks and bedding, it seems to me, is to understand where and how this rifle will actually be used. At what altitude? At what barometric pressures? In what extremes of temperature and humidity? What new environments might it face?’

  So to shut her up the army procurement guy ran through just about everything in the War Plans locker. No names and no specific details, of course, but all the meteorological implications. High altitude plus freezing mist, extreme dry heat with sand infiltration, rain forest humidity and high ambient temperature, in snow many degrees below zero, in downpours, and so on.

  Then one of the staffers insisted that the steel for the barrel had to be domestic. Which was not a huge problem. Then another insisted that the optics had to be domestic too. Which was a bigger problem. Reacher watched the women seated opposite. Darwen DeWitt wasn’t saying much. Which was a surprise after her star turns the first two times out. She was a little more than medium height, and still lithe, like the teenage softball star she had been. She was dark-haired and pale-skinned, with features more likely to be called strong than pretty, but she was spared from being plain by mobile and expressive eyes. They were dark, and they moved constantly but slowly, and they blazed with intelligence and some kind of inner fire. Maybe she was burning off surplus IQ, to stop her head from exploding.

  Briony Walker was the navy daughter, and she looked it, neat and controlled and severe, except for an unruly head of hair, untamed even by what looked like a recent and enthusiastic haircut. She too had an animated face, and she too had a lot going on behind her eyes.

  Alice Vaz was the best-looking. Reacher didn’t know the word. Elfin, maybe? Gamine? Probably somewhere in between. She had darker skin than the other two, and a cap of short dark hair, and the kind of eyes that switch between a twinkle and a death ray in, well, the blink of an eye. She was smaller than the other two, and slight, in a European kind of way, and maybe smarter, too. Ultimately she was controlling the conversation, by hemming it in with questions too boring to answer. She was making the others focus.

  The meeting dragged on. Reacher made no further contributions beyond an occasional grunt of assent. Eventually conversation dried up and the guy at the head of the table asked if everyone agreed the army’s needs and requirements were now properly in the record. All hands went up. The guy repeated the question, this time personally to and directly at Briony Walker, possibly a courtesy, possibly out of spite, her own words fed back to her. But Walker took no offence. She just agreed, yes, she was completely satisfied.

  Whereupon the four staffers stood up and left the room, hustling and bustling and without a word, as if to take time out to say goodbye would hopelessly overburden their busy schedules. The women stood up, but the next out of the room was the army procurement guy, who just clapped his Marine buddy on the shoulder and disappeared. Whereupon the Marine clapped his NCO on the shoulder and they walked out together, leaving just Reacher and the women in the room.

  But it didn’t stay that way for long. The women were already in a huddle. Not exactly leaning in, but face to face, a tight little triangle, shoulder to shoulder, touching each other, like regular women. But maybe the West Point version. They drifted in lockstep to the door, there was a polite glance from Alice Vaz, and then they were gone.

  Reacher stayed where he was. No big rush. Nothing he could have done about it. Maybe there were guys who could have pulled it off. Hey, I’m sorry about your dead buddy that I never met, but can I separate you from your grieving pals and take you out and buy you a drink? Reacher was not one of those guys.

  But the women weren’t going anywhere. He was sure of that.

  He got up and stepped out and saw them where the corridor widened into a lobby. They were still together in their tight huddle. Not going anywhere. Just talking. Lots of social rules. They would end up in a bar, for sure, but not yet.

  Reacher drifted back to a bank of pay phones and dialled. He leaned on the wall. He saw Briony Walker glance at him, then glance away. Just the out-of-towner making a call. Maybe to his local buddies, telling them he’s done for the day, asking them where the action is at night.

  Christopher said, ‘Yes?’

  Reacher said, ‘Did you hear about Christine Richardson?’

  ‘Yes, we did.’

  ‘So it’s going to be a little harder now.’

  ‘It might be over now. If Richardson was the leak all along.’

  ‘Suppose she wasn’t?’

  ‘Then it might be easier, not harder. With the other three. Emotion helps. Loose lips sink ships.’

  ‘It wasn’t a fun afternoon. Romance is on no one’s mind. They’re talking to each other. There’s no way into a conversation like that.’

  ‘Exploit any opportunity you can.’

  ‘You’re not in the
Capitol, but you’re monitoring their fax line, right?’

  ‘Correct.’

  ‘Including tonight?’

  ‘Of course. What do you know?’

  ‘It’s not DeWitt.’

  ‘How do you know?’

  ‘She was upset. She’s thirty years old and she never had anyone die before.’

  ‘It’s natural to be upset.’

  ‘But if she had a secret agenda she’d have gotten over it. To do her work. But she didn’t. She hardly said a word. She sat there like the whole thing had no purpose. Which was absolutely the appropriate reaction for anyone without an agenda of her own.’

  ‘Had either of the other two gotten over it?’

  ‘Alice Vaz was all over it. Briony Walker likewise. And Walker made a real big fuss about going through it all one more time. With every detail stated for the record.’

  ‘So she could check if she missed anything in her last two faxes?’

  ‘That’s a possible interpretation.’

  ‘What did Vaz do?’

  ‘Same thing she did in the transcripts. Big geography. She should quit and run a travel agency.’

  ‘What are you going to do?’

  ‘I don’t know yet. Just monitor that fax line for me.’

 
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