Make me, p.3
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       Make Me, p.3
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         Part #20 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  assumed, fascinated by a stranger, but very shy. He ducked behind a wall every time I glanced his way.”

  “I don’t know if that’s weird or sad.”

  “You have absolutely no information at all?”

  “I’m waiting for Keever to brief me.”

  “Which means waiting for the trains.”

  “Twice a day.”

  “How long before you give up?”

  “That’s very blunt.”

  “I was kidding. This is like most bad things that ever happened to me, and to you too, probably, in your patrol car. This is a communications breakdown. A message hasn’t gotten through. That’s my guess. Because there’s no cell service, presumably. People can’t cope without it anymore.”

  Chang said, “I’m going to give it twenty-four hours.”

  “I’ll be gone,” Reacher said. “I guess I’ll take the evening train.”

  Reacher left Chang in the diner, and walked back to the old trail, ready to look at the rest of the town. He didn’t see the weird kid again. He turned in at the veterinary supply office and re-checked the left-hand side of the street, all six blocks, and saw nothing of interest. He continued onward, out into open country, a hundred yards, two hundred, just in case the railroad had dragged the center of town eastward, leaving relics behind in their original locations. If Chang was right and an old lady had died, her stone wouldn’t necessarily be visible from a distance. It might be a low-built affair, a slab laid on the ground, an iron picket not more than a foot and a half high, all nested in a sea of wheat, with maybe a mown path leading to it from the shoulder.

  But he saw no such path, and no stone, and no ceremonial iron fence. No larger structure either. No museum. No official billboard about a site of historic interest. He turned around and walked back and started quartering the southern quadrant, block by block, beginning on the east-west side street that ran behind the establishments directly on the trail. Which looked pretty much like its northern equivalent, but with more one-room places carved out of barns and garages, and fewer fruit stands. But no memorial stone, and no museum. Not where logic dictated. Mother’s Rest had not always been a crossroads. Not until the railroad. It had been a random speck alongside endless straight ruts through the prairie. The stone or the legend had brought the town to it. The town had grown up around it, like a pearl around a grain of sand.

  But he couldn’t find it. Not the stone, or the museum. Not where they should be, which was a respectable distance from the original shoulder. Enough to create a feeling of excursion or pilgrimage. Which would be about a modern-day block behind the original shoulder, but there was nothing there.

  He moved on, block by block, the same way he had before. He saw the same kind of things, and began to understand them. The town explained itself to him, gradually, street by street. It was a trading post for a vast and dispersed agricultural community. It shipped in all kinds of technical things and shipped out produce in immense quantities. Grain, mostly. But there was some pasture too. Evidently. Hence the supply companies and the large-animal veterinarian. And the rubber aprons, he supposed. Some folks were doing well and buying shiny new tractors, and some folks weren’t doing well, so they were getting their diesel engines repaired and sticking new soles on their boots.

  Just a town, like any other.

  It was the end of summer, and the day had stayed golden, and the sun was warm but not hot, so he kept on strolling, happy to be out of doors, until he found he had revisited every block he had been to, and seen everything again.

  No memorial stone, and no museum.

  No weird kid.

  But there was a guy who looked at him oddly.

  Chapter 5

  It was two blocks off the old trail, on a parallel east-west side street, which had five developed blocks on one side, and four on the other. The semicircular shape was starting to bite. There was a bank office and a credit union. There were small lock-up workshops, all of them one-man businesses, with a blade sharpener, and a gearbox repairman, and even a barber with a lit-up pole. But in particular there was a spare-parts guy for several different brands of irrigation systems. He had a cramped store and he was penned in behind the register. Not a small guy. He was facing out and as Reacher passed by he got some kind of flicker in his eye, and he reached upward and backward for something behind his shoulder. Reacher didn’t see what it was. His momentum had carried him onward. The front part of his brain didn’t think much of it. But the back part nagged. Why did the guy react?

  Easy. He saw a new face. A stranger. Did not compute.

  What was he reaching for? A weapon?

  Probably not. A random passerby was no immediate threat. And no one kept a baseball bat or an old .45 loud and proud on the wall. Not in plain sight. Under the counter worked better. Plus how dangerous was the irrigation business anyway? Bats and guns were for bars and bodegas, and maybe pharmacies.

  So what was the guy reaching for?

  The phone, most likely. An old-fashioned wall-mounted telephone. Shoulder height to most folks, for comfortable dialing. The guy grabbed at it backward because he was too cramped to turn all the way around.

  Why would he make a call? Was seeing a stranger such an extraordinary event it required instant sharing?

  Maybe he suddenly remembered something. Maybe he was due a sales call. Maybe he was supposed to send a package.

  Or maybe he had been told to call in sightings.

  Of what?

  Strangers.

  Told by who?

  Maybe the weird kid, too. Maybe that was an attempt at actual surveillance. There’s a fine line between showy shyness and sheer incompetence.

  Reacher stood in the plaza and turned a full circle.

  No one there.

  At that point he figured a cup of coffee would be a good idea, so he walked back to the diner. Chang was still in there, at the same table. Late morning. She had swapped seats, so her back was to the angle. Where his had been. He threaded his way through the room and sat down at the table next to hers, side by side, so his back was to the wall, too. Habit, mostly.

  “Nice morning?” he asked.

  She said, “Feels like a Sunday from my freshman year in college. No cell phone and nothing to do.”

  “Doesn’t your guy at least check in with his office?”

  She started to say something, but stopped. She looked all around the room, and at the people in it, as if counting the number of potential witnesses to what might turn out to be an embarrassing admission. Then she smiled a complex and expressive smile, part bold, part rueful, maybe even a little conspiratorial, and she said, “I might have glamorized our situation slightly.”

  Reacher said, “In what way?”

  “Our Oklahoma City office is Keever’s spare bedroom. Like our Seattle office is my spare bedroom. Our web site says we have offices everywhere. Which is true. Everywhere there’s an out-of-work ex–FBI agent with a spare bedroom and bills to pay. We’re not a multilayered organization. In other words, we have no support staff. Keever has no one to check in with.”

  “But he has big things going on.”

  Chang nodded. “We’re the real deal and we do good work. But we’re a business. Low overhead is the key to everything. And a good web site. No one knows exactly what you are.”

  “What kind of a thing would he take on as a hobby case?”

  “I’ve been thinking about that, obviously. Nothing corporate. There’s no such thing as a small corporate case. Some of them are like a license to print money. They go straight on the computer, believe me. It’s like giving yourself a gold star. This one has to be a private client, paying in cash, or handwriting checks. Nothing shady, necessarily, but probably dull and possibly nuts.”

  “Except now Keever needs back-up.”

  “Like I said, it started small, and then it got bigger.”

  “Or the nuts part suddenly wasn’t nuts anymore.”

  “Or got even crazier.”

 
; The waitress came by and started Reacher’s second bottomless cup of the day. He pre-paid upfront, about four times the check. He liked coffee, and he liked waitresses.

  Chang said, “How was your morning?”

  He said, “I couldn’t find the old woman’s grave or any kind of information about the baby.”

  “You think either one would still be around?”

  “I’m pretty sure. There’s plenty of space. They’re not going to pave over someone’s grave. And there’s always room for a historical plaque. You see them all over. Some kind of cast metal, painted brown. I don’t know who makes them. Department of the Interior, maybe. But there isn’t one.”

  “Have you talked to the locals?”

  “Next on the list.”

  “You should start with the waitress.”

  “She has a professional obligation to give me the showbusiness answer. So the good word can get around, and then suddenly her diner is a tourist attraction.”

  “Hasn’t worked so far.”

  “You think many people ask?”

  “Probably about five out of ten,” she said. “Except that’s about eleven years’ worth of visitors, right there. So it’s a high-percentage, low-frequency proposition. Depends what you mean by many.”

  And right then the waitress set off toward them with the Bunn flask, for Reacher’s first refill of the session, and Chang asked her, “Why is this town called Mother’s Rest?”

  The waitress stood back, favoring one hip over the other, like tired women do, with the coffee mid-air and level with her waist. She had hair the color of the wheat outside, and a red face, and she could have been thirty-five or fifty, and a thin person bulking up with age, or a heavy person burning down with work. It was impossible to tell. She looked very happy to take a minute, because Reacher was already her best friend forever, because of the tip, and because she’d just been asked a question that was neither offensive nor boring.

  She said, “I like to think a grateful son in a faraway city built his mama a little country home to retire to, in exchange for all the good things she had done for him, and then some stores came to sell her what she needed, and some more houses, and pretty soon it was a town.”

  Reacher said, “Is that the official version?”

  The waitress said, “Honey, I don’t know. I’m from Mississippi. I can’t imagine how I washed up here. You should ask the counterman. I think he was born in the state at least.”

  And then she bustled away, like waitresses do.

  Chang asked, “Was that the showbusiness answer?”

  Reacher nodded and said, “But from the creative side, not the marketing side. She needs to get with the program. Or go write for the movies. I saw one just like that. On the television set in a motel room. In the daytime.”

  “Should we ask the counterman?”

  Reacher glanced over. The guy was busy. He said, “First I’m going to find some real people. I saw some candidates while I was out walking. Then I’m going to find a place to take a nap. Or maybe I’ll get my hair cut. Maybe I’ll see you at the railroad stop at seven o’clock. Your guy Keever will be getting out, and I’ll be climbing aboard.”

  “Even if you don’t know the story of the name yet?”

  “It’s not that important. Not really worth sticking around for. I’ll believe my own version. Or yours. Depending on my mood.”

  Chang said nothing in reply to that, so Reacher drained his mug, and slid out from behind his table, and threaded his way back through the room. He stepped outside. The sun was still warm. Next on the list. Real people. Starting with the spare-parts guy, for the irrigation systems.

  Chapter 6

  The guy was still hemmed in behind his register. He had about two feet of room, which wasn’t enough. He was close to Reacher’s own height and weight, but slack and swollen, in a shirt as big as a circus tent, above a belt buckled improbably low, under a belly the size of a kettle drum. His face was pale, and his hair was colorless.

  There was a phone on the wall, behind his right shoulder. Not an ancient item with a rotary dial and a curly wire, but a regular modern cordless telephone, with a base station screwed to the stud, and a handset upright in a cradle. Easy enough for the guy to flail blindly behind him, and then the numbers were right there, in the palm of his hand, for speedy dialing. Or speed dialing. The base station had a plastic window with ten spaces. Five were labeled, and five were not. The labels seemed to be the brands the guy sold parts for. Helplines for technical advice, possibly, or sales and service numbers.

  The guy said, “Can I get you anything?”

  Reacher said, “Have we met?”

  “I’m pretty sure not. I’m pretty certain I’d remember.”

  “Yet when I walked by the first time you jumped so high you practically bumped your head on the ceiling. Why was that?”

  “I recognized you, from your old pictures.”

  “What old pictures?”

  “From Penn State, in ’86.”

  “I wasn’t smart enough for Penn State.”

  “You were in the football program. You were the linebacker everyone was talking about. You were in all the sports papers. I used to follow that stuff pretty closely back then. Still do, as a matter of fact. You look older now, of course. If you don’t mind me saying that.”

  “Did you make a phone call?”

  “When?”

  “When you saw me walk by.”

  “Why would I do that?”

  “I saw your hand move toward the phone.”

  “Maybe it was ringing. It rings all the damn time. Folks wanting this, folks wanting that.”

  Reacher nodded. Would he have heard the phone ring? Possibly not. The door had been closed, and the phone was all electronic, with adjustable volume, and maybe it was set to ring very quietly, in such a small space. Especially if calls came in all the time. Right next to the guy’s ear. A loud ring could get annoying.

  Reacher said, “What’s your theory about this town’s name?”

  The guy said, “My what?”

  “Why is this place called Mother’s Rest?”

  “Sir, I honestly have no idea. There are weird names all over the country. It’s not just us.”

  “I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m interested in the history.”

  “I never heard any.”

  Reacher nodded again.

  He said, “Have a very pleasant day.”

  “You too, sir. And congratulations on the rehab. If you don’t mind me saying that.”

  Reacher squeezed out of the store and stood for a moment in the sun.

  Reacher visited with twelve more merchants, for a total of thirteen, which gave him fourteen opinions, including the waitress’s. There was no consensus. Eight of the opinions were really no opinions at all, but merely shrugs and blank looks, along with a measure of shared defensiveness. There are weird names all over the country. Why single out Mother’s Rest, in a nation with towns called Why and Whynot, and Accident and Peculiar, and Santa Claus and No Name, and Boring and Cheesequake, and Truth or Consequences, and Monkeys Eyebrow, and Okay and Ordinary, and Pie Town and Toad Suck and Sweet Lips?

  The other six opinions were variations on the waitress’s fantasy. And his own, Reacher supposed. And Chang’s. Folks were working backward from the name, and inventing picturesque scenarios to fit. There was no hard evidence. No one knew of a memorial stone or a museum, or a historical plaque, or even an old folk tale.

  Reacher strolled back down the wide street, thinking: nap or haircut?

  The spare-parts guy was the first to call it in. He said he was sure he had handled it safely, with the old football trick. It was a technique he had been taught many years before. Pick a good college team in a good year, and most guys were too flattered to be suspicious. Within an hour three more merchants had made the same kind of report. Except about the football. But in terms of substance the picture was clear. The one-eyed motel clerk took all the incoming calls, and he
got the information straight in his mind, and then he dialed an outgoing number, and when it was answered he said, “They’re coming at it through the name. The big guy is all over town, asking questions.”

  He got a long plastic crackle in exchange, calm, mellifluous, and reassuring. He said, “OK, sure,” but he didn’t sound sure, and then he hung up the phone.

  The barbershop was a two-chair establishment, with one guy working in it. He was old, but not visibly shaking, so Reacher got a hot-towel shave, and then a clipper cut, short on the back and sides, fading longer up top. His hair was still the same color it always had been. A little thinner, but it was still there. The old guy’s labors produced a good result. Reacher looked in the mirror and saw himself looking back, all clean and crisp and squared away. The bill was eleven dollars, which he thought was reasonable.

 
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