61 hours, p.30
Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Peterson said, ‘Thank you, chief.’
Holland said, ‘You’re welcome. But you still shouldn’t have come.’
Five minutes to eleven in the evening.
Five hours to go.
Seventeen hundred miles south Plato’s three-car convoy waited at an inconspicuous gate in a hurricane fence around an airfield. The gate was a battered, saggy affair, chained and padlocked. The fence was matted with trash and weeds at its base. But the airfield itself was fit for its purpose. It had been military, then civilian, then military again, then civilian again. It had a long runway and hangars and offices and apron parking for hobby planes. They were all lined up neatly, hooded and blinded in the dark by canvas covers.
Plato’s was not a hobby plane. It was a Boeing 737. The largest craft on the field by far. It was twenty years old and Plato was its third owner. Not that anyone knew. Only geeks could date planes, and geeks knew better than to broadcast their conclusions. Plato told the world it had been custom built for him a year ago, up there in Washington state. In reality it had been flown to a facility in Arizona and stripped back to its aluminum skin and the paint had been replaced by a grey-tinted wash that made the bare metal look dark and shiny and evil. People who owed him services regularly spent days and weeks going over it with clay bars and carnauba wax. It was polished like a show car. Plato was proud of it. He was the first in his family to own a Boeing.
A dusty pick-up truck with one headlight drove around the perimeter track inside the fence and stopped short of the gate. A guy got out and clicked open the padlock and clattered the chain out of the way. He lifted and pulled and swung the gate open. The three-car convoy drove through.
Plato was Plato and Range Rovers were Range Rovers, so they didn’t stick to the perimeter road. Instead they drove in a straight line, across bumpy grass, across smooth taxiways, across the runway, across the apron. They held a wide respectful curve around the Boeing and parked side by side between two Cessnas and a Piper. The six men climbed out and formed a loose cordon. Plato got out into it. He was in no danger, but it helped to appear as if he was, in terms of both caution and reputation. There was an old-fashioned set of rolling stairs set next to the Boeing’s forward door. The word Mexicana was still visible on it, peeled and fading. Three men went up. After a minute one stuck his head back out and nodded. All clear.
Plato went up and took his seat, which was 1A, front row on the left. Leg room against the bulkhead was not an issue for him. The old first class cabin was intact. Four rows of four wide leather seats. Behind them economy class had been removed. There was just empty space back there. The plane was rated for a hundred and eighty passengers, and twenty years ago an average passenger was reckoned to weigh two hundred pounds including checked bags. Which gave a total lift capacity of thirtysix thousand pounds, which was about sixteen tons.
Plato sat while his men inspected their equipment. It had been supplied and loaded on to the plane by a guy who owed Plato a favour. Therefore it was all present and correct, on pain of death. But his guys checked anyway. Cold-weather clothing, aluminum ladders, flashlights, automatic weapons, ammunition, some food and water. Anything else necessary would be supplied at the destination.
The pilots had finished their pre-flight checks. The first officer stepped out of the cockpit and waited in the aisle. Plato caught his eye and nodded. Like a guy telling a butler when to serve the soup. The first officer went back to the flight deck and the engines started up. The plane taxied, lined up with the runway, paused, shuddered against the brakes, rolled forward, accelerated, and then rose majestically into the night.
Reacher rode back to town in Peterson’s car. Holland followed them in his own car. Reacher got out at the end of Janet Salter’s street and waved them both away. Then he eased past the parked cruiser and walked through the snow to the house. Janet Salter was still up when he walked in. She looked him up and down and side to side like she was inspecting him for damage. Then she asked, ‘Successful?’
Reacher said, ‘So far so good.’
‘Then you should call the girl in Virginia and tell her. You were awfully abrupt before. You hung up on her, basically.’
‘She’s probably off duty. It’s late.’
So Reacher wrestled his way out of his coat and hung it up and sat down in the hallway chair. He dialled the number he remembered. Asked for Amanda.
She was still on duty.
He said, ‘N06BA03 is clearly a pharmaceutical code for methamphetamine.’
She said, ‘Forty tons?’
‘That’s what we thought.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Nothing. The local cops are on it.’
‘What does forty tons look like?’
‘How the hell can forty tons of methamphetamine get lost in the system?’
‘I don’t know. Stuff gets lost all the time. Shit happens. Maybe they weren’t very proud of it. Values change all of a sudden, wartime to peacetime. Maybe that’s why they hid it behind the code. And as soon as everyone forgot what the code meant, they forgot the stuff was there. Out of sight and out of mind.’
She didn’t reply.
He said, ‘Thanks for your help, Susan.’
‘You’re most welcome.’
‘Tell your buddy at Lackland there are records clerks taking money for combing the archives. That stuff wasn’t found by accident. Maybe you can pay off the favour that way.’
‘Bronze Stars all around. Anything else?’
‘Nothing on Kapler?’
‘He resigned for no reason. That’s all there is. Which is strange, I agree, but there’s no hard data anywhere. Either he’s clean, or someone cleaned up after him.’
‘OK,’ Reacher said. ‘Thanks.’
Reacher said, ‘No, I guess we’re all done here.’
She said, ‘So this is goodbye?’
He said, ‘I guess it is.’
‘It’s been nice talking to you.’
‘For me too. Stay lucky, Susan. And thanks again.’
She hung up. He sat in the chair for a moment with his eyes closed and the receiver on his lap. When it started beeping at him he put it back in the cradle and got up and walked to the kitchen.
Janet Salter was in the kitchen with a book under her arm. Reacher found her there. She was filling a glass with water from the tap. She was on her way to bed. Reacher stood aside and she passed him and headed for the stairs. Reacher waited a moment and went to make one last check of the house. The cop in the library was standing easy, six feet from the window, alert and implacable. The cop in the hallway was in the telephone chair, sitting forward, her elbows on her knees. Reacher checked the view from the parlour and then headed upstairs to his room. He kept the lights off and the drapes open. The snow on the porch roof was thick and glazed and frozen. The street was empty. Just the parked cruiser, the cop inside, and ruts and ice and the relentless wind.
In Virginia Susan Turner’s desktop computer made a sound like a bell. The secure government intranet. An incoming e-mail. The temporary password, from the Human Resources Command. She copied and pasted it to a dialogue box in the relevant database. The ancient report came up as an Adobe document. Like an online photocopy. The seventy-third citation from the cross-reference index in the back of Jack Reacher’s service file.
It was the history of an experiment run by an army psychological unit, of which she knew there had been many, way back when. So many, in fact, that they had mostly sat around on their fat butts until inspiration had struck. This bunch had been interested in genetic mutation. The science was well understood by that point. DNA had been discovered. Then anecdotal evidence had come in about a kids’ movie being shown on service bases. It was a cheap SF flick about a monster. Some rubber pupp
The psychologists agreed that to recoil from a source of extreme danger was a rational response derived from evolution. But they knew about mutation. Giraffes were sometimes born with longer or shorter necks than their parents’, for instance. Either useful or not, depending on circumstances. Time would tell. Evolution would judge. So they wondered if children were ever born without the recoil reflex. Counterproductive, in terms of the survival of the species. But possibly useful to the military.
They sent prints of the movie to remote bases in the Pacific. Army, navy, air force, and Marine Corps, because they wanted the largest possible test sample. The Pacific, because they wanted children not yet exposed to the movie, or even rumours of it. They set up inconspicuous cameras above the cinema screens. The cameras were focused on the front rows of the audience. The shutters were triggered by the film sprockets, timed to snap just after the monster emerged from the murk. Hundreds of children were invited to showings in batches, four- to seven-year-olds, which was an age group apparently considered mature in terms of emotional response but not yet socialized out of honest and unguarded expression.
There was a long illustrative sequence of still photographs in the document. A little blurred, a little dark, but they all showed the same thing. Small children, eyes wide, mouths open, slamming back against their seats, some of them launching themselves right over their seat backs, arms thrown up around their heads, ducking away in fear and panic.
Then came an exception.
One photograph was focused on a front row of fifteen seats. Fifteen children. All boys. They all looked about six years old. Fourteen of them were slamming backward. One was jumping forward. He was larger than the others. He had short tousled hair, light in colour. He was diving up and out, trying to get to the screen. His right arm was raised aggressively. There was something in his hand.
Susan Turner was pretty sure it was an open switchblade.
The aggressive boy was not formally named in the document. He had been studied briefly but then his father had been cut new orders and the boy had gotten lost in the system. The experiment had petered out shortly afterwards. But the results gleaned to that point had been retained as a completed file. The aggressive boy had been labelled with long words, none of which meant anything to Susan.
The last page of the file was its own cross-reference index. There were no backward links to any other personnel file than Reacher’s.
Susan returned to the technical preamble. The delay between the appearance of the monster and the click of the shutter had been set at eighteen frames, which was three-quarters of a second. She was impressed. Not so much with the forward leap. She knew people like that. She was one herself. But for a six-year-old to have gotten a switchblade up and open in his hand in less than a second was something else.
Janet Salter’s house stayed all quiet for less than ten seconds. Then first one, then two, then three, then four police radios burst to life with loud static and codes and urgent words, and cell phones rang, and the hall phone rang, and stumbling footsteps crossed the floor in the day watch’s bedroom, and doors opened, and there were tramping feet on the stairs, and people started talking all at once, loud and scared and horrified.
Reacher stepped out of his room and hustled down to the hallway. The four women cops were standing all together on the rug, two in uniform, two in night clothes, all talking on phones, all white and shocked and looking around wide-eyed in helpless restless panic, all full of adrenalin, all with nowhere to go.
Reacher said, ‘What?’
One of the cops said, ‘It’s Andrew Peterson.’
‘What about him?’
‘He’s been shot and killed.’
THE GUY FROM THE CAR ON THE STREET CAME IN AND JOINED the confusion. Reacher had no doubt the guys in the other two cars were equally distracted. For the moment Janet Salter’s security was worth exactly less than jack shit. So he kept half his attention on the parlour window and used the other half to piece the story together from the babble of voices. It wasn’t difficult. The hard facts seemed to be: following Chief Holland’s most recent orders, the department was still on high alert. Therefore mobile patrols were constant, and vigilance was high. No street was visited less than every twenty minutes. Every pedestrian was eyeballed, as was every car and every truck. Every lot was checked regularly, every alley, every approach.
A unit driven solo by the new guy Montgomery had nosed into a snowbound parking lot north and east of downtown and Montgomery had seen Peterson’s car apparently empty and idling with its driver’s window all the way down and its nudge bars pushed up hard against a blank brick wall. On closer inspection Montgomery had found the car not to be empty. Peterson was sprawled across the front seats, dead from a gunshot wound to the head.
Reacher stayed at the parlour window, watching the silent street, thinking about Peterson, leaving the cops to their private grief in the hallway. He could hear their voices. They were passing through a short phase of denial. Maybe the story was wrong. Which Reacher considered theoretically plausible, but very unlikely. Operational reports called in from the field were occasionally unreliable. And head wounds sometimes produced misleading impressions. Deep comas could be mistaken for death. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred hoping for the best was a waste of time. Reacher knew that. He was an optimist, but not a fool.
The bad news was confirmed five minutes later by Chief Holland himself. He drove up and parked and came in through the cold. Three items on his agenda. First, he wanted to break the news to his crew personally. Second, he wanted to make sure they got their minds back on their job. He sent the lone male officer back to his car on the street, he sent the day watch women back to bed, he sent one of the night watch women back to the library, and he told the other to focus hard on the front door. His voice was quiet and firm and his manner was controlled. He was a decent CO. Out of his league, perhaps, in over his head, no question, but he was still walking and talking. Which was more than Reacher had seen from some COs he had known, when the shit had hit the fan.
The third item on Holland’s agenda was something halfway between an invitation and a command. He stepped into the parlour and looked straight at Reacher and asked him to come out and take a look at the crime scene.
Janet Salter had gotten up because of the noise and was hiding out in the kitchen. Reacher found her there. She was still fully dressed. She had her gun in her pocket. She knew exactly what he was about to tell her. She waved it away impatiently and said, ‘I know what to do.’
He said, ‘Do you?’
She nodded. ‘The basement, the gun, the password.’
‘Immediately anything happens.’ Then she said, ‘Or before. Perhaps now.’
‘Not a bad idea,’ Reacher said. ‘The guy is out there, and close by.’
‘I know what to do,’ she said again.
Reacher climbed into the front passenger seat of Holland’s unmarked sedan. Holland backed up and turned and drove towards town. He made a left at the park and a right that led past the coffee shop and onward past the clothing store that Reacher had used. Then he threaded right and left and right again through back streets to a long block of two-storey brick buildings. They were plain and square. Maybe once they had been stores or offices or warehouses. Maybe once they had been the hub of Bolton’s commercial district. Now they were decrepit. Most of them looked abandoned. Three in a line had been demolished to make an empty space. A gap, perhaps a hundred feet by forty. It seemed to be in use as a temporary parking lot, maybe busy by day but now empty at night. It was humped with frozen snow and rutted by tyre tracks made days ago when the surface had still been soft.
The empty lot was guarded by two police crui
Peterson’s car was all the way on the left side of the lot. It was still idling. Its driver’s window was still down. The short vertical nudge bars on its front bumper were pressed up hard against a blank brick wall. Which was the side of the next building along.
Holland parked at the kerb and climbed out. Reacher followed him and zipped his coat and pulled his hat down over his ears. The side street they were on ran north to south and they were out of the wind. It was cold, but not impossible. They walked together into the lot. No danger of messing up any evidence on the ground. No danger of obscuring tyre tracks or footprints. There weren’t any. The rutted snow was like corrugated iron, but harder. And it was glazed and slippery. They struggled on and approached Peterson’s car from the rear. Its exhaust pipes were burbling patiently. The whole vehicle was just sitting there, like a faithful servant waiting for its master’s next command.
Sheets of ice creaked under their feet as Reacher and Holland walked to the driver’s door. They looked in through the open window. Peterson’s feet were in the driver’s foot well, and his body was twisted at the waist. He had fallen sideways. His gun was still in its holster. His head was flung back, his neck bent, one cheek pressed down on the upholstery, as if he was staring at an item of great interest on the inside panel of the passenger door.
Reacher tracked back around the trunk, his knees passing through the small white cloud of exhaust, and back along the far flank of the car, to the front passenger door. He put his gloved hand on the handle and opened it up. Crouched down. Peterson stared at him through sightless eyes. He had a third eye in the centre of his forehead. An entry wound, perfectly placed, just like the lawyer on the two-lane to the east. Nine millimetre, almost certainly. Fairly close range. There were faint burns on the skin, and faint powder tattoos. About five feet, probably.
There was no exit wound. The bullet was still inside Peterson’s head, crushed and deformed and tumbled. Unusual, for a nine-millimetre at close range. But not impossible. Clearly Peterson’s skull had been thick.
There was no doubt he was dead. Reacher knew enough about ballistics and human biology and he had seen enough dead people to be absolutely sure. But still he checked. He took off his glove and put warm twinned fingers on the cold skin behind Peterson’s ear. No pulse. Nothing at all, except the waxy feel of a corpse, part soft, part hard, both solid and insubstantial, already completely alien to a living touch.
Reacher put his glove back on.
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes