61 hours, p.32
Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
thought was richly ironic. He knew a little about totem poles, and Native American culture in general. He knew a little about a lot of things, but in a random unstructured way that had paid no dividends in terms of high school grades or employment opportunities. So he had turned to the Department of Corrections. The default choice, for his graduating class. Probably the default choice for many graduating classes to come. He had been trained and equipped with a radio and a polyester uniform and assigned to the night watch at the county lock-up. He was the youngest and newest member of a four-man team. Hence, low man on the totem pole.
Except that calling a new guy the low man on the totem pole was completely ass-backward. Totem poles were what? Twenty, thirty feet high? Native Americans weren’t dumb. They put the most important guy at the bottom. At eye level. What important guy wanted to be twenty or thirty feet off the ground, where no one could see him? Like supermarkets. The eye-level shelf was reserved for the best stuff. The high-margin items. The big corporations hired experts to figure out stuff like that. Eye level was what it was all about. Thus the low man was really the high man, and the high man was really the low man. In a manner of speaking. A common misperception. A kind of linguistic inversion. Caleb Carter didn’t know how it had come about.
Night watch was an easy job. The cells were locked before they came on duty, and weren’t unlocked until after they had left. In practice Caleb’s team had only one real responsibility, which was to monitor the population for medical emergencies. Guys could start foaming at the mouth or banging their heads on the wall. Some of them weren’t fully aware of what prescriptions they should be taking. Some of them tried to hang themselves with jumpsuit legs, all twisted up and knotted. They were a sorry bunch.
The monitoring process involved ten tours of inspection, one every hour. Naturally most of them got blown off. Sometimes all of them. Easier to sit in the ready room, playing poker for pennies or looking at porn on the computer or chilling with the ear buds in. At first Caleb had been disconcerted by the negligence. New job, new life, he had started out with a measure of energy and drive. He had been prepared to take it seriously. But any new guy’s first duty was to fit in. So he did. After a month he couldn’t remember what he had been upset about. What did the department want, for their lousy ten bucks per?
But the riot in the big house the night before had shaken things up a little. The watch leader had mandated three tours in the aftermath. He had even done one of them himself. Tonight he was looking for two, but four hours into the shift they hadn’t even done the first of them, so clearly they were really on track for one only. Which was about due right then, and naturally Caleb would get to do it, because he was high man on the totem pole. Which he was OK with. He would do it, real soon, but not immediately, because right then he was occupied with clicking through a bunch of sites featuring naked fat girls and barnyard animals. Work could wait.
Reacher slipped out of a battered sedan at the end of the Petersons’ driveway and stood and watched the desk guy drive away. Then he headed for the house. It was like walking into a white tunnel. Ploughed snow was piled five feet high, left and right. Up ahead was the Y-shaped junction, right to the barn, left to the house. The wind was strong. The land was flat and open. Reacher had never been colder. He knew that with certainty. A superlative had been achieved. One day in Saudi Arabia at the start of Desert Shield the noontime temperature had hit a hundred and forty degrees. Now in South Dakota he was suffering through minus thirty, which was more like minus fifty with the wind chill. Neither extreme had been comfortable. But he knew which one he preferred.
He made it to the Y-shaped split. He turned left, towards the house. The path was OK. The underfoot surface had been salted and sprinkled with grit. Maybe the last domestic chore Andrew Peterson had ever done. Ten minutes’ work. He had made it easier to inform his widow of his death.
The house loomed up ahead. Red boards, red door, made brown by the blue of the moon. Soft yellow light behind the window glass. A faint smell of wood smoke from the chimney. Reacher walked on. It was so cold he felt like he had forgotten how. Like a stroke victim. He had to concentrate. Left foot, right foot, one step, the next, consciously and deliberately. Like he was learning a brand new skill.
He made it to the door. He paused a second and coughed freezing air from his lungs and raised his hand and knocked. The thickness of his glove and the way he was shaking turned what was supposed to be a crisp double tap into a ragged sequence of dull padded thumps. The worst sound in the world. After midnight, a cop’s family alone in a house, a knock at the door. No possibility of good news. Kim would understand that in the first split second. The only issue was how hard and how long she was going to fight it. Reacher knew how it would be. He had knocked on plenty of different doors, after midnight.
She opened up. One glance, and the last absurd hope drained from her face. It wasn’t her husband. He hadn’t dropped his keys in the snow. He hadn’t gotten inexplicably drunk and couldn’t find the keyhole.
She fell down, like a trapdoor had opened under her.
Caleb Carter took a black four-cell Mag-lite from the rack at the door and checked his radio. It was turned on and working. The Mag-lite gave a decent beam. Batteries were OK. There was a clipboard screwed to the wall. There was a pen tied to it with a ratty piece of string. Caleb pre-signed for the fifth tour. The first four notations were bogus. No one looked up. He left the ready room and headed down the corridor.
In terms of jurisdiction the county lock-up was entirely separate from the state penitentiary, which in turn was entirely separate from the federal prison. But all three facilities shared the same site and the same architecture. Economy of scale, ease of operation. The lock-up was mostly filled with arrested local folks who either couldn’t get or couldn’t make bail. Pre-trial. Innocent until proven guilty. Caleb knew some of them from high school. About a quarter of the inmates were post-trial, found guilty and sentenced, waiting out a few days until the system moved them to their next destination.
A sorry bunch.
There were sixty cells, laid out in a two-storey V, fifteen cells to a section. East wing lower, east wing upper, west wing lower, west wing upper. At the point of the V there was a metal staircase, and beyond it was a single-storey mess hall and rec room, so that the lower floor was actually shaped like a Y.
All sixty cells had occupants. They always did. The money had come from outside of Bolton, and it was like the politicians in Pierre or Washington or wherever wanted their investment to be well used. It was widely accepted around the town that laws got tighter if there was a vacancy. And vice versa. If there was an empty bed, an ounce of herb in your car would get you hauled in. But if all sixty beds were taken, two ounces would get you nothing more than a smack on the head.
Law enforcement. Caleb’s chosen career.
He started at the far end of the east wing lower. Walked all the way to the end wall, turned around, clicked his flashlight on, and came back slower. The cells were on his left. He overhanded the flashlight up on his shoulder, which not only looked cool but put the beam in line with his eyes. The cells had bars at the front, cots on the right, combined sinks and toilets in the back left corner, desks no wider than shelves opposite the cots. The cots had men in them. Most were asleep, rumbling, mumbling, and snoring under thin grey sheets. Some were awake, their narrow furtive eyes reflecting back like rats.
He turned the corner of the V and checked the west wing lower. Fifteen cells, fifteen cots, fifteen men in them, twelve sleeping, three awake, none in distress.
He climbed the stairs to the east wing upper. Same result. He didn’t know why they bothered. The place was a warehouse, that was all. A kind of cheap hotel. Did hotel staff check their guests every hour? He didn’t think so.
Procedure was such bullshit.
He passed the head of the stairs to the west wing upper. He walked it a little faster than normal. The shadows of the bars moved as his Mag-lite beam passed ove
And so on, and so on, all the way down the row. Cell six had the fat guy in it. The one who wouldn’t talk. Except to the biker in cell seven.
But the biker wasn’t in cell seven.
Cell seven, west wing upper, was empty.
REACHER WAS TOO SLOW TO CATCH KIM PETERSON BEFORE SHE hit the deck. He bent down awkwardly in his big coat and slid an arm under her shoulders and sat her up. She was gone. Fainted clean away. Absurdly his main worry was that the door was open and heat was leaking out of the house. So he jammed his other arm under her knees and lifted her up. He turned away and kicked the door shut behind him and carried her through to the family room and laid her on the battered sofa near the stove.
He had seen women faint before. He had knocked on plenty of doors after midnight. He knew what to do. Like everything else in the army it had been thoroughly explained. Fainting after a shock was a simple vasovagal reflex. The heart rate drops, the blood vessels dilate, the hydraulic power that forces blood to the brain falls away. There were five points in the treatment plan. First, catch the victim. He had already blown that. Second, lay her down with her feet high and her head low, so that gravity could help her blood get back to her brain. Which he did. He swivelled her so that her feet were up on the sofa arm and her head was below them on the cushion. Third, check her pulse. Which he did, in her wrist. He took off his gloves and touched his fingers to her skin, just like he had with her husband. The result was different. Her pulse was tapping away just fine.
Fourth point in the treatment plan: stimulate the victim, with loud yells or light slaps. Which had always felt unbearably cruel to him, with new widows. But he gave it a go. He spoke in her ear and touched her cheek and patted her hand gently.
He tried again, a little more firmly. Louder voice, a heavier touch. Nothing happened, except that above his head the floor-boards creaked. One of the boys, turning over in his sleep. He went quiet for a moment. Stayed still. Silence came back. The family room was warm but not hot. The stove was banked. He took off his hat and unzipped his coat. Bent down and spoke again. Touched her cheek, touched her hand.
Kim Peterson opened her eyes.
Point five in the treatment plan: persuade the victim to lie still for fifteen or twenty minutes. In this case, easy. No persuasion necessary. Kim Peterson didn’t move. She just lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling, inquiringly, speculatively, her eyes moving and narrowing and widening, as if there was something written up there, something complex and difficult to understand.
He asked, ‘Do you remember me?’
She said, ‘Of course.’
‘I’m afraid I have bad news.’
‘I’m afraid he is. I’m sorry.’
‘Within the last hour.’
‘He was shot. It was instantaneous.’
‘Who shot him?’
‘We think the guy they’ve all been looking for.’
‘In the head.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘No, I mean whereabouts did it happen?’
‘I’m sorry. It was downtown. In a vacant lot.’
‘What was he doing there?’
‘His duty. He was checking something out.’
She said, ‘He was a good man, you know.’
‘I have two boys.’
‘What am I going to do?’
‘You’re going to take it one step at a time. One day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time. One second at a time.’
‘First thing is, we need to get someone here. Right now. Someone who can help. Someone who can be with you. Because you shouldn’t be alone. Is there someone I can call?’
‘Why didn’t Chief Holland come?’
‘He wanted to. But he has a big investigation to start.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘He can’t just let it go.’
‘No, I mean I don’t believe he wanted to come.’
‘He feels responsible. A good chief always does.’
‘He should have come.’
‘Who can I call for you?’
‘What’s her name?’
‘What’s her number?’
‘Button number three on the telephone.’
Reacher looked around. There was a phone on the wall at the kitchen end of the room. A cordless handset and a black console. All kinds of buttons, and a big red LED zero in a window. No messages. He said, ‘Stay right there, OK?’
He moved away from her and walked into the kitchen. Picked up the phone. It had a regular keypad, for dialling regular numbers. It had a memory button. Presumably the memory button allowed the keypad to recall speed dials. Presumably buttons one and two were Andrew, office and cell. He pressed memory and three. The phone dialled itself and he heard ring tone. It lasted a good long spell. Then a voice answered. A woman, sleepy but concerned. A little worried. Maybe her husband was on the road. Maybe she had grown kids in another town. Late night phone calls were as bad as knocks on the door.
Reacher asked, ‘Is this Alice?’
‘Yes, it is. Who are you?’
Reacher said, ‘I’m with Kim Peterson. Your neighbour. She needs you to come right over. Her husband was killed tonight.’
There was silence on the line. Then Alice spoke. But Reacher didn’t hear what she said. Her words were drowned out by another sound. Sudden. Loud. From outside. Wailing and howling. Screaming and whispering. Rising and falling. The new sound rolled in across the frozen fields like a wave. It smashed against the side of the house and battered against the windows.
The prison siren.
Five minutes to one in the morning.
Three hours to go.
REACHER SAW A CRAZY DIAGRAM IN HIS MIND, EXPLODING IN four dimensions, time and space and distance: cops all over town, all moving randomly north, south, east, west, all answering Holland’s summons, all heading for the station house, all hearing the siren, all changing direction at once, the seven on duty with Janet Salter rushing straight out into the night, joining the confusion, getting set, heading for the prison, leaving Janet Salter all alone behind them.
All alone and wide open and vulnerable to a last-ditch swing by the bad guy before he either ran for his life or tried to blend back in.
I know what to do, Janet Salter had said.
Reacher hung up the phone and called softly to Kim.
‘I got to go,’ he said. ‘Alice is on her way.’
He got the front door open and stopped. The siren howled on. It was deafening. The ploughed path was right there in front of him. Fifty feet to the split in the Y, fifty more to the street. Then a mile to town and another mile to the Salter house.
He was on foot.
He closed the door behind him and moved out and slipped and skidded and made the tight turn and headed for the barn. The old Ford pick-up was still in there. With the plough blade.
No key in it.
He hustled all the way back to the house. Pounded on the door. A long, long wait. He pounded some more. Then Kim Peterson opened up again. Shock was over. She was deep into her nightmare. She was slouched, vacant, detached. She was crying hard.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘But I need the key for the pick-up truck.’
She didn’t answer.
‘Kim, I’m sorry, but I really need the key.’
She said, ‘It’s on Andrew’s key ring. In his pocket.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘It’s a very old truck.’
‘There has to be a spare.’
‘I think it was lost.’ She looked away and turned and walked back down the hallway. She staggered and put out a hand and steadied herself against the wall. Reacher put the door on the latch and stepped outside to wait. For Alice. The neighbour. South Dakota farm country was big and empty. Houses were not adjacent. Not even close together. Alice would drive. He could borrow her vehicle.
The siren howled on.
Alice came on foot.
61 Hours by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes