61 hours, p.33
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       61 Hours, p.33
 

         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  He saw her a hundred yards away in the moonlight. She was a tall woman, dishevelled after hasty dressing, hurrying, slipping and sliding on the ice, gloved hands out like a tightrope walker, wild hair spilling from under a knitted cap. She came right to left along the road, a pale face glancing anxiously at the Peterson house, arms and legs jerky and uncoordinated by treacherous conditions underfoot. Reacher moved away from the door, into the cold, down the path, to the split in the Y, and on towards the street. He met her at the bottom of the driveway. Asked, ‘Don’t you have a car?’

  She said, ‘It wouldn’t start.’

  He glanced left, towards the road to town.

  She glanced ahead, at the house.

  She asked, ‘How’s Kim?’

  He said, ‘Bad.’

  ‘What happened?’

  ‘Andrew was shot and killed. Some guy in a vacant lot.’

  ‘That’s awful.’

  ‘You better go in. It’s going to be a long night.’

  ‘It will be longer than a night.’

  ‘You OK with that?’

  ‘I’ll have to be.’

  ‘Call her dad. She said he sometimes comes to visit.’

  ‘I will.’

  ‘Good luck.’

  She moved on up the driveway.

  He headed left down the street.

  I know what to do, Janet Salter had said.

  A minute later Reacher was a hundred yards short of the corner that would put him on the main east–west county two-lane. To his right, the centre of town. To his left, the boondocks. He wanted a cop to be living way out there. The maximum ten minutes. Someone he could trust. Not Kapler or Lowell or Montgomery. He wanted one of the majority. He wanted the guy at home, off duty, asleep, then waking up, getting dressed, stumbling out into the cold, firing up his cruiser, heading west.

  He wanted to flag the guy down and demand a ride.

  He got part of what he wanted.

  When he was still seventy yards short of the turn he saw lights in the east. Pulsing red and blue strobes, a mile away, coming on fast. The reflectivity of the snow made it look like there was a whole lit-up acre on the move. Like a UFO gliding in to land. A huge bright dancing circle of horizontal light. He hustled hard to meet it. His feet slipped and skated. His arms thrashed and windmilled. His face was already frozen. It felt like it had been beaten with a bat and then anaesthetized by a dentist. The cop car was doing sixty miles an hour, on chains and winter tyres. He was doing three miles an hour, on legs that were stiff and slow and unresponsive. He was slipping and sliding, like running in place. Like a slapstick movie. The corner was still fifty yards away.

  He wasn’t going to make it.

  He didn’t need to make it.

  The cop saw him.

  The car slowed and turned into Peterson’s street and came north towards him. Bright headlights, electric blue flashers, deep red flashers, painful white strobes popping right in his eyes. He came to a stop and planted his feet and stood still and raised his arms and waved. The universal distress semaphore. Big overlapping half circles with each hand.

  The cop car slowed.

  At the last minute he sidestepped and the car slid to a stop alongside him. The driver’s window came down. A woman at the wheel. Her face was pale and swollen with sleep. Her hair was a mess. Her eyes were red. He didn’t know her.

  He said, ‘I have to get to the Salter house.’ His words were unclear. His lips were numb. The upper part of his face was a frozen slab. The lower half was just as bad. The hinge in his jaw was hardly working at all.

  The cop said, ‘What?’

  ‘I need a ride.’

  ‘Where?’

  ‘Janet Salter’s house.’

  Five miles away the prison siren howled on. There was radio chatter in the car. A dispatcher’s voice, low and fast, trying not to sound urgent. Probably the old guy already back at the police station desk. There was alcohol on the woman’s breath. Maybe bourbon. A nightcap. Maybe two or three of them.

  She asked, ‘Who the hell are you?’

  Reacher said, ‘I’ve been working with Holland and Peterson.’

  ‘Peterson’s dead.’

  ‘I know that.’

  ‘Are you the MP?’

  ‘Yes. And I need a ride.’

  She said, ‘Can’t do it.’

  ‘So why did you turn in for me?’

  ‘I didn’t. I’m heading for my position.’

  ‘The prison isn’t this way.’

  ‘We make a perimeter a mile out. I get the northeast corner. This is how I’m supposed to get to it.’

  ‘What happened?’

  ‘The biker escaped. His cell is empty.’

  ‘No,’ Reacher said. ‘What do you mean, no?’

  ‘Not possible. It’s a fake. It’s a decoy.’

  ‘He’s either in there or not, pal. And they say not.’

  ‘He’s hiding out in there. In a broom closet or something. It’s a fake.’

  ‘Bullshit.’

  ‘I’ve seen it before. Two problems with escaping. Getting out, and then beating the manhunt. The smart ones hide first. Inside. Until the manhunt dies. Then they go. But this guy isn’t going anywhere. He’s doing the first part only. As a decoy.’

  The cop didn’t answer.

  ‘Think about it,’ Reacher said. ‘Escaping is harder than it looks. I promise you, he’s still in there. Tomorrow he’ll get hungry and come on out from wherever he holed up. Big smile on his face. Because it will be too late by then.’

  ‘You’re nuts.’

  ‘He’s still in there. Believe me. Take a chance. Be the one.’

  ‘You’re crazy.’

  ‘OK, suppose I am. Suppose the guy really is out. He was gone more than five hours ago. You know that. So what the hell is the point of a one-mile perimeter now?’

  The cop didn’t answer.

  The siren howled on.

  ‘Five minutes,’ Reacher said. ‘Please. That’s all I need from you.’

  The cop didn’t answer. Just hit the button and the gas and her window thumped back up and the car moved off. He leaned towards it and it accelerated and the rear three-quarter panel smacked him in the hip and spun him around and dumped him down hard on his back. He lay breathless in the frozen snow and watched the acre of lights move away into the distance.

  I know what to do, Janet Salter had said.

  Reacher got up and struggled onward to the corner and the siren died. It cut off mid-wail and tiny brittle echoes of its last howl came back off the ice and then night-time silence swarmed in. Not the dull padded silence of fresh snowfall, but the weird keening, crackling, scouring, rustling hiss of a deep-frozen world. The thump of his footsteps ran ahead of him through veins and sheets of ice. The wind was still out of the west, in his face, hurling tiny frozen needles at him. He looked back. He had made it through a hundred and fifty yards. That was all. He had two miles ahead of him. There was nothing on the road. He was completely alone.

  He was very cold.

  He half walked, half ran, in the wheel ruts, his heels sliding wildly after every step until they locked into the next broken fissure, where a tyre chain had cracked the surface. He was breathing hard, freezing air burning down his windpipe and searing his lungs. He was coughing and gasping.

  Two miles to go. Maybe thirty whole minutes. Too long. He thought, surely one of them had the balls to stay with her. One of the seven. One of the women. Damn the rules. Damn the plan. Peterson was dead. Still warm. Enough justification right there. Surely one of them would gut it out and tell the feds to go to hell. At least one. Maybe more. Maybe two or three.

  Maybe all of them.

  Or maybe none of them.

  I know what to do, Janet Salter had said.

  Did she?

  Had she done it?

  Reacher pounded on. One step, and another, and another. The wind pushed back at him. Ice fragments pattered against his coat. All the feeling had gone out of his feet an
d his hands. The water in his eyes felt like it was freezing solid.

  Dead ahead was a bank. It stood alone in a small parking lot. The edge of town. The first building. It had a sign on a tall concrete pillar. Red numbers. Time and temperature. Twenty past one in the morning. Minus thirty degrees.

  He struggled on, faster. He felt he was getting somewhere. Left and right there was one building after another. A grocery store, a pharmacy, party favours, DVD rental. Auto parts, UPS, a package store, a dry cleaner. All with parking lots. All spread out. All for customers with cars. He hurried on. He was sweating and shivering, all at the same time. The buildings closed in. They grew second storeys. Downtown. The big four-way was a hundred yards ahead. Right to the prison, left to the highway. He cut the corner on a cross street. Turned south at the police station. The wind was howling through the forest of antennas on its roof.

  A mile to go.

  He ran alone down the centre of the main drag. A solitary figure. Ungainly. Short, choppy steps. He was bringing his feet up and dropping them down more or less vertically. It was the only way to stay upright. No fluid, loping stride. The ice didn’t allow it. His vision was blurring. His throat burned. All around him every window was dark and blank. He was the only thing moving, in a white empty world.

  Reacher passed the family restaurant. It was closed up and quiet. Dark inside. Ghostly inverted chairs were stacked on tables like a silent anxious crowd all with upraised arms. Four hundred yards to Janet Salter’s street. Forty seconds, for a decent athlete. Reacher took two minutes. The roadblock car was long gone. Just its ruts remained. Empty, like a railroad switch. Reacher picked his way over them. Headed on down the street. Past one house, past the next. The wind hissed through evergreens. The earth creaked and groaned under his feet.

  Janet Salter’s driveway.

  Lights in the house.

  No movement.

  No sound.

  Nothing out of place.

  All quiet.

  He rested for a second, his hands on his knees, his chest heaving.

  Then he hurried up towards the house.

  THIRTY-NINE

  REACHER STEPPED UP ON JANET SALTER’S PORCH. HER DOOR WAS locked. He pulled the handle for the bell. The wire spooled out of the little bronze eye. It spooled back in. The bell bonged, a second later, quiet and polite and discreet, deep inside the silent house.

  No response.

  Which was good. She wouldn’t hear it in the basement. And even if she did, she wouldn’t come out to answer it.

  He hoped.

  I know what to do, she had said. The basement, the gun, the password.

  He peered in through a stained glass panel. The hallway lights were still on. He got a blue distorted view of the room. The chair. The telephone table. The stairs, the rug, the paintings. The empty hat stand.

  No movement. No one there. No sign of disturbance.

  All quiet.

  Forty-three possible ways in, according to his earlier calculation, fifteen of them practical, eight of them easy. He backed away from the door and recrossed the porch. Stepped down and floundered through deep crusty snow alongside foundation plantings, around the side of the house, to the rear. He knew from his earlier inspection that the lock on the kitchen door was a sturdy brass item with a tongue neatly fitted into a heavy escutcheon plate. The plate was set into the jamb, which was a strip of century-old softwood. It was painted, whereas the front door’s jamb was a piece of lacquered chestnut, fine-grained and milled and exquisite. Harder to replace. All things considered, breaking in at the rear would be the considerate thing to do.

  He stepped back and took a breath and raised his boot and smashed his heel into the wood directly under the lock. No second attempt necessary. He was a big man, and he was anxious, and he was too cold for patience. The door stayed whole, but the escutcheon plate tore out of the jamb and clattered to the floor and the door swung open.

  ‘It’s me,’ he called. ‘Reacher.’ She might not have heard the bell, but she might have heard the splintering wood. He didn’t want her to have a heart attack.

  ‘It’s me,’ he called again.

  He stepped into the kitchen. Pushed the door shut behind him. It hung within an inch of fully closed. All the familiar sounds and smells came back to him. The hissing of the pipes. The percolator, now cold. He stepped into the small back hallway. He clicked on the light. The door at the bottom of the stairs was closed.

  ‘Janet?’ he called. ‘It’s me, Reacher.’

  No response.

  He tried again, louder. ‘Janet?’

  No response.

  He went down the back stairs. Knocked hard on the basement door.

  He called, ‘Janet?’

  No response.

  He tried the handle.

  The door opened.

  He took off his glove and got his gun out of his pocket. He stepped into the basement. It was dark. He listened. No sound, except the roar of the furnace and the squeal of the pump. He fumbled his left hand across the wall and found the switch and clicked on the light.

  The basement was empty. Nothing but sudden shadows from the vertical baulks of timber jumping across a bare expanse of floor. He walked through to the furnace room. Empty. Nothing there, except the old green appliance loudly burning oil.

  He walked back to the door. Stared back up the stairs over the front sight of his gun. No one there. No movement, no sound.

  He called, ‘Janet?’

  No response.

  Not good.

  He climbed back up to the kitchen. Walked through it to the hallway. It was the same as he had seen it through the stained glass panel from the front. All quiet. The chair, the table, the rug, the paintings, the hat stand. No movement. No disturbance.

  He found her in the library. She was in her favourite chair. She had a book in her lap. Her eyes were open. There was a bullet hole in the centre of her forehead.

  Like a third eye.

  Nine millimetre, almost certainly.

  Reacher’s mind stayed blank for a long, long time. It was his body that hurt. From thawing. His ears burned like someone was holding a blowlamp on them. Then his nose, then his cheeks, then his lips, then his chin, then his hands. He sat in the chair in the hallway and rocked back and forth and hugged himself in agony. His feet started hurting, then his ribs, then the long bones in his arms and his legs. It felt like they were all broken and crushed.

  Janet Salter had not had a thick skull. The back of it was blown all over her favourite chair, driven deep into the split the exiting bullet had made in the stuffing.

  I’ll have plenty of time to read, she had said, after all this fuss is over.

  Reacher cradled his head in his hands. Put his elbows on his knees and stared down at the floor.

  I am privileged, she had said. Not everyone gets the opportunity to walk the walk.

  Reacher rubbed his eyes. His hands came away bloody. The ice spicules driven on the wind had peppered his face with a thousand tiny pinpricks. Unnoticeable, when his flesh had been frozen. Now they were raising a thousand tiny beads of blood. He rubbed both palms over every inch of his
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