Personal, p.35
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       Personal, p.35
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         Part #19 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  The shadow moved again. There was someone on the staircase, moving slowly, pausing, moving slowly, very quiet. In front of a table light on a piece of furniture in the downstairs hallway, which was casting a long shadow. I realized I would have been visible from the upstairs long before my head crept into view.

  I said, ‘This is not an old man’s game, Charlie. And you just lost the next generation. Things are changing. You need to get out while you can.’

  He said, ‘Things are always changing. Usually for the worse.’ He nodded forward, at the gun in his hand. ‘Hasn’t been the same since these things replaced a good old-fashioned beating.’

  The shadow moved again. Someone was coming up the stairs, silently, one big step at a time, fourteen inches a pop, like climbing boulders on a mountainside.

  I said, ‘So it’s time to quit.’

  ‘Not necessarily,’ Charlie said. ‘Joey is no big loss. We’re moving out of that side of things anyway. We’re looking at computers now. We can make more with credit card numbers.’

  The shadow resolved itself to a head and a pair of shoulders. Inching up. Or fourteen-inching up. I kept my eyes tight on Charlie’s. I relied on peripheral vision alone. I didn’t want to tip him off.

  He said, ‘Hold your arms out wide.’

  I said, ‘Who was Joey’s next of kin?’

  ‘Why do you want to know?’

  ‘Just thinking about how hard it’s going to be to market this house. The buyer pool is going to be pretty small. Or big, depending on how you look at it.’

  The shadow grew longer still. A head, shoulders, an upper body, on a riser, across a tread, on the next riser, on the next tread. Like a cartoon animal, run over, pressed into the shape of the stairs.

  I said, ‘You should sell out to the Serbians. Before they take it all for nothing.’

  In the corner of my eye I saw hair, and a forehead. Blonde hair. Green eyes and a heart-shaped face. She was coming up backward, like I had.

  Smart kid.

  Charlie said, ‘The Serbians ain’t taking nothing. They’re going to stay out west, like always.’

  I said, ‘You plan to split Libor’s business equally?’

  He didn’t answer.

  In the corner of my eye I saw her from the waist up. She had her Glock in her hand, raised high, near her shoulder.

  I said, ‘So you’re not planning to split Libor’s business equally. You think the Serbians are going to stand still for that?’

  ‘We were here first.’

  ‘But who was here before you? You took it away from them, right? Whoever they were. I can imagine. Back when you were a young man, full of piss and vinegar. You remember that, right? That’s the Serbians now. You should take some cash while you still can.’

  She made it to the half-landing. Ready for the 180 turn. Ready for the second half.

  Charlie said, ‘I’m not here to discuss business.’

  She took the first stair. Fourteen inches.

  I said, ‘So what are you here for?’

  Another stair. Another fourteen inches.

  Charlie said, ‘There are rules. You’re way out of order.’

  Another stair.

  I said, ‘I was helping you out. Culling the herd. Darwinism in action. You’ve got a weak crew, Charlie. I don’t see the talent. And I don’t see the brains for credit card numbers.’

  ‘We do OK. Don’t worry about us.’

  She stepped up to the upstairs hallway. She was twenty feet behind him. He was a bulky, round-shouldered man. A broad back. Twenty feet in front of her.

  I’m an average shot with no aptitude for hand-to-hand combat.

  I said, ‘They know all about the pay-offs you make. Soon as you stop making them, they’re going to take you apart.’

  She crept closer. Silent on the carpet. Seventeen feet, maybe.

  I thought, Keep coming. Then aim for centre mass. Nothing fancy. No head shots.

  Charlie said, ‘I’m never going to stop making the payments. Why would I?’

  One more silent step. Fifteen feet.

  She stood still.

  Too far.

  She raised the Glock.

  I said, ‘You ever fired a gun before, Charlie?’

  She held her breath.

  He said, ‘What’s it to you?’

  ‘The FBI released some figures. Research and analysis. Back home. The average distance for a successful handgun engagement is eleven feet.’

  She lowered the Glock.

  She took a step forward.

  Charlie said, ‘I’m already closer than eleven feet.’

  She took another step.

  I nodded. ‘Just saying. It’s trickier than it looks. But it needn’t be. People overcomplicate it. Better just to relax. Make it natural. Like pointing a finger. That way you can’t miss.’

  She took another step.

  Charlie said, ‘I’m not going to miss. Although maybe I should. Deliberately. Maybe I should wound you first. That might learn you a lesson.’

  She took another step. She was nine feet away.

  I said, ‘I don’t need no education.’

  ‘You need to learn some manners.’

  Another step.

  She was seven feet away.

  I said, ‘Don’t worry about me, Charlie. I do OK.’

  He said, ‘Maybe you did OK in the past. But you ain’t doing so great now.’

  She straightened her arm. Her gun was four feet from his back. At which point I started to worry. About a whole bunch of different things. He would smell her. He would smell the gun. He would sense some kind of a disturbance in the air around him. Some primitive instinct. Seven hundred years of ancient evolution for every year of modernity. And if she fired from four feet the through-and-through would nail me, dead on, just the same as if he had fired.

  I looked him right in the eye and I said, ‘One second from now I’m going to fall down on the floor.’

  He said, ‘What?’

  And I did. I let go and fell like a coat coming off a hook and she fired into his back from four feet, and I saw a spit of flesh and blood splash out from the front of his chest, and the feature window behind me shattered, and I landed next to the woman in the towel, who stirred in her sleep and hooked a loose arm around my neck and kissed my ear and said, ‘Oh, baby.’

  FIFTY-EIGHT

  LESS THAN TWO minutes later we were in the back of a mint-green Vauxhall. Up front was the couple who had delivered the computers. The man and the woman, both still quiet and contained, both still happy with their short-straw assignments. Good team players. We had left Bennett at Joey’s house, and I didn’t expect to see him again.

  We had gotten on the East Anglia highway right out of Chigwell. The M11 motorway, as it was called on the local signs. We were heading for a Royal Air Force station in a place called Honington. Which was near a place called Thetford. Ninety minutes, Bennett had promised, but I figured it would be less. The woman was driving extremely fast. The land all around us was flat. Strategically Britain was an aircraft carrier permanently moored off the coast of Europe, and there was plenty of space for flight decks.

  RAF Honington turned out to be a big place, mostly shrouded in darkness. The woman drove through gates and straight out to the tarmac. Just like the SEAL at McChord, which all seemed a long time ago. She drove the same kind of well-judged part-circle and came to a stop at the airplane stairs. We got out, and closed our doors, and the mint-green Vauxhall drove away.

  The airplane was the same kind of thing as O’Day’s Gulf-stream, short and pointed and urgent, but it was painted dark blue, very shiny, with a pale blue belly under a gold coach line, and the words Royal Air Force above the windows. A man appeared above us, in the oval mouth of the cabin. He was wearing an RAF uniform. He said, ‘Sir, madam, please come up.’

  Inside there was no butterscotch leather or walnut veneer. Instead the leather was black, and the veneer looked like carbon fibre. It was severe but sporty. A whole diff
erent flavour. Like a modern Bentley, maybe. Like Joey’s. The man in the uniform told us his last passenger had been royal. The duchess of somewhere. Cambridge, maybe. Which started me thinking about MI6 again, and MI5, and everything in between. Nice and I sat across the aisle from each other, but facing, head to toe. The man in the uniform disappeared, and a minute later we were in the air, climbing hard, heading west to America.

  We were given a meal, and then the guy in uniform retired to some discreet compartment, and left us alone. I looked at Nice, across the aisle, close enough to touch, and I said, ‘Thank you.’

  She said, ‘You’re very welcome.’

  ‘You OK?’

  ‘About Charlie White? Yes and no.’

  I said, ‘Concentrate on the yes part.’

  ‘I am,’ she said. ‘Believe me. The way he talked about that girl. I heard him, from downstairs. They took pleasure in tormenting her.’

  ‘Plus the firearms and the narcotics and the payday loans.’

  ‘But we shouldn’t be judge and jury and executioner all in one.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘We’re supposed to be civilized people.’

  ‘We are,’ I said. ‘We’re very civilized. We’re riding in a duchess’s airplane. They didn’t rule the world by being nice. And neither did we, when our turn came.’

  She didn’t answer.

  I said, ‘You proved one thing, at least. You can operate in the field.’

  ‘Without pills, you mean? Are you going to tell me to quit again?’

  ‘I’m not going to tell you anything, except thank you. You saved my life. Take all the pills you want. But be clear about why, at least. It’s a simple chain of logic. You’re anxious, about your professional performance and your mother, but only one of those is a legitimate worry, therefore you’re taking the pills because your mother is sick. Which is OK. Take them as long as you need. But don’t doubt your skills. They’re separate. You’re good at your job. National security is safe. It’s your mom who isn’t.’

  She said, ‘I’m not going to join the army. I’m going to stay where I am.’

  ‘You should. It’s different now. You know what really happened. You just moved up a step. You’re harder to betray.’

  We flew on, chasing the clock, but losing, and we landed at Pope Field at two in the morning. We turned and taxied, all the way to the small administrative building with 47th Logistics, Tactical Support Command on it. The engines shut down and the guy in the uniform opened the door and lowered the stairs.

  He said, ‘Sir, madam, you need the red door, I believe.’

  ‘Thank you,’ I said. I pulled out the fat rolls of British money, from Romford and Ealing, and I gave them to the guy. I said, ‘Have a party in the mess. Invite the duchess.’

  Then I followed Nice down the steps, and through the dark, to the red door.

  The red door opened when we were still six feet from it, and Joan Scarangello stepped out. She had a briefcase in her hand. She had waited up for us, but she wasn’t about to admit it. She was trying to look like she was just heading home after a long day at the office.

  She stopped and looked at me and said, ‘I take it back.’

  I said, ‘Take what back?’

  ‘You did very well. The British government is officially grateful.’

  ‘For what?’

  ‘Your input helped their operative achieve a very satisfactory conclusion.’

  ‘Bennett?’

  ‘He states in his report he couldn’t have done it without you.’

  ‘How long were we in the air?’

  ‘Six hours and fifty minutes.’

  ‘And he’s already written a report?’

  ‘He’s British.’

  ‘What couldn’t he have done without me?’

  ‘He took Kott off the board inside a local gangster’s house. Where he went solely at your suggestion. Hence the gratitude. Along the way he was forced to neutralize a number of gang members, including two really big names, and so Scotland Yard is grateful, too, and because of what he wrote some of that will rub off on us, so all in all I would say we’re heading for a period of glorious cooperation. Our London operations will be better than ever.’

  I said, ‘He claims they’re reading your signals.’

  She said, ‘We know.’

  ‘Are they?’

  ‘They think so.’

  ‘What does that mean?’

  ‘We built a new system, in secret. It’s hidden in routine data from weather satellites. That’s where we talk. But we kept the old system going. That’s what they’re reading. We fill it with all kinds of junk.’

  I said nothing.

  She said, ‘We don’t rule the world by being dumb.’

  And she walked away, in her good shoes and her dark nylons, and her black skirt suit, with her briefcase swinging, and I watched her for thirty yards, which was no kind of a hardship, because it all worked well together, especially the nylons and the skirt, and then she stepped out of the last pool of light and the darkness swallowed her up. I heard her heels a minute more, and then Casey Nice pushed the red door open and stepped inside.

  The buffet room was empty. No pastries, no coffee. All cleared away, at the end of the day, pending new deliveries in the morning. We walked upstairs, fast and easy on the standard dimensions. Shoemaker’s office was empty. The conference room was empty. But O’Day had his light on.

  He was at his desk, in his blazer, with the sweater under it. He was leaning forward, on his elbows, reading. His head was down, and he looked up at us without moving it.

  He said, ‘We’ll do the debrief in the morning.’

  We waited.

  He said, ‘I have one preliminary question, however. Why did you fly back with the RAF? Our own plane was standing by.’

  I sat down, on the navy-issue chair. Casey Nice sat down next to me. I said, ‘Do we get to ask a preliminary question?’

  ‘I suppose a fair exchange is no robbery.’

  ‘We flew back with the RAF just for the fun of it. We wanted to see how the other half lives.’

  ‘Is that all?’

  ‘We wanted to make Bennett work for what he was getting.’

  I saw him relax.

  I said, ‘Our question is, why can’t either the NSA or GCHQ see the money?’

  I saw him unrelax.

  He didn’t answer.

  I said, ‘It was a year of Kott’s rent, and his living expenses, and his fee, and the rifle itself, and all that practice ammunition, and the neighbour, and the private jet to Paris, and whatever the Vietnamese cost, and the two gangs in London, and presumably some kind of homeward transportation. That’s not tens of millions of dollars, but it’s more than nine-eleven cost. Therefore I’m sure their computers wouldn’t ignore it. And they’re smart people. And motivated, because whatever happens, they’ll get blamed too. Because everything starts with money. So why can’t they see it?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Because it was never there.’

  ‘It had to be there. No money, no operation.’

  ‘Exactly. There was no operation.’

  ‘Did you get hit in the head? You were just in the operation. You
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