61 hours, p.36
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       61 Hours, p.36
 

         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  The colonel said, ‘Plato is already in the air. He took off more than three hours ago.’

  The Russian said, ‘I know.’

  The colonel said, ‘I want fifteen per cent.’

  The Russian went quiet for a moment. He pretended to be annoyed. He had promised ten per cent. A ninety-ten split was what had been discussed all along. But privately he had budgeted for eighty-twenty. Eighty per cent of Plato’s business had been his aim. To get eighty-five per cent would be an unexpected bonus. A free gift. The colonel was a shallow, unambitious man. Limited in every way. Which was why he was a colonel, and not a general.

  The Russian said, ‘You drive a hard bargain.’

  The colonel said, ‘Take it or leave it.’

  ‘You make it sound like I don’t have a choice.’

  ‘You don’t.’

  A long silence, purely for effect.

  ‘OK,’ the Russian said. ‘You get fifteen per cent.’

  The colonel said, ‘Thank you.’

  The Russian hung up and dialled again, a number he knew belonged to an untraceable cell currently located on a night table in a Virginia bedroom. After three in the morning down there, the same as Brooklyn. The same time zone. The untraceable cell belonged to a tame DEA agent who belonged to the Russian’s cousin’s friend’s brother-in-law. The guy answered in Virginia and the Russian told him all was going exactly according to plan.

  The guy asked, ‘Do I have your word?’

  The Russian smiled to himself. Office politics at their very best. The cousin’s friend’s brother-in-law’s bent DEA guy had overruled Plato’s bent DEA guy and had agreed that the Russian could take over the rest of Plato’s U.S. operations just as long as he didn’t take the government meth out of the hole in the ground in South Dakota. In fact if the government meth could just disappear altogether, then so much the better. Too embarrassing all around. Embarrassing that it was still there, embarrassing that it had been forgotten about, embarrassing that it even existed at all. Even bent guys had departmental loyalties.

  The Russian said, ‘You have my word on that.’

  The guy in Virginia said, ‘Thank you.’

  The Russian smiled again at the absurdity of it all. But he would comply. Why wouldn’t he? It was a treasure trove, for sure, but he had longer-term goals. And he wouldn’t miss what he never had. And it wasn’t as if he had paid for it, anyway.

  He hung up again and composed a text message on another phone, and hit send.

  Seven miles above Nebraska, three rows behind Plato, in seat 4A, a silent phone vibrated once in a pocket, a solid mechanical thrill against the muscle of a thigh. The fifth of the six disposable Mexicans pulled out the phone and checked the screen. He was the guy who had driven Plato in the Range Rover to the airfield. He showed it to the man sitting next to him, in seat 4B, who was the sixth of the six, and who had sat with him earlier in the front of the truck. Both men nodded. Neither man spoke. Neither man even smiled. They were both way too tense.

  The text said: Do it.

  A minute later Reacher heard Holland’s car in the frozen stillness. He heard the low mutter of its engine and the soft crunch of its tyres on the ice. Then the sigh and the silence as it shut down, and the creak and slam of the door, and the sound of Holland’s boots on the snow. He heard the lobby door open and imagined he felt the pulse of cold air coming in from the lot. He heard Holland’s steps in the corridor and then he arrived and filled the doorway, stooped, bent, defeated, like he was right at the end of something.

  Holland said, ‘Are you sure?’

  Reacher nodded. ‘No doubt about it.’

  ‘Because sometimes they can still be alive.’

  ‘Not this time.’

  ‘Should we check?’

  ‘No point.’

  ‘What was it?’

  ‘Nine millimetre between the eyes. Same as the other two.’

  ‘Anything left behind?’

  ‘Nothing.’

  ‘So we’re no closer. We still don’t know who it is.’

  Reacher nodded.

  ‘But I know how to find out,’ he said.

  FORTY-ONE

  REACHER SAID, ‘IT’S GOING TO SNOW AGAIN SOON. THE RUNWAY is going to get covered again and the bikers aren’t there to plough it any more. Weather is unpredictable, therefore time is tight. Therefore Plato is on his way, probably right now. Because he needs to get his jewellery out before the sale goes through. He’s probably going to double-cross the Russian and take some of the meth, too. Maybe most of it. He’s got a big plane. So my guess is he told his guy to be there to help. So the guy will pull off the perimeter at some point and head up there. Maybe real soon. All we have to do is get there before him. We’ll hide out and see who shows up. He’ll walk straight into our arms.’

  Holland said, ‘You think?’

  ‘For sure.’

  ‘We could be waiting there for hours.’

  ‘I don’t think so. Plato needs to get in and get out. He can’t afford to get trapped in a storm. A big plane on the ground, no proper facilities, he could be stuck until the start of summer.’

  ‘What kind of help would he need, anyway?’

  ‘Got to be something.’

  ‘He’ll bring people with him. It’s just walking up and down a staircase.’

  ‘You don’t buy a dog and bark yourself.’

  ‘You sure?’

  ‘They’re going to land a big plane in the middle of nowhere. Someone might hear it. Anything might happen. A local cop is always useful.’

  ‘We have to hide out up there? It’s very cold.’

  ‘Cold?’ Reacher said. ‘This is nothing.’

  Holland thought about it for a minute. Reacher watched him carefully. Holland’s mouth worked silently and his eyes danced left and right. He started out reluctant, and then he got right into it.

  ‘OK,’ he said. ‘Let’s do it.’

  Five minutes to three in the morning.

  One hour to go.

  Holland drove. His unmarked car was still warm inside. The roads were still frozen and empty. The middle of the night, in the middle of winter, in the middle of nowhere. Nothing was moving, except the wind. They passed the end of Janet Salter’s street. It was deserted. Holland was sitting close to the wheel, belted in his seat, his parka still zipped, its material stiff and awkward against him. Reacher was sprawled in the passenger seat, no belt, his coat open, its tails hauled around into his lap, his gloves off, his hands in his pockets. The ruts on the road were worn and wizened by the cold. The front tyres hopped left and right, just a little. The chains on the back whirred and clattered. There was a moon high in the sky, close to full, pale and wan, behind thin tattered ribbons of frozen cloud.

  Reacher asked, ‘How long are you guys supposed to stay deployed on the perimeter?’

  Holland said, ‘There’s no set time. It will be a gut call by the warden.’

  ‘Best guess?’

  ‘Another hour.’

  ‘So any cop we see before then is our boy.’

  ‘If we see one at all.’

  ‘I think we will,’ Reacher said.

  They made the turn on the old county two-lane parallel with the highway and headed west. Five miles, not fast, not slow. Wind and ice in the air. Then they turned again, north, on the narrow wandering ribbon, eight long miles. Then the runway loomed up, spectacular as always, imposing, massive, wide, flat, infinitely long in the headlight beams, still clear and dry. Holland didn’t slow down. He just thumped straight up on the moonlit concrete and held his line and held his speed. There was nothing but grey darkness ahead. No lights. No activity. Nothing moving. No one there. The wooden huts looked black in the distance, and behind them loomed the stone building, larger and blacker still.

  Two hundred yards out Holland took his foot off the gas and coasted. He was still upright, still close to the wheel, still belted in, still trapped and mummified by the stiff nylon of his coat.

  ‘Where shou
ld I put the car?’ he asked.

  ‘Doesn’t matter,’ Reacher said. He was still sprawled out, no belt, his hands in his pockets.

  ‘We should hide it. The guy will see it. If he comes.’

  Reacher said, ‘He’s already here.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘He just arrived.’

  The car coasted and slowed. It rolled to a stop thirty yards from the first line of huts. Holland kept his foot on the floor. Not on the brake. The lever was still in gear. The engine’s idle speed was not enough to push through the resistance of the snow chains. The whole car just hung there, trembling a little, not quite moving, not quite inert, right on the cusp.

  Holland asked, ‘How long have you known?’

  Reacher said, ‘For sure, about three minutes. Beyond a reasonable doubt, about thirty minutes. Retrospectively, about thirty-one hours. But back then I didn’t know I knew.’

  ‘Something I said?’

  ‘Stuff you didn’t say. Stuff you didn’t do.’

  ‘Like what?’

  ‘Most recently you didn’t slow down and kill your headlights when we hit the runway. The guy could have been here already. But you knew he wasn’t. Because you’re the guy.’

  Holland said, ‘You’re wrong.’

  Reacher said, ‘I’m afraid not. We spent an hour underground earlier tonight, and the first thing you should have done when we got back to the surface was call the Salter house. But you didn’t. I had to remind you. Turned out she was OK, because the guy hadn’t gotten to her during that hour. And you knew that in advance, because you’re the guy. Which is why you didn’t think to call. You should have faked it better.’

  Holland said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘I had a conversation with Peterson last night. He came over at eight o’clock, when we thought the head count at the jail was going to come up one short. We were worried. We were tense. He took me to one side and asked me, was I armed? I said yes. I told him Mrs Salter was, too. Obvious questions, in a situation like that. You didn’t ask those questions the night before. You should have.’

  Holland said, ‘Maybe I assumed. I knew Mrs Salter had guns in the house. She asked me for advice about ammunition.’

  ‘And it was good advice you gave. But you should have made absolutely sure those guns weren’t still in the box that night. Verbally at least, if not visually. Anyone would have done that, except a guy who knew for sure they weren’t going to be needed.’

  Holland said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘Right back at the beginning, we found you confronting those bikers on the street. But you weren’t really confronting them, were you? You were listening to them. You were getting your instructions. A regular ten-minute lecture. Plato had decided. Kill the lawyer, kill Janet Salter. They were passing on the message. Then you heard Peterson’s car behind you and you threw your gun down in the snow, just to give yourself a reason to be standing there so long. Then you shoved one of them and started a fight. All staged, for Peterson’s benefit. And mine, I guess. And that thing about rolling the dice? No way could they have avoided random checks so long, unless you were calling them and tipping them off. You were all working for the same guy. Which is why you let them leave town without a word.’

  Holland said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘Then much later Peterson and I put you on the spot. We showed up here just when it was safe for you to get the key out of the stove. You knew where it was. But you hadn’t figured it out. You had been told. You were there to set things up. But we all went downstairs together. Because you couldn’t think of a convincing way of stopping that from happening. And so Peterson saw stuff he was obviously going to react to. So you put that crap on the radio so when you killed him straight afterwards there would be sixty suspects in the frame, and not just you. And then you lied to me about Kapler. You tried to point me in the wrong direction. There were no rumours about drug money in Miami. If there were, my friend in Virginia would have found them long ago.’

  Holland said, ‘I could have killed Peterson here. At the time. Underground.’

  ‘True. But not me too. You knew that. You’re scared of me. You checked my record with the army. The woman in Virginia told me that. Your tag is on my file. So you knew the lawyer and Peterson and Janet Salter were one thing, and you knew I was another thing. They were easy. You waited on the road and put your strobes on and waved him down and the lawyer stopped right there. Why wouldn’t he? He probably knew you. A chief of police from the next county? You’ve probably had breakfast together half a dozen times. And Peterson would follow you anywhere. And Janet Salter was probably thrilled to see you. Until you pulled your gun.’

  Holland said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘Three shell cases. Two of them right inside this car, and the third picked up off Janet Salter’s floor. I’m guessing you dumped them in the trash cans right outside the police station. Should I call the old guy on the desk and ask him to take a look?’

  Holland said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘I’m guessing the fourth round is chambered right now. My round. Some kind of an old throw-down pistol. Maybe lost property, maybe a cold case. Or maybe the bikers supplied it. Want to empty your pockets and prove me wrong?’

  Holland said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘But my round is going to stay right there in the chamber. Because I’m not like the other three. You knew that. You sensed it, maybe, and then you confirmed it with the army. So you were cautious with me. As you should be. I notice things. You’ve been trying to get to me for the last three hours. Dragging me here, dragging me there, always talking to me, always trying to figure out how much I knew, always biding your time, always waiting for your moment. Like right now. Back in the station house, you were debating with yourself. You didn’t want to bring me here, and then you did want to bring me here. Because maybe your moment might just come out here. But it hasn’t, and it didn’t, and it never will. You’re a smart guy and a good shot, Holland, but I’m smarter and better. Believe me. Deep down you’re just a worn-out old country mouse. You can’t compete. Like right now. You’re all zipped up and belted in, and I’m not. I could shoot your eyes out before you even got your hand on your gun. It’s been that way for the last three hours. Not because I really knew yet. But because that’s just the way I am.’

  Holland said nothing.

  ‘But I should have known,’ Reacher said. ‘I should have known thirty-one hours ago. The first time the siren went off. It was staring me in the face. I couldn’t understand how the guy had seen me without me seeing him. And I knew he would have to show up in a car, on the street, from the front. Because of the cold. And he did exactly that. And I saw him. I saw you. A minute after everyone else left, you showed up. Bold as brass, fast and easy, in a car, from the front. You came to kill Janet Salter.’

  ‘I came to guard her.’

  ‘I’m afraid not. The riot could have lasted hours. Even days. You said so yourself. But you left your motor running.’

  Holland said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘You left your motor running because you planned to be in and out real fast. You figured you could afford to be a little late up at the prison. Like you were tonight, presumably. But I was in the house. You were surprised to see me there. You needed time to think. So you hung around, all conflicted. Mrs Salter and I thought you were conflicted about two competing duties. But really you were trying to decide whether I had one of Mrs Salter’s guns in my belt, and if so, whether you could draw faster than me. You concluded that I did, and you couldn’t. So eventually you left. You decided to try again another day. I’m sure Plato was upset about that. He was probably very impatient. But you did the job for him in the end.’

  Holland was quiet for a long time. Then he said, ‘You know why, right?’

  Reacher said, ‘Yes.’

  ‘How?’

  ‘I finally figured it out. I saw the photograph in your office. She looks just like her mother.’

 
; ‘Then you understand.’

  ‘She wasn’t a prisoner. They made a half-assed attempt at hiding her, but she was there out of choice. That was clear. I guess she liked the lifestyle.’

  ‘Didn’t make her any less vulnerable.’

  ‘No excuse. There were other ways of dealing with it.’

  Holland said, ‘I know. I’m sorry.’

  ‘That’s it? Three dead and you’re sorry?’

  Holland didn’t answer. He just sat still for a moment longer. Then he took his foot off the floor and stamped down on the gas. The car leapt forward. Dry concrete under the wheels, a big V-8, twin exhausts, plenty of torque, heavy-duty suspension, not much squat, a fast rear axle, good for zero to sixty in eight seconds. Reacher was hurled back against the seat. They were thirty yards from the side of the hut. Ninety feet. That was all. The headlights blazed against it. It filled the windshield. It was coming right at them. The engine roared.

  After thirty of the ninety feet Reacher had a Smith & Wesson out
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