61 hours, p.38
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       61 Hours, p.38
 

         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  chest because his whole body was trembling. He was walking small tight circles and stamping his feet. But part of that might have been plain annoyance. He was clearly tense. He had a hard brown face and his mouth was set down in a grimace.

  The Rapid City guys didn’t read it right.

  The guy who had driven the pump truck stepped up and spread his hands and smiled what he clearly hoped was a cunning smile, and he said, ‘Here we are.’

  A self-evident statement. Plato looked at him blankly and said, ‘And?’

  ‘We want more money.’ A plan, obviously. Clearly discussed and pre-agreed with his buddy. Bar talk. Irresistible, over a third beer. Or a fourth. Show the guy the prize, and then yank it back and ask for more.

  Can’t fail.

  Plato asked, ‘How much more?’

  Good English, lightly accented, a little slow and indistinct because of a cold face and the jet whine in the background.

  The pump driver was used to talking over jet whine. He worked at an airport.

  He said, ‘The same again.’

  ‘Double?’

  ‘You got it.’

  Plato’s eyes flicked across three of his guys and came to rest on a fourth. He asked in Spanish, which because of the cold was slow enough for Reacher to follow: ‘Do you know how to work this equipment?’

  The fourth guy said, ‘I think so.’

  ‘Think or know?’

  ‘I’ve done it before. With the fuel, I mean. Many times. The de-icing, not so much. No call for it. But how hard can it be? It’s just a spray, for the wings.’

  ‘Tell me yes or no.’

  ‘Yes.’

  Plato turned back to the Rapid City guys. Put his gloved hands on his gun and raised it up and machine-gunned them both in the chest. Just like that. Full auto. First one, and then the other. Two brief bursts of fire, barely separated at all. Nine or ten rounds each. An impossibly fast cyclic rate. Shattering noise. Searing, vivid, foot-long muzzle flash. A hosing stream of ejected brass. The spent cases bounced and skittered away. The two guys went down in a mist of blood from their ripped bodies and a cloud of feathers from their torn jackets, first one, then immediately the other, with ragged bloody holes in their chests big enough to plunge a fist in. They fell side by side, dead before they hit the ground, their hearts torn apart. They thumped down and settled at once, rags and flesh, two small mounds close together.

  The gunsmoke whipped away in the wind and the sudden noise faded and the jet whine came back, low and steady.

  Twenty feet above them the pilot looked out the Boeing’s door.

  Reacher was impressed. Long bursts, tightly grouped. Great trigger control, great aim, and no muzzle climb at all. With gloves on, too. Plato had done this before. No question about that.

  No one spoke.

  Plato moved his thumb and tripped the release and the part-used magazine fell out and plinked against the concrete. Then he held his hand palm up and waited. The guy nearest to him scurried around and dug down in Plato’s own backpack and came out with a fresh magazine. He slapped it into Plato’s waiting palm. Plato clicked it into its housing, and tugged on it once to check it was secure, and then he turned to Reacher.

  He said, ‘You must be Chief Holland.’

  Reacher said, ‘Yes.’

  ‘Finally we meet.’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Why isn’t the door open and the equipment set up for me?’

  Reacher didn’t answer. He was thinking: what equipment?

  Plato said, ‘Your daughter is still under my direct control, you know.’

  Reacher said, ‘Where is she?’

  ‘She moved on with the rest of them. She’s living her dream.’

  ‘Is she OK?’

  ‘So far. But my threat against her still stands.’

  Reacher said, ‘My car broke down. The equipment is still in the trunk.’

  ‘Where’s your car?’

  ‘At the other end of the runway.’

  Plato didn’t answer directly. The sign of a good leader. No sense in fussing about what couldn’t be changed. He just turned to one of his men and said in Spanish, ‘Take the de-icing truck and fetch the equipment we need from the trunk of Chief Holland’s car.’

  The guy headed for the de-icer’s cab and Plato turned back to Reacher and asked, ‘Where is the key for the building?’

  Reacher took it out of his pocket and held it up. Plato stepped through his human cordon. Reacher rehearsed two possible moves. Drive the key through Plato’s eye, or drop it on the ground and drive a massive uppercut through Plato’s chin and snap his puny neck.

  He did neither thing. Plato had five MP5Ks right behind him. Within a split second seventy-five nine-millimetre rounds would be in the air. Most of them would miss. But not all of them.

  The de-icer truck crunched into gear and moved away.

  Plato stepped up next to Reacher. The top of his head was exactly level with Reacher’s breastbone. His chin was exactly level with Reacher’s waistband. A tiny man. A miniature tough guy. A toy. Reacher reassessed the uppercut. Bad idea. Almost impossible to launch a blow from so low down. Better to drive an elbow vertically through the crown of his skull.

  Or shoot him.

  Plato took the key.

  He said, ‘Now take your coat off.’

  Reacher said, ‘What?’

  ‘Take your coat off.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Are you arguing with me?’

  Six hands on six sub-machine guns.

  Reacher said, ‘I’m asking you a question.’

  Plato said, ‘You and I are going underground.’

  ‘Why me?’

  ‘Because you’ve been down there before. None of us have. You’re our local guide.’

  ‘I can go down there with my coat on.’

  ‘True. But you’re in civilian clothing. Therefore, no gun belt. The weather is cold and your coat is closed at the front. There-fore, your guns are in your outer pockets. I’m a smart guy. Therefore, I don’t wish to enter an unfamiliar environment with an armed adversary.’

  ‘Am I your adversary?’

  ‘I’m a smart guy,’ Plato said again. ‘The safe assumption is that everyone is my adversary.’

  Reacher said, ‘It’s cold.’

  Plato said, ‘Your daughter’s grave will be colder.’

  Six hands on six sub-machine guns.

  Reacher unzipped his coat. He shrugged it off and dropped it. It hit the ground with a padded clank. The Glocks, the Smiths, the box of rounds, the cell phone. Plastic and metal and cardboard. Thirty degrees below zero. Windy. A cotton sweater. Within seconds he was shivering worse than any of them.

  Plato stood still. Not long, Reacher thought, before the de-icer truck got back and the driver described the smashed-up Ford. Therefore not long before someone looked down the row and found the damaged hut. Not long before someone searched the other huts. Not long before someone started asking awkward questions.

  Time to get going.

  ‘Let’s do it,’ he said.

  Twenty-seven minutes to four in the morning.

  Twenty-two minutes to go.

  FORTY-FOUR

  THEY WALKED OVER TO THE STONE BUILDING, SEVEN MEN, SINGLE file, a strange little procession. Plato first, four feet eleven, then Reacher, six feet five, then Plato’s five guys, all of them halfway between the two extremes. Plato’s sixth guy was still safely away in the de-icer truck, looting Holland’s dead car. The stone building was standing there waiting for them, quiet and indifferent in the moonlit gloom, the same way it had stood for fifty long years. The stone, the slate, the blind windows, the chimneys, the mouldings and the curlicues and the details.

  The portico, and the steel slab door.

  Plato put the key in the lock. Turned it. The lock sprang back. Then he stood still and waited. Reacher took the hint. He turned the handle down sixty degrees, precise and physical, like a bank vault. He pulled the door through a short arc. The h
inges squealed. He stepped in behind it and pushed it all the way open, like pushing a truck.

  Plato stood still and raised his hand, palm up. The man behind him stepped up and dug down in his backpack and came out with a flashlight. He slapped it into Plato’s palm, the way an OR nurse feeds tools to a surgeon. Plato clicked it on and transferred it to his other hand and snapped his fingers and pointed at Reacher. The guy behind him swung his own backpack off his shoulder and took out his flashlight and handed it over.

  It was a four-cell Mag-lite. From Ontario, California. The de facto gold standard for man-portable illumination. Alloy construction. Reliable and practically indestructible. Reacher clicked it on. He played the beam around the bare concrete chamber.

  No change.

  The place was exactly as he and two dead men had left it more than four and a half hours earlier. The circular stair head, the two unfinished ventilation pipes jutting up through the floor. The stale dry air, the stirring breeze, the smell of old fears long forgotten.

  ‘After you, Mr Holland,’ Plato said.

  Which disappointed Reacher a little. He had lost his coat, but he still had his boots. He had entertained the idea of letting Plato go first, and then kicking his head off about a hundred feet down.

  But, obviously, so had Plato. A smart guy.

  So Reacher went first, as awkward as before. Big boot heels, small steps, clanging metal. The sound of the whining jets faded as he went down, and he heard Plato issuing a stream of instructions in Spanish: ‘Wait until the de-icer gets back, then set up the equipment, then start the refuelling. Get the other three doors open on the plane, and get the other three ladders in position. Figure out how the de-icer works and figure out how close to take-off we need to use it. And put a man on lookout a hundred feet south. That’s the only direction we have to worry about. Rotate every twenty minutes. Or more often, if you want. Your call. I want the lookout alert at all times, not frozen to death.’

  Then Plato stopped talking and Reacher heard his feet on the stairs above him. Smaller steps, more precise. The metal still clanged, but quieter. The two flashlight beams went down and around, down and around, always clockwise, separated vertically by twenty feet, and not synchronized. Reacher took it slow. He was Holland now, in more than name. He was improvising, and hoping his moment would come.

  On the surface the de-icer truck got back with the necessary equipment all piled on and around the passenger seat. The engine hoist, the rope, the garbage bags. The hoist was a sturdy metal thing, with three legs and a boom arm like the jib of a small crane. It was designed to be set up at the front of a car, with the jib leaning in over the engine compartment. The pulleys would produce multiplication of effort, according to ancient mechanical principles, allowing a lone operator to lift a heavy iron block.

  Three of Plato’s guys carried the hoist into the bunker and set it up with the jib leaning in over one of the ventilation shafts. Like fishing from a barrel. They started threading the rope through the pulleys. No free lunch. More weight meant less speed. Pull the rope a yard, and with one pulley in play a light weight would move the same yard, but with two pulleys in play a heavier weight would move just eighteen inches, and with three pulleys in play a heavier weight still would move just twelve inches. And so on. A tradeoff.

  They chose to thread two pulleys. A balance of speed and capacity.

  The guy who had driven the truck said nothing about the Ford.

  Two hundred and eighty awkward steps. Reacher completed seventy of them, a quarter of the way down, and then he began to speed up. He saw a window of opportunity ahead. Set up the equipment, then start the refuelling, Plato had said. Which meant that there would be some busywork up top before one of his guys came down to connect the pump truck’s hose to the fuel tank. Five minutes, maybe. Possibly ten. And five or ten minutes alone with Plato deep underground could be productive. So he aimed to get to the bottom as far ahead as possible. To prepare. So he speeded up as much as he could. Which wasn’t much.

  And which wasn’t nearly enough.

  Plato matched him step for step. Gained on him, even. For a man of Plato’s stature, the winding stair was broad and palatial. Like something from a Hollywood production. And his feet were dainty. He was nimble and agile in comparison.

  Reacher slowed down again. Better to save energy and avoid busting an ankle.

  The guy who had sat in seat 4A was standing with the guy from seat 4B in the lee of the pump truck, out of sight of the stone building, hidden from the Boeing’s flight deck windows, invisible to the sentry a hundred feet down the runway. The guy from 4A had texted the Russian: Cop car damaged. No getaway possible.

  The Russian had replied: I will double your money.

  The guy from 4B glanced over at the de-icer truck. The guy from 4A followed his gaze. A diesel engine, a little clumsy, not fast, distinctive in appearance, and stolen. But it was a vehicle.

  He said nothing.

  The phone buzzed again against his palm.

  The Russian had offered: I will triple your money. Do it.

  Triple the money was a fortune beyond comprehension. But even that paled against the prospect of a life without Plato in it.

  The guy from 4B nodded. He had just driven the truck. He knew it worked.

  The guy from 4A texted: OK.

  Reacher passed through the second of the oboe nodes. Two-thirds of the way down. The individual sounds of four separate feet on metal merged and melded into a keening ghostly song that pulsed up and down the shaft and hung and oscillated in the still dead air, like an elegy for a tragedy about to happen. Reacher shivered and kept on going down into the darkness, his flashlight held between gloved thumb and forefinger, his other three fingers spread and brushing the wall. Above him Plato’s beam turned and jumped and stabbed. Reacher’s heel hit the two hundredth step. Eighty more to go.

  The pump truck was basically a simple device. A relatively recent invention. In the old days tankers refuelled planes directly. In the modern world airports put fuel tanks underground, and skeletal trucks drove out on the tarmac and linked nozzles under manholes to nozzles under airplane wings. The hose on the reel directly behind the cab spooled out and connected to the underground source, and the hose on the reel at the other end of the truck spooled out and connected to the plane. In between was a pump, to suck fuel out of the ground and push it onward into the aeroplane’s tanks. A simple, linear proposition.

  The guys from seats 4A and 4B manoeuvred the truck as close as they could get it to the stone building’s door, which put it about halfway between the tank far below them and the thirsty Boeing. One jacked the first nozzle on his shoulder and the other operated the electric motor that unwound the drum. The one with the nozzle on his shoulder walked the hose into the building and fed it down the second ventilation shaft, the one that the guys with the rope weren’t using.

  Reacher made it to the bottom. Same situation as before. He rested on the last step, nine inches off the round chamber’s floor, its ceiling level with his waist, his upper body still inside the shaft, his face an inch from the curved concrete wall. Plato crowded in behind him, the same way Holland had before. Reacher felt the H&K’s muzzle on his back.

  Plato said, ‘Move.’

  Reacher ducked way down and got his shoulders under the ceiling and waddled forward, painfully, his legs hurting, his neck bent at ninety degrees. He dropped to his knees and folded himself sideways and sat down. He shuffled through half a turn and scooted away backwards, undignified, slow and awkward and claustrophobic, heels and knuckles and ass, once, then twice.

  Plato stepped off the bottom stair and just walked straight into the chamber.

  He took three confident strides and then stopped and looked around, erect, upright, with four clear inches between the top of his head and the concrete.

  He said, ‘So where’s my stuff?’

  Reacher didn’t answer. He was adrift. The world had flipped underneath him. All his life, to be taller ha
d been to be better. More dominant, more powerful, more noticed, more advantaged. You got credibility, you got treated with respect, you got promoted faster, you earned more, you got elected to things. Statistics bore it out.

  You won fights, you got less hassle, you ruled the yard.

  To be born tall was to win life’s lottery.

  Born small, two strikes against.

  But not down there.

  Down there to be tall was a losing ticket.

  Down there was a world where the small guy could win.

 
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