Make me, p.4
Part #20 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Then he strolled back across the wide plaza, and outside the motel he saw the lawn chair he had seen before, all alone in the traffic lane. White plastic. He picked it up and put it down again the right side of the curb, on a patch of grass near a fence. Unobtrusive. In no one’s way. He rotated it with his foot, until it was lined up with the rays of the sun. Then he sat down and leaned back and closed his eyes. He soaked up the warmth. And at some point he fell asleep, outdoors in the summertime, which was the second-best way he knew.
That evening Reacher walked up to the railroad a whole hour early, at six o’clock, partly because the sun had gone low in the sky and there was nowhere left to bask, and partly because he liked being early. He liked enough time to scope things out. Even something as simple as getting on a train.
The elevators were still and silent, presumably empty and awaiting the harvest. The giant warehouse was all closed up. The rails were quiet. The vapor lights were already on, ahead of the dusk, which was coming. The western sky was still gold, but the rest of it was dark. Not long, Reacher thought, before nightfall.
The tiny railroad building was open but empty. Reacher stepped inside. The interior was all wood in a gingerbread style, and it had been painted many times, in an institutional shade of cream. It smelled like wooden buildings always did, at sundown after a long hot day, all airless and dusty and baked.
The ticket window was arched, but it was small overall, and therefore intimate. It had a round hole in the glass, for talking. But behind the glass the shade was down. The shade was brown and pleated. It was made from some kind of primitive vinyl. It had the word Closed printed on it, in paint that looked like gold leaf.
There were restrooms off a short corridor. There was a table, with a six-day-old newspaper. There were lights hanging from the ceiling, milky bulbs in glass bowls, but there was no switch. Near the door, where it should have been, was a blank plate with a message taped to it: Ask at ticket window for lights.
The benches were magnificent. They could have been a hundred years old. They were made from solid mahogany, upright and severe, only grudgingly sculpted to the human form, and polished to a shine by use. Reacher picked a spot and sat down. The contour felt better than it should. The shape was stern and puritan, but it was very comfortable. The woodworker had done a fine, subtle job. Or maybe the wood itself had given up the struggle, and instead of fighting back had yielded and molded and learned to embrace. From all the shapes and sizes, with their various masses and temperatures. Literally steamed and pressed, like an industrial process, in super-slow motion. Was that possible, with wood as hard as mahogany? Reacher didn’t know.
He sat still.
Outside it went darker, and therefore inside it went darker, too. Ask at ticket window for lights. Reacher sat in the gloom and watched out the window. He guessed Chang was out there somewhere. In the shadows. That was how she had done it before. He guessed he could go find her. But for what? He wasn’t planning any kind of a big long speech. Five more minutes of small talk wouldn’t make a difference. He traveled. He moved on. People came and went. He was used to it. No big deal. A friendly wave would do the job, as he stepped across to the train. By which time she might be preoccupied anyway, talking to Keever, getting the story, finding out where the hell he had been.
If Keever was on the train.
A long minute before the train was due Reacher heard the stones in the rail bed click and whisper. Then the rails themselves started to sing, a low steely murmur, building to a louder keening. He felt pressure in the air, and saw the headlight beam. The noise came next, hissing and clattering and humming. Then the train arrived, hot and brutal but infinitely slow, brakes grinding, and it stopped with the locomotive already out of sight, and the passenger cars lined up with the ramp.
The doors sucked open.
On his left Reacher saw Chang step out of the shadow. Like a reflex, because of the train. Out and back, like the flash of a camera.
A man stepped down from the train.
On his right Reacher saw the spare-parts guy from the irrigation store. He stepped out of a shadow and took one step forward and waited.
The man from the train stepped into a pool of light.
Not a big guy. Not Chang’s guy. Not Keever. This was a person a little above average height, but some way below average weight. He could have been fifty, and what might have been called slender in his youth was starting to look emaciated. His hair was dark, but probably colored, and he was wearing a suit and a collared shirt, with no tie. He had a bag in his hand, brown leather, larger than a doctor bag, smaller than a duffel.
No one else got out of the train.
The doors were still open.
On his right Reacher saw the spare-parts guy take another step forward. The man from the train spotted him. The spare-parts guy said a name and stuck out his hand. Polite, respectful, welcoming, and humble.
The man from the train shook hands.
The doors were still open.
But Reacher stayed where he was, in the dark.
The spare-parts guy carried the leather bag and led the man in the suit toward the exit gate. The train doors sucked shut, and the cars whined and shuddered, and the train moved away again, slowly, slowly, car after car.
The spare-parts guy led the man in the suit out of sight.
Reacher stepped out to the ramp and watched the tail light dance away in the distance.
From the shadows Chang said, “They’re heading for the motel.”
Reacher said, “Who are?”
“The man from the train, and his new pal.”
She stepped into the light.
She said, “You didn’t go.”
He said, “No, I didn’t.”
“I thought you would.”
“So did I.”
“I think I’m a nice person, but I know I’m not the reason.”
Reacher said nothing.
Chang said, “That came out wrong. I’m sorry. Not that kind of reason. Which is presumptuous anyway. I mean, no reason I should be that kind of reason. And now I’m making it worse. I mean, you didn’t stay just to help me out. Did you?”
“Did you see those guys shake hands?”
“That’s why I stayed.”
Reacher led Chang into the silent waiting room and they sat on a bench, side by side in the dark. Reacher said, “How would you characterize that handshake?”
Chang said, “In what way?”
“The narrative. The story. The body language.”
“It looked like a junior corporate executive had been sent to meet an important customer.”
“Had they met before?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I agree. And it was nicely done, by the local guy. Wasn’t it? A whole subtle performance. Deferential, but not obsequious. Different from when he shakes his buddy’s hand, I’m sure. Or his father-in-law’s. Or the loan officer at the bank. Or an old friend from high school he hasn’t seen for twenty years.”
“Our local guy is a man with a wide variety of handshaking styles at his command, and we can assume he’s comfortable about using all of them. It’s part of his shtick.”
“How does this help us?”
“I saw that guy this morning. He runs a store with spare parts for irrigation systems. I walked by his window, and he jumped and went for the phone.”
“Why would he?”
“You tell me.”
“How paranoid do you want me to be?”
“Somewhere between common sense and a little bit.”
She said, “I would think nothing of it, if it wasn’t for Keever.”
“You look like Keever. In a general way. Maybe Keever’s been snooping around, and people have been told to keep an eye out for him, or anyone like him.”
Reacher said, “I w
“Was it ringing?”
“I couldn’t hear.”
“You played football at Penn State?”
“No, I went to West Point and played football only once. Not very well, I’m afraid. I’m pretty sure I was never in a magazine.”
“Could have been an innocent mistake. 1986 was a long time ago. Your appearance would have changed considerably. And you look like you could have played football for Penn State.”
“That was my conclusion. At the time.”
“Now I think he was covering his ass. He was hiding behind a bullshit story. Maybe it’s a trick he learned. Don’t waste time with awkward denials, but jump right in with a plausible excuse. Some guys might find it flattering. Maybe they wanted to be football stars. Who wouldn’t? Maybe their heads get turned and the problem goes away. Plus he calibrated it to make me younger than I am. Which is flattering too, I suppose. I was already in the army in 1986. I graduated in ’83. The guy put on a whole big performance.”
“That’s not evidence of anything.”
“First up, I asked him, have we met? He said no.”
“Which was true, right?”
“But a guy like that, a fan who remembers college players from thirty years ago, if I had asked him if we’d met, he’d have said, no, but I’d sure like to shake your hand, sir. Or as I was leaving. There would have been a handshake in there somewhere. This is a handshaking guy. It’s important to some people. I’ve seen it before. Better than an autograph or a picture. Because it’s personal. It’s physical contact. I bet there’s a whole long list of people, when this guy sees them in the newspaper or on TV, he thinks to himself, I shook that guy’s hand once.”
“But he didn’t shake yours.”
“Which was a slip on top of a slip. He knew I wasn’t a famous football player. So now I’m back with your version. People have been told to keep an eye out for nosy strangers. Including maybe the weird kid from this morning. Plus, no Keever on the train. Where the hell is he? So I stayed. One more night, at least. For the fun of it.”
“Who was the guy in the suit, who got off the train?”
“I don’t know. An outsider, I guess, here to do business of some kind. Not staying long, because of the small bag. Rich, probably. People that thin are usually rich. We live in strange times. Poor people are fat, and rich people are thin. That never happened before.”
“Good business or bad business? Is it a coincidence the Penn State guy picked him up, or is he also connected to whatever Keever’s looking for?”
“Could be either thing.”
“Maybe he’s just an irrigation manufacturer. The CEO of a big corporation.”
“In which case I think the travel would have been the other way around. Our guy would have gone to a trade show somewhere. Maybe he would have met the big boss at a cocktail reception. Thirty seconds, maybe less. During which time he would have shaken the guy’s hand. That’s for damn sure.”
“I’m getting worried about Keever.”
“You should, I guess. But only a little. Because how bad can this be? With all due respect, this is a private investigator taking cash or grubby checks from a lone individual. Who may or may not be nuts. Your own words. And such a guy would always go to the cops first. After trying everywhere else from the White House downward. But apparently neither the White House nor the cops were interested. So how bad can this be?”
“You think cops always get everything right?”
“I think they have a threshold, where they at least take a look. If the guy had said the warehouse was full of fertilizer bombs, I think they would have come right over. If he’d said the elevators were broadcasting to his root canals, maybe not so much.”
“But the point is it seems to have been one thing, and now it’s another. Hence the call for back-up. Maybe now it’s over the threshold.”
“In which case Keever can dial 911 like anyone else. Or he could call the FBI direct. I’m sure he still knows the number.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Now we go back to the motel. I need a room for the night, apart from anything else.”
The one-eyed guy was on duty in the motel office. Chang picked up the key to 214, as before, and waited. Reacher went through the same grudging negotiation. Sixty bucks, forty, thirty, twenty-five, but not for 106. Reacher couldn’t let the guy win every round. He got 113 instead, middle of the opposite wing, ground floor, far from the metal stairs, and one away from directly under Chang’s room.
He asked, “Which room is Mr. Keever in?”
The clerk said, “Who?”
“Keever. The big guy from Oklahoma City. Checked in two or three days ago. Came by train. No car. Probably paid for a week upfront.”
“I’m not allowed to say. It’s a question of privacy. For our guests. I’m sure you understand. And I’m sure you would appreciate it, if the shoe was on the other foot.”
“Sure,” Reacher said. “That makes sense to me.”
He took his key and walked out with Chang. He said, “Don’t take this wrong, but I want to come up to your room.”
They used the metal stairs on the right-hand tip of the horseshoe, and then Chang’s room was right there, 214, one door from the last room of the row, which was 215. Chang used her key and they stepped inside. The room was like every other room, but Reacher could tell a woman was using it. It was neat, and it was fragrant. There was a small rolling suitcase, with things folded tidily inside.
Reacher said, “What kind of notes would Keever carry?”
“Good question,” Chang said. “Normally we carry laptops and smartphones. So all our notes are entered by keyboard. Which can be laborious, but you have to do it anyway, because it all has to be in the record eventually. But the point of an under-the-radar case is to stay off the record, so why do all the typing? He’s probably got handwritten pages somewhere.”
“In his pocket, probably.”
“Or in his room. Depending on quantity. We should check.”
“I think it’s 212, 213, or 215.”
“I’m guessing Keever made your reservation, right? He probably stopped by the desk and told the clerk he had a colleague coming in. And this clerk seems to think if you have any kind of a vague connection, then you need rooms close together. You’re in 214 because Keever was already in 213 or 215 or maybe 212.”
“Why did you ask the guy, if you already knew?”
“He could have narrowed it down some. But mostly I felt like using Keever’s name in public. Simple as that. If people are watching, then maybe they’re listening too, in which case I want them to hear me say it.”
“To give them fair warning,” Reacher said.
Reacher and Chang walked two doors down, to 212. Which was easy to rule out. The drapes were closed, and the television was playing softly. Not Keever’s room. Both 213 and 215 were empty. Both had open drapes, but both were pitch dark inside. Serviced that morning, Reacher figured, and subsequently undisturbed. Law of averages said one was a vacancy, and one was Keever’s, paid for but not currently occupied, due to some kind of extraordinary circumstance. The vacancy would look completely bland, and Keever’s room would show some kind of sign, however small, like pajamas sticking out from under the pillow, or a book on the night stand, or the corner of a suitcase, placed out of sight
But it was too dark to see.
Make Me by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes