61 hours, p.40
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       61 Hours, p.40
 

         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  the chamber, counterclockwise, playing the beam into one corridor at a time, pausing, checking carefully, and then moving on. No net loss. After all, in a circular space, turning right was ultimately the same thing as turning left. And counterclockwise was better than clockwise. Much better. For a number of reasons, which were about to be made plain.

  To Plato, especially.

  Reacher waited.

  The flashlight beam moved on.

  Then: from far above Reacher heard tiny sounds. Brief muted purrs. Four of them. Quiet enough to be close to the point of not being audible at all. Maybe the pump truck’s starter motor turning over. Maybe the de-icer. Maybe something to do with the plane.

  Maybe anything.

  But if Reacher had been forced to guess worst case, he would have pegged them as triple taps from fast sub-machine guns.

  Of which there were six on the surface.

  Plato heard them too. His flashlight beam stopped dead. Silence.

  Nothing more.

  A long wait.

  Then the flashlight beam moved on.

  Reacher saw Plato from the back through the circular lattice of steel that was the bottom five and a half feet of the staircase. He was twenty feet away. A hundred and eighty degrees opposite. His flashlight beam was horizontal in the corridor directly across from Reacher’s.

  Reacher moved his right arm. He cocked it behind him, ready.

  Plato moved on, still counterclockwise, still slow. His body was facing forward, walking a perfect circuit. His head was turned. He was looking to his right at a square ninety degree angle down each of the radial spokes. The flashlight was in his left hand, the beam across his body. Which meant that the gun was in his right hand. The gun was still strapped around his neck. Which meant that the muzzle was facing left, which was fundamentally the wrong way, for a right-handed guy walking a counterclockwise circle. It was facing inward, not outward. A bad mistake. It would take a fast awkward flex of the elbow and a complicated tangle in the strap to correct in a hurry.

  Reacher smiled.

  Not such a smart guy after all.

  Plato kept on coming.

  A quarter-turn to go. Two more spokes.

  One more spoke.

  Then: vibration in the hose that led away from the fuel tank. The pump had started, way up there on the surface. Reacher heard the swish and rush of liquid as the pump primed itself and sucked air and created a vacuum and fuel moved in to fill it. He heard a hiss of air from the tank as it began to empty, quiet at first, then louder.

  The flashlight beam moved on.

  It arrived.

  It played down the long tunnel, concentrated just above Reacher’s curled form. But scatter from the lens picked him up. Plato froze, a yard away. Just a split second. Reacher sensed it. And used it to whip his right arm forward. Like a desperate throw from the outfield, bottom of the ninth, the opposition’s winning run heading for the plate. The Mag-lite was a foot and a half long. Heavy alloy, four D cells. Cross-hatching on the body. Great grip. Ferocious acceleration. Tremendous leverage. Muscle, fury, anger. Geometry and physics.

  Reacher’s flashlight hit Plato butt-end-first square on the forehead. A solid punch. Reacher spun on his hip and scythed with his legs and kicked Plato’s feet out from under him. Plato crashed down, flat on the floor. Reacher rolled on to his back, rolled on to his other side, rolled right on top of Plato.

  And the world flipped again. Now the horizontal was vertical and the vertical was horizontal. No disadvantage in being tall. In fact, just the opposite. On the floor, the big guy always wins.

  Reacher started hammering heavy blows into Plato’s face, one, two, three, hard and vicious. Then he scrabbled for the H&K and got his hand on it just as Plato did. The two of them started a desperate tug of war. Plato was strong. Unbelievably, phenomenally strong for a man of his size. And impervious to pain. Reacher had his left hand on the gun and was using his right to hammer more blows to Plato’s head. Four, five, six, seven. Plato was bucking and writhing and tossing left, tossing right. Reacher was on top of him, smothering him, all two hundred and fifty pounds, and he was in danger of getting thrown off. Plato was snarling and biting, curling and rearing. Reacher jammed the heel of his hand under Plato’s nose and smashed his head down on the concrete, one, two, three. Then four.

  No result.

  Plato started kicking for Reacher’s groin, bucking, thrashing, like he was swimming backstroke. Reacher pinned the H&K and clambered off and smashed a right to Plato’s ribs. Plato coughed once, coughed twice, and blood foamed on his lips. He jerked up from the waist and tried to get Reacher with a head butt. Reacher clamped a giant palm over Plato’s moving teeth and smashed his head back down on the floor.

  Plato’s eyes stayed open.

  Then suddenly: sloshing, gushing, pouring liquid. Loud, forceful, relentless. Like a fire hose. Like ten fire hoses. Like a hundred. Like a waterfall. Roaring. The stink of kerosene. Reacher kept his left hand on the gun and scrabbled with his right and found Plato’s flashlight and jammed his elbow in Plato’s throat and played the beam towards the sound.

  Liquid was sheeting out of the nearer ventilation shaft. A flooding, drenching, torrential flow. Hundreds of gallons. A deluge. It hammered on the concrete and bounced and spattered and pooled and raced across the floor. Like a lake. Like a tide. Within seconds the floor was soaked. The air was full of fumes. The flashlight beam danced and shivered and swam through them.

  Kerosene.

  Jet fuel.

  And it kept on coming. Like a giant faucet. Unstoppable. Like a burst dam. Gushing, sheeting, rushing, pouring, drenching. Plato bucked and jerked and twisted and got his throat out from under Reacher’s elbow and said, ‘What the hell is it? A leak?’

  ‘Not a leak,’ Reacher said.

  ‘Then what?’

  Reacher watched the flow. Relentless and powerful. And pulsing. It was the pump on the surface, running hard. Two hoses in the same shaft. One up, one down. One emptying the tank, the other wide open and dumping the contents straight back underground.

  ‘What is it?’ Plato said.

  ‘It’s a triple-cross,’ Reacher said. His head was already aching from the fumes. His eyes were starting to sting.

  ‘What?’ Plato said.

  ‘The Russian bought some of your guys. You’re out of business.’

  ‘They think they can drown me?’

  ‘No,’ Reacher said. ‘They’re not going to drown you.’

  There was no possibility of drowning. There was too much floor area. Five thousand gallons would level out less than two inches deep.

  He said, ‘They’re going to burn you to death.’

  ‘Bullshit,’ Plato said.

  Reacher said nothing.

  ‘How?’ Plato said. ‘They’re going to drop a match down the stairs? It would go out on the way.’

  Reacher said nothing. Plato wrenched away. Got to his knees. His nose was broken and leaking blood. Blood was coming out of his mouth. His teeth were smashed. One eye was closed. Both eyebrows were cut.

  He put his hands on the H&K.

  Then he took them off again.

  Reacher nodded.

  ‘Don’t even think about it,’ he said. ‘The muzzle flash on that thing? With these fumes in the air? You want to do their work for them?’

  Plato said, ‘How are they going to do it?’

  Reacher said nothing. He was thinking. Picturing the scene on the surface, running options through his head.

  See what they see.

  Be them.

  Not a match.

  Plato was right.

  A match would go out.

  The guy from 4B gunned the de-icer truck and spun the wheel and took off east towards the top right corner of the runway. Fifty yards. Forty. Thirty. Twenty. He spun the wheel again and slewed through a tight circle and the guy from 4A jumped out of the passenger seat and ducked down and grabbed the burning flare at its base and pulled its spike out of
the concrete. He held it away from his body and climbed back in the truck and kept the door open and held the flare at arm’s length in the slipstream. It burned brighter and it smoked and flickered. But it didn’t go out. The truck raced back. Fifty yards. Forty. Thirty.

  The deluge kept on coming. It was never-ending. It poured and sheeted and hammered. The ventilation shaft was like a bathtub faucet increased in size by a factor of a hundred. Reacher was on his knees. His pants were soaked. The fuel was already a good half-inch deep. The fumes were thick. Breathing was hard.

  Plato said, ‘So what do we do?’

  Reacher said, ‘How fast can you run up a flight of stairs?’

  Plato got to his feet.

  ‘Faster than you,’ he said.

  They were face to face, nose to nose, Reacher on his knees, Plato on his feet.

  ‘I don’t think so,’ Reacher said.

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

  Reacher unleashed the uppercut from his knees. A colossal, primitive, primeval blow, driven all the way from the centre of the earth, pulsing through the wet concrete, through his knee, his thigh, his waist, his upper body, his shoulder, his arm, his wrist, his fist, every muscle and every fibre twitching just once, rippling fast in perfect propulsive sequence and harmony.

  Plato’s jaw shattered and his head snapped back like a rag doll. He hung motionless for a split second and then he splashed down, hard and vertical.

  Reacher was pretty sure he was dead when he hit the floor.

  Then he made absolutely certain of it.

  He clamped his hands on Plato’s ears and jerked his head one way and then the other until he felt the vertebrae pull apart and then he kept on doing it until he was sure the spinal cord was torn all the way to mush.

  The deluge kept on coming, rushing, sheeting, torrential. The round chamber, once still and dry and ancient, was soaked with chemical stink and boiling with fumes, the fuel suddenly close to an inch deep, with small urgent waves racing outward from a frothing maelstrom directly under the roaring pipe.

  Surely everyone’s afraid of death, Janet Salter had said.

  Depends what form it takes, he had answered.

  He ran.

  He splashed across the floor on his knees and ducked his shoulders down and got his head up inside the stair shaft and crawled and clawed and scrabbled to his feet. He leaned in towards the centre pole and took the stairs three at a time, galloping madly, his left hand sliding up over the steel, his right hand pawing crazily at the wall, batting and clutching and grasping at every extra second. The sound of his feet on the metal was drowned out by the waterfall roar of the fuel from below. He charged on, three at a time, four at a time, not breathing, anaerobic, up and up and up, round and round and round, not counting, just running, running, running, climbing, churning, hammering, straining, hurling himself towards the surface.

  The de-icer truck jammed to a stop and K-turned and backed up and straightened. Directly behind it, the stone building. Directly ahead of it, the runway. The guy from 4A got out and ran crouched with his arm straight and the flare in his hand. He stopped in the doorway and turned and held the flare behind him and paused for a second and then swung his arm and lobbed it in. The flare tumbled end over end, a bright pink firework hissing through the air. It hit the unfinished lip of the ventilation shaft and kicked up and turned over once more and then dropped straight down and out of sight.

  Five minutes to four in the morning.

  Sixty-one hours gone.

  FORTY-SIX

  IT WAS FOUR DAYS BEFORE THE SITE WAS COOL ENOUGH TO INSPECT. By that point there was a long line of agencies waiting to join the hunt. First on the scene were Homeland Security, the air force, the FBI, the Highway Patrol, and a group of specialist arson investigators drafted in by the government. The incident had attracted intense interest. The North American Air Defense Command had been the first to spot it. Their satellites had seen a bloom of amazing heat and their computers had interpreted it as either a missile launch or a missile strike. Their Russian equivalents had seen the same thing. Within seconds the White House had been on the phone, reassuring, and receiving matching reassurances. There were launch silos in South Dakota, yes, but not at that location. And in turn, no Russian missile had been fired at America.

  The National Guard was sent in to secure a wide perimeter. Through it crept the waiting agencies, one by one. They set up forward operating bases five miles out. They sent patrols forward, as close as they dared. Then came news from the nearby town of Bolton of a strange toxic cloud borne on the westerly wind. The patrols were pulled back. Hazmat gear was issued. Doctors were dispatched to Bolton. Reported symptoms were confusing. It was as if a light dose of a psychostimulant drug had been administered to the entire population. Temporary euphoria and excitement were reported, as was difficulty in sleeping and enhanced sexual appetite. The air was tested. No conclusion was reached. The wind had been blowing strongly for days, all the way from Wyoming. No symptoms were reported further east in the state.

  The patrols crept inward again.

  Their first discovery was a crashed vehicle four miles south of the epicentre. It was an airport de-icing truck reported as stolen from a commercial airfield east of Rapid City. It seemed to have been driving south on the old county two-lane leading away from the site. The road was snowbound and the surface was bad. It seemed that the truck had skidded off the road and turned over at least twice. It was an ungainly vehicle.

  Two bodies were found close by. Two unidentified men of Hispanic origin, wearing dark suits apparently purchased in Mexico, under brand new winter parkas. The men had severe perimortem injuries, presumably caused by the crash, but they had died of exposure, presumably after crawling away from the wreckage. They were both carrying illegal fully automatic weapons. One gun seemed to have fired three rounds, and the other, nine. With that news, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joined the roster of waiting agencies.

  The patrols crept closer. By the middle of the second day the forward operating bases had been moved up to the southern edge of an old air force runway. At that new location they discovered a damaged and undriveable unmarked police car. It was positively identified by locals as the Bolton PD’s property. It had been issued to the department’s chief, Tom Holland. Holland had disappeared on the night of the fire. The Bolton PD was in disarray. It was dealing with three recent homicides, one of the victims being its own deputy chief, Andrew Peterson.

  An observant fire officer taking a walk found the burned-out husks of two road flares, one in each corner of the old runway, apparently carefully placed. Which suggested the possibility of an unauthorized night landing. No flight plan had been recorded with the FAA. But through binoculars some agents claimed to see twisted wreckage just south of the epicentre that might or might not have been the remains of a large airliner. With that news, the National Transportation Safety Board joined the queue.

  By the middle of the third day the Air Defense satellites showed the outer perimeter to have cooled to seventy degrees. The patrols moved up. The outer perimeter seemed to be about a hundred yards in diameter. Clearly some kind of fireball had bloomed, burned, and died back, but it had been brief compared to the main fire. The arson theorists began to run simulations on their laptops. Close inspection of the area inside the perimeter showed grievous damage. There was a dusting of ash a hundred feet out that might have been the remains of a human being. There was scorched and twisted aluminum that the NTSB claimed was the remains of an airliner, possibly a Boeing, possibly a 737.

  The patrols moved up, into a dead world of twisted smoking fragments, some made of iron, some made of steel, some possibly from a vehicle, some smaller pieces possibly from weapons. Piled everywhere was debris from the plane. No attempt was made to quantify human remains. It would have been a hopeless task. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, literally.

  The only remotely intact structure was a small concrete stair head b
unker disguised to look like a stone house. The air force claimed ownership. The original plans were lost, but anecdotally it was known to have been built fifty years previously, to contemporary blast-proof construction standards. It had stood up well. The roof was damaged. The interior concrete was blistered and spalled and calcified, but still reasonably solid. There were three circular shafts dropping down through the floor. It was surmised that once there had been steel casings for two ventilation ducts, and a spiral staircase probably also made of steel, but they had first melted and then vaporized.

  Which proved, the arson people said, that the fire had started underground.

  They donned protective gear and were lowered what turned out to be a total of two hundred and ten feet into the earth. They found a sequence of small tunnels and chambers, more blistered and spalled and calcified concrete, some ash that might once have been organic, and, amazingly, more than one thousand intact diamonds.

  The arson specialists set up shop in the Bolton police station and connected their laptops wirelessly to their mainframes back home. They started work. They drew three-dimensional models of the underground facility. They made some guesses and assumptions. They knew from police records that a pump truck had been stolen along with the de-icer. So, if the aluminum had been an aeroplane, and if there had been an underground storage tank, then the accelerant might have been jet fuel. Which was consistent with their estimates of the fire’s temperature, the upper limit of which they felt was defined by the survival of the diamonds, and the lower limit by the fact that the snow on the ground had been melted for two miles in every direction.

  Major Susan Turner saw the news every evening on the television, and read it every morning in the papers, and followed it all day on line. She
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