61 hours, p.5
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       61 Hours, p.5
 

         Part #14 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  should, Reacher thought. Two pot roasts and a cup of coffee at South Dakota prices, he was leaving her a sixty per cent tip. Or maybe it was all tip, if Bolton was one of those towns where cops ate for free.

  The Crown Vic was still faintly warm inside. Peterson hit the gas and the chains bit down and the car pushed through the snow on the ground. There was no other traffic except for snow-ploughs taking advantage of the lull in the fall. Reacher had a problem with snowploughs. Not the machines themselves, but the compound word. A plough turned earth over and left it in place. Snowploughs didn’t do that with snow. Snowploughs were more properly bulldozers. But whatever, Peterson overtook them all, didn’t pause at corners, didn’t yield, didn’t wait for green lights.

  Reacher asked, ‘Where are we going?’

  ‘Western suburbs.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Intruders.’

  ‘In a house?’

  ‘On the street. It’s a Neighbourhood Watch thing.’ No further explanation. Peterson just drove, hunched forward over the wheel, tense and anxious. Reacher sprawled in the seat beside him, wondering what kind of intruders could get a police department’s deputy chief to respond so urgently to a busybody’s call.

  Seventeen hundred miles south the man in the walled Mexico City villa dialled long distance to the United States. His final task of the day. Eleven o’clock local time, ten o’clock Central Time in the big country to the north. The call was answered and the man in the villa relayed Plato’s instructions, slowly and precisely. No room for misunderstanding. No room for error. He waited for confirmation and then he hung up. He didn’t call Plato back. No point. Plato didn’t understand the concept of confirmation. For Plato, obedience followed command the same way night followed day. It was inevitable. The only way it wouldn’t happen was if the world had stopped spinning on its axis.

  SIX

  PETERSON HAD HIS DASHBOARD RADIO TURNED UP HIGH AND Reacher picked out four separate voices from four separate cars. All of them were prowling the western suburbs and none of them had seen the reported intruders. Peterson aimed his own car down the streets they hadn’t checked yet. He turned right, turned left, nosed into dead ends, backed out again, moved on. There was a moon low in the sky and Reacher saw neat suburban developments, small houses in straight rows, warm lights behind windows, all the sidewalks and driveways and yards rendered blue and flat and uniform by the thick blanket of snow. Roofs were piled high with white. Some streets had been visited by the ploughs and had high banks of snow in the gutters. Some were still covered with an undisturbed fresh layer, deep but not as deep as the yards and the driveways. Clearly this current fall was the second or the third in a week or so. Roads were covered and cleared, covered and cleared, in an endless winter rhythm.

  Reacher asked, ‘How many intruders?’

  Peterson said, ‘Two reported.’

  ‘In a vehicle?’

  ‘On foot.’

  ‘Doing what?’

  ‘Just walking around.’

  ‘So stick to the ploughed streets. Nobody walks around in six inches of snow for the fun of it.’

  Peterson slowed for a second and thought about it. Then he turned without a word and picked up a ploughed trail and retraced it. The plough had zigzagged through main drags and cross streets. The snow had been sheared thin and low and white. The excess was piled high to the sides, still soft and clean.

  They found the intruders four minutes later.

  There were two of them, shoulder to shoulder in a close standoff with a third man. The third man was Chief Holland. His car was parked twenty feet away. It was an unmarked Crown Vic. Either navy blue or black. It was hard to say, in the moonlight. Police specification, with antennas on the trunk lid and concealed emergency lights peeping up out of the rear parcel shelf. The driver’s door was open and the engine was running. Twin puddles of black vapour had condensed and pooled in the thin snow beneath the twin exhausts. Holland had gotten out and stepped ahead and confronted the two guys head on. That was clear.

  The two guys were tall and heavyset and unkempt. White males, in black Frye boots, black jeans, black denim shirts, black leather vests, fingerless black gloves, black leather bandannas. Each had an unzipped black parka thrown over everything else. They looked exactly like the dead guy in the crime scene photographs.

  Peterson braked and stopped and stood off and idled thirty feet back. His headlights illuminated the scene. The standoff looked like it wasn’t going well for Holland. He looked nervous. The two guys didn’t. They had Holland crowded back with a snow bank behind him. They were in his space, leaning forward. Holland looked beaten. Helpless.

  Reacher saw why.

  The holster on Holland’s belt was unsnapped and empty, but there was no gun in his hand. He was glancing down and to his left.

  He had dropped his pistol in the snow bank.

  Or had it knocked from his hand.

  Either way, not good.

  Reacher asked, ‘Who are they?’

  Peterson said, ‘Undesirables.’

  ‘So undesirable that the chief of police joins the hunt?’

  ‘You see what I see.’

  ‘What do you want to do?’

  ‘It’s tricky. They’re probably armed.’

  ‘So are you.’

  ‘I can’t make Chief Holland look like an idiot.’

  Reacher said, ‘Not his fault. Cold hands.’

  ‘He just got out of his car.’

  ‘Not recently. That car has been idling in place for ten minutes. Look at the puddles under the exhaust pipes.’

  Peterson didn’t reply. And didn’t move.

  Reacher asked again, ‘Who are they?’

  ‘What’s it to you?’

  ‘Just curious. They’re scaring you.’

  ‘You think?’

  ‘If they weren’t they’d be cuffed in the back of this car by now.’

  ‘They’re bikers.’

  ‘I don’t see any bikes.’

  ‘It’s winter,’ Peterson said. ‘They use pick-up trucks in winter.’

  ‘That’s illegal now?’

  ‘They’re tweakers.’

  ‘What are tweakers?’

  ‘Crystal meth users.’

  ‘Amphetamines?’

  ‘Methylated amphetamine. Smoked. Or to be technically accurate, vaporized and inhaled. Off of glass pipes or busted light bulbs or aluminum foil spoons. You heat it up and sniff away. Makes you erratic and unpredictable.’

  ‘People are always erratic and unpredictable.’

  ‘Not like these guys.’

  ‘You know them?’

  ‘Not specifically. But generically.’

  ‘They live in town?’

  ‘Five miles west. There are a lot of them. Kind of camping out. Generally they keep themselves to themselves, but people don’t like them.’

  Reacher said, ‘The dead guy was one of them.’

  Peterson said, ‘Apparently.’

  ‘So maybe they’re looking for their buddy.’

  ‘Or for justice.’ Peterson watched and waited. Thirty feet ahead the body language ballet continued as before. Chief Holland was shivering. With cold, or fear.

  Or both.

  Reacher said, ‘You better do something.’

  Peterson did nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘Interesting strategy. You’re going to wait until they freeze to death.’

  Peterson said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘Only problem is, Holland will freeze first.’

  Peterson said nothing.

  ‘I’ll come with you, if you like.’

  ‘You’re a civilian.’

  ‘Only technically.’

  ‘You’re not properly dressed. It’s cold out.’

  ‘How long can it take?’

  ‘You’re unarmed.’

  ‘Against guys like that, I don’t need to be armed.’

  ‘Crystal meth is not a joke. No inhibitions.’

  ‘That jus
t makes us even.’

  ‘Users don’t feel pain.’

  ‘They don’t need to feel pain. All they need to feel is conscious or unconscious.’

  Peterson said nothing.

  Reacher said, ‘You go left and I’ll go right. I’ll turn them around and you get in behind them.’

  Thirty feet ahead Holland said something and the two guys crowded forward and Holland backed off and tripped and sat down heavily in the snow bank. Now he was more than an arm’s length from where his gun must have fallen.

  Half past ten in the evening.

  Reacher said, ‘This won’t wait.’

  Peterson nodded. Opened his door.

  ‘Don’t touch them,’ he said. ‘Don’t start anything. Right now they’re innocent parties.’

  ‘With Holland down on his ass?’

  ‘Innocent until proven guilty. That’s the law. I mean it. Don’t touch them.’ Peterson climbed out of the car. Stood for a second behind his open door and then stepped around it and started forward. Reacher matched him, pace for pace.

  The two guys saw them coming.

  Reacher went right and Peterson went left. The car had been a comfortable seventy degrees. The evening air was sixty degrees colder. Maybe more. Reacher zipped his jacket all the way and shoved his hands deep in his pockets and hunched his shoulders so that his collar rode up on his neck. Even so he was shivering after five paces. It was beyond cold. The air felt deeply refrigerated. The two guys ahead stepped back, away from Holland. They gave him room. Holland struggled to his feet. Peterson stepped alongside him. His gun was still holstered. Reacher tracked around over the thin white glaze and stopped six feet behind the two guys. Holland stepped forward and dug around in the snow bank and retrieved his weapon. He brushed it clean and checked the muzzle for slush and stuck it back in his holster.

  Everyone stood still.

  The shaved snow on the street was part bright white powder and part ice crystals. They shone and glittered in the moonlight. Peterson and Holland were staring straight at the two guys and even though he was behind them Reacher was pretty sure the two guys were staring right back. He was shivering hard and his teeth were starting to chatter and his breath was fogging in front of him.

  Nobody spoke.

  The guy on Reacher’s right was more than six feet tall and close to four feet wide. Some of the bulk was goose-feather insulation in the black winter parka, but most of it was flesh and bone. The guy on Reacher’s left was a little smaller in both directions, and more active. He was restless, moving from foot to foot, twisting at the waist, rolling his shoulders. Cold, for sure, but not actively shivering. Reacher guessed the twitching was all about chemistry, not temperature.

  Nobody spoke.

  Reacher said, ‘Guys, either you need to move right along, or one of you needs to loan me a coat.’

  The two men turned around, slowly. The big guy on the right had a white slab of a face buried deep in a beard. The beard was rimed with frost. Like a polar explorer, or a mountaineer. The smaller guy on the left had two days of stubble and jumpy eyes. His mouth was opening and closing like a goldfish pecking at the surface. Thin mobile lips, bad teeth.

  The big guy on the right asked, ‘Who are you?’

  Reacher said, ‘Go home. It’s too cold for foolishness on the street.’

  No reply.

  Behind the two guys Peterson and Holland did nothing. Their guns were holstered and their holsters were snapped shut. Reacher planned his next moves. Always better to be prepared. He anticipated no major difficulty. He would have preferred the bigger guy to be on his left, because that would have maximized the impact from a right-handed blow by allowing a marginally longer swing, and he always liked to put the larger of a pair down first. But he was prepared to be flexible. Maybe the jittery guy should go down first. The bigger guy was likely to be slower, and maybe less committed, without the chemical assistance.

  Reacher said, ‘Coat or float, guys.’

  No answer from the two men. Then behind them Chief Holland came to life. He stepped forward one angry pace and said, ‘Get the hell out of my town.’

  Then he shoved the smaller guy in the back.

  The smaller guy stumbled towards Reacher and then braced against the motion and spun back and started to whirl a fast one-eighty towards Holland with his fist cocking behind him like a pitcher aiming to break the radar gun. Reacher caught the guy by the wrist and held on for a split second and then let go again and the guy staggered through the rest of his turn all unbalanced and uncoordinated and ineffectual and ended with a weak late swing that missed Holland entirely.

  But then he turned right back and aimed a second swing straight at Reacher. Which in Reacher’s opinion took the whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing right off the table. He stepped left and the incoming fist buzzed by an inch from his chin. The force behind it spun the guy onward and Reacher kicked his feet out from under him and dumped him face down on the ice. Whereupon the bigger guy started wading in, huge thighs, short choppy steps, fists like hams, trumpets of steam from his nose like an angry bull in a kid’s picture book.

  Easy meat.

  Reacher matched the guy’s charge with momentum of his own and smashed his elbow horizontally into the middle of the white space between the guy’s beard and his hairline. Like running full tilt into a scaffolding pipe. Game over, except the smaller guy was already up on his knees and scrabbling for grip, hands and feet, like a sprinter in the blocks. So Reacher kicked him hard in the head. The guy’s eyes rolled up and he toppled sideways and lay still with his legs folded under him.

  Reacher put his hands back in his pockets.

  Peterson said, ‘Jesus.’

  The two guys lay close together, black humps on the moonlit ice, steam rising off them in a cloud. Peterson said nothing more. Holland stalked back to his unmarked car and used the radio and came back a long minute later and said, ‘I just called for two ambulances.’

  He was looking straight at Reacher.

  Reacher didn’t respond.

  Holland asked, ‘You want to explain why I had to call for two ambulances?’

  Reacher said, ‘Because I slipped.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘On the ice.’

  ‘That’s your story? You slipped and just kind of blundered into them?’

  ‘No, I slipped when I was hitting the big guy. It softened the blow. If I hadn’t slipped you wouldn’t be calling for two ambulances. You’d be calling for one ambulance and one coroner’s wagon.’

  Holland looked away.

  Peterson said, ‘Go wait in the car.’

  The lawyer went to bed at a quarter to eleven. His children had preceded him by two hours and his wife was still in the kitchen. He put his shoes on a rack and his tie in a drawer and his suit on a hanger. He tossed his shirt and his socks and his underwear in the laundry hamper. He put on his pyjamas and took a leak and brushed his teeth and climbed under the covers and stared at the ceiling. He could still hear the laugh in his head, from the phone call just before he spun out on the highway. A bark, a yelp, full of excitement. Full of anticipation. Full of glee. Eliminate the witness, he had recited, and the man on the phone had laughed with happiness.

  Reacher got back in Peterson’s car and closed the door. His face was numb with cold. He angled the heater vents up and turned the fan to maximum. He waited. Five minutes later the ambulances showed up, with flashing lights pulsing bright red and blue against the snow. They hauled the two guys away. They were still out cold. Concussions, and probably some minor maxillary damage. No big deal. Three days in bed and a
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