Personal, p.5
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         Part #19 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  ‘Can’t say. I don’t spend a lot of time watching.’

  ‘A month ago? Two months?’

  ‘Can’t say.’

  I asked, ‘What does he drive?’

  ‘An old blue pick-up truck,’ the guy said. ‘A Ford, from way back long ago.’

  ‘You ever hear shooting up there?’

  ‘Up where?’

  ‘In the woods. Or the hills.’

  ‘This is Arkansas,’ the guy said.

  ‘Does Mr Kott get visitors?’

  ‘Can’t say.’

  ‘Any strange people hanging around?’

  ‘What kind of strange people?’

  ‘Strange foreign people, maybe.’

  ‘You’re the first I’ve seen in a long time.’

  I said, ‘I’m not a strange foreign person. I’m neither of those things.’

  He asked, ‘Where were you born?’

  To which there was no good answer. He could tell by my voice I wasn’t born in the South. And New York or Chicago or Los Angeles would be all the same to him. So I told him the truth. I said, ‘West Berlin.’

  He didn’t reply.

  ‘Marine family,’ I said.

  ‘I was air force,’ he said. ‘I don’t like the Marines. Bunch of showboating glory hunters, in my opinion.’

  ‘No offence taken,’ I said.

  The guy turned away and looked at Casey Nice, top to bottom, bottom to top, quite slowly, and he said, ‘I’m guessing you were never in prison.’

  She said, ‘Only because they’re not smart enough to catch me.’

  The guy smiled and ran his tongue out through the gap in his teeth. He said, ‘Catch you doing what, little missy?’

  Casey Nice said, ‘You should get that tooth fixed. You’d have a nice smile, if you did. And you should take the washing machine out of the yard. I don’t think it’s compulsory.’

  ‘Are you making fun of me?’ The guy stepped up and stared at her, and then he glanced at me, and I gave him a blank-eyed look, like I had a fifth of a second to decide whether to leave him limping for a week, or in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He paused a beat, and then he said, ‘Well, I hope y’all have a nice visit with your buddy,’ and he walked away, around the back of his house again, but this time on the dish side. We stood for a second in the weak spring sun, and then we got back in the rented truck and aimed it across the two-lane’s hump, straight at the mouth of Kott’s stony track.

  NINE

  THE TRACK WAS little better than a dry riverbed, but at least it wasn’t straight. Not at first. It came in off the two-lane at a shallow angle, and then it turned sharp right, to climb up a bank, before it curved left again, to align itself with the ravine it was following. Then it was going to hairpin right. And beyond that we couldn’t see. Casey Nice was hunched forward, fighting the wheel, which was writhing and bucking in her hands.

  I said, ‘You need to sit back. In fact you need to push your chair back.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because when the shooting starts, you need to get down in the foot well. I don’t know if the engine in this thing is iron or aluminium, but either one is good protection. If you’re not killed instantly, that is.’

  ‘He’s in London.’

  ‘One of them is. The other three aren’t.’

  ‘He’s the pick of the litter.’

  ‘He’s been in prison fifteen years.’

  ‘With a plan. Either it worked or it didn’t. If it did, he’s as good as he ever was. Which is plenty good enough for Paris. Or he might even be better than he ever was. Have you thought of that? Which would be superhuman, basically.’

  ‘Is that the State Department’s official in-house analysis? You guys should stick to passports and visas.’

  We crawled on up, towards the blind hairpin turn. We saw no surveillance. No one was monitoring our progress. The ravine we were following would look small from the air, like a scratch on a lover’s back, but up close and personal, on a human scale, it was plenty impressive. It was maybe thirty feet deep, like a long gash from a raked claw, and the bottom was filled with broken and tumbled rocks, so that not much grew there except small hardy weeds and bushes. The trees restarted at the tops of the banks, and their leaves were out, still curled and half-sized, but numerous enough to block the view.

  I said, ‘Maybe we should walk from here.’

  ‘Seven feet apart?’

  ‘At least.’

  She slowed the truck and came to a bouncing stop. There was nowhere to pull off. The track was about one truck wide. Which was good. I said, ‘If he’s out at the grocery store we’ll hear him get back. He’s going to honk his horn when he finds this thing here.’

  ‘He’s in London.’

  ‘Stay with the truck, if you want.’

  ‘I don’t want.’

  ‘Then you go first. Like you were selling encyclopedias. He won’t shoot you.’

  ‘You sure?’

  ‘You haven’t challenged him yet.’

  ‘See? You do know something about him.’

  ‘I’ll be about twenty yards behind. Holler if there’s a problem.’

  I watched her go. She stepped neatly from rock to rock in the centre of the track, and carefully, as if the streambed had water in it, and she needed to keep her feet dry. I followed twenty yards back, stepping longer but slower, planting my feet like climbing a hill, even though the slope was gradual. She paused before the hairpin and looked back, and I shrugged, and she moved on out of sight. I stopped for a moment and listened hard, but heard nothing except the click of stones under her feet, so I moved on after her, a little faster, aiming to close the gap to what it had been before.

  After the hairpin turn there was a long straight stretch along the uphill side of the ravine, and then a suggestion of a clearing in the trees, and maybe a house made of the same dark boards as its neighbour. And maybe a wink of dull blue paint, to the left, behind distant leaves. Maybe a parked pick-up truck, from way back long ago. Total distance from me to there was about a hundred yards.

  Up ahead Casey Nice had moved over to the edge of the track. Slower going, but I guess she felt better there. As did I. I crabbed over to the opposite edge. No point in presenting a single linear target. No point in her getting killed by a miss aimed at me, and no point in me getting killed by a miss aimed at her.

  We moved on, in diagonal lock step, until she reached the edge of the clearing, where she paused and looked back. I gestured hold still, a standard infantry hand signal from way back in basic, but she got it and pulled back a step into the trees. I crossed the track, three long strides, and I joined her. She said, ‘Want me to go knock on the door?’

  I said, ‘I think you’re going to have to.’

  ‘Does he have a dog?’

  ‘It would have barked already.’

  She nodded and took a breath and stepped out. I heard the sound change under her feet, from clicking stones to crunching gravel. I heard her knock on the door. No bell. Just a loud tap-tap-tap from her knuckles on the wood, which might have sounded urgent in the city, but which seemed appropriate in the countryside, where people can be busy far away.

  There was no response.

  No tread or creak inside the house, no scuffle or crunch around it.

  Nothing.

  She knocked again.

  Tap-tap-tap.

  Silence. No response. No one home, no watchers, no surveillance.

  I stepped out and hiked across and joined her. Most of the windows in the house had closed drapes behind them, and what few peeks in we got showed us nothing much except plain rooms furnished cheaply some years ago. The house was a long low ranch, very similar in style to the neighbour’s below. Maybe built by the same people, at the same time. It was solid. The clearing where it stood was beaten earth half-heartedly sown with gravel. Last year’s weeds were coming back, thinner by the front door, because of foot traffic, and equally by the back door, and equally along informal curving paths
that led from both doors to where the blue truck was parked.

  The blue truck was indeed a Ford, and ancient. A hundred bucks in cash, probably. Perfect for a guy just out of Leavenworth. It was stone cold and looked like it hadn’t been moved in a while, but who could tell with a truck that old?

  Casey Nice was looking for places to hide a spare key. Of which there was a notable lack. No flowerpots by the door, no statues, no stone lions. She said, ‘Should we break in?’

  I saw a third path. Nothing more than a long shallow depression, and damaged weeds coming back differently, smaller in size, with dark bruised leaves. The path led beyond the old truck, and up towards the next ravine.

  I said, ‘Let’s check this out first.’

  She followed me single file, into the woods, right and left, and we found ourselves at the eastern end of another ravine. It was very like the one we had already seen, a gouge in the earth, maybe thirty feet deep, shaped like a bathtub of tremendous length. Some old geological event. Glaciation, possibly, a million years ago, giant sharp boulders embedded in a trillion tons of ice, grinding slow but certain, like ploughs in a field. Like its twin it had broken rocks in the bottom, with not much growing there. Either side the trees grew tall, emphasizing the trench’s depth, and exaggerating its length.

  Three trees had blown over. Right at the eastern end of the hole. Three pines, straight and true. Two had come down parallel, about ten feet from each other, spanning the drop like the outer frame of a bridge. The third had been chainsawed into ten-foot lengths, which had been lashed across the gap between the fallen trunks to make a solid platform. The platform’s upper face was an eight-by-four plywood board, exterior grade, nailed down hard.

  Casey Nice said, ‘For what?’

  We climbed on to the platform, inching out, using overhanging branches for support, unsteady for a second, and then we stood still on the board and looked all around. Behind us were trees. To our left and our right were trees. In front of us the ravine ran away west, into the far distance, straight and narrow. What little that grew in it was way down below us. The far end was almost out of sight. There was a smudge of grey there, an interruption, as if the trench was stopping shorter than it wanted to, maybe because of an unrelated rockfall aeons later.

  I looked down at the plywood and saw two vague oval shapes, close together, each one of them about the size of an ostrich egg, or a quarter-size football, side by side, like footprints from a person standing still. The shapes were grey, or slightly silvery, the way plywood gets when rubbed with metal, and there was graphite too, from lubricating grease, as well as plain old dirt from the air, because deep down at a microscopic level the grease would always be sticky.

  I squatted down and traced the shapes with my finger. I said, ‘A rifle that size has biped legs coming down off the front of the forestock. They can lock up or down. He put a little grease on the hinges, to protect them, like a cautious man should, and he wiped the excess with a cloth, and then he rubbed the cloth on the biped legs, against corrosion, especially the feet, which are the only parts that touch the world, after all, and then he came out here to practise so many times and in so many slightly different positions he left marks this big.’

  ‘Sherlock Homeless,’ she said.

  I stared down the length of the ravine. I said, ‘Suppose those rocks make a kind of shelf or table? Suppose that’s where he put his targets?’

  She said, ‘What rocks?’

  We paced it out, exactly parallel in the woods, staying straight, compensating for dodged trees, with me stepping a comfortable yard every time, with her counting, silently at first, and then when we got to twelve hundred and fifty she started counting out loud, initially in a low mutter, pure routine, and then she started to speak with more clarity and excitement as the numbers grew larger and larger, only to end with a low quizzical tone as I stepped absolutely level with the last of the tumbled grey rocks and she said, ‘Fourteen hundred yards.’

  TEN

  THE ROCKS WERE indeed the result of an ancient fall, as far as I could tell, and they did indeed make a kind of shelf or table. Only twelve inches deep and four feet wide at its flattest. But apparently that was enough for a whole bunch of beer cans and bottles. There were shreds of metal and powdered glass everywhere. Shreds of white, too, as if he had rigged paper targets from time to time. Behind the shelf the rocks themselves were chipped and cratered all over. They were seriously blasted. Hundreds and hundreds of rounds had been fired. Maybe even thousands.

  I said, ‘We need a container.’

  Casey Nice said, ‘What kind?’

  ‘Just some little thing.’ I pointed below the chipped and cratered rocks. ‘We should take some dust with us. For the gas chromatograph. We need to know if they’re the same bullets.’

  She patted her pockets, and I saw her hit a possibility, and discount it, and then come back to it when she ran out of alternatives. She looked at me, a little embarrassed.

  I said, ‘What?’

  She said, ‘I have a pill bottle.’

  ‘That should work.’

  She put her hand in her pocket and took out a small orange bottle with a label. She popped the top and spilled a bunch of pills into her palm. She shovelled the pills back in her pocket loose, and she put the top back on the empty bottle, and she tossed it to me.

  ‘Thanks,’ I said. I brushed dust and grit and dirt into piles, and pinched it all up with finger and thumb, and dropped it in the bottle, over and over again, a little at a time. I had no real idea what a gas chromatograph was, except I was sure it was very sophisticated and could work with the tiniest of samples, but we needed lead fragments, and I wanted to increase the odds. So I kept on pinching and dropping until the bottle was more than half full, and then I put the top back on, and I put the bottle in my pocket, and I said, ‘OK, now we’ll go break into his house.’

  Which we did by kicking down the door. Which was easy enough. A question of force, obviously, which is the product of mass times velocity squared, and that squared part puts a premium on speed, not weight. Bulking up by twenty pounds at the gym is good, because it throws an extra twenty pounds in the mix, but moving your foot 20 per cent faster is better. It does you 400 per cent of a favour. Because it gets squared. Which means multiplied by itself. Money for nothing. Like in baseball. You can swing a heavy bat slow or a light bat fast, and the slow heavy bat gets you a high fly to the warning track, and the light fast bat puts the ball in the bleachers. A principle too often forgotten. People treat doors with too much respect. They eye them warily and shuffle close and then do little more than press their soles against the wood.

  Not me. We chose the rear door over the front, because it looked one category down in certain respects, like the thickness and the hinges and the lock, and the run-up would be longer back there. I needed three clear strides. Which I took at a comfortable walk. Nothing dramatic was required. As long as I was moving, then my upper leg could move faster, and my lower leg faster still, and my foot even faster, and then my heel could punch through the lock like it wasn’t even there.

  Which is what happened. I caught the door on the bounce and Casey Nice stepped in ahead of me. To a kitchen. I stepped in behind her and saw countertops and cabinets, and a metal sink, and a refrigerator the colour of an avocado pear, and a range made of pressed metal, all curved and swooping, like a 1950s car. The countertops were dull, and the cabinets were painted a miserable colour that might have been green or brown or anywhere in between.

  The air was still, and it smelled dry, and there were no real kitchen odours. No onions, no garbage. Just a kind of neutral, inorganic nothing.

  The air smelled old.

  Casey Nice moved towards the hallway door and said, ‘Ready?’

  ‘Wait,’ I said. I wanted to listen, for the low vibration any living thing gives out. But I heard none. The house was silent and empty. Forlorn, even, as if it had been empty for a good long time.

  I said, ‘I’ll check the liv
ing room. You check the bedrooms.’

  She went first, out into a hallway, which was panelled with plywood stained a dark sludge colour, and she glanced around and headed left, so I went right, and found a living room with an L-shaped dining nook. It was a well-built room, and graceful in its proportions, but it was heavy with dark wood, and what wasn’t dark wood was covered in bland vinyl wallpaper, like a mid-priced hotel. The furniture was a sofa and an ottoman and two armchairs, all in brown corduroy, all well used. There were two side tables, and no television. No newspapers, either, or magazines. Or books. There was no telephone. No old sweater dumped over the arm of a chair, no dried-up beer glass, no half-full ashtray. Nothing personal at all. No real sign of life, except the wear and tear and the permanent slumped impressions in the sofa.

  From the far end of the house Casey Nice called out, ‘Reacher?’

  I called back, ‘What?’

  ‘You really need to see this.’

  Something in her voice.

  I said, ‘What is it?’

  ‘You need to see it.’

 
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