The affair, p.10
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       The Affair, p.10

         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Ten

  30

  Deveraux left for Kelham in her car and I was left alone on the sidewalk. I walked past the vacant lot to the diner. Lunch, for one. I ordered the cheeseburger again, and then stepped over to the phone by the door and called the Pentagon. Colonel John James Frazer. Senate Liaison. He answered on the first ring. I asked him, "What genius decided to classify that plate number?"

  He said, "I can't tell you that. "

  "Whoever, it was a bad mistake. All it did was confirm the car belongs to a Kelham guy. It was practically a public announcement. "

  "We had no alternative. We couldn't put it in the public domain. Journalists would have gotten it five minutes after local law enforcement. We couldn't allow that. "

  "Now it sounds like you're telling me it belonged to a Bravo Company guy. "

  "I'm not telling you anything. But believe me, we had no choice. The consequences would have been catastrophic. "

  Something in his voice.

  "Please tell me you're kidding," I said. "Because right now you're making it sound like it was Reed Riley's own personal vehicle. "

  No response.

  I asked, "Was it?"

  No answer.

  "Was it?"

  "I can't confirm or deny," Frazer said. "And don't ask again. And don't use that name again, either. Not on an unsecured line. "

  "Does the officer in question have an explanation?"

  "I can't comment on that. "

  I said, "This is getting out of control, Frazer. You need to rethink. The cover up is always worse than the crime. You need to stop it now. "

  "Negative on that, Reacher. There's a plan in place, and it will stay in place. "

  "Does the plan include an exclusion zone around Kelham? Maybe for journalists especially?"

  "What the hell are you talking about?"

  "I've got circumstantial evidence here of boots on the ground outside of Kelham's fence. Part of the circumstantial evidence is a corpse. I'm telling you, this thing is out of control now. "

  "Who's the corpse?"

  "A scrappy middle-aged guy. "

  "A journalist?"

  "I don't know how to recognize a journalist by sight alone. Maybe that's a skill they teach to the infantry, but they don't teach it to MPs. "

  "No ID on him?"

  "We haven't looked yet. The doctor hasn't finished with him. "

  Frazer said, "There is no exclusion zone around Fort Kelham. That would be a major policy shift. "

  "And illegal. "

  "Agreed. And stupid. And counterproductive. It isn't happening. It never has. "

  "I think the Marine Corps did it once. "

  "When?"

  "Within the last twenty years. "

  "Well, Marines. They do all kinds of things. "

  "You should check it out. "

  "How? You think they put it in their official history?"

  "Do it obliquely. Look for an officer who got canned overnight with no other explanation. Maybe a colonel. "

  * * *

  I hung up with Frazer and ate my burger and drank some coffee and then I set out to do what Garber had ordered me to do mid-morning, which was to return to the wreck and destroy the offending license plate. I turned east on the Kelham road and then north on the railroad ties. I passed by the old water tower. Its elephant's trunk was made from some kind of black rubberized canvas, gone all perished and patchy with age. The whole thing was swaying a little in a soft southerly breeze. I walked on fifty yards and then stepped off the line and headed for where I had seen the half-buried bumper.

  The half-buried bumper was gone.

  It was nowhere to be seen. It had been dug up and taken away. The hole its lance-like point had made had been filled with earth, which had been stamped down by boot soles and then tamped flat by the backs of shovels.

  The boot prints were like nothing I had ever seen in the military. But the shovel marks could have been made by GI entrenching tools. It was difficult to be sure. Couldn't rule it out, couldn't rule it in.

  I walked on, deeper into the debris field. It had all been tampered with. It had been sifted, and examined, and turned over, and checked, and evaluated. Almost two hundred linear yards. Maybe a thousand individual fragments had been displaced. No doubt ten times as many smaller items had been eyeballed. A wide area. A big task. A lot of work. Slow and painstaking. Six men, I figured. Maybe eight. I pictured them advancing in a line, under effective command, working with great precision.

  With military precision.

  I walked back the way I had come. I got to the middle of the railroad crossing and saw a car in the east, coming from the direction of Kelham. It was still far away on the straight road. Small to the eye, but not a small car. At first I thought it might be Deveraux coming back after lunch, but it wasn't. It was a black car, and big, and fast, and smooth. A town car. A limousine. It was right out on the crown of the road, straddling the line, staying well away from the ragged shoulders. It was swaying and wafting and wandering.

  I came off the track on the Kelham side and stood in the middle of the road, feet apart, arms out, big and obvious. I let the car get within a hundred yards and then I crossed my arms above my head and waved the universal distress semaphore. I knew the driver would stop. This was 1997, remember. Four and a half years before the new rules. A long time ago. A much less suspicious world.

  The car slowed and stopped in front of me. I went to my right, around the hood, down the flank, toward the driver's window, holding back a little, trying to perfect my angle. I wanted to get a look at the passenger. I figured he would be in the back, on the far side, with the front passenger seat scooted forward for leg room. I knew how these things were done. I had been in town cars before. Once or twice.

  The driver's window came down. I bent forward from the waist. Took a look. The driver was a big fat guy with the kind of belly that forced his knees wide apart. He was wearing a black chauffeur's cap and a black jacket and a black tie. He had watery eyes. He said, "Can we help you?"

  I said, "I'm sorry. My mistake. I thought you were someone else. But thanks anyway for stopping. "

  "Sure," the guy said. "No problem. " His window went back up and I stepped aside and the car drove on.

  The passenger had been male, older than me, gray haired, prosperous, in a fine suit made of wool. There had been a leather briefcase on the seat beside him.

  He was a lawyer, I thought.

  31

  I was facing east, toward the black part of town, and there were things over there that I wanted to see again, so I set off walking in that direction. The road felt good under my feet. I guessed once upon a time during the glory days of the railroad it had been a simple dirt track, but it had been updated since then, almost certainly in the 1950s, almost certainly on the DoD's dime. The foundation had been dug down, for armor on flat-bed transporters, and the line had been straightened, because if an army engineer sees a ruled line on a map, then a straight road is what appears on the ground. I had walked on many DoD roads. There are a lot of them, all around the world, all built a lifetime ago, during the long and spectacular blaze of American military power and self confidence, when there was nothing we couldn't or wouldn't do. I was a product of that era, but not a part of it. I was nostalgic for something I had never experienced.

  Then I thought about my old pal Stan Lowrey, talking about want ads in the hamburger place near where we were based. Changes were coming, for sure, but I wasn't unhappy. That straight road through the low Mississippi forest was helping me. The sun was out, and the air was warm. There were miles behind me, and miles ahead, and plenty of time on the clock. I had no ambitions and very few needs. I would be OK, whatever came next. No choice. I would have to be.

  * * *

  I made the same turn Deveraux had made in her car, south on the dirt road between the bar ditches and the slave shacks. Toward Emmeline McClatchy's plac
e. At walking speed I was seeing different things than from the car. Poverty, mostly, and up close. There were patched clothes on lines, washed so thin they were almost transparent. There were no new cars. There were chickens in some of the yards, and goats, and the occasional pig. There were mangy dogs on chains. There were duct tape and baling wire fixes everywhere, to electric lines, to rain gutters, to plumbing outlets. And I was seeing suspicion too, to a degree. There were barefoot children briefly visible, staring at me, their fingers in their mouths, until they were snatched back out of sight by anxious mothers who wouldn't meet my eye.

  I kept on going and passed by Emmeline McClatchy's place. I didn't see her. I didn't see anybody on that stretch of the road. No kids, no adults. Nobody. I passed by the house with the beer signs in the window. I followed the same turns Deveraux had steered me through before, left and right and left, until I found the abandoned work site and its pile of gravel.

  The house planned for the lot was small, and its foundation was set at an angle according to ancient practice and wisdom, to take advantage of prevailing breezes and to avoid the full impact of the southwestern sun in the summer. The foundation itself was built of recycled blocks and sand-heavy cement. A sewer pipe and a water line had been roughed in. The corner posts were already weathering. Nothing else had been completed. Money had run out, I supposed.

  The gravel in the pile was waiting to be made into concrete, I assumed. Maybe the ground floor of the new place was supposed to be a solid slab, not boards. Maybe there were advantages to doing it that way, perhaps related to termites. I had no idea. I had never built a house. I had never had to consider housing-related issues.

  The gravel pile itself had spread and settled during the idle months. Weeds were showing through the edges where it was thin. It was knee-high over most of its area, and up close it was about the size of a queen bed. The divots and the pockmarks in its top surface were like a Rorschach test. It was entirely possible to see them as the result of innocent children running and jumping and stomping. It was equally possible to see them as the result of a grown woman being thrown down and raped, in a violent flurry of knees and elbows and backs.

  I squatted down and ran a fingertip through the tiny stones. They were surprisingly hard to move. They were packed down tight, and some kind of a dusty residue on them seemed to have mixed with rain or dew to form a weak adhesive. I made a furrow about an inch wide and an inch deep, and then I turned my hand over.

  I pressed the back of my hand into the pile and held it there for a minute. Then I looked at the result. Small white marks, but no indentations, because there was no real flesh on the back of my hand. So I pulled up my sleeve and pressed the inside of my forearm against the pile. I put the flat of my other hand on it and leaned on it hard. I bounced it up and down a couple of times, and scrabbled it around. Then I looked at it.

  The result was some small red marks, some small white marks, and a whole lot of dust, dirt, and mud. I spat on my arm and wiped it on my pants and the resulting clean stripe looked both very like and very unlike the small of Janice May Chapman's back. Another Rorschach test. Inconclusive.

  But I did come to one minor conclusion. I cleaned up my arm as well as I could, which was not perfectly, and I decided that whatever gravel patch Chapman had been raped on, she had not only dressed afterward, but showered too.

  I walked on and found the wider street where Shawna Lindsay had lived. The second victim. The middle class girl, comparatively. Her baby brother was still in his yard. Sixteen years old. The ugly boy. He was just standing there. Doing nothing. Watching the street. Watching me approach. His eyes tracked me all the way. I stepped up on the shoulder and came to a stop face to face with him, with only his low picket fence between us.

  I said, "How's life, kid?"

  He said, "My mom's out. "

  "Good to know," I said. "But that wasn't what I asked. "

  "Life's a bitch," he said.

  "And then you die," I said. Which I regretted, instantly. Insensitive, given his family's recent history. But he took no notice. Which I was glad about. I said, "I need to talk to you. "

  "Why? You earning a whitey merit badge? You need to find a black person to talk with today?"

  "I'm in the army," I said. "Which means half my friends are black, and more importantly it means half my bosses are black. I talk to black people all the time, and they talk to me. So don't give me that ghetto shit. "

  The boy was quiet for a second. Then he asked, "What part of the army are you in?"

  "Military Police. "

  "Is that a tough job?"

  "Tougher than tough," I said. "Think about it logically. Any soldier could kick your ass, and I could kick any soldier's ass. "

  "For real?"

  "More than real," I said. "Real is for other people. Not for us. "

  He asked, "What do you want to talk about?"

  "A hunch. "

  "What kind?"

  I said, "My guess is no one ever talked to you about your sister's death. "

  He looked down.

  I said, "Normally with a homicide victim, they talk to everyone who knew her. They ask for insights and opinions. They want to know what kinds of things she did, where she went, who she hung with. Did they ever talk to you about that kind of stuff?"

  "No," he said. "Nobody ever talked to me. "

  "They should have," I said. "I would have. Because brothers know things about sisters. Especially at the ages you two were. I bet you knew things about Shawna that no one else did. I bet she told you things she couldn't tell your mom. And I bet you figured out some stuff on your own. "

  The kid shuffled in place a little. Bashful, and a little proud. Like saying: Yeah, maybe I did figure some things out. Out loud he said, "No one ever talks to me about anything. "

  "Why not?"

  "Because I'm deformed. They think I'm slow, too. "

  "Who says you're deformed?"

  "Everybody. "

  "Even your mom?"

  "She doesn't say it, but she thinks it. "

  "Even your friends?"

  "I don't have any friends. Who would want to be friends with me?"

  "They're all wrong," I said. "You're not deformed. You're ugly, but you're not deformed. There's a difference. "

  He smiled. "That's what Shawna used to tell me. "

  I pictured the two of them together. Beauty and the beast. A tough life, for both of them. Tough for him, with the endless implied comparisons. Tough for her, with the endless need for tact and patience. I said, "You should join the army. You'd look like a movie star compared to half the people I know. You should see the guy that sent me here. "

  "I'm going to join the army," he said. "I talked to someone about it. "

  "Who did you talk to?"

  "Shawna's last boyfriend," he said. "He was a soldier. "

  32

  The kid invited me inside. His mom was out, and there was a pitcher of iced tea in the refrigerator. The house was dim and shuttered. It smelled stale. It was mean and narrow inside, but it had plenty of rooms. An eat-in kitchen, a living room, and what I guessed were three bedrooms in back. Space for two parents and two kids, except I saw no sign of a father, and Shawna was never coming home again.

  The kid told me his name was Bruce. We took glasses of tea and sat at the kitchen table. There was an old wall phone next to the refrigerator. Pale yellow plastic. Its cord had been stretched about twelve feet long. There was an old television set on the countertop. Small, but color, with chrome accents on the cabinet. Practically an antique, probably rescued from a trash pile somewhere and polished up like an old Cadillac.

  Up close and personal the kid was no better looking than he had been outside. But if you ignored his head, then the rest of him was in pretty good shape. He was all bone and muscle, broad through the chest and the shoulders, thick in the arms. Deep down he seemed patient and cheerful. I liked him, basically.
>
  He asked me, "Would they really let me join the army?"

  "Who is they?"

  "The army, I mean. The army itself. Would they let me in?"

  "Do you have felony convictions?"

  "No, sir. "

  "An arrest record of any kind?"

  "No, sir. "

  "Then of course they'll let you in. They'd take you today if you were old enough. "

  "The others would laugh at me. "

  "Probably," I said. "But not for the reason you think. Soldiers aren't like that. They'd find something else. Something you never even thought of yet. "

  "I could wear my helmet all the time. "

  "Only if they find one big enough. "

  "And night vision goggles. "

  "Maybe a bomb disposal hood," I said. I figured bomb disposal was the coming thing. Small wars and booby traps. But I didn't say so. Not the kind of message a potential recruit wants to hear.

  I sipped my tea.

  The boy asked me, "Do you watch television?"

  "Not much," I said. "Why?"

  "They have commercials," he said. "Which means they have to fit an hour's story into forty-some minutes. So they get right to it. "

  "You think that's what I should do now?"

  "That's what I'm saying. "

  "So who do you think killed your sister?"

  The boy took a sip of tea and a serious breath and then he started in on everything he had been thinking about, and everything he had never been asked about. It all came tumbling out, fast, coherent, responsive, and thoughtful. He said, "Well, her throat was cut, so we need to think about who is trained to do that kind of thing, or experienced with that kind of thing, or both. "

  That kind of thing. His sister's throat.

  I asked, "So who fits the bill?"

  "Soldiers," he said. "Especially here. And ex-soldiers, especially here. Fort Kelham is field training for special ops guys. They know those skills. And hunters. And most people in town, to be honest. Including me. "

  "You? Are you a hunter?"

  "No, but I have to eat. People keep pigs. "

  "And?"

  "You think pigs commit suicide? We cut their throats. "

  "You've done that?"

  "Dozens of times. Sometimes I get a dollar. "

  I asked, "When and where did you last see Shawna alive?"

  "It was the day she was killed. It was a Friday in November. She left here about seven o'clock. After dark, anyway. She was all dressed up. "

  "Where was she going?"

  "Across the tracks. To Brannan's bar, probably. That's where she usually went. "

  "Is Brannan's the most popular bar?"

  "They're all popular. But Brannan's is where most folk start out and finish up. "

  "Who did Shawna go with that night?"

  "She left on her own. Probably she was going to meet her boyfriend at the bar. "

  "Did she ever get there?"

  "No. She was found two streets from here. Where someone started to build a house. "

  "The place with the gravel pile?"

  The boy nodded. "She was dumped right on it. Like a human sacrifice in a history book. "

  We got up from the table and poked around the kitchen for a minute. Then we took more tea and sat down again. I said, "Tell me about Shawna's last boyfriend. "

  "First white boyfriend she ever had. "

  "Did she like him?"

  "Pretty much. "

  "Did they get along?"

  "Pretty good. "

  "No problems?"

  "Didn't see any. "

  "Did he kill her?"

  "He might have. "

  "Why do you say that?"

  "Can't rule him out. "

  "Gut feeling?"

  "I want to say no, but someone killed her. It could have been him. "

  "What was his name?"

  "Reed. That was all Shawna ever said. Reed this, Reed that. Reed, Reed, Reed. "

  "Last name?"

  "I don't know. "

  "We wear name tapes," I said. "Battledress uniform, above the right breast pocket. "

  "I never saw him in uniform. They all wear jeans and T-shirts to town. Jackets, sometimes. "

  "Officer or enlisted man?"

  "I don't know. "

  "You talked to him. Didn't he say?"

  The kid shook his head. "He said his name was Reed. That's all. "

  "Was he an asshole?"

  "A bit. "

  "Did he look like he worked hard for a living?"

  "Not really. He didn't take things very seriously. "

  "Probably an officer, then," I said. "What did he tell you about joining the army?"

  "He said serving your country was a noble thing to do. "

  "Definitely an officer. "

  "He said I could learn a skill. He said I might make specialist. "

  "You could do better than that. "

  "He said they would explain it all at the recruiting office. He said there's a good one in Memphis. "

  "Don't go there," I said. "Way too dangerous. Recruiting offices are shared between all four branches of the service. The Marines might grab you first. Fate worse than death. "

  "So where should I go?"

  "Go straight to Kelham. There are recruiters on every post. "

  "Will that work?"

  "Sure it will. As soon as you've got something in your hand that proves you're eighteen years old, they'll let you in and never let you out again. "

  "But they say the army is getting smaller. "

  "Thanks for pointing that out, kid. "

  "So why would they want me?"

  "They're still going to have hundreds of thousands of people. Tens of thousands will still leave every year. They'll always need to be replaced. "

  "What's wrong with the Marines?"

  "Nothing really. It's a traditional rivalry. They say stuff, we say stuff. "

  "They do amphibious landings. "

  "History shows the army has done many more all on its own. "

  "Sheriff Deveraux was a Marine. "

  "Is a Marine," I said. "They never stop being Marines, even after they leave. It's one of their things. "

  "You like her," the kid said. "I could tell. I saw you riding in her car. "

  "She's OK," I said. "Did Reed have a car? Shawna's boyfriend?"

  The kid nodded. "They all have cars. I'm going to have a car too, after I join. "

  "What kind of car did Reed have?"

  "He had a 1957 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop. Not really a classic. It was kind of beat up. "

  "What color was it?"

  The kid said, "It was blue. "

 
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