The affair, p.12
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       The Affair, p.12

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

  35

  We sat in the idling Caprice for a long minute, saying nothing. The car must have had ten thousand hours of stake-out duty on it. From its previous life, in Chicago or New Orleans or wherever. Every pore of every interior surface was thick with sweat and odor and exhaustion. Grime was crusted everywhere. The floor mats had separated into hard tufts of fiber, each one like a flattened pearl.

  Deveraux said, "I apologize. "

  I said, "For what?"

  "For asking you to help me. It wasn't fair. Forget I said anything. "

  "OK. "

  "Can I let you out somewhere?"

  I said, "Let's go talk to Janice May Chapman's nosy neighbors. "

  "No," she said. "I can't let you do that. I can't let you turn against your own people. "

  "Maybe I wouldn't be turning against my own people," I said. "Maybe I would be doing exactly what my own people wanted me to do all along. Because maybe I would be helping Munro, not you. Because he might be right, you know. We still have no idea who did what here. "

  We. She didn't correct me. Instead she said, "But what's your best guess?"

  I thought about the limousines scurrying in and out of Fort Kelham, carrying expensive lawyers. I thought about the exclusion zone, and the panic in John James Frazer's voice, on the phone from the Pentagon. Senate Liaison. I said, "My best guess is it was a Kelham guy. "

  "You sure you want to take the risk of finding out for sure?"

  "Talking to a man with a gun is a risk. Asking questions isn't. "

  I believed that then, back in 1997.

  Janice May Chapman's house was a hundred yards from the railroad track, one of the last three dwellings on a dead-end lane a mile south and east of Main Street. It was a small place, set back in a wedge-shaped yard off of a circular bulge where traffic could turn around at the end of the street. It was facing two other houses, as if it was nine o'clock on a dial and they were two and four. It was maybe fifty years old, but it had been updated with new siding and a new roof and some diligent landscaping. Both of its neighbors were in a similar state of good repair, as had been all the previous houses on the street. Clearly this was Carter Crossing's middle class enclave. Lawns were green and weed free. Driveways were paved and uncracked. Mailbox posts were exactly vertical. The only real-estate negative was the train, but there was only one of those a day. One minute out of fourteen hundred and forty. Not a bad deal.

  Chapman's house had a full-width front porch, roofed over for shade, railed in with fancy millwork spindles, and equipped with a matched pair of white rocking chairs and a rag mat in various muted colors. Both her neighbors had the exact same thing going on, the only difference being that both their porches were occupied, each by a white-haired old lady wearing a floral-print housedress and sitting bolt upright in a rocker and staring at us.

  We sat in the car for a minute and then Deveraux rolled forward and parked right in the middle of the turnaround. We got out and stood for a second in the afternoon light.

  "Which one first?" I asked.

  "Doesn't matter," Deveraux said. "Whichever, the other one will be right over within about thirty seconds. "

  Which is exactly what happened. We chose the right-hand house, the one at four o'clock on the dial, and before we were three steps onto its porch the neighbor from the two o'clock house was right behind us. Deveraux made the introductions. She gave the ladies my name and said I was an investigator from the army. Up close the ladies were slightly different from one another. One was older, the other was thinner. But they were broadly similar. Thin necks, pursed lips, haloes of white hair. They welcomed me respectfully. They were from a generation that liked the army, and knew something about it. No question they had had husbands or brothers or sons in uniform, World War Two, Korea, Vietnam.

  I turned and checked the view from the porch. Chapman's house was neatly triangulated by her two neighbors. Like a focal point. Like a target. The two neighbors' porches were exactly where the infantry would set up machine gun nests for effective enfilade fire.

  I turned back and Deveraux ran through what she had already discussed. She asked for confirmation of every point and got it. All negative. No, neither of the two ladies had seen Chapman leave her house on the day she had died. Not in the morning, not in the afternoon, not in the evening. Not on foot, not in her car, not in anybody else's car. No, nothing new had come to either one of them. They had nothing to add.

  The next question was tactically difficult, so Deveraux left it to me. I asked, "Were there intervals when something could have happened that you didn't see?" In other words: Just exactly how nosy are you? Were there moments when you weren't staring at your neighbor?

  Both ladies saw the implication, of course, and they clucked and pursed and fussed for a minute, but the gravity of the situation meant more to them than their wounded feelings, and they came out and admitted that no, they had the situation pretty much sewn up around the clock. Both liked to sit on their porches when they weren't otherwise occupied, and they tended to be otherwise occupied at different times. Both had bedrooms at the front of their houses, and neither tried to sleep until the midnight train had passed, and then afterward both were light sleepers anyway, so not much escaped them at night, either.

  I asked, "Was there usually much coming and going over there?"

  The ladies conferred and launched a long, complicated narrative that threatened to go all the way back to the American Revolution. I started to tune it out until I realized they were describing a fairly active social calendar that about half a year ago had settled into a month-on, month-off pattern, first of social frenzy, and then of complete inactivity. Feast or famine. Chapman was either never out, or always out, first four or five weeks in one condition, and then four or five weeks in the other.

  Bravo Company, in Kosovo.

  Bravo Company, at home.

  Not good.

  I asked, "Did she have a boyfriend?"

  She had several, they said, with prim delight. Sometimes all at once. Practically a parade. They listed sequential glimpsed sightings, all of polite young men with short hair, all in what they called dungaree pants, all in what they called undershirts, some in what they called motorcycle coats.

  Jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets.

  Soldiers, obviously, off duty.

  Not good.

  I asked, "Was there anyone in particular? Anyone special?"

  They conferred again and agreed a period of relative stability had commenced three or perhaps four months earlier. The parade of suitors had slowed, first to a trickle, and then it had stopped altogether and been replaced by the attentions of a lone man, once again described as polite, young, short-haired, but always inappropriately dressed on the many occasions they had seen him. Jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets. In their day, a gentleman called on his belle in a suit and a tie.

  I asked, "What did they do together?"

  They went out, the ladies said. Sometimes in the afternoons, but most often in the evenings. Probably to bars. There was very little in the way of alternative entertainment in that corner of the state. The nearest picture house was in a town called Corinth. There had been a vaudeville theater in Tupelo, but it had closed many years ago. The couple tended to come back late, sometimes after midnight, after the train had passed. Sometimes the suitor would stay an hour or two, but to their certain knowledge he had never spent the night.

  I asked, "When was the last time you saw her?"

  The day before she died, they said. She had left her house at seven o'clock in the evening. The same suitor had come calling for her, right at the top of the hour, quite formally.

  "What was Janice wearing that night?" I asked.

  A yellow dress, they said, knee length but low cut.

  "Did her friend show up in his own car?" I asked.

  Yes, they said, he did.

  "What kind of a car was it?"


  It was a blue car, they said.

  36

  We left both ladies on one porch and crossed the street to take a closer look at Chapman's house. It was very much the same as the neighbors' places. It was classic tract housing, built fast in uniform batches for returning military and their new baby boom families right after the end of World War Two. Then each individual example had grown slightly different from all the others over the passing years, the same way identical triplets might evolve differently with age. Chapman's choice had ended up modest and unassuming, but pleasant. Someone had put neat gingerbread trim all over it, and the front door had been replaced.

  We stood on the porch and I looked in a window and saw a small square living room, full of furniture that looked pretty new. There was a loveseat and an armchair and a small television set on a low chest of drawers. There was a VHS player and some tapes next to it. The living room door was open and I could see part of a narrow hallway beyond. I shifted position and craned my neck for a better look.

  "Go inside if you want," Deveraux said, behind me.

  "Really?"

  "The door is unlocked. It was unlocked when we got here. "

  "Is that usual?"

  "Not unusual. We never found her key. "

  "Not in her pocketbook?"

  "She didn't have a pocketbook with her. She seems to have left it in the kitchen. "

  "Is that usual?"

  "She didn't smoke," Deveraux said. "She certainly didn't pay for drinks. Why would she need a pocketbook?"

  "Makeup?" I said.

  "Twenty-seven-year-olds don't powder their noses halfway through the evening. Not like they used to. Not anymore. "

  I opened the front door and stepped inside the house. It was neat and clean, but the air was still and heavy. The floors and the rugs and the paint and the furniture was all fresh, but not brand new. There was an eat-in kitchen across the hall from the living room, with two bedrooms behind, and presumably a bathroom.

  "Nice place," I said. "You could buy it. It would be better than the Toussaint's hotel. "

  Deveraux said, "With those old biddies across the street, watching me all the time? I'd go crazy inside a week. "

  I smiled. She had a point.

  She said, "I wouldn't buy it even without the biddies. I wouldn't want to live like this. Not at all what I'm used to. "

  I nodded. Said nothing.

  Then she said, "Actually I couldn't buy it even if I wanted to. We don't know who the next of kin is. I wouldn't know who to talk to. "

  "No will?"

  "She was twenty-seven years old. "

  "No paperwork anywhere?"

  "We haven't found any so far. "

  "No mortgage?"

  "Nothing on record with the county. "

  "No family?"

  "No one recalls her mentioning any. "

  "So what are you going to do?"

  "I don't know. "

  I moved on down the hallway.

  "Look around," Deveraux called after me. "Feel free. Make yourself at home. But tell me if you find something I should see. "

  I walked from room to room, feeling the kind of trespass feelings I get every time I walk through a dead person's house. There were minor examples of disarray here and there, the kind of things that would have been cleaned up and tidied away before an expected guest's arrival. They humanized the place a little, but on the whole it was a bland and soulless home. There was too much uniformity. All the furniture matched. It looked like it had been selected from the same range from the same manufacturer, all at the same time. All the rugs went well together. All the paint was the same color. There were no pictures on the walls, no photographs on the shelves. No books. No souvenirs, no prized possessions.

  The bathroom was clean. The tub and the towels were dry. The medicine cabinet above the sink had a mirrored door, and behind it were over-the-counter analgesics, and toothpaste, and tampons, and dental floss, and spare soap and shampoo. The main bedroom had nothing of interest in it except a bed, which was made, but not well. The second bedroom had a narrower bed that looked like it had never been used.

  The kitchen was fitted out with a range of useful stuff, but on balance I doubted that Chapman had been a gourmet cook. Her pocketbook was stowed neatly on the counter, resting upright against the side of the refrigerator. It was basically a small leather pouch, with a flap lid designed to close magnetically. It was navy blue in color, which might or might not have been the reason it had been left behind. I wasn't sure of the current protocol involved in matching a blue bag with a yellow dress. Maybe not permitted. Although plenty of medals had blue and yellow in their ribbons, and the women soldiers I knew would have killed to get one, literally.

  I opened the flap and looked in the bag. There was a slim leather wallet, dark red, and a convenience pack of tissues, unopened, and a pen, and some coins, and some crumbs, and a car key. The car key had a long serrated shaft, and a black plastic head molded to feel good to the thumbs, and embossed with a large letter H.

  "Honda," Deveraux said, beside me. "A Honda Civic. Bought new three years ago from a dealer in Tupelo. All up to date in terms of maintenance. "

  "Where is it?" I asked.

  Deveraux pointed to a door. "In her garage. "

  I took the wallet out of the bag. It had nothing in it except cash money and a Mississippi driver's license, issued three years before. The picture on it dimmed about half of Chapman's allure, but it was still well worth looking at. The money added up to less than thirty dollars.

  I put the wallet back and restacked the bag where it had been, next to the refrigerator. I opened the door Deveraux had pointed out, and behind it I found a tiny mud room that had two more doors in it, one letting out to the back yard on my left, and another to the garage straight ahead. The garage was completely empty apart from the car. The Honda. A small import, silver in color, clean and undamaged, sitting there cold and patient and smelling faintly of oil and unburned hydrocarbons. All around it was nothing but empty swept concrete. No unopened moving boxes, no chairs with the stuffing coming out, no abandoned projects, no junk, no clutter.

  Nothing at all.

  Unusual.

  I opened the door to the back yard and stepped out. Deveraux came out with me and asked, "So, was there anything in there I should have seen?"

  "Yes," I said. "There were things in there anyone should have seen. "

  "So what did I miss?"

  "Nothing," I said. "They weren't there to be seen. That's my point. We should have seen certain things, but we didn't. Because certain things were missing. "

  "What things?" she asked.

  "Later," I said, because by that point I had seen something else.

  37

  Janice May Chapman's back yard was not maintained to the same standard as her front yard. In fact it was barely maintained at all. It was almost completely neglected. It was mostly lawn, and it looked a little sad and sunken. It was mowed, but what had been mowed was basically weed, not grass. At the far end was a low panel fence, made of wood, starved of stain or protection, with the center panel fallen out and laid aside.

  What I had seen from the door was a faint narrow path through the mowed weeds. It was almost imperceptible. Almost not there at all. Only the late-afternoon sun made it visible. The light came in low from one side and showed a ghostly trail, where the weeds were a little brushed and crushed and bruised. A little darker than the rest of the lawn. The path led through a curved trajectory straight to the hole in the fence. It had been made by feet, going back and forth.

  I got two steps along it and stopped again. The ground was crunching under my soles. I looked down. Deveraux bumped into my back.

  The second time we had ever touched.

  "What?" she said.

  I looked up again.

  "One thing at a time," I said, and started walking again.

  The path led o
ff the weeds, through the gap in the fence, and out into a barren abandoned field about a hundred yards in width. At the far edge of the field was the railroad track. Halfway along the right-hand edge of the field were two tumbled gateposts, and beyond them was a dirt road that ran east and west. West, I guessed, toward more old field entrances and a link to the winding continuation of Main Street, and east toward the railroad track, where it dead-ended.

  The old field had tire tracks all the way across it. They came in between the ruined gateposts and ran through a wide right-angle turn straight toward the gap in Chapman's fence. They ended close to where I was standing, in a wide looping triangle, where cars had backed up and turned, ready for the return trip.

  "She got sick of the old biddies," I said. "She was playing games with them. Sometimes she came out the front, and sometimes she came out the back. And I bet sometimes the boyfriends said goodnight and drove right around the block for more. "

  Deveraux said, "Shit. "

  "Can't blame her. Or the boyfriends. Or the biddies, really. People do what they do. "

  "But it makes their evidence meaningless. "

  "That's what she wanted. She didn't know it was ever going to be important. "

  "Now we don't know when she came and went on that last day. "

  I stood in the silence and looked all around. Nothing to see. No other houses, no other people. An empty landscape. Total privacy.

  Then I turned and looked back at the weed patch that passed for a lawn.

  "What?" Deveraux said again.

  "She bought this place three years ago, right?"

  "Yes. "

  "She was twenty-four at the time. "

  "Yes. "

  "Is that usual? Twenty-four-year-olds owning real estate?"

  "Maybe not very usual. "

  "With no mortgage?"

  "Definitely not very usual. But what has that got to do with her yard?"

  "She wasn't much of a gardener. "

  "That's not a crime. "

  "The previous owner wasn't much of a gardener either. Did you know him? Or her?"

  "I was still in the Corps three years ago. "

  "Not a long-time resident, that you remember from being a kid? Maybe a third old biddy, like a matched set?"

  "Why?"

  "No reason. Not important. But whoever, they didn't like mowing their lawn. So they dug it up and replaced it with something else. "

  "With what?"

  "Go take a look. "

  She backtracked through the gap in the fence and walked halfway along the path and squatted down. She parted the weedy stalks and dug her fingertips into the surface underneath. She raked them back and forth and then she looked up at me and said, "Gravel. "

  The previous owner had tired of lawn care and opted for raked stones. Like a Japanese garden, maybe, or like the low-water-use yards conscientious Californians were starting to put in. Maybe there had been earthenware tubs here and there, full of cheerful flowers. Or maybe not. It was impossible to tell. But it was clear the gravel had not been a total success. Not a labor-saving cure-all. It had been laid thin. The subsoil had been full of weed roots. Regular applications of herbicide had been called for.

  Janice May Chapman had not continued the herbicide applications. That was clear. No hosepipe in her garage. No watering can. Rural Mississippi. Agricultural land. Rain and sun. Those weeds had come boiling up like madmen. Some boyfriend had brought over a gasoline mower and hacked them back. Some nice guy with plenty of energy. The kind of guy who doesn't like mess and disarray. A soldier, almost certainly. The kind of guy who does things for people, gets things neat, and then keeps them neat.

  Deveraux asked, "So what are you saying? She was raped here?"

  "Maybe she wasn't raped at all. "

  Deveraux said nothing.

  "It's possible she wasn't," I said. "Think about it. A sunny afternoon, total privacy. They're sitting out back because they don't want to sit on the front porch with the old biddies watching every move. They're on the stoop, they're feeling good, they get right to it. "

  "On the lawn?"

  "Wouldn't you?"

  She looked right at me and said, "Like you told the doctor, it would depend on who I was with. "

  We spent the next few minutes talking about injuries. I did the thing with my forearm again. I pressed it down and mashed it around. I simulated the throes of passion. I came up with plenty of green chlorophyll stains and a smear of dry stony mud. When I wiped off the dirt we both saw the same kind of small red marks we had seen on Janice May Chapman's corpse. They were superficial and there was no broken skin, but we both agreed Chapman might have been at it longer, and harder, with more weight and force. "We need to go inside again," I said.

  We found Chapman's laundry basket in the bathroom. It was a rectangular wicker thing, with a lid. Painted white. On top of the pile inside was a short sundress. It had cap sleeves and was printed with red and white pinstripes. It was rucked and creased at the waist. It had grass stains on the upper back. Next item down in the laundry pile was a hand towel. Then a white blouse.

  "No underwear," Deveraux said.

  "Evidently," I said.

  "The rapist kept a souvenir. "

  "She wasn't wearing any. Her boyfriend was coming over. "

  "It's March. "

  "What was the weather like that day?"

  "It was warm," Deveraux said. "And sunny. It was a nice day. "

  "Rosemary McClatchy wasn't raped," I said. "Nor was Shawna Lindsay. Escalation is one thing. A complete change in MO is another. "

  Deveraux didn't answer that. She stepped out of the bathroom into the hallway. The center point of the little house. She looked all around. She asked, "What did I miss here? What should be here that isn't?"

  "Something more than three years old," I said. "She moved here from somewhere else, and she should have brought things with her. At least a few things. Books, maybe. Or photographs. Maybe a favorite chair or something. "

  "Twenty-four-year-olds aren't very sentimental. "

  "They keep some little thing. "

  "What did you keep when you were twenty-four?"

  "I'm different. You're different. "

  "So what are you saying?"

  "I'm saying she showed up here three years ago out of the blue and brought nothing with her. She bought a house and a car and got a local driver's license. She bought a houseful of new furniture. All for cash. She doesn't have a rich daddy or his picture would be next to the TV in a silver frame. I want to know who she was. "

 
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