The affair, p.17
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       The Affair, p.17
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         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Seventeen

  48

  Deputy Butler had been on his way to relieve Pellegrino for the middle watch at Fort Kelham's gate, and a mile out he had happened to glance to his left, and he had seen a forlorn shape low down in the scrub perhaps a hundred yards north of the road. Five minutes after that he had been on the horn to HQ with the bad news, and ninety seconds after taking the message the dispatcher had made it to the diner. Deveraux and I were in her car twenty seconds after that, and she put her foot down hard and drove fast all the way, so we were on the scene less than ten minutes after Butler had first chanced to turn his head.

  Not that speed made any difference.

  We parked nose to tail behind Butler's car and got out. We were on the main east - west road, two miles beyond the last of Carter Crossing itself, one mile short of Kelham, out in an open belt of scrubland, with the forest that bordered Kelham's fence well ahead of us and the forest that flanked the railroad track well behind us. It was the middle of the day and the sky was clear and blue. The air was warm and the breeze was still.

  I could see what Butler had seen. It could have been a rock, or it could have been trash, but it wasn't. It was small in the distance, dark, slightly humped, slightly elongated, pressed down, deflated. It was unmistakable. Judging its size was difficult, because judging the exact distance was difficult. If it was eighty yards away, it was a small woman. If it was a hundred and twenty yards away, it was a large man.

  Deveraux said, "I hate this job. "

  Butler was standing out in the scrub, halfway between the dark shape and us. We set out walking toward him, and then we passed him without a word. I figured the overall distance was going to be close to dead-on a hundred yards, which made the shape neither a small woman nor a large man. It was going to be something in between. A tall woman, or a short man.

  Or a teenager, maybe.

  Then I recognized the distorted proportions.

  And I started to run.

  At twenty yards out I was sure. At ten yards out I was certain. At ten feet out I had absolute visual confirmation. No possible doubt. It was Bruce Lindsay. The ugly boy. Sixteen years old. Shawna Lindsay's little brother. He was on his front. His feet were apart. His hands were down by his sides. His giant head was turned toward me. His mouth was open. His deep-set eyes were dark and dead.

  We followed no kind of crime-scene protocol. Deveraux and I trampled the area and touched the corpse. We rolled it over and found an entry wound on the left side of the rib cage, up high, close to the armpit. No exit wound. The bullet had come in, shattered the heart, shattered the spine, and had deflected and tumbled and was still in there somewhere.

  I knelt up and scanned the horizon. If the kid had been walking east, he had been shot from the north, almost certainly by a rifleman who had exited Kelham's fence line woods and had been patrolling the open belt of scrub. The quarantine zone.

  Deveraux said, "I talked to him this morning. Just a few hours ago. We had an appointment at his house. So why was he here?"

  Which was a question I didn't want to answer. Not even to myself. I said, "He had a secret to keep, I guess. About Shawna. He knew you'd get it out of him. So he decided to be somewhere else this afternoon. "

  "Where? Where was he going?"

  "Kelham," I said.

  "This is open country. If he was heading for Kelham he would have been on the road. "

  "He was shy about strangers seeing him. Because of the way he looked. I bet he never walked on the roads. "

  "If he was shy with strangers, why would he risk going to Kelham? There must be a dozen strangers in the guardhouse alone. "

  I said, "He went because I told him it would be OK. I told him soldiers would be different. I told him he'd be welcome there. "

  "Welcome there for what? They don't offer guided tours. "

  The kid was wearing canvas pants, a little like mine, and a plain sweatshirt in navy blue, with a dark warm-up jacket over it. The jacket had fallen open when we rolled him. I saw folded paper in the inside pocket.

  I said, "Take a look at that. "

  Deveraux slid the paper out of the pocket. It looked like an official document, heavy stock, folded three times. It looked old, and I was sure it was. About sixteen years old, almost certainly. Deveraux unfolded it and scanned it and said, "It's his birth certificate. "

  I nodded and took it from her. The State of Mississippi, a male child, family name Lindsay, given name Bruce, born in Carter Crossing. Born eighteen years ago, apparently. It might have withstood a hasty glance, but not further scrutiny. The alteration was not skillful, but it had been patient. Two digits had been carefully rubbed away, and then two others had been drawn in to replace them. The ink matched well, and the style matched well. Only the breached surface of the paper gave it away, but that was enough. It stood out. It drew the eye.

  "My fault," I said. "My fault entirely. "

  "How?"

  Go straight to Kelham, I had said. There are recruiters on every post. 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.

  The kid had taken it literally. I had meant he would have to wait. But he had gone ahead and made himself eighteen years old, right there and then. He had manufactured something to have in his hand. Probably at the same kitchen table where I had sat and talked and drank iced tea. I pictured him, head down, concentrating, tongue between his teeth, maybe wetting the paper with a drop of water, scraping the old numbers off with the tip of a dinner knife, blotting the damp patch, waiting for it to dry, finding the right pen, calculating, practicing, and then drawing in the new numbers. The numbers that would get him through Kelham's gate. The numbers that would get him accepted.

  All on my dime.

  I started walking back toward the road.

  Deveraux came after me. I told her,

  "I need a gun. "

  She said, "Why?"

  I stopped again and turned and looked east and scoped it out. Fort Kelham was a giant rectangle north of the road and its fence ran through a broad belt of trees that extended a couple hundred yards each side of the wire. It looked like the whole place had been hacked out of the same kind of old forest that lay south of the road, but I guessed the opposite was true. I guessed Kelham had been laid out on open ground fifty years before, and then farmers had stopped plowing short of the fence, so the trees had come afterward. Like new weeds. Not like the old woods to the south. The new trees thinned here and there, but mostly they provided deep cover wherever it was needed. Easy enough for a small force to stay concealed among them, slipping outward into the open belt of scrub when necessary, then slipping back inward and on through the fence for rest or resupply.

  I started walking again. I said, "I'm going to find this quarantine squad that everyone claims doesn't exist. "

  "Suppose you do?" Deveraux said. "It will be your word against theirs. Your word against the Pentagon's, basically. You'll say the squad existed, they'll say it didn't. And the Pentagon has the bigger microphone. "

  "They can't argue with physical evidence. I'll bring back enough body parts to convince anyone. "

  "I can't let you do that. "

  "They shouldn't have shot the kid, Elizabeth. That was way out of line, whoever they are. They opened the wrong door there. That's for damn sure. What lies on the other side is their problem, not ours. "

  "You don't even know where they are. "

  "They're in the woods. "

  "In camouflage with binoculars. How would you even get near them?"

  "They have a blind spot. "

  "Where?"

  "Close to Kelham's gate. They're looking for the kind of intruder who already knows he can't get through the gate. So they're not looking there. They're looking farther afield. "

  "The guardhouse watches the gate. "

  "No, the guardhouse watches what approaches the gate. I'm not go
ing to approach the gate. I'm going to find the gap. Too far in the rear of the mobile force, too far in advance of the guardhouse. "

  "They're shooting people, Reacher. "

  "They're shooting the people they see. They won't see me. "

  "I'll give you a ride back to town. "

  "I'm not going back to town. I want a ride in the other direction. And a firearm. "

  She didn't answer.

  I said, "I'm prepared to do it without either thing if necessary. Slower and harder, but I'll get it done. "

  She said, "Get in the car, Reacher. "

  No indication where she planned to take me.

  We got in the car and Deveraux backed it away from Butler's cruiser and then she took off forward, east, toward Kelham. The right direction, as far as I was concerned. We covered most of the last mile and I said, "Now head off across the grass. To the edge of the woods. Like you just saw something. "

  She said, "Straight at them?"

  "They're not here. They're north and west of here. And they wouldn't shoot at a police vehicle anyway. "

  "You sure about that?"

  "Only one way to find out. "

  She slowed and turned the wheel and thumped down off the road onto hard-packed dirt. The road was in a gap shaped like an hourglass. Two hundred yards north of it Kelham's new trees ran away from us in a gentle curve, and two hundred yards south of it the old woods ran away from us in a symmetrical pattern. Deveraux headed north and east, at an angle of forty-five degrees relative to the pavement, bucking and bouncing, and then she steered through a wide turn across the dirt and came to a stop with the flank of the car right next to the woods. My door was six feet from the nearest tree.

  I said, "Gun?"

  "Jesus," she said. "This whole thing is illegal on so many different levels. "

  "But like you told me, it's their word against mine. If there's anyone to shoot, they'll say there wasn't. The more shooting, the more denying. "

  She took a breath and let it out and pulled the shotgun from its scabbard between our seats. It was an old Winchester Model 12, forty inches long, seven pounds in weight. It was nicked and worn but dewy with oil and polish. It could have been fifty years old, but it seemed well looked after. Even so, I worry about guns I have never fired. Nothing worse than pulling a trigger and having nothing happen. Or missing.

  I asked her, "Does it work?"

  She said, "It works perfectly. "

  "When did you last fire it?"

  "Two weeks ago. "

  "At what?"

  "At a target. I make the whole department requalify every year. And I need to be able to kick their butts, so I practice. "

  "Did you hit the target?"

  "I destroyed the target. "

  I asked, "Did you reload?"

  She smiled and said, "There are six in the magazine and one in the breech. I have spares in the trunk. I'll give you as many as you can carry. "

  "Thank you. "

  "It was my father's gun. Take care of it. "

  "I will. "

  "Take care of yourself, too. "

  "Always. "

  We got out of the car and she stepped around to the trunk and opened the lid. It was a messy trunk. There was dirt in it. Some kind of earth. But I spent no time worrying about tidiness, because there was a metal box bolted to the floor behind the seat-back bulkhead. For a woman built like Deveraux, it was a long way forward. She went up on tiptoes and bent at the waist and leaned in. Which maneuver looked fabulous from behind. Absolutely, truly spectacular. She flipped up the lid of the box and scrabbled with her fingernails and came back out with a carton of twelve-gauge shells. She straightened up and handed it to me. Fifteen rounds remaining. I put five in each pants pocket and five in my shirt pocket. She watched me do it. Then her eyes went wide and she said, "You washed your shirt. "

  I said, "No, I bought a new one. "

  "Why?"

  "It seemed polite. "

  "No, why did you buy a new one instead of washing the old one?"

  "I went through this already. With the guy in the store. It seemed logical to me. "

  "OK," she said.

  "You have a great ass, by the way. "

  "OK," she said again.

  "I just thought I'd mention it. "

  "Thank you. "

  "We good now? You and me?"

  She smiled.

  "We always were," she said. "I was just yanking your chain, that's all. If she'd said she was your girlfriend I might have taken it seriously. But fiancee? That's ridiculous. "

  "Why?"

  "No woman would agree to marry you. "

  "Why not?"

  "Because you're not marriage material. "

  "Why not?"

  "How long have you got? The laundry issue alone could take an hour. "

  "How do you do yours?"

  "There's a pay launderette in the next alley past the hardware store. "

  "With detergent and stuff?"

  "It's not rocket science. "

  "I'll think about it," I said. "I'll see you later. "

  "Make sure you do, OK? We have a train to catch tonight. "

  I smiled and nodded once and took a last look around, and then I stepped into the trees.

  49

  At forty inches the Winchester was too long for easy transport through a forest. I had to carry it two-handed, upright in front of me. But I was glad to have it. It was a fine old piece. And fairly definitive. Twelve-gauge lead shot settles most disputes at the first time of asking.

  It was March in Mississippi and there were enough new leaves on the trees to deny me a clear view of the sky. So I navigated by guesswork. Or dead reckoning, as some people prefer to call it. Which is hard to do, in a forest. Most right-handed people end up walking wide counterclockwise circles, because most right-handed people have left legs fractionally shorter than their right legs. Basic biology and geometry. I avoided that particular peril by stepping to the right of every tenth tree I came to, whether I thought I needed to or not.

  The vegetation was dense, but not impossible. There was some underbrush and a lot of leaf litter. The trees were deciduous. I have no idea what kind they were. I don't know much about trees. The trunks were of various thicknesses and mostly three or four feet apart. Most of their lower limbs had died back in the gloom. There wasn't much light down there. There were no paths. No sign of recent disturbance.

  I had one circumstance working in my favor and two against. The negatives were that I was making a lot of noise, and I was wearing a bright white shirt. I was far from inconspicuous. No camouflage. No silent approach. The positive was that I had to be approaching them from their rear. They had to be hunkered down just inside the edge of the woods. They had to be looking outward. They were looking for journalists and busybodies and other unexplained strangers. Anyone walking purposefully toward them was fair game. But I would be coming up on them from behind.

  And I figured I wouldn't be dealing with too many guys all at once. They would be split into small units. Minimum of two, maximum of four men in each. They would be mobile. No hides or bivouacs. They would be sitting on fallen logs or leaning on trees or squatting on the floor, looking out past the last of the growth into the bright daylight, always ready to move left or right to change their angle, always ready to range outward to meet a threat.

  And I figured the small mobile units would be widely scattered. Thirty miles of fence is a lot of ground to defend. You could put a full-strength company in those woods, and one four-man unit would end up a thousand yards from its nearest neighbor. And a thousand yards in a wood is the same thing as a thousand miles. No possibility of immediate support or reinforcement. No covering fire. Basic rule of thumb: rifles and artillery are useless in a wood. Too many trees in the way.

  I slowed down after advancing two hundred paces roughly north and west. I figured I must be approaching the first obvious
viewpoint, at about nine o'clock on a notional dial, well above the road funnel, just inside a bulge that commanded a sweeping view west and south. Almost certainly it was the viewpoint that Bruce Lindsay had been seen from. He would have been on their left, easily visible from more than a mile away. They had stepped out, and advanced, and stood off maybe a couple of hundred yards from him. Maybe they had shouted a warning or an instruction. Maybe his response had been slow or confused or contradictory. So they had shot him.

  I looped away wide to my right and then crept in on what I hoped was a straight line behind where I thought the first viewpoint would be. I moved through the trees like I was slipping through a crowd, easing left, easing right, leading with one shoulder, and then the other. I kept my eyes moving, side to side, and up and down. I watched the floor pretty carefully. Nothing I could do to avoid most of the stuff down there, but I didn't want to trip, and I didn't want to step on anything thicker than a broom handle. Dry wood can crack very loud when it breaks.

  I kept on going until I sensed daylight ahead. Almost the edge of the wood. I looked left, looked right, and moved a cautious pace onward and found myself to be partly right and partly wrong. Right, because where I was standing was indeed an excellent viewpoint, and wrong, because it was unoccupied.

  I stood a yard back from the last of the trees and found myself looking southwest. The field of view was wide and wedge-shaped. The road to Carter Crossing ran diagonally across it at a distance. Nothing was moving on it, but if something had been I would have seen it very clearly. Likewise I would have seen anything in the fields up to a quarter-mile either side of the road. It was a great viewpoint. No question about that. I couldn't understand why it was abandoned. It made no tactical sense. There were many hours of daylight left. And as far as I knew nothing had changed at Kelham. No new strategic imperative had presented itself. If anything the situation was worse than ever for Bravo Company.

  The state of the ground betrayed deep unseriousness too. There were cigarette butts stamped into the earth. There was a candy bar wrapper, balled up and tossed. There were clear footprints, similar to the ones I had seen alongside the bled-out journalist on old man Clancy's land. I wasn't impressed. Army Rangers are trained to leave no sign behind. They're supposed to move through landscapes like ghosts. Especially when tasked to a sensitive mission of dubious legality.

  I backed away, deep into the trees again, and I got myself all lined up and moved on north. I stuck to a route maybe fifty yards inside the edge of the wood. I watched for lateral paths leading back in toward Kelham's fence. I didn't see any. No real surprise. Covert entry and exit was probably arranged way to the north, at a remote spot at the tip of the reservation, far from any location in regular use.

  I detoured again two hundred yards later, back to where the trees thinned, to a spot with a worse view of the road but a better view of the fields. Again, an excellent vantage point. Again, unoccupied. And never occupied, as far as I could tell. No cigarette butts. No candy wrappers. No footprints.

  I backed away once more, to my original line, and tried again two hundred yards later. Still nothing. I began to wonder if I was dealing with less than a full company. But to put fewer men on a thirty-mile perimeter made no sense to me. I would want more. Two full companies. Or three. And I'm a cheapskate, compared to the Pentagon. If I wanted five hundred men, the brass would want five thousand. Any kind of normal planning, that wood should have been crowded. Like Times Square. I should have been shot in the back long ago.

  Then I began to wonder about watch changes and meal times. Possibly the apparent undermanning left certain spots unoccupied at certain times. But I was sure those spots would be occupied most of the time. They were too good to waste. If the mission was to detect potential hostiles approaching Kelham's perimeter, then the full 360 would have to be broken down into useful vantage points, and any of the three I had seen would qualify. So I guessed sooner or later I would find someone coming or going.

  I turned around and moved deeper into the woods again. I got halfway back to my original line, and stopped walking. I just stood still and waited. For ten whole minutes I heard nothing at all. Then twenty. Then thirty. The breeze rattled leaves, and tree trunks moved and groaned, and tiny animals scuttled. Nothing else.

  Then I heard footsteps and voices, far ahead and on my left.

  50

  I moved west and got behind an inadequate tree about as wide as my leg. I leaned my left shoulder on it. I leveled the shotgun. I aimed down the barrel at the approaching sounds. I kept both eyes open. I went completely quiet and still.

  There were three men coming, I thought. Slow, relaxed, undisciplined. They were strolling. They were shooting the shit. I heard ragged scuffling from their feet in the leaves. I heard their voices, low and conversational and bored. I couldn't make out their words, but their tone betrayed no stress and no caution. I heard brambles wrenching and tearing, and twigs crunching and snapping, and I heard hollow clonks that I took to be plastic M16 stocks hitting trunks as the guys squeezed themselves through narrow gaps between trees. This was no kind of an orderly advance. These were not first-rate infantry soldiers. My mind ran on, like it does at times, and I saw myself writing an after-action memo criticizing their demeanor. I saw myself in a meeting at Benning, enumerating their deficiencies to a panel of senior officers.

  The three men seemed to be tracking south, staying parallel to the edge of the wood, maybe twenty yards from it. No question that they were heading back to one of the viewpoints I had already scoped out. I couldn't see the men. Too many trees. But I could hear them pretty well. They were reasonably close. They were coming level with me, about thirty yards away, to my left.

  I rolled around the skinny tree I was leaning on and kept myself behind them. I didn't follow them. Not immediately. I wanted to be sure there were no more of them coming. I didn't want to insert myself into a moving column. I didn't want to be the fourth guy in a big procession, with three guys ahead of me and an unknown number behind. So I stayed where I was, standing still and listening hard. But I was hearing nothing except the three guys wandering south. Nothing in the north. Nothing at all. Just natural sounds. Wind, leaves, insects.

  The three guys were on their own.

  I let their sound get about thirty yards down the track and then I moved after them. I picked up their physical trail easily enough. They were on an informal route that had been beaten through the underbrush by the passage of feet, back and forth, over a couple of days. There were damp turned-over leaves, and broken twigs. There was a general wash of organic matter to the margins of a meandering path about twelve inches wide. Faint, but noticeable. Very noticeable, in fact, compared to the rest of the forest floor. Compared to what I had seen elsewhere, that path looked like I-95.

  I followed them all the way. I matched their pace easily enough. I didn't worry about making noise, as a matter of logic. As long as I was quieter than any two of them, then none of the three would hear me. And it was easy to be quieter than any two of them. It would have been hard to be noisier, in fact, short of firing the Winchester a couple of times and singing the National Anthem.

  I let myself get a little closer. I put a spurt on and got within twenty yards of them. Still no visual contact, except for one fleeting glimpse of a narrow back in camouflage BDUs, and a black glint of what I took to be an M16 barrel. But I could hear them clearly. There were definitely three of them. One was older than the others, by the sound of it, and possibly in command. One wasn't saying much, and the third was nasal and hyped up. I still couldn't make out words, but I knew they weren't saying anything worth listening to. The tenor and rhythm of their conversation told me so. There were low sarcastic murmurs, and rejoinders, and occasional barks of cheap laughter. Just three guys, passing the time.

  They did not detour over to the third of the three viewpoints I had seen. They kept on going right past it, ambling, almost certainly in single file. I heard
the first guy's voice louder, as he tossed comments back over his shoulder to the next two in line behind him, whose replies I could hardly hear at all, as they were projected forward and away from me. But I still sensed that nothing of importance was being said. They were bored, possibly tired, and mired in a routine task they were already familiar with. They anticipated no danger and no hazard.

  They passed the second viewpoint, too. They strolled on south, and I followed them, two hundred yards along the trail, and then I heard them turn right and crash onward toward the first viewpoint. Nine o'clock on the notional dial. The place where Bruce Lindsay's killers had been hiding out, almost certainly.

  I made it to the turn they had taken, and I waited there, on the main track. I heard them stop twenty yards west of me, which was exactly where I had been before, just inside the edge of the wood, where the candy wrapper and the footprints and the cigarette butts were. I moved toward them, five yards, ten, and then I stopped again. I heard one of them belch, which produced laughter and general hilarity, and I guessed they had indeed moved north for their scheduled meal, and were now back on station again. I heard one of them take a leak behind a tree. I heard splashing against the kind of leathery, hairy leaves that grew down on the forest floor. I heard rifle barrels parting thin eye-level branches, as they peered out west at the open land ahead of them. I heard the scratch and clunk of a Zippo lighter, and a moment later I smelled tobacco smoke.

  I took a breath and moved on, closer and closer, left and right through the trees, five more yards, then six, then seven, leading with my left elbow, then my right, swimming through the crowded space, the Winchester shotgun held upright in front of me. The three guys had no idea I was there. I could sense them ahead of me, unaware, standing still, looking outward, going quiet, settling in, their lunch hour excitement over. I held my breath and moved up one tree closer to them, silently, then another tree, then another, and then finally I got my first clear sight of them.

  And I had no clue what I was looking at.

 
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