The affair, p.18
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       The Affair, p.18

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


  There were three men, as I had thought. They were fifteen feet from me. The width of a room. They all had their backs to me. One was gray-haired and heavy. He was wearing Vietnam-era olive drab fatigues. They were too tight on him. He was carrying an M16 rifle and I could see the butt of a Beretta M9 semi-automatic pistol in a webbing holster on his belt. A nine-millimeter handgun. Standard U. S. Army issue, as was the M16. The guy had old paratrooper boots on his feet, and no hat on his head.

  The second guy was younger and a little taller but not much thinner. He was sandy haired, and he was wearing what I was sure were Italian army combat fatigues. Similar to ours, but different. Better cut. He was carrying an M16 by its top handle. Right-handed. No sidearm. He was wearing black athletic sneakers. No hat. He had a small backpack in non-matching camouflage.

  The third guy was wearing 1980s-issue U. S. Army woodland pattern camouflage BDUs. He wasn't fat. Far from it. He was a runt. Maybe five feet six, maybe a hundred and forty pounds. Lean and wiry and hardscrabble and nervous. He was carrying an M16 too. Civilian shoes on his feet, no hat, no sidearm. He was the smoker. There was a lit cigarette between the first two fingers of his left hand.

  At first the Italian battledress made me wonder if they were some kind of a weird NATO force. But the first guy's Vietnam fatigues didn't fit with any current 1997 scenario, however screwed up international politics might have been by then, and neither did the third guy's street shoes, nor did their collective lack of combat headgear, or their lack of portable lunch rations, or their completely unprofessional behavior. I didn't know what they were. My mind ran through random possibilities, like a departures board runs through flights at an airport. I was surprised they didn't hear the clacking and ticking from inside my head.

  I looked at them again, left to right, and then right to left.

  I couldn't figure it out.

  Then finally I understood: they were amateurs.

  The Mississippi backwoods, next to Tennessee and Alabama. Civilian militias. Pretend soldiers. Men who like to run around in the woods with guns, but who like to say they're defending some vital thing or other. Men who like to shoot the shit in the surplus store, right after their bulk purchase of old fatigues and Italian battledress.

  And men who like to buy their guns at country gun stores. At certain country gun stores in particular. Because certain country gun stores are near military bases, and therefore some of them have something special for sale under the counter. All it takes is someone on the inside, and believe me, there is always someone on the inside. A steady stream of M16s and Berettas and worse is written off every year as lost or damaged or otherwise unusable, whereupon it is destroyed, except it isn't. It's hustled out the back door in the dead of night and an hour later it's under the counter at the gun shop.

  I have arrested many people, often in groups larger than the one in front of me, but I have never been very good at it. The best arrests run on pure bluster, and I get self-conscious if I have to rant and rave. Better for me to land an early sucker punch, to shut them down right at the very beginning. Except that shouting freeze freeze freeze makes me a little self-conscious too. The words come out a little tentative. Almost like a request.

  But I had with me the greatest conversation-stopper ever made: a pump-action shotgun. At the cost of one unfired shell, I could make the kind of sound that would freeze any three men to any three spots in the world.

  The most intimidating noise ever heard.

  Crunch crunch.

  My ejected shell hit the leaves at my feet and the three guys froze solid.

  I said, "Now the rifles hit the deck. "

  Normal voice, normal pitch, normal tone.

  The sandy-haired guy dropped his rifle first. He was pretty damn quick about it. Then went the older guy, and last of the three came the wiry one.

  "Stand still now," I said. "Don't give me a reason. "

  Normal voice, normal pitch, normal tone.

  They stood reasonably still. Their arms came up a little, out from their sides, slowly, and they ended up a small distance from their bodies, where they held them. They spread their fingers. No doubt they spread their toes inside their boots and sneakers and shoes. Anything to appear unarmed and undangerous.

  I said, "And now you take three big paces backward. "

  They complied, all three guys, all three taking exaggerated stumbling steps, and all three ending up more than a body's length from their rifles.

  I said, "And now you turn around. "


  I had never seen any of them before. After the slow spin the older guy had ended up facing me on my left. He was completely unknown to me. He was just a guy, not very significant, a little pouchy and worn. The guy in the middle was the sandy-haired one. He was like the older man would have been, had he grown up twenty years later and in better circumstances. Just a guy, a little soft and civilized. The third guy was different. He was what you get when you eat squirrels for four generations. Smarter than a rat and tougher than a goat, and jumpier than either one.

  I tucked the Winchester's stock up in my right armpit and pulled my elbow back and held the gun one-handed. I aimed it less than perfectly at the guys on the right. But then, it was a twelve-gauge shotgun. My aim didn't need to be perfect.

  I used my left arm as a communications aid and looked at the older guy and said, "Now comes the part where you take out your sidearm and hand it to me. "

  He didn't respond.

  I said, "And here's how you're going to do it. You're going to pull it out of the holster with one finger and one thumb, and then you're going to juggle it around and reverse it in your hand, and you're going to point it at yourself, OK?"

  No response.

  I said, "Second prize is I shoot you in the legs. "

  Normal voice, normal pitch, normal tone.

  No response. Not at first. I thought about wasting another shell and pumping the gun again, but in the end I didn't need to. The old guy wasn't a hero. He hopped right to it after a second's thought. He did the finger and thumb thing, and he got the gun reversed in his hand, and he pressed its muzzle to his belly.

  I said, "Now find the safety and set it to fire. "

  It was hard to do backward, but the guy succeeded.

  I said, "Hold the barrel with your thumb and first two fingers. Get your ring finger loose. Now get it back there in the trigger guard. Right back there. Pressing backward on the trigger. "

  The guy did it.

  I asked, "Now what do you know?"

  He didn't answer.

  I said, "Any kind of struggle, you get a bullet in the gut. That's what you know. Any kind of struggle at all. We clear on that? You understand?"

  The guy nodded.

  I said, "Now move your arm and bring the gun out toward me. Slowly and carefully. Keep it on the same line all the way. Keep it pointing right at yourself. Keep your ring finger hard on the trigger. "

  The guy did it. He got the gun a couple of feet out from his center mass, and I stepped in and took it from him. Just pulled it right out of his hand, as smooth as you like. I stepped back and he dropped his arm and I swapped hands. The Winchester went to my left, and I held the Beretta in my right.

  And breathed out.

  And smiled.

  Three prisoners taken and disarmed, all without a shot being fired.

  I looked at the old guy and asked, "Who are you people?"

  He swallowed twice and then he got some kind of backbone back, and he said, "We're on a mission, and it's the kind of mission civilians should stay away from, if they know what's good for them. "

  "Civilians as opposed to what?"

  "As opposed to military personnel. "

  "Are you military personnel?"

  The old guy said, "Yes, we are. "

  I said, "No, you're not. You're a shower of make-believe shit. "

  He said, "It's an authorized mission. "

  "Authorized by who?"

  "By our commander. "

  "Who authorized him?"

  The guy started to hem and haw and bluster. He started talking and stopped again a couple of times. I crossed the Winchester's barrel with the Beretta and pointed the handgun straight at the guy. I wasn't sure it worked. I never trust a gun I haven't fired myself. But it felt right and it weighed right. The safety catch was off. I knew that for sure. And the guy was flinching pretty good. And he should know better than anyone whether the piece worked. Because it was his. I laid my finger hard on the trigger. The guy saw me do it. But still he didn't say anything.

  Then the sandy-haired guy spoke up. The soft one. He said, "He doesn't know who authorized the mission, and he's too embarrassed to admit it. That's why he isn't saying anything. Can't you see that?"

  "He'd rather get shot than be embarrassed?"

  "None of us knows who authorized anything. Why would we?"

  I asked, "Where are you from?"

  "First tell me who you are. "

  "I'm a commissioned officer in the United States Army," I said. "Which means that if your so-called mission was authorized by the military, then you must currently be under my command, as the senior officer present. Right? That would be logical, wouldn't it?"

  "Yes, sir. "

  "Where are you from?"

  "Tennessee," the guy said. "We're the Tennessee Free Citizens. "

  "You don't look very free to me," I said. "Right now you look kind of detained. "

  No answer.

  I asked, "Why did you come down here?"

  "We got word. "

  "What word?"

  "That we were needed here. "

  "How many of you came?"

  "There are sixty of us. "

  "Twenty teams for thirty miles?"

  "Yes, sir. "

  I asked, "What instructions did you get when you got here?"

  "We were told to keep people away. "


  "Because it was time to step up and help the nation's military. Which is every patriot's duty. "

  "Why did the nation's military need your help?"

  "We weren't told why. "

  "Rules of engagement?"

  "We were supposed to keep people away, however we had to do it. "

  "Did you kill that kid this morning?"

  Silence for a long, long moment.

  Then the runt on my right spoke up.

  He said, "You mean the black boy?"

  The old guy said, "This mission is fully authorized. "

  I said, "I mean the African-American teenage male, yes. "

  The guy with the sandy hair glanced urgently at his buddies. First one, then the other. Rapid movements of his head. He said, "None of us should answer questions about that. "

  I said, "At least one of you should. "

  The old guy said, "This mission is fully authorized at the very highest level possible. There is no higher level than the level that authorized this mission. Whoever you are, mister, you are making a very big mistake. "

  I said, "Shut up. "

  The guy with the sandy hair looked straight at the runt and said, "Don't say anything. "

  I looked at the runt and said, "Say what you like. No one will believe you anyway. Everyone knows a pussy like you is just there for the ride. "

  I turned away. Back to the old guy.

  The runt said, "I shot the black boy. "

  I turned back.

  I asked him, "Why?"

  "He was acting aggressive. "

  I shook my head.

  "I saw the corpse," I said. "The bullet hit high under his arm. No damage to the arm itself. I think he had his hands up. I think he was surrendering. "

  The runt sniffed and said, "I suppose it could have looked that way. "

  I uncrossed the Winchester and the Beretta. I raised the handgun. I pointed it at the little guy's face.

  I said, "Tell me about yesterday. "

  He looked straight at me.

  Calculation in his little rat eyes.

  He decided I wasn't going to shoot.

  He said, "We were north of here yesterday. "


  "I guess you could say I'm two for two this season. "

  "Who applied the field dressing?"

  The sandy-haired guy said, "I did. It was an accident. We were just following orders. "

  I turned back to the runt and said, "Tell me again. About sighting in on a sixteen-year-old boy with his hands up. "

  I moved my aim half an inch upward. The exact center of his forehead.

  The guy grinned and said, "I suppose he might have been waving. "

  I pulled the trigger.

  The gun worked fine. Just fine. Exactly as it should. The sound of the shot cracked and hissed and rolled. Birds flew up in the sky. The spent case ejected and bounced off a tree and hit me hard in the thigh. The runt's head blew apart and wet-slapped the leaves behind him, and he went down vertically, his skinny butt to his heels, and then he bounced slackly and spilled over in the kind of boneless tangle only the recently and violently dead can achieve.

  * * *

  I waited for the sound to die away and for my hearing to come back and I looked at the two survivors and I said, "Your alleged mission has just been terminated. As of right now. And the Tennessee Free Citizens has just been disbanded. As of this moment. They're totally out of business now. You two run along and spread that news. You've got thirty minutes to haul your sorry asses out of my woods. You've got an hour to get out of this state altogether. All of you. Any slower than that, I'll send a Ranger company after you. Now beat it. "

  The two survivors just stood there for a second, completely still, pale and shocked and afraid. Then they came to. And they ran. They really hustled. I listened to them go until their noise faded away to nothing. It took a long time, but then they were gone and I knew they wouldn't be back. They had taken a casualty, and they had no appetite for that kind of thing. I was sure they would make a martyr of the guy, but I was equally sure they would take great pains to avoid sharing his glorious fate. Blood and brains are realities, and realities are unwelcome visitors in the world of make-believe.

  I clicked the safety on the Beretta and put it in my pants pocket. I untucked my shirt and let the tails hide it. Then I headed back the way I had come, leading with one shoulder and then the other, as I slipped between the trees with the Winchester upright in front of me.

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