The affair, p.20
The Affair, p.20Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
I leaned on the wall next to the phone. Not because I was necessarily worried about falling down with shock or surprise. But because Lowrey's stories were usually very long. He fancied himself a raconteur. And he liked background. And context. Deep background, and deep context. Normally he liked to trace everything back to a seminal point just before random swirls of gas from the chartless wastes of the universe happened to get together and form the earth itself.
He said, "Audrey is a very ancient name, apparently. "
The only way to knock Lowrey off his discursive stride was to get your retaliation in first. I said, "Audrey was an Anglo-Saxon name. It's a diminutive of Aethelthryt or Etheldreda. It means noble strength. There was a Saint Audrey in the seventh century. She's the patron saint of throat complaints. "
"How do you know shit like this? I had to look it up. "
"I know a guy whose mother is called Audrey. He told me. "
"My point is, it's no longer a very common name. "
"It was number 173 on the hit parade at the last census. It's slightly more popular in France, Belgium, and Canada. Mostly because of Audrey Hepburn. "
"You know this because of a guy's mother?"
"His grandmother too, actually. They were both called Audrey. "
"So you got a double ration of knowledge?"
"It felt like a double ration of something. "
"Audrey Hepburn wasn't from Europe. "
"Canada isn't in Europe. "
"They speak French there. I've heard them. "
"Of course Audrey Hepburn was from Europe. English father, Dutch mother, born in Belgium. She had a U. K. passport. "
"Whatever, what I'm saying is, if you would ever let a guy get a word in edgewise, if you search for Audreys you don't get too many hits. "
"So you found Audrey Shaw for me?"
"I think so. "
"That was fast. "
"I know a guy who works at a bank. Corporations have the best information. "
"Still fast. "
"Thank you. I'm a diligent worker. I'm going to be the most diligent unemployed guy in history. "
"So what do we know about Audrey Shaw?"
"She's an American citizen," Lowrey said.
"Is that all we know?"
"Caucasian female, born in Kansas City, Missouri, educated locally, went to college at Tulane in Louisiana. The Southern Ivy League. She was a liberal arts student and a party girl. Middling GPA. No health problems, which I imagine means slightly more than it says, for a party girl from Tulane. She graduated on schedule. "
"After graduation she used family connections to get an intern's job in D. C. "
"What kind of intern's job?"
"Political. In a Senate office. Working for one of her home-state Missouri guys. Probably just carrying coffee, but she was called an assistant to an assistant executive director of something or other. "
"She was beautiful, apparently. She made strong men weak at the knees. So guess what happened?"
"She got laid," I said.
"She had an affair," Lowrey said. "With a married man. All those late nights, all that glamour. The thrill of working out the fine print in trade deals with Bolivia. You know how it is. I don't know how those people stand the excitement. "
"Who was the guy?"
"The senator himself," Lowrey said. "The big dog. The record gets a little hazy from that point onward, because obviously the whole thing was covered up like crazy. But between the lines it was a torrid business. Between the sheets too, probably. A real big thing. People say she was in love. "
"Where are you getting this from, if the record is hazy?"
"The FBI," Lowrey said. "Plenty of them still talk to me. And you better believe they keep track of things like this. For leverage. You notice how the FBI budget never goes down? They know too many things about too many politicians for that to ever happen. "
"How long did the affair last?"
"Senators have to run for reelection every six years, so generally they spend the first four rolling around on the couch and the last two cleaning up their act. Young Ms. Shaw got the last two of the good years and then she was patted on the butt and sent on her way. "
"And where is she now?"
"This is where it gets interesting," Lowrey said.
I pushed off the wall and looked over at Deveraux. She seemed OK. She was eating what was left of my pie. She was craning across the table and picking at it. Demolishing it, actually. In my ear Lowrey said, "I've got rumors and hard facts. The rumors come from the FBI and the hard facts come from the databases. Which do you want first?"
I settled back against the wall again.
"The rumors," I said. "Always much more interesting. "
"OK, the rumors say young Ms. Shaw felt very unhappy about being discarded in the way she was. She felt used and cheap. Like a Kleenex. She felt like a hooker leaving a hotel suite. She began to look like the kind of intern that could cause serious trouble. That was the FBI's opinion, anyway. They keep track of that stuff too, for different reasons. "
"So what happened?"
"In the end nothing happened. The parties must have reached some kind of mutual accommodation. Everything went quiet. The senator was duly reelected and Audrey Shaw was never heard from again. "
"Where is she now?"
"This is where you ask me what the hard facts say. "
"What do the hard facts say?"
"The hard facts say Audrey Shaw isn't anywhere anymore. The databases are completely blank. No records of anything. No transactions, no taxes, no purchases, no cars or houses or boats or trailers, no snowmobiles, no loans or liens or warrants or judgments or arrests or convictions. It's like she ceased to exist three years ago. "
"Three years ago?"
"Even the bank agrees. "
"How old was she then?"
"She was twenty-four then. She'd be twenty-seven now. "
"Did you check the other name for me? Janice May Chapman?"
"You just spoiled my surprise. You just ruined my story. "
"Let me guess," I said. "Chapman is the exact reverse. There's nothing there more than three years old. "
"They were the same person," I said. "Shaw changed her identity. Part of the deal, presumably. A big bag of cash and a stack of new paperwork. Like a witness protection program. Maybe the real witness protection program. Those guys would help a senator out. It would give them an IOU to put in their back pocket. "
"And now she's dead. End of story. Anything else?"
"Of course there's something else," I said. There was one last question. Big and obvious. But I hardly needed to ask it. I was sure I knew the answer. I felt it coming right at me, hissing through the air like an incoming mortar round. Like an artillery shell, aimed and ranged and fused for an air burst right next to my head.
I asked, "Who was the senator?"
"Carlton Riley," Lowrey said. "Mr. Riley of Missouri. The man himself. The chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "
I got back to the table just as the waitress was putting down two slices of peach pie and two cups of coffee. Deveraux started eating immediately. She was a whole chicken pie ahead of me, and she was still hungry. I gave her a lightly edited recap of Lowrey's information. Everything, really, except for the words Missouri, Carlton, and Riley.
She asked, "What made you give him Audrey Shaw's name in the first place?"
"Flip of a coin," I said. "A fifty-fifty chance. Either Butler's buddy screwed up her case numbers or she didn't. I didn't want to assume one way or the other. "
"Does this stuff help us?"
Small words, but big concepts. Help, and us. It didn't help me. Not with Janice May Chapman, anyway. With Rosemary McClatchy and Shawna Lindsay, I wasn't so sure anymore. Lowrey's news cast a
I said, "It might help us. It might narrow things down a little. I mean, if a senator has a problem, which of the five or six chains of command is going to react?"
"Senate Liaison," she said.
"That's where I'm going. The day after tomorrow. "
"How did you know?"
"I didn't. "
"You must have. "
"It was just a random choice. I needed a reason to be there, that's all. "
"Wait," she said. "This makes no sense. Why would the army get involved if a senator had a problem with a girl? That's a civilian matter. I mean, Senate Liaison doesn't get involved every time a politician loses his car keys. There would have to be a military connection. And there's no military connection between a civilian senator and his civilian ex-girlfriend, no matter where she lives. "
I didn't answer.
She looked at me. "Are you saying there is a connection?"
I said, "I'm not saying anything. Literally. Watch my lips. They aren't moving. "
"There can't be a connection. Chapman wasn't in the army, and there certainly aren't any senators in the army. "
I said nothing.
"Did Chapman have a brother in the army? Is that it? A cousin? A relative of some kind? Jesus, is her father in the army? What would he be now, mid-fifties? The only reason to stay in at that age is if you're having fun, and the only way to have fun at that age is to be a very senior officer. Is that what we're saying here? Chapman was a general's daughter? Or Shaw, or whatever her real name was?"
I said nothing.
She said, "Lowrey told you she got the intern job because of family connections, right? So what else can that mean? We're talking about having an actual senator who owes you favors here. That's a big deal. Her father must be a two-star at least. "
I said nothing.
She looked straight at me.
"I can tell what you're thinking," she said.
I said nothing.
"I didn't get it right," she said. "That's what you're thinking. I'm on the wrong track. Chapman had no relatives in uniform. It's something else. "
I said nothing.
She said, "Maybe it's the other way around. Maybe the senator is the one with a relative in uniform. "
"You're missing the point," I said. "If Janice May Chapman was a sudden short-term problem who required a sudden short-term solution, why was she killed in exactly the same way as two other unconnected women four and nine months previously?"
"Are you saying it's a coincidence? Nothing to do with the senator connection?"
"It could be that way," I said.
"Then why the big panic?"
"Because they're worried about blowback. In general. They don't want any kind of taint coming near a particular unit. "
"The one with the senator's relative in it?"
"Let's not go there. "
"But they weren't worried about blowback before? Four and nine months ago?"
"They didn't know about four and nine months ago. Why would they? But Chapman jumped out at them. She had two kinds of extra visibility. Her name was in the files, and she was white. "
"Suppose it wasn't a coincidence?"
"Then someone was very smart," I said. "They took care of a sudden short-term problem by copycatting an MO that had been used before in two unconnected cases. Excellent camouflage. "
"So you're saying there could be two killers here?"
"Possible," I said. "Maybe McClatchy and Lindsay were regular everyday homicides, and Chapman was made to look like them. By someone else. "
* * *
We finished our desserts and drank our cups of coffee. Deveraux told me she had work to do. I asked her if she would mind if I went to see Emmeline McClatchy one more time.
"Why?" she asked.
"Boyfriends," I said. "Apparently both Lindsay and Chapman were stepping out with a soldier who owned a blue car. I'm wondering if McClatchy is going to make it a trifecta. "
"That's a long walk. "
"I'll find a shortcut," I said. I was beginning to piece together the local geography in my head. No need to walk three sides of a square, first north to the Kelham road, then east, then south again to the McClatchy shack. I was already roughly on the same latitude. I figured I could find a way across the railroad track well short of the official crossing. A straight shot east. One side of the square.
Deveraux said, "Be gentle with her. She's still very upset. "
"I'm sure she always will be," I said. "I imagine these things don't fade too fast. "
"And don't say anything about pregnancy. "
"I won't," I said.
I headed south on Main Street, in the general direction of Dr. Merriam's office, but I planned to turn east well before I got there. And I found a place to do just that within about three hundred yards. I saw the mouth of a dirt road nested in the trees. It had a rusted fire hydrant ten yards in, which meant there had to be houses somewhere farther on. I found the first one a hundred feet later. It was a tumbledown, swaybacked affair, but it had people living in it. At first I thought they were the McKinney cousins, because it was that kind of a place, and because it had a black brush-painted pick-up truck standing on a patch of dirt that might once have been a lawn. But it was a different make of truck. Different age, different size, but the same approach to maintenance. Clearly northeastern Mississippi was not fertile ground for spray-painting franchises.
I passed two more places that were similar in every way. The fourth house I came to was worse. It was abandoned. It had a mailbox entirely hidden by tall grass. Its driveway was overgrown. It had bushes and brambles up against the door and the windows. It had weeds in the gutters, and green slime on the walls, and a cracked foundation pierced by creeper tendrils thicker than my wrists. It was standing alone in a couple of acres of what once might have been meadow or pasture, but which was now nothing more than a briar patch crowded with sapling trees about six feet tall. The place must have been empty for a long time. More than months. A couple of years, maybe.
But it had fresh tire tracks across its turn-in.
Seasonal rains had washed dirt down various small slopes and left a mirror-smooth puddle of mud in the dip between the road and the driveway. Seasonal heat had baked the mud to powder, like cement straight from the bag. A four-wheeled vehicle had crossed it twice, in and out. Broad tires, with treads designed for use on regular pavement. Not new, but well inflated. The tread pattern was exactly captured. The marks were recent. Certainly put there after the last time it had rained.
I detoured a couple of steps to avoid leaving footprints next to the tire marks. I jumped over the dip and fought through a tangle of waist-high crap until I got next to the driveway. I could see where the tires had crushed the weeds. There were broken stalks. They had bled dark green juice. Some of the stronger plants had not broken. They had whipped back upright, and some of them were smeared with oil from the underside of an engine.
Whoever had rolled down the driveway had not entered the house. That was clear. None of the rampant growth around the doors or the windows had been disturbed. So I walked on, past the house, past a small tractor barn, out to the space behind. There was a belt of trees ahead of me, and another to my left, and another to my right. It was a lonely spot. Not directly overlooked, except by birds, of which there were two in the air above me. They were turkey vultures. They were floating and looping endlessly.
I moved on. There was a long-abandoned vegetable garden, ringed by a rusted rabbit fence. An archaeologist might have been able to tell what had been grown there. I couldn't. Further on was a long high mound of something green and vigorous. An old hedge, maybe, u
The other structure was a deer trestle.
The deer trestle was a big thing, built in an old-fashioned A-frame style from solid timbers. It was at least seven feet tall. I could have walked under the top rail with no trouble at all. I guessed the idea was to back up a pick-up truck and dump a dead animal out of the bed onto the dirt between the A-frames, and then to tie ropes to the animal's hind legs, and then to flip the ropes up over the top rail, and then to use muscle power or the pick-up itself to haul the animal up in the air so that it hung vertically and upside down, ready for the butcher's knife. Age-old technology, but not one I had ever used. If I wanted a steak, I went to the Officers' Club. Much less work.
The trestle could have been fifty years old or more. Its timbers were mature, seasoned, and solid. Some kind of native hardwood. There was a little green moss growing on its northern exposures, which faced me. Its top rail had been worn to a smooth polish over the years by the ropes that had run over it. There was no way of knowing how long ago it had last been used. Or how recently.
But the dirt between its spread legs had been disturbed, and recently. That was clear. The top two or three inches had been dug up and removed. What should have been beaten and blackened earth as old as the frame itself was now a shallow pit about three feet square.
* * *
There was no other useful evidence in the yard. None at all, except for the missing dirt, and the tire marks that had not come from a pick-up truck or any other kind of utilitarian vehicle. The shed next to the trestle was empty. And I checked the house again as I passed by on the trip back to the road, just to be sure, but it had not been entered. The windows were filmed with gray organic scum, which also lay less visibly on the siding and the doors and the door handles. Nothing had been touched. No marks, no smears. There were misty spider webs everywhere, unbroken. There was vegetation of every kind, some of it thorned and brawny, some of it limp and delicate, all of it growing exactly where it wanted to, up stoops, across doorways, none of it pushed aside or cut back or otherwise disturbed.
I stopped at the mouth of the driveway and parted the long grass around the mailbox with my hands. The mailbox was a standard Postal Service item, standard size, once painted gray, now no color at all, flecked with rust in fine lines where the curve of the sheet metal had stressed the enamel finish. It was set on a post that had started its service as a six-by-six, but was now wizened away to a twisted balk that retained only its core. There had been a name on the box, spelled out in stick-on letters printed on forward-leaning rectangles, in a style popular long ago. They had been peeled off, possibly as a last gesture when the home was abandoned, but they had left dry webs of adhesive residue behind, like fingerprints.
There had been eight letters on the box.
I jumped the ditch again and continued east. I passed two more houses, widely spaced, occupied, but in no kind of good condition. After the last one the road narrowed and its surface went pitted and lumpy. It burrowed into a wall of trees and ran on straight. The trees crowded in from the sides and left a thoroughfare barely a yard wide. I pressed on regardless, whipped and clawed by branches. Fifty paces later I came out the other side and found the railroad track right there in front of me, running left to right, blocking my path. At that location it was up on a raised earth berm about a yard high. The terrain in that part of Mississippi looked pretty flat to the human eye, but straining locomotives see things differently. They want every dip filled in, and every peak shaved level.
I scrambled up the yard of earth and crunched over the ballast stones and stood on a tie. To my right the track ran straight all the way south to the Gulf. To my left it ran straight north, all the way to wherever it went. I could see the road crossing far in the distance, and the old water tower. The rails either side of me were burnished bright by the passage of iron wheels. Ahead of me were more low trees and bushes, and beyond them was a field, and beyond the field were houses.
I heard a helicopter, somewhere east and a little north. I scanned the horizon and saw a Blackhawk in the air, about three miles away. Heading for Kelham, I assumed. I listened to the whap-whap-whap of its rotor and the whine of its turbine, and I watched it maintain direction but lose height as it came in to land. Then I scrambled down the far side of the earth berm and headed onward through the next belt of trees.
I hiked across the field that came next and stepped over a wire and found myself on a street I figured was parallel with Emmeline McClatchy's. In fact I could see the back of the house with the beer signs in the windows. The ad-hoc bar. But between it and me were other houses, all surrounded by yards. Private property. In the yard dead ahead of me two guys were sitting in white plastic chairs. Old men. They were watching me. By the look of them they were taking a break from some kind of hard physical labor. I stopped at their fence line and asked, "Would you do me a favor?"
They didn't answer in words, but they cocked their chins up like they were listening. I said, "Would you let me walk through your yard? I need to get to the next street. "
The guy on the left asked, "Why?" He had a fringe of white beard, but no mustache.
I said, "I'm visiting with a person who lives there. "
"Emmeline McClatchy. "
"You with the army?"
I said, "Yes, I am. "
"Then Emmeline doesn't want a visit from you. Nor does anyone else around here. "
"Because of Bruce Lindsay, most recently. "
"Was he a friend of yours?"
"He surely was. "
"Bullshit," I said. "He told me he had no friends. You all called him deformed and shunned him and made his life a misery. So don't get up on your high horse now. "
"You got some mouth on you, son. "
"More than just a mouth. "
"You going to shoot us too?"
"I'm sorely tempted. "
The old guy cracked a grin. "Come on through. But be nice to Emmeline. This thing with Bruce Lindsay shook her up all over again. "
I walked the depth of their yard and heard the Blackhawk again, taking off from Kelham, far in the distance. A short visit for somebody, or a delivery, or a pickup. I saw it rise above the treetops, a distant speck, nose down, accelerating north.
I stepped over a wire fence at the end of the yard. Now I was in the bar's lot. Still private, technically, but in principle bars welcome passersby rather than run them off. And the place was deserted, anyway. I looped past the building and made it out to the street unmolested.
And saw an army Humvee easing to a stop outside the McClatchy house.
The Affair by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4.2 out of 5 / Based on38 votes