The affair, p.23
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       The Affair, p.23

         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Twenty-Three

  66

  Hammers are very evolved items. They haven't changed for years. Why would they change? Nails haven't changed. Nails have been the same forever. Therefore a hammer's necessary features were worked out long ago. A heavy metal head, and a handle. All you need, and nothing you don't. Frazer's was a claw design, a framing hammer, maybe twenty-eight ounces. A big ugly thing. Total overkill for picture hanging, but such mismatches of tool and purpose are common in the real world.

  It made for a decent weapon, though.

  He came at me with it cocked in his right hand like a nightstick. I scrambled up out of my chair pretty fast, any idea of embarrassing him with an inappropriate postmortem position abandoned long ago. Sheer instinct. I don't scare easy, but humans are very evolved too. A lot of what we do is hard-wired right back to the mists of time. Right back to where my pal Stan Lowrey liked to start a story.

  Frazer's office was small. Its free floor space was smaller still. Like fighting in a phone booth. How it was going to go would depend on how smart Frazer was. And I figured he was plenty smart. He had survived Vietnam, and the Gulf, and years of Pentagon bullshit. You don't do any of that without brains. I figured he was an easy seven out of ten. Maybe an eight. In no imminent danger of winning the Nobel Prize, but definitely smarter than the average bear.

  Which helped me. Fighting morons is harder. You can't guess what they're going to do. But smart people are predictable.

  He swung the hammer right to left, waist height, a standard opening gambit. I arched back and it missed me. I figured next he would slash back the other way, left to right, same height, and he did, and I arched back again, and he missed again. An exploratory exchange. Like moving pawns on a chess board. He was breathing strangely. Ferocity, not a throat problem. Nothing for Saint Audrey to worry about. It was ferocity, and excitement. He was a warrior at heart, and warriors love nothing more than the fight itself. It consumes them. They live for it. He was smiling, too, in a feral way, and his eyes were seeing nothing except the hammer head and my midsection beyond it. There was a sharp tang of sweat in the air, something primitive, like a nighttime rodent's lair.

  I dodged forward half a step, and he matched it with a backward move of his own that left us in the middle of the floor, which was important. To me. He wanted me back against the wall, and I didn't want to be there.

  Not yet, anyway.

  He swung the hammer a third time, scything it hard, making it look like he meant it, which he didn't. Not yet. I could read the pattern. It was in his eyes. I arched back and the hammer head buzzed by an inch from my coat. Twenty-eight ounces, on a long handle. The momentum of the miss carried it way around. His shoulders turned ninety degrees and he twisted at the waist. He used the torque to come right back at me. With some arm extension this time. He forced me back. I ended up close to the wall.

  I watched his eyes.

  Not yet.

  He was a warrior. I wasn't. I was a brawler. He lived for the tactical victory. I lived to piss on the other guy's grave. Not the same thing. Not the same thing at all. A different focus. He swung for the fourth time, same angle, same height. He was like a fastball pitcher, getting me used to one thing before unleashing another thing entirely. Inside, inside, inside, and then the splitter away. But Frazer wouldn't go low. He would go high. Low would be better, but he was only a seven out of ten. Maybe an eight. But not a nine.

  He swung a fifth time, same height, same angle, so hard that the tines of the claw made a raw thrumming sound as they moved through the air, stopping dead as the hammer stopped dead. He swung a sixth time, same height, same sound, more extension. I was very close to the wall. No real place to go. Then came the seventh swing, same height, same angle, same sound.

  Then came his eyes.

  They flicked upward, and the eighth swing aimed high, right at the side of my head. Right at my temple. I saw a glint off the hammer's inch-wide striking face. Twenty-eight ounces. Nearly two pounds in weight. It would have punched a very neat hole through the bone.

  But it didn't, because my head wasn't there when it arrived.

  I dropped vertically, eight inches onto bent and pre-set knees, four inches so the swing would miss me, and another four as a margin of safety, and I heard the rush of air above me, and I felt the miss drag him around in a wild part-circle, and I started back up, and then we were into a whole new set of calculations. We had done the three dimensions. We had done in and out, back and forth, and up and down. Now we were ready for the fourth dimension. Time. The only remaining questions were how fast could I hit him, and how fast was he spinning?

  And they were crucial questions. For him especially. I was twisting as I rose and my elbow was already moving fast and it was a certainty I was going to hit him with it in the neck. A mathematical certainty. But which part of the neck? The answer was, whichever part was there when the blow landed. Front, side, back, it was all the same to me. But not to him. For him, some parts would be worse than others.

  The twenty-eight ounces had first pulled his arms away from his shoulders, in a kind of Olympic hammer-throwing way, and then they had pulled his trailing shoulder hard, in a kind of whip-cracking way, so he was well into a serious but uncontrolled spin by then. And my elbow was doing pretty well by that point. A muscle memory thing. It happens automatically. If in doubt, throw the elbow. Maybe a childhood thing. My weight was behind it, my foot was braced, and it was going to land, and it was going to land hard. In fact it was going to land very hard. It was already scything and clubbing downward. And it was accelerating. It was going to be a vicious blow. It was going to be the kind of vicious blow he might survive if he took it on the side of the neck, but not on the back. A blow like that on the back of the neck would be fatal. No question. Something to do with how the skull joins the vertebrae.

  So it was all about time, and speed, and rotation, and eccentric orbits. It was impossible to predict. Too many moving parts. At first I thought he was going to take it mostly on the side. On the angle, really, but with the ratio tilted toward maybe surviving it. Then I saw it was going to be closer to fifty-fifty, but the twenty-eight ounces suddenly pulled him off in some new direction, and from that point onward there was no doubt he was going to take it on the back of the neck and nowhere else. No doubt at all. The guy was going to die.

  Which I didn't regret.

  Except in a practical sense.

  67

  Frazer went down by his desk, not hitting it, making a sound no louder than a fat guy sitting down on a sofa. Which was safe enough. No one calls the cops when a fat guy sits down on a sofa. There was carpet on the floor, some kind of a Persian thing most likely left behind by a previous occupant long dead of a heart attack. Under the carpet would be pad, and under that was solid Pentagon concrete. So sound transmission was strictly contained. No one will hear a thing, Frazer had said. You got that right, I thought. Asshole.

  I pulled the illicit Beretta from my Class A coat pocket and held it on him for a long moment. Just in case. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. But he didn't move. No way could he. Maybe his eyelids. His neck was loose right at the top. He had taken no vertebrae with him. His skull was attached to the rest of him by nothing but skin.

  I left him where he was for the time being and was about to step into the center of the room to start scoping things out when the door opened.

  And in walked Frances Neagley.

  She was in woodland-pattern BDUs and she was wearing latex gloves. She glanced around the room once, twice, and she said, "We need to move him near where the picture was. "

  I just stood there.

  "Quickly," she said.

  So I got myself going and I hauled him over to where he might plausibly have fallen while he was hanging the picture. He could have gone over backward and hit his head on the edge of the desk. The distances were about right.

  "But why would he?" I said.

 
; "He was banging in the nail," Neagley said. "He flinched when he saw the claw coming at him on the backswing. Some knee-jerk reaction. A reflex. He couldn't help it. He got his feet tangled up in the rug and over he went. "

  "So where's the nail now?"

  She took it off the desk and dropped it at the base of the wall. It tinkled faintly against the gutter of tile beyond the edge of the rug.

  "And where's the hammer?"

  "It's near enough," she said. "Time to go. "

  "I have to erase my appointment. "

  She showed me diary pages from her pocket.

  "Already in the bag," she said. "Let's go. "

  Neagley led me down two flights of stairs and through the corridors at a pace somewhere between moderate and brisk. We used the southeast entrance to get outside and then we headed straight for the parking lot, where we stopped among the reserved spaces, and where Neagley unlocked a large Buick sedan. It was a Park Avenue. Dark blue. Very clean. Maybe new.

  Neagley said, "Get in. "

  So I got in, onto soft beige leather. Neagley backed up and swung the wheel and headed for the exit, and then we were through the barrier, and pretty soon after that we were on a bunch of highway ramps, and then we were through the last of them and on a six-lane road heading south, just one car among a rolling thousand.

  I said, "The inquiry desk has a record of me coming in. "

  "Wrong tense," Neagley said. "It had a record. It doesn't anymore. "

  "When did you do all that?"

  "I figured you were OK as soon as you were one-on-one with the guy. Although I wish you hadn't talked so much. You should have moved to the physical much sooner. You have talents, honey, but talking ain't top of the list. "

  "Why are you even here?"

  "I got word. "

  "What word?"

  "The story of this crazy trap. Walking into the Pentagon like that. "

  "Word from where?"

  "From way down in Mississippi. From Sheriff Deveraux herself. She asked for my help. "

  "She called you?"

  "No, we had a seance. "

  "Why would she call you?"

  "Because she was worried, you idiot. As was I, as soon as I heard. "

  "There was nothing to worry about. "

  "There could have been. "

  I asked, "What did she want you to do?"

  "She wanted me to watch your back. To make sure you were OK. "

  "I don't think I told her what time the appointment was. "

  "She knew what bus you were on. Her deputy told her what time he'd gotten you to Memphis, and so it was easy enough to figure out what line you would take. "

  "How did that help you this morning?"

  "It didn't help me this morning. It helped me yesterday evening. I've been on you since you left the bus depot. Every minute. Nice hotel, by the way. If they ever catch up with me for the room service, you owe me big money. "

  I said, "Whose car is this?"

  "It belongs to the motor pool. As per procedure. "

  "What procedure?"

  "When a senior staff officer passes away, his Department-owned car is returned to the motor pool. Where it is immediately road tested to determine what remedial work needs to be done before it can be reissued. This is the road test. "

  "How long will it last?"

  "About two years, probably. "

  "Who was the officer?"

  "It's a fairly new car, isn't it? Must have been a fairly recent death. "

  "Frazer?"

  "It's easier for the motor pool to do the paperwork first thing in the morning. We were all counting on you. If anything had gone wrong we'd all have had red faces. "

  "I might have arrested him instead. "

  "Same thing. Dead or busted, it makes no difference to the motor pool. "

  "Where are we going?"

  "You're due on post. Garber wants to see you. "

  "Why?"

  "I don't know. "

  "That's three hours away. "

  "So sit back and relax. This might be the last rest you get for a spell. "

  "I thought you didn't like Deveraux. "

  "Doesn't mean I wouldn't help her if she was worried. I think there's something wrong with her, that's all. How long have you known her?"

  "Four days," I said.

  "And I bet you could already tell me four weird things about her. "

  I said, "I should try to call her, if she's worried. "

  "I already tried," Neagley said. "From the scheduler's phone. While you were giving Frazer all that theoretical shit. I was going to tell her you were nearly home and dry. But she didn't answer. A whole Sheriff's Department, and no one picked up. "

  "Perhaps they're busy. "

  "Perhaps they are. Because there's something else you need to know. I checked a rumor from the sergeants' network. The ground crew at Benning says the Blackhawk that came in from Kelham on Sunday was empty. Apart from the pilots, of course. No passenger, is what they meant. Reed Riley didn't go anywhere. He's still on the post. "

  68

  I took Neagley's advice and relaxed through the rest of the ride. It took a lot less than three hours. The Buick was much faster than a bus. And Neagley pushed it much harder than a bus driver would. I was back on post by three-thirty. I had been gone exactly twenty-four hours.

  I went straight to my quarters and took off the fancy Class As and cleaned my teeth and took a shower. Then I put on BDUs with a T-shirt and went to see what Garber wanted.

  Garber wanted to show me a confidential file from the Marine Corps. That was the purpose of his summons. But first came a short question-and-answer session. It didn't go well. It was very unsatisfactory. I asked the questions, and he refused to answer them.

  And he refused to make eye contact.

  I asked, "Who did they arrest in Mississippi?"

  He said, "Read the file. "

  "I would like to know. "

  "Read the file first. "

  "Do they have a good case or is it bullshit?"

  "Read the file. "

  "Was it the same guy for all three women?"

  "Read the file first. "

  "Civilian, right?"

  "Read the damn file, Reacher. "

  He wouldn't let me take the file away. It had to remain under his personal control at all times. Under his eye throughout, technically, but he didn't follow the letter of the law on that point. He stepped out of his office and closed the door quietly and left me alone with it.

  It was about a quarter of an inch thick, cased in a jacket that was a different shade of khaki than the army uses. Better quality, too. It was smooth and crisp, only a little scraped and scuffed by the passage of time. It had red chevrons on all four edges, presumably denoting some elevated level of secrecy. It had a white stick-on label with a USMC file number printed on it, and a date five years in the past.

  It had a second label with a name printed on it.

  DEVERAUX, E.

  Her name was followed by her rank, which was CWO5, and her service number, and her date of birth, which was fairly close to mine. Near the bottom edge of the jacket was a third stick-on, slightly misaligned, taken from a long roll of preprinted tape. I guessed it was supposed to say Do Not Open Unless Authorized but it had been cut at the wrong interval so that in reality it said Open Unless Authorized Do Not. Bureaucracy can be full of accidental humor.

  But the contents of the file were not funny.

  The contents started with her photograph. It was in color, and maybe a little more than five years old. Her hair was buzzed very short, like she had told me. Probably a number two clipper, grown out a week or so, like a soft dark halo. Like moss. She looked very beautiful. Very small and delicate. The short hair made her eyes enormous. She looked full of life, full of vigor, in control, in command. Some kind of a mental and physical plateau. Late twenties, early thirties. I remembered t
hem well.

  I laid the photograph face down on my left and looked at the first sheet of printed words. They were typewritten. An IBM machine, I guessed, with the golf ball. Common in 1992. And there were still plenty around in 1997. Computer word processing was happening, but like everything else in the military it was happening slowly and cautiously, with a great deal of doubt and suspicion.

  I started reading. Immediately it was clear that the file was a summary of an investigation conducted by a USMC Brigadier General from their Provost Marshal's office, which oversaw their MP business. The one-star's name was James Dyer. A very senior man, for what appeared to be nothing more than a personnel issue. A personal dispute, in fact, between two Marine MPs of equal rank. Or, technically, a dispute between one Marine MP and two others, for a total of three. On one side of the issue were a woman named Alice Bouton and a man named Paul Evers, and on the other side of the issue was Elizabeth Deveraux.

  Like every summary I had ever read this one began with a bald narrative of events, written neutrally and patiently, without implication or interpretation, in language anxious to be clear. The story was fairly simple. Like a subplot from daytime TV. Elizabeth Deveraux and Paul Evers were dating, and then they weren't, and then Paul Evers and Alice Bouton were dating, and then Paul's car got trashed, and then Alice got dishonorably discharged after a financial irregularity came to light.

  That was the narrative of events.

  Next came a digression into Alice Bouton's situation. Like a sidebar. Alice was indisputably guilty, in General Dyer's opinion. The facts were clear. The evidence was there. The case was solid. The prosecution had been fair. The defense had been conscientious. The verdict had been unanimous. The amount in question had been less than four hundred dollars. In cash, taken from an evidence locker. Proceeds from an illegal weapons sale, confiscated, bagged up, logged in, and awaiting exhibition in an upcoming court martial. Alice Bouton had taken it and spent it on a dress, a purse, and a pair of shoes, in a store close to where she was based. The store remembered her. Four hundred bucks was a lot of money for a jarhead to spend on an outfit, back in 1992. Some of the larger denomination bills were still in the store's register when the MPs came calling, and the serial numbers matched the evidence log.

  Case closed.

  Sidebar over.

  Next up was General Dyer's interpretation of the three-way turmoil. It was painstaking. It was prefaced with a cast-iron guarantee that all conclusions were amply supported by data. Conversations had been had, interviews had been conducted, information had been gathered, witnesses had been consulted, and then everything had been cross-referenced and cross-checked, and anything supported by fewer than two independent sources had been omitted. A full court press, in other words. You could take it to the bank. The guarantee ended with a long emphasized paragraph. I could picture the IBM machine bucking and rocking on the desk as the golf ball slammed back and forth, supplying the furious underline. The paragraph confirmed Dyer's belief that everything about to be described was courtroom-ready, should further action be deemed necessary or desirable.

  I turned the page and started in on the analysis. Dyer wrote in a plain style, and did not inject himself into the narrative. Given the preceding page, any reader would understand that the content might not be one-hundred-percent forensically proven fact, but that equally it was very far from scuttlebutt or rumor. It was solid information. It was known as much as anything was knowable. Hence Dyer never wrote I believe or I think or It seems likely. He just told the story.

  Which went like this: Elizabeth Deveraux had been seriously pissed when Paul Evers dumped her for Alice Bouton. She had felt slighted, disregarded, disrespected, and insulted. She was a woman scorned, and her subsequent behavior seemed determined to prove the cliche true in every respect. She victimized the new couple by bad-mouthing them everywhere she could, and by manipulating workloads whenever she could, to stop them getting down time together.

  Then she drove Paul Evers's car off a bridge.

  Evers's car was nothing special, but it represented a significant investment on his part, and it was essential to his social life, given that no one wants to stay on post all the time. Deveraux had retained a key for it, and late one night had driven it away and steered it carefully beyond a bridge abutment and let it roll over a thirty-foot drop into a concrete flood sluice. The impact had almost totaled the car, and heavy rain later that night had finished the job.

  Then Deveraux had turned her attention to Alice Bouton.

  She had started by breaking her arm.

  General Dyer's two-independent-sources rule meant that the circumstances were not precisely described, because the attack had not been witnessed, but Bouton claimed Deveraux had been the assailant, and Deveraux had never denied it. The medical facts were beyond dispute. Bouton's left elbow had been dislocated and both bones in her left forearm had been snapped. She had been in a hard cast for six long weeks.

  And Deveraux had spent those six long weeks pursuing the theft allegation with demonic intensity. Except that pursuing was the wrong word, initially, because at the outset there was nothing to pursue. No one knew anything had been stolen. Deveraux had first inventoried the evidence lockers and audited the paperwork. Only then had she discovered the discrepancy. And then she had made the allegation. And then she had pursued it, like an obsession, with the ultimate result being as described in General Dyer's sidebar. The court martial, and the guilty verdict.

  There was a huge uproar in the Marine MP community, of course, but Bouton's guilty verdict had insulated Deveraux from any kind of formal criticism. What would have looked like a vendetta had the verdict been different was left looking like a good piece of police work entirely in keeping with the Marine Corps' sense of ethics and honor. But it was a fine line. General Dyer had been in no doubt that the case involved major elements of personal retribution.

  And, unusually for such reports, he had attempted to explain why.

  Again, he confirmed that conversations had been had, and interviews had been conducted, and information had been gathered, and witnesses had been consulted. The participants in these new discussions had included friends and enemies, acquaintances and associates, and doctors and psychiatrists.

  The salient factor was held by all to be Alice Bouton's unusual physical beauty.

  All were agreed that Bouton had been an exceptionally good looking woman. Words quoted included gorgeous, stunning, spectacular, heart-breaking, knockout, and incredible.

  All the same words applied equally to Deveraux too, of course. All were agreed on that point also. No question. The psychiatrists had concluded that therein lay the explanation. General Dyer had translated their clinical language for the casual reader. He said Deveraux couldn't take the competition. She couldn't stand not to be clearly and definitively the most beautiful woman on the post. So she had taken steps to make sure she was.

  I read the whole thing one more time, front to back, and then I butted all the pages neatly together and closed the jacket on them, and Garber came back into the room.

 
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