The affair, p.24
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       The Affair, p.24

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

  69

  The first thing Garber said was, "We just heard from the Pentagon. John James Frazer was found dead in his office. "

  I said, "Dead how?"

  "Looks like a freak accident. Apparently he fell and hit his head on the desk. His staff got back from lunch and found him on the floor. He was doing something with a picture of Carlton Riley. "

  "That's bad. "

  "Why?"

  "This is not a great time to lose our Senate Liaison. "

  "Did you read the file?"

  I said, "Yes, I did. "

  "Then you know we don't need to worry about the Senate anymore. Whoever replaces Frazer will have plenty of time to learn the job before the next thing comes along. "

  "Is that going to be the official line?"

  "It's the truth. She was a Marine, Reacher. Sixteen years in. She knew all about cutting throats. She knew how to do it, and she knew how to pretend she didn't. And the car alone proves it. Right there, what more is there to say? She wrecks Paul Evers's car, and she wrecks Reed Riley's. Same MO. Same exact reason. Except this time she's only one of four beautiful women. And Munro says Riley dates her and then dumps her for the other three in succession. So this time she's three times as mad. This time she goes beyond breaking arms. This time she has her own private deer trestle behind an empty house. "

  "Is that going to be the official line?"

  "It's what happened. "

  "So what next?"

  "It's purely a Mississippi matter now. We have no dog in the fight, and we have no way of knowing what will happen. Most likely nothing will happen. My guess is she won't arrest herself, and she won't give the State Police any reason to either. "

  "So we're going to walk away?"

  "All three of them were civilians. They're nothing to do with us. "

  "So the mission is terminated?"

  "As of this morning. "

  "Is Kelham open again?"

  "As of this morning. "

  "She denies dating Riley, you know. "

  "She would, wouldn't she?"

  "Do we know anything about General Dyer?"

  "He died two years ago after a long and exemplary career. He never put a foot wrong. The man was stainless. "

  "OK," I said. "I'll take steps. "

  "Toward what?"

  "Toward wrapping up my involvement. "

  "Your involvement is already wrapped up. As of this morning. "

  "I have private property to recover. "

  "You left something there?"

  "I thought I was heading right back. "

  "What did you leave?"

  "My toothbrush. "

  "That's not important. "

  "Will the DoD reimburse me?"

  "For a toothbrush? Of course not. "

  "Then I have a right to recover it. They can't have it both ways. "

  He said, "Reacher, if you draw one iota more attention to this thing there won't be anything I can do to help you. Right now some very senior people are holding their breath. We're one inch away from news stories about a senator's son dating a three-time killer. Except neither one of them can afford to say anything about it. Not him, for one reason, and not her, for another. So we'll probably get away with it. But we don't know yet. Not for sure. Right now it's still in the balance. "

  I said nothing.

  He said, "You know she's good for it, Reacher. A man with your instincts? She was only pretending to investigate. I mean, did she get anywhere with it? And she was playing you like a violin. First she was trying to get rid of you, and when you wouldn't go, she switched to keeping you close. So she could monitor your progress. Or the lack of it. Why else would she even talk to you?"

  I said nothing.

  He said, "The bus is long gone, anyway. To Memphis. You'd have to wait until tomorrow now. And you'll see things differently tomorrow. "

  I asked, "Is Neagley still on the post?"

  He said, "Yes, she is. I just made a date to have a drink with her. "

  "Tell her she's taking the bus home. Tell her I'm taking the company car. "

  He asked, "Do you have a bank account?"

  I said, "How else would I get paid?"

  "Where is it?"

  "New York. From when I was at West Point. "

  "Move it to somewhere nearer the Pentagon. "

  "Why?"

  "Involuntary separation money comes through quicker if you bank in Virginia. "

  "You think it will come to that?"

  "The Joint Chiefs think war is over. They're singing along with Yoko Ono. There are big cuts coming. Most of them will fall on the army. Because the Marines have better PR, and because the Navy and the Air Force are a whole different thing altogether. So the people right above us are making lists, and they're making them right now. "

  "Am I on those lists?"

  "You will be. And there will be nothing I can do to stop it. "

  "You could order me not to go back to Mississippi. "

  "I could, but I won't. Not you. I trust you to do the right thing. "

  70

  I met Stan Lowrey on my way off the post. My old friend. He was locking his car just as I was unlocking the Buick.

  I said, "Goodbye, old pal. "

  He said, "That sounds final. "

  "You may never see me again. "

  "Why? Are you in trouble?"

  "Me?" I said. "No, I'm fine. But I heard your job is vulnerable. You might be gone when I get back. "

  He just shook his head and smiled and walked on.

  The Buick was an old lady's car. If my grandfather had had a sister, she would have been my great aunt, and she would have driven a Buick Park Avenue. But she would have driven it slower than me. The thing was as soft as a marshmallow and twice as buttery inside, but it had a big motor. And government plates. So it was useful on the highway. And I got on the highway as soon as I could. On I-65, to be precise. Heading south, down the eastern edge of a notional corridor, not down the western edge through Memphis. I would be approaching from a side I had never seen before, but it was a straighter shot. And therefore faster. Five hours, I figured. Maybe five and a half. I would be in Carter Crossing by ten-thirty at the latest.

  * * *

  I went south all the way through Kentucky in the last of the daylight, and then it got dark pretty quickly as I drove through Tennessee. I hunted around for a mile and found the switch and turned on my headlights. The broad road took me through the bright neon of Nashville, fast and above the fray, and then it took me onward through open country, where it was dark and lonely again. I drove like I was hypnotized, automatically, not thinking anything, not noticing anything, surprised every time I came to by the hundred-mile bites I had been taking out of the journey.

  I crossed the line into Alabama and stopped at the second place I saw, for gas and a map. I knew I would need to head west off an early Alabama exit and I needed a map with local details to show me where. Not the kind of large-scale plan you can buy ahead of time. The sheet I bought unfolded neatly and showed me every farm track in the state. But it showed me nothing more than that. Mississippi was just a blank white space on the edge of the paper. I narrowed down my target area and found a choice of four east - west routes. Any one of them might have been the road that led onward past Kelham's gate to Carter Crossing. Or none of them might. There could have been all kinds of dog-leg turns waiting for me on the other side of the line. A regular maze. No way of knowing.

  Except that Kelham had been built in the 1950s, which was still a time of big wars and mass mobilizations. And DoD planners have always been a cautious bunch. They didn't want some reservist convoy from New Jersey or Nebraska getting lost in unfamiliar parts. So they put discreet and coded signs here and there, marking the way to and from every major installation in the nation. Their efforts intensified after the Interstate system was begun. The Interstate system was for
mally named for President Eisenhower, for a very good reason. Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War Two, and his biggest problem had not been Germans. It had been getting men and materiel from point A to point B across lousy and unmarked roads. He was determined his successors should not face similar problems should land war ever come to America. Hence the Interstate system. Not for vacations. Not for commerce. For war. And hence the signs. And if those signs had not been shot up or trashed or stolen by the locals, I could use them like homing beacons.

  I found the first of the signs at the next exit I came to. I came off the ramp and struck out west on a concrete ribbon lined here and there with low-rent malls and auto dealers. After a time the commercial enterprises died back and the road reverted to what I guessed it had been before, which was a meandering rural route through what looked like pretty country. There were trees and fields and the occasional lake. There were summer camps and vacation villages and the occasional inn. There was a bright moon high in the sky, and it was all very picturesque.

  I drove on but saw no more DoD signs until I was in Mississippi, and only one more after that. But it was a bold and confident arrow pointing straight ahead, with the number 17 embedded in the code below it, indicating just seventeen more miles to go. The clock in my head said five past ten. If I hustled, I would arrive ahead of schedule.

  71

  Evidently the DoD engineers had been just as concerned about the westward approach to Kelham as the eastward. The road was the same in both directions. Same width, same material, same camber, same construction. I recognized it ten miles out. Then I sensed the trees and the fence in the darkness to my right. Kelham's southeastern corner. Bottom right on a map.

  The southern perimeter slid by my window, and I waited for the gate to arrive. I saw no reason why it wouldn't be at the exact mid-point of the fence. The DoD liked neatness. If there had been a hill in the way, army engineers would have removed it. If there had been a swamp in the way, army engineers would have drained it.

  In the end I guessed that actually there had been a small valley in the way, because after a couple of miles the road stayed level only by mounting a causeway about six feet high. The land all around was lower. Then the causeway widened dramatically on my right and became a huge fan-shaped concrete elevation floating above the grade. Like a gigantic turn-in, like the mouth of a wide new road. It started out about the size of an end-on football field. Maybe more, but then it got a little narrower. It met the old road at a right angle, but there were no sharp edges. No sharp turns. The turns were shallow, easing gently through graceful, generous curves. To accommodate tracked vehicles, not Buicks, however lumbering.

  But if the fan shape was the mouth of a new road, then that new road dead-ended fifty yards later, at Fort Kelham's gate. And Fort Kelham's gate was a heavy-duty affair. That was for damn sure. Physically it was stronger than anything I had seen outside a combat zone. It was flanked by fortifications and the guardhouse, which was also a serious affair. It had nine personnel in it. The county's interests were represented by the lone figure of Deputy Geezer Butler. He was sitting in his car, which was parked at an angle on the cusp of the farther curve, in a kind of no-man's-land, where the county's road became the army's.

  But the army's heavy steel barriers were wide open, and the army's road was in use. The base was all lit up and alive, and the whole scene looked exactly like business as usual. People were coming and going, not a big crowd, but no one was lonely. Most were driving, but some were on motorbikes. More were coming than going, because it was close to ten-thirty, and there were early starts tomorrow. But some hardy souls were still venturing out. Instructors, probably. And officers. Those who had it easy. I braked behind two slower cars and someone came out the gate and pulled in behind me and I found myself stuck in a little four-car convoy. We were swimming against the tide, going west, heading for the other side of the tracks. Possibly the last of many such convoys that evening.

  I sensed the bottom-left corner coming up, Kelham's southwestern limit, and I tried to identify the blind spot I had used two days before, but it was too dark to see. Then we were out in the open scrub. I saw Pellegrino in his cruiser, coming the other way, driving slow, trying to calm the returning traffic with his presence alone. Then we were rolling through the black half of town, and then we were bouncing over the railroad track, and then we were pulling a tight left in behind Main Street, and then we were parking on the beaten earth in front of the bars, and the auto parts places, and the loan offices, and the gun shops, and the secondhand stereo stores.

  I got out of the Buick and stood on the open ground halfway between Brannan's bar and the lines of parked cars. The open ground was being used as a kind of common thoroughfare. There were guys in transit from one bar to another, and there were guys standing around talking and laughing, and both groups were merging and separating according to some complex dynamic. No one was walking directly from place to place. Everyone was looping back toward the cars, pausing, shooting the shit, slapping backs, comparing notes, shedding one buddy and picking up another.

  And there were plenty of women, too. More than I would have believed possible. I had no idea where they had all come from. Miles around, probably. Some were paired off with soldiers, others were in larger mixed groups, and some were in groups of their own. I could see about a hundred guys in total, and maybe eighty women, and I guessed there might be similar numbers inside. The men were from Bravo Company, I assumed, still on leave and anxious to make up for lost time. They were exactly what I would have expected to see. Good guys, well trained, by day performing at a hundred percent of their considerable capacities, by night full of energy, full of goodwill, and full of high spirits. They were all in their unofficial off-duty uniform of jeans, jackets, and T-shirts. Here or there a guy would look a little pinched and wary compared to the others, which most likely meant he was on the promotion track, and clearly some guys needed the spotlight more than others, but overall they were precisely what a good infantry unit looks like when it comes out to play. There was plenty of buzz going on, and plenty of noise, but I sensed no frustration or hostility. There was nothing negative in the air. They didn't blame the town for their recent incarceration. They were just glad to get back to it.

  But even so I was sure local law enforcement would be holding its breath. In particular I was sure Elizabeth Deveraux would still be on duty. And I was definitely sure where I would find her. She needed a central location, and a chair and a table and a window, and something to do as time ticked away. Where else would she be?

  I eased my way through the thin crowd and stepped left of Brannan's bar and into the alley. I skirted Janice Chapman's pile of sand and followed the dog-leg and came out onto Main Street between the hardware store and the pharmacy. Then I turned right and walked up to the diner.

  * * *

  The diner was almost completely full that night. It was practically heaving, compared to how I had seen it before. Like Times Square. There were twenty-six customers. Nineteen of them were Rangers, sixteen of them in four groups of four at four separate tables, big guys sitting tight together, shoulder to shoulder. They were talking loud, and calling back and forth to each other. They were keeping the waitress busy. She was running in and out of the kitchen, and she probably had been all day long, dealing with the pent-up demand for something other than army chow. But she looked happy. The gates were finally open. The river of dollars was flowing again. She was getting her tips.

  The other three Rangers were dining with their girlfriends, face to face at tables for two, leaning in, heads together. All three men looked happy, and so did all three women. And why not? What could be finer than a romantic dinner at the best restaurant in town?

  The old couple from the hotel were in there too, at their usual table for four, almost hidden by the groups of Rangers all around them. The old lady had her book, and the old guy had his paper. They were staying la
ter than normal, and I guessed they were the only service workers in town not at that very moment camped out behind their cash registers. But none of the guys from Kelham needed a bed for the night, and Toussaint's offered no other facilities. Not even coffee. So it made sense for the owners to wait out the noise and the disruption somewhere safe and familiar, rather than listen to it all out their back windows.

  Then deeper into the room and right of the aisle and alone at the rearmost table for two was Major Duncan Munro. He was in BDUs and his head was bent over a meal. On the spot, just in case, even though his involvement in Kelham's affairs had been terminated hours before, presumably. He was a good MP. Professional to the end. I guessed he was on his way back to Germany, and was waiting for transport.

  And Elizabeth Deveraux was there, of course. She was on her own at a table closer to the window than I had seen her choose before. On the spot, vigilant, just in case, paying attention, not willing to let the mayhem filter out from behind Main Street onto Main Street itself. Because of the voters. She was in uniform, and her hair was up in its ponytail. She looked tired, but still spectacular. I watched her for a beat, and then she looked up and saw me and smiled happily and kicked a chair out for me.

  I paused another beat, thinking hard, and then I stepped over and sat down opposite her.

  72

  Deveraux didn't speak at first. She just looked me over, top to bottom, head to toe, maybe checking me for damage, maybe adjusting to the sight of me in uniform. I was still in the BDUs I had put on that afternoon, after getting back from D. C. A whole new look.

  I said, "Busy day?"

  She said, "Real busy since ten o'clock this morning. They opened the gates and out they came. Like a flood. "

  "Any trouble?"

  "None of them would pass a field sobriety test on their way home, but apart from that everything's cool. I've got Butler and Pellegrino out and about, just to show the flag. Just in case. "

  "I saw them," I said.

  "So how did it go up there?"

  "Inconclusive," I said. "Very bad timing on my part, I'm afraid. Just one of those freak things. The guy I went to see died in an accident. So I got nothing done. "

  "I figured," she said. "I was getting regular updates from Frances Neagley, until things got busy here. From eight until ten this morning you were drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. But something must have happened during those hours. My guess would be around nine o'clock. Mail call, maybe. But whatever, somebody must have reached a conclusion about something, because an hour later it all let loose. It was back to business as usual here. "

  I nodded.

  "I agree," I said. "I think new information was released this morning. Something definitive, I guess. "

  "Do you know what it was?"

  I said, "By the way, thank you for worrying. I was very touched. "

  "Neagley was just as worried as I was," she said. "Once I told her what you were doing, that is. She didn't need much persuading. "

  "In the end it was safe enough," I said. "It got a little tense around the Pentagon. That was the worst of it. I hung around there for quite a time. I came in through the cemetery. Behind Henderson Hall. You know that place?"

  "Of course I do. I was there a hundred times. They have a great PX. It feels like Saks Fifth Avenue. "

  "I got talking with a guy there. About you and a one-star called James Dyer. This guy said Dyer knew you. "

  "Dyer?" she said. "Really? I knew him, but I doubt if he knew me. If he did, then I'm flattered. He was a real big deal. Who was the guy you were talking to?"

  "His name was Paul Evers. "

  "Paul?" she said. "You're kidding. We worked together for years. In fact we even dated once. One of my mistakes, I'm afraid. But how amazing that you bumped into him. It's a small world, right?"

  "Why was he a mistake? He seemed OK to me. "

  "He was fine. He was a really nice guy. But we didn't really click. "

  "So you dumped him?"

  "More or less. But it felt close to mutual. We both knew it wasn't going to work. It was just a question of who was going to speak first. He wasn't upset, anyway. "

  "When was this?"

  She paused to calculate.

  "Five years ago," she said. "Feels like yesterday. Doesn't time fly?"

  "Then he said something about a woman called Alice Bouton. His next girlfriend after you, apparently. "

  "I don't think I knew her. I don't recall the name. Did Paul seem happy?"

  "He mentioned something about car trouble. "

  Deveraux smiled.

  "Girls and cars," she said. "Is that all guys ever talk about?"

  I said, "Reopening Kelham means they're sure the problem is on your side of the fence, you know. They wouldn't have done it otherwise. It's a Mississippi matter now. That will be the official line, from this point forward. It's not one of us. It's one of you. You got any thoughts on that?"

  "I think the army should share its information," she said. "If it's good enough for them, it would be good enough for me too. "

  "The army is moving on," I said. "The army won't be sharing anything. "

  She paused a beat.

  "Munro told me he got new orders," she said. "I suppose you have, too. "

  I nodded. "I came back to tie up a loose end. That's all, really. "

  "And then you'll be moving on. To the next thing. That's what I'm thinking about right now. I'll think about Janice Chapman tomorrow. "

  "And Rosemary McClatchy, and Shawna Lindsay. "

  "And Bruce Lindsay, and his mother. I'll do my best for all of them. "

  I said nothing.

  She asked, "Are you tired?"

  I said, "Not very. "

  "I have to go help Butler and Pellegrino. They've been working since dawn. And anyway, I want to be on the road when the last of the stragglers start to head home. They're always the toughest guys, and the drunkest. "

  "Will you be back by midnight?"

  She shook her head.

  "Probably not," she said. "We'll have to manage without the train tonight. "

  I said nothing in reply to that, and she smiled once more, a little sadly, and then she got up and left.

  The waitress finally got to me five minutes later and I ordered coffee. And pie, as an afterthought. She treated me a little differently than before. A little more formally. She worked near a base, and she knew what the black oak leaves on my collar meant. I asked her how her day had gone. She said it had gone very well, thank you.

  "No trouble at all?" I asked.

  "None," she said.

  "Even from that guy in back? The other major? I heard he could be a handful. "

  She turned and looked at Munro. She said, "I'm sure he's a perfect gentleman. "

  "Would you ask him to join me? Get him some pie, too. "

  She detoured via his table, and she delivered my invitation, which involved a lot of elaborate pointing, as if I was inconspicuous and hard to find in the crowd. Munro looked over quizzically, and then he shrugged and got up. Each of the four Ranger tables fell silent as he passed, one after the other. Munro was not popular with those guys. He had had them sitting on their thumbs for four solid days.

  He sat down in Deveraux's chair and I asked him, "How much have they told you?"

  "Bare minimum," he said. "Classified, need to know, eyes only, the whole nine yards. "

  "No names?"

  "No," he said. "But I'm assuming that Sheriff Deveraux must have given them solid information that clears our guys. I mean, what else could have happened? But she hasn't arrested anybody. I've been watching her all day. "

  "What has she been doing?"

  "Crowd control," he said. "Watching for signs of friction. But it's all good. No one is mad at her or the town. It's me they're gunning for. "

  "When are you leaving?"

  "First light," he said. "I get a ride to Birm
ingham, Alabama, and then a bus to Atlanta, Georgia, and then I fly Delta back to Germany. "

  "Did you know Reed Riley never left the base?"

  "Yes," he said.

  "What do you make of that?"

  "It puzzles me a little. "

  "In what way?"

  "Timing," he said. "At first I thought it was a decoy move, like politics as usual, but then I got real. They wouldn't burn a hundred gallons of Jet A on a decoy move, senator's son or not. So he was still scheduled to leave when the Blackhawk departed Benning, but by the time it arrived at Kelham, the orders had changed. Which means some big piece of decisive information came in literally while the chopper was in the air. Which was two days ago, on Sunday, right after lunch. But they didn't act on it in any other way until this morning, which is Tuesday. "

  "Why wouldn't they?"

  "I don't know. I see no reason for a delay. It feels to me like they were evaluating the new data for a couple of days. Which is usually wise. Except in this instance it makes no sense at all. If the new data was strong enough to make a snap decision to keep Riley on the post Sunday afternoon, why wasn't it strong enough to open the gates Sunday afternoon? It doesn't add up. It's as if they were ready to act privately on Sunday, but they weren't ready to act publicly until this morning. In which case, what changed? What was the difference between Sunday and today?"

  "Beats me," I said. Which was disingenuous. Because there was really only one answer to that question. The only material difference between Sunday afternoon and Tuesday morning was that I had been in Carter Crossing on Sunday afternoon, and I had been eight hundred miles away on Tuesday morning.

  And no one had expected me to come back again.

  What that meant, I had no idea.

 
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