The affair, p.25
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       The Affair, p.25
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         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Twenty-Five

  73

  The waitress was overworked and slow, so I left Munro to receive the pies alone and I headed back to the dog-leg alley. I came out between Brannan's bar and the loan office and saw that a few cars had left and the crowd on the open ground had thinned considerably, much more so than the few absent cars could explain, so I figured people were inside at that point, drinking away their last precious minutes of freedom before heading home for the night.

  I found most of them inside Brannan's bar itself. The place was packed. It was seriously overcrowded. I wasn't sure if Carter County had a fire marshal, but if it did, the guy would have been having a panic attack. There must have been a hundred Rangers and fifty women in there, back to back, chest to chest, holding their drinks up neck-high to avoid the crush. There was a roar of sound, a loud generalized amalgam of talk and laughter, and behind it all I could hear the cash drawer slamming in and out of the register. The river of dollars was back in full flow.

  I spent five minutes fighting my way to the bar, on a random route left and right through the crowd, checking faces as I went, some up close, some from afar, but I didn't see Reed Riley. The Brannan brothers were hard at work, dealing beer in bottles, taking money, making change, dumping wet dollar bills into their tip jar, passing and repassing each other in their cramped space with moves like dancers. One of them saw me and did the busy-barman thing with his chin and his eyes and the angle of his head, and then he recognized me from our earlier conversation, and then he remembered I was an MP, and then he leaned in fast like he was prepared to give me a couple of seconds. I couldn't remember if he was Jonathan or Hunter.

  I asked him, "Have you seen that guy Reed? The guy we were talking about before?"

  He said, "He was in here two hours ago. By now he'll be wherever the shots are cheapest. "

  "Which is where?"

  "Can't say for sure. Not here, anyway. "

  Then he ducked away to continue his marathon and I fought my way back to the door.

  I got back to the diner sixteen minutes after I left it and found that the pies had been delivered in my absence and that Munro was halfway through eating his. I picked up my fork and he apologized for not waiting. He said, "I thought you were gone. "

  I said, "I often take a walk between courses. It's a Mississippi thing, apparently. Always good to blend in with the local population. "

  He said nothing in reply to that. He just looked a little bemused.

  I asked, "What are you doing in Germany?"

  "Generally?"

  "No, specifically. As in, when you get there first thing in the morning the day after tomorrow, what's on your desk?"

  "Not very much. "

  "Nothing urgent?"

  "Why?"

  "Three women were killed here," I said. "And the perp is running around free as a bird. "

  "We have no jurisdiction. "

  "Remember that picture in Emmeline McClatchy's parlor? Martin Luther King? He said all that needs to happen for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing. "

  "I'm a military cop, not a good man. "

  "He also said the day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die. "

  "That stuff is way above my pay grade. "

  "He also said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. "

  "What do you want me to do?"

  "I want you to stay here," I said. "One more day. "

  Then I finished my pie and went looking for Elizabeth Deveraux again.

  It was eleven thirty-one when I left the diner for the second time. I turned right and walked up to the Sheriff's Department. It was locked up and dark. No vehicles in the lot. I kept on going and turned the corner onto the Kelham road. There was a stream of traffic coming out from behind Main Street. One car after another. Some were full of women and turning left. Most were full of Rangers and turning right, at least three and sometimes four guys in each car. Bravo Company, going home. Maybe they had a midnight curfew. I glanced down to the acre of beaten dirt and saw every single car except my Buick in motion. Some were just starting up and backing out. Others were maneuvering for position, getting in line, getting ready to join the convoy.

  I kept on walking, on the left-hand shoulder, keeping my distance from the traffic heading for Kelham. A lot of beer had been consumed, and the designated driver concept was not big in 1997. Not in the army, anyway. Dust was coming up off the road, and bright headlight beams were cutting through it, and motors were roaring. Two hundred yards ahead of me cars were thumping over the railroad track and then accelerating away into the darkness.

  Deveraux was right there, sitting in her car on the far side of the crossing. She was facing me. She was parked with her wheels on the shoulder of the road. I walked toward her, with Bravo Company overtaking me all the way, maybe ninety of them in thirty cars in the minute it took me to reach the railroad. By the time I got there the stream was already thinning behind me. The last of the stragglers were passing me by, five and ten and twenty seconds between each one. They were driving fast, chasing after their more punctual friends.

  I waited for a break in the traffic long enough to get me safely over the track, and Deveraux opened her door and got out to meet me. We stood there together, lit up bright by the oncoming headlights. She said, "Five more minutes and they'll all be gone. But I have to wait until Butler and Pellegrino get back. I can't go off duty before they do. That wouldn't be fair. "

  I asked, "When will they get back?"

  "The train takes a whole minute to pass a given point. Which doesn't sound like much, but it feels like an hour when you've been working all evening. So they'll try to make it before midnight. "

  "How long before midnight?"

  She smiled. "Not long enough, I'm afraid. Five to, maybe. We wouldn't get home in time. "

  I said, "Pity. "

  She smiled wider.

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

  She started the motor and waited a moment as the last of the Bravo Company stragglers sped by. Then she eased off the shoulder, and maneuvered out to the humped crown of the pavement, and then she turned a tight right that put us up on the crossing, sideways to the road, facing north up the railroad track, directly in line with it. She put a light foot on the gas and steered carefully and got her right-hand wheels up on the right-hand rail. Her left-hand wheels were down on the ties. The whole car was tilted at a decent angle. She drove on, not fast, not slow, but decisive and confident. She went straight, one hand on the wheel, one hand in her lap, past the water tower, then onward. Her left-hand wheels pattered over the ties. Her right-hand wheels ran smooth. A fine piece of car control. Then she braked gently, one side up, one side down, and she came to a neat stop.

  On the track.

  Twenty yards north of the water tower.

  Right where Reed Riley's car had waited for the train.

  Where the broken glass began.

  I said, "You've done this before. "

  She said, "Yes, I have. "

  74

  She said, "This is the tricky part. It's all about momentum now. " She turned the wheel hard to the left and just as the front right-hand tire came down off the right-hand rail she hit the gas and the pulse of acceleration popped the front left-hand tire up over the left-hand rail. The whole car squirmed for a second, and she kept her foot light on the pedal, and the other wheels followed suit, two, three, four, with separate squelching sounds, sidewall rubber against steel, and then she stopped again and parked in the dirt very close to and exactly parallel with the track. The first of the ballast stones were about five feet from my window.

  She said, "I love this spot. No other way to get to it, because of the ditch. But it's worth the trouble. I come here quite often. "

  "At midnight?" I asked.

  "Always," she said.

  I turned and looked out the back window. I could see the road.
More than forty yards away, less than fifty. At first there was nothing happening. No traffic. Then a car flashed past east to west, left to right, away from Kelham, toward town, moving fast. A big car, with lights on its roof and a shield on its door.

  "Pellegrino," she said. She was watching too now. Right at my side. She said, "He was probably holed up a hundred yards away, and as soon as that last straggler passed him he counted to ten and hightailed it for home. "

  I said, "Butler was parked right at Kelham's gate. "

  "Yes, Butler is the one with a race on his hands. And our fate in his hands. As soon as he passes us, I guarantee we're alone in the world. This is a small town, Reacher, and I know where everyone is. "

  The clock in my head said eleven forty-nine. Butler's plight involved a complex calculation. He was three miles away and wouldn't hesitate to drive at sixty, which meant he could be home in three minutes. But he couldn't start that three-minute dash until the last straggler got at least within headlight range of Kelham. And that last straggler might be driving pretty slow at that point, having had a skinful of beer and having seen Pellegrino parked menacingly on the side of the road. My guess was Butler would be through in eleven minutes, which would be midnight exactly, and I said so.

  "No, he'll have jumped the gun," Deveraux said. "The last ten minutes have been fairly quiet. He'll have moved off the gate five minutes ago. That's my guess. He might not be far behind Pellegrino. "

  We watched the road.

  All quiet.

  I opened my door and got out of the car. I stepped right on the edge of the rail bed. The left-hand rail was no more than a yard away. It was gleaming in the moonlight. I figured the train was ten miles south of us. Passing through Marietta, maybe, right at that moment.

  Deveraux got out on her side and we met behind the Caprice's trunk. Eleven fifty-one. Nine minutes to go. We watched the road.

  All quiet.

  Deveraux stepped back around and opened a rear door. She checked the back seat. She said, "Just in case. We might as well be ready. "

  "Too cramped," I said.

  "You don't like doing it in cars?"

  "They don't make them wide enough. "

  She checked her watch.

  She said, "We won't make it back to Toussaint's in time. "

  I said, "Let's do it right here. On the ground. "

  She smiled.

  Then wider.

  "Sounds good to me," she said. "Like Janice Chapman. "

  "If she did," I said. I took off my BDU jacket and spread it out on the weeds, as long and wide as it would go.

  We watched the road.

  All quiet.

  She took off her gun belt and stowed it on the rear seat of the car. Eleven fifty-four. Six minutes. I knelt down and put my ear on the rail. I heard a faint metallic whisper. Almost not there at all. The train, six miles south.

  We watched the road.

  We saw a hint of a glow in the east.

  Headlights.

  Deveraux said, "Good old Butler. "

  The glow grew brighter, and we heard rushing tires and a straining engine in the silence of the night. Then the glow changed to delineated beams and the noise grew louder and a second later Butler's car flashed left-to-right in front of us and thwacked over the crossing without slowing down at all. He went airborne on the lee side and crashed back to earth with a yelp of rubber and a cloud of dust. Then he was gone.

  Four minutes to go.

  We were neither refined nor elegant. We wrenched our shoes off and pulled our pants down and abandoned all adult sophistication in favor of pure animal instinct. Deveraux hit the deck and got comfortable on my jacket and I went down right on top of her and propped myself up on my palms and watched for the glimmer of the train's headlight in the distance. Not there yet. Three minutes to go.

  She wrapped her legs around my hips and we got going, fast and hard from the first moment, anxious, desperate, insanely energetic. She was gasping and panting and rolling her head from side to side and grabbing fistfuls of my T-shirt and hauling on it. Then we were kissing and breathing both at the same time, and then she was arching her back and grinding her head on the ground, straining her neck, opening her eyes, looking at the world behind her upside down.

  Then the ground began to shake.

  As before, just faintly at first, the same mild constant tremor, like the beginning of a distant earthquake. The stones in the rail bed next to us started to scratch and click. The rails themselves started to sing, humming and keening and whispering. The ties jumped and shuddered. The ballast stones crunched and hopped. The ground under my hands and knees danced with big bass shudders. I looked up and gasped and blinked and squinted and saw the distant headlight. Twenty yards south of us the old water tower started to shake and its elephant's trunk started to sway. The ground beat on us from below. The rails screamed and howled. The train whistle blew, long and loud and forlorn. The warning bells at the crossing forty yards away started to ring. The train kept on coming, unstoppable, still distant, still distant, then right next to us, then right on top of us, just as insanely massive as before, and just as impossibly loud.

  Like the end of the world.

  The ground shook hard under us and we bounced and bucketed whole inches in the air. A bow wave of air battered us. Then the locomotive flashed past, its giant wheels five feet from our faces, followed by the endless sequence of cars, all of them hammering, juddering, strobing in the moonlight. We clung together, the whole long minute, sixty long seconds, deafened by the squealing metal, beaten numb by the throbbing ground, scoured by dust from the slipstream. Deveraux threw her head back under me and screamed soundlessly and jammed her head from side to side and beat on my back with her fists.

  Then the train was gone.

  I turned my head and saw the cars rolling away from me into the distance at a steady sixty miles an hour. The wind dropped, and the earthquake quieted down, first to gentle tremors again, and then to nothing at all, and the bells stopped dead, and the rails stopped hissing, and the nighttime silence came back. We rolled apart and lay on our backs in the weeds, panting, sweating, spent, deaf, completely overwhelmed by sensations internal and external. My jacket had gotten balled up and crumpled under us. My knees and hands were torn and scraped. I imagined Deveraux was in an even worse state. I turned my head to check and saw she had my Beretta in her hand.

  75

  The Marine Corps never liked the Beretta as much as the army did, so Deveraux was handling mine with proficiency but less than total enthusiasm. She dumped the magazine, ejected an unfired round, checked the chamber, racked the slide, and then put the whole thing back together again. She said, "I'm sorry. It was in your jacket pocket. I wondered what it was. It was digging into my ass. I'm going to have a bruise. "

  "In which case it's me that's sorry," I said. "Your ass deserves nothing but the best. It's a national treasure. Or a regional attraction, at the very least. "

  She smiled at me and stood up, unsteady, and went in search of her pants. Her shirt tail hung down, but not far enough. No bruise yet. She asked, "Why did you bring a gun?"

  "Habit," I said.

  "Were you expecting trouble?"

  "Anything's possible. "

  "I left mine in the car. "

  "So did lots of dead people. "

  "It's just the two of us here. "

  "As far as we know. "

  "You're paranoid. "

  "But alive," I said. "And you haven't arrested anyone yet. "

  "The army can't prove a negative," she said. "Therefore they must know who it was. They should tell me. "

  I said nothing in reply to that. I followed her lead and staggered to my feet and picked up my pants. We got dressed, hopping from foot to foot together, and then we perched side by side on the Caprice's rear bumper and laced our shoes. Getting back to the road was no real problem. Deveraux did it in reverse, backin
g up onto the track like parallel parking, then backing all the way to the crossing, and then turning the wheel and taking off forward. We were in my hotel room five minutes later. In bed. She went straight to sleep. I didn't. I lay in the dark and stared at the ceiling and thought.

  Mostly I thought about my last conversation with Leon Garber. My commanding officer. An honest man, and my friend, as far as I knew. But cryptic. It's the truth, he had said. 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. Then he had gotten a little impatient. A man with your instincts, he had said, about me. Later I had pushed the issue. You could order me not to go back to Mississippi, I had said. I could, he had said. But I won't. Not you. I trust you to do the right thing.

  The conversation replayed endlessly in my head.

  The truth.

  Instincts.

  The right thing.

  In the end I fell asleep very late and completely unsure whether Garber had been telling me something, or asking me something.

  My long-held belief that there is no better time than the second time was put to a severe test when we woke up, because the fifth time was also pretty terrific. We were both a little stiff and sore after our outdoor extravaganza, so we took it gently, long and slow, and the warmth and the comfort of the bed helped a lot. Plus neither one of us knew whether there would ever be a sixth time, which added a little poignancy to the occasion. Afterward we lay quiet for a while, and then she asked me when I was leaving, and I said I didn't know.

  We ate breakfast together in the diner, and then she went to work, and I went to use the phone. I tried to call Frances Neagley at her desk in D. C. , but she wasn't back yet. Probably still on an all-night bus somewhere. So I dialed Stan Lowrey instead, and got him right away. I said, "I need you to do something else for me. "

  He said, "No jokes this morning? About how you're surprised I'm still here?"

  "I didn't have time to think of any. I wanted Neagley, not you. You should try to get hold of her as soon as you can. She's better than you at this kind of stuff. "

  "Better than you, too. What do you need?"

  "Fast answers," I said.

  "To what questions?"

  "Statistically speaking, where would we be most likely to find U. S. Marines and concrete flood sluices in close proximity?"

  "Southern California," Lowrey said. "Statistically speaking, almost certainly Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. "

  "Correct," I said. "I need to trace a jarhead MP who was there five years ago. His name is Paul Evers. "

  "Why?"

  "Because his parents were Mr. and Mrs. Evers and they liked the name Paul, I guess. "

  "No, why do you want to trace him?"

  "I want to ask him a question. "

  Lowrey said, "You're forgetting something. "

  "Like what?"

  "I'm in the army, not the Marine Corps. I can't get into their files. "

  "That's why you need to call Neagley. She'll know how to do it. "

  "Paul Evers," he said, slowly, like he was writing it down.

  "Call Neagley," I said again. "This is urgent. I'll get back to you. "

  * * *

  I hung up with Lowrey and shoveled more coins into the slot and called the Kelham number Munro had given Deveraux, right back at the beginning. The call went through to some guy who wasn't Munro. He told me Munro had left at first light, in a car to Birmingham, Alabama. I said I knew that had been the plan. I asked the guy to check if it had actually happened. So the guy called the visiting officers' quarters and came back to me and said no, it hadn't actually happened. Munro was still on the post. The guy gave me a number for his room and I hung up and redialed.

  Munro answered and I said, "Thank you for sticking around. "

  He said, "But what am I sticking around for? Right now I'm just hiding out in my room. I'm not very popular here, you know. "

  "You didn't join the army to be popular. "

  "What do you need?"

  "I need to know Reed Riley's movements today. "

  "Why?"

  "I want to ask him a question. "

  "That could be difficult. As far as I know he's going to be pretty much tied up all day. You might be able to grab him over lunch. If he gets time for lunch, that is. And if he does, it will be very early. "

  "No, I need him to come to me. In town. "

  "You don't understand. The mood has changed here. Bravo Company is out from under the cloud. Riley's father is flying in for a visit. "

  "The senator? Today?"

  "ETA close to one o'clock this afternoon. Billed as an off-the-record celebration of what the guys are doing in Kosovo. "

  "How long will it last?"

  "You know what politicians are like. The old guy is supposed to watch some training crap in the afternoon, but dollars to doughnuts he'll get a real hard-on and want to hang around all night drinking with the boys. "

  "OK," I said. "I'll figure something out. "

  "Anything else?"

  "Well, since you've got nothing to do except sit around all day, you could tell me a couple of things. "

  "What things?"

  The phone started beeping at me and I said, "Why don't you call me back on the government's dime?" I read out the number from the dial and hung up. I walked to my table to pay the breakfast check and by the time I got back to the phone it was ringing.

  "What things?" Munro said again.

  "Impressions, mainly. About Kelham. As in, is there a good reason for Alpha Company and Bravo Company to be based there?"

  "As opposed to where else?"

  "Anywhere else east of the Mississippi River. "

  "Kelham is pretty isolated," Munro said. "Helps with the secrecy thing. "

  "That's what they told me, too. But I don't buy it. There are secrets on every base. They could keep the lid on this thing anywhere. Kosovo is not even interesting. Who would even listen? But they chose Kelham a year ago. Why did they do that? Have you seen anything about Kelham that would make it the only choice?"

  "No," Munro said. "Not really. It's adequate, no question. But not essential. I assume it was about sending four hundred extra wallets to a dying town. "

  "Exactly," I said. "It was political. "

  "What isn't?"

  "One more thing," I said. "You're clear about how Janice Chapman ended up in that alley, right?"

  "I hope so," he said. "Based on what I saw last night, Chief Deveraux operates an exclusion zone in terms of Main Street itself. She makes sure all the action happens between the bars and the railroad track. Therefore both Main Street and the alley would have been deserted. Therefore the perp must have stopped on Main Street and carried the corpse in from that direction. "

  "How long would it have taken?"

  "Doesn't matter. No one was there to see. Could have been a minute, could have been twenty. "

  "But why there? Why not somewhere else, ten miles away?"

  "The body was supposed to be found, I guess. "

  "Plenty of lonelier places it would still have been found. So why there?"

  "I don't know," Munro said. "Maybe the perp was constrained in some way. Maybe he had company, somewhere close by. Like the diner, or one of the bars. Maybe he had to duck out and take care of it real fast. Maybe he couldn't be gone for long without somebody noticing. So maybe he had to trade safety for speed. Which would dictate a nearby location. "

  "Can you give me another day?" I said. "Can you be here tomorrow?"

  "No," he said. "I'm going to get my butt kicked bad for being one day late. I can't risk two. "

  "Pussy," I said.

  He laughed. "Sorry, man, but if you don't get it done today you're on your own. "

 
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