The affair, p.26
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       The Affair, p.26

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

 

  76

  Senator Carlton Riley's impending visit kept the town very quiet. It was as if Kelham's gates were locked again. I doubted that the leave order had been formally rescinded, but Rangers are good soldiers, and I was sure the base commander had dropped heavy hints about hundred-percent participation in the hoopla. I left the diner and found Main Street back to its previous torpor. My borrowed Buick was the only car parked on the block behind. It looked lonely and abandoned. I unlocked it and drove it around to the hotel and retrieved my toothbrush and settled my account at the desk. Then I got back behind the wheel and went exploring.

  I started opposite the vacant lot between the diner and the Sheriff's Department. I headed south from there for two hundred yards, to where Main Street started to bend, driving fast but not stupid fast. I made the left into Deveraux's childhood street, and hustled along to her old house, fourth on the right. Total elapsed time, forty-five seconds.

  I turned in over the dried mud puddle and drove down the overgrown driveway, past the tumbledown house, through the back yard, past the wild hedge, to the deer trestle. I swung left and backed up and popped the trunk and got out.

  Total elapsed time, a minute and fifteen seconds.

  There were trees to my left and trees to my right and trees ahead of me. A lonely spot, even in the bright daylight. I mimed supporting a body's weight, cutting the wrist straps, cutting the ankle ties, carrying the body to the car, lowering it into the trunk. I fiddled around four more times, taking off imaginary pads and straps and belts and scarves from two wrists and two ankles. I stepped back to the trestle and picked up an imaginary bucket of blood and heaved it over to the car and wedged it in the trunk alongside the body.

  I closed the trunk lid and got back in the driver's seat.

  Total elapsed time, three minutes and ten seconds.

  I backed up and turned and drove the length of the driveway again and headed back to Main Street. I drove the same two hundred yards I had driven before and stopped on the curb between the hardware store and the pharmacy. Right at the mouth of the alley.

  Total elapsed time, four minutes and twenty-five seconds.

  Plus one minute to put the blood in the alley.

  Plus another minute to put Janice May Chapman in the alley.

  Plus fifteen seconds to get back where I started.

  Total elapsed time, six minutes and forty seconds.

  Touch and go.

  Maybe long enough to stick in someone's mind, in a social situation, or maybe not.

  I rewound the clock in my head to four minutes and twenty-five seconds and drove on north and then east, to the railroad crossing. I came to a stop right on top of it. New total, four minutes and fifty-five seconds. Plus a minute to carry Rosemary McClatchy to the ditch, and thirty seconds to get back to the car, and twenty seconds to get back where I started.

  Total elapsed time, six minutes and forty-five seconds.

  Fractionally longer, but in the same ballpark.

  I didn't drive up to where Shawna Lindsay had been dumped, on the pile of gravel. No point. That destination was in a whole different category. That was a twenty-minute excursion, right there. It was the sole exception to the hurry-up rule. Therefore it had been undertaken under different circumstances. No company. No social situation. Plenty of time to thread cautiously along dark dirt roads between ditches, turning right, turning left, doing the deed, and then coming back again, just as slow, just as cautious.

  But what was interesting about Shawna Lindsay's resting place was the car that carried her there. What kind of car could get through that neighborhood twice, without attracting notice or comment? What kind of car was entitled to be there at that time of night?

  I sat in the Buick for a spell and then I parked it outside the diner and went in and bought a new roll of quarters for the phone. I tried Neagley first and found her at her desk.

  I said, "You're late to work today. "

  She said, "But not by much. I've been here half an hour. "

  "I'm sorry about the bus. "

  "It was OK," she said. Public transportation was tough for Neagley. Too much chance of inadvertent human contact.

  I asked, "Did you get a message from Stan Lowrey?"

  "Yes, and I already traced the name for you. "

  "In half an hour?"

  "It was easy, I'm afraid. Paul Evers died a year ago. "

  "How?"

  "Nothing dramatic. It was an accident. A helicopter crashed at Lejeune. It was in the newspaper, actually. A Sea Hawk lost a rotor blade. Two pilots and three passengers died, one of which was Evers. "

  I said, "OK, plan B. The other name I want is Alice Bouton. " I spelled it out. I said, "She's been a civilian for the last five years. She was discharged from the Corps without honor. So you better call Stan back. He's better than you at this kind of stuff. "

  "The only thing Lowrey has that I don't is a friend at a bank. "

  "Exactly," I said. "That's why you need to call him. Corporations know about civilians better than we do. "

  "Why are we doing this?"

  "I'm checking a story. "

  "No, you're clutching at straws. That's what you're doing. "

  "You think?"

  "Elizabeth Deveraux is as guilty as sin, Reacher. "

  "You've seen the file?"

  "Only the carbons. "

  I said, "But with a thing like this, you have to flip a coin. "

  "As in?"

  "As in, maybe she did it, maybe she didn't. We don't know yet. "

  "We know, Reacher. "

  "Not for sure. "

  Neagley said, "It's a good thing you don't own a car. "

  I hung up with her and before I was a step away the phone rang on the wall, with the first good news of the day.

  77

  It was Munro on the phone, and he wanted to tell me he had had a cup of coffee. Or more specifically he wanted to tell me he had talked to the steward who had brought him the cup of coffee. The conversation had been on the subject of the day's upcoming festivities, and Munro said the stewards expected to be very busy until after dinner, but no later than that, because the mess bar would be deserted all evening, because the last time the senator visited he had hosted everybody in town, at Brannan's bar, because politically it seemed more authentic, and no doubt the old guy would do the same thing again.

  "OK," I said. "That's good. Riley will come to me after all. And his father. What time will dinner finish?"

  "Scheduled to be over by eight o'clock, according to the steward. "

  "OK," I said again. "I'm sure father and son will leave the base together. I want you on them from the moment they drive through the gate. But unobtrusively. Can you do that?"

  "Could you?"

  "Probably. "

  "Then what makes you doubt I could?"

  "Innate skepticism, I suppose," I said. "But whatever, keep your ear to the ground until eight tonight, and use this phone number as a contact if you need me. I'll be in and out of this diner all day long. "

  "OK," Munro said. "I'll see you later. But whether or not you'll see me is a different question altogether. "

  I hung up with Munro, and I asked the waitress to answer the phone for me if it rang again. I asked her to write down the callers' names on her order pad. Then it was all about waiting. For information, and for face to face encounters, and for decisive conclusions. I stepped out to the Main Street sidewalk and stood in the sun. Across the street the guy from the shirt store was doing the same thing. Taking a break, and tasting the air. On my left two old guys were on a bench outside the pharmacy, four hands piled on two canes between two sets of knees. Apart from the four of us the town was deserted. No hustle, no bustle, no traffic.

  All quiet.

  Until the goon squad from Kelham showed up.

  There were four of them in total. They were Kelh
am's own local version of Senate Liaison, I guessed, preparing the ground the same way a Secret Service advance team prepares the ground ahead of a presidential visit. They came out of the mouth of the alley beyond the two old guys on the bench. I guessed they had just called on the Brannan brothers and alerted them to what was going to happen that night. Maybe they had made invoicing arrangements. In which case I wished the Brannan brothers the very best of luck. I imagined billing a Senate office was a long and frustrating experience.

  The four guys were all officers. Two lieutenants, a captain, and a light colonel in the lead. He was fiftyish and fat. He was the kind of soft staff officer who looks ludicrous in battledress uniform. Like a civilian at a fancy dress party. He stopped on the sidewalk and put his knuckles on his hips. He looked all around. He saw me. I was in battledress uniform too. On the face of it, I was one of his. He spoke over his shoulder to a lieutenant behind him. Too far to hear his voice, but I could read his lips. He said, Tell that man to get his ass over here double-quick. I guessed he would want to know why I wasn't back on the base, getting myself ready for hundred-percent participation in the hoopla.

  The lieutenant's eyesight was not as good as mine. He approached most of the way full of one kind of body language, which changed fast when he got close enough to read my rank insignia. He stopped a respectful four feet away and saluted and said, "Sir, the colonel would like a word with you. "

  Normally I treat lieutenants well. I was one myself, not so very long ago. But right then I wasn't in the mood for nonsense. So I just nodded and said, "OK, kid, tell him to step right up. "

  The kid said, "Sir, I think he would prefer it if you went to him. "

  "You must be confusing me with someone who gives a shit what he prefers. "

  The kid went a little pale and blinked twice and about-turned and headed back. He must have spent the walk time translating my response into acceptable terms, because there was no instant explosion. Instead the colonel paused a beat and then set off waddling in my direction. He stopped three feet away, and I saluted him very smartly, just to keep him confused.

  He returned the salute and asked, "Do I know you, major?"

  I said, "That depends on how much trouble you've been in, colonel. Have you ever been arrested?"

  He said, "You're the other MP. You're Major Munro's opposite number. "

  "Or he's mine," I said. "Either way, I'm sure we both hope you have a great day. "

  "Why are you still here?"

  "Why wouldn't I be?"

  "I was told all issues had been resolved. "

  "The issues will be resolved when I say they are. That's the nature of police work. "

  "When did you last get orders?"

  "Some days ago," I said. "They came from Colonel John James Frazer at the Pentagon, I believe. "

  "He died. "

  "I'm sure his successor will have new orders for me in due course. "

  "It could take weeks to install a successor. "

  "Then I guess I'm stuck here. "

  Silence.

  Then the fat guy said, "Well, stay out of sight tonight. Understand? The senator must not see a CID presence here. There are to be no reminders of recent suspicions. None at all. Is that clear?"

  I said, "Request noted. "

  "It's more than a request. "

  "Next up from a request is an order. But you're not in my chain of command. "

  The guy rehearsed a reply, but in the end he didn't come out with anything. He just turned on his heel and waddled back to his pals. And at that point I heard the phone ring inside the diner, very faintly through the door, and I beat the waitress to it by a step.

  78

  It was Frances Neagley on the line, from her desk in D. C. She said, "Bouton is a very uncommon name, apparently. "

  I said, "Did Stan Lowrey tell you to say that?"

  "No, Stan wants to know if she's related to Jim Bouton, the baseball pitcher. Which she probably is, at least distantly, given how rare the name is. I, however, am basing my conclusion on an hour's solid work, which turned up no Boutons at all, much less any Alice Boutons. Having said that, right now I can't get any further than three years back with the Marines, which would miss her anyway, and if she was dishonorably discharged she probably didn't get the kind of job or income that would show up in too many other places. "

  "She probably lives in a trailer park," I said. "Nowhere near Pendleton, either. Southern California is too expensive. She must have moved. "

  "I have a call in to the FBI. And to a pal in USMC personnel command, for the ancient history. And Stan is hassling his banker friend, for the civilian stuff. Although she might not have had a bank account. Not if she lived in a trailer park. But whatever, I just wanted to let you know we're on it, that's all. We'll have more later. "

  "How much later?"

  "Tonight, I hope. "

  "Before eight o'clock would be good. "

  "I'll do my best. "

  I hung up the phone and decided to stay in the diner, for lunch.

  And inevitably Deveraux came in less than ten minutes later, in search of her own lunch, and, possibly, in search of me. She stepped inside and paused in front of the window, with the light behind her. Her hair lit up like a halo. Her shirt was very slightly translucent. I could see the curve of her waist. Or sense it, at least. Because I was familiar with it. I could see the swell of her breast.

  She saw me staring, and she started toward me, and I kicked the opposite chair out an inch. She sat down and brought the backlight with her. She smiled and said, "How was your morning?"

  I said, "No, how was yours?"

  "Busy," she said.

  "Making any progress?"

  "With what?"

  "Your three unsolved homicides. "

  "Apparently the army solved those homicides," she said. "And I'll be happy to do something about them as soon as the army shares its information. "

  I said nothing.

  She said, "What?"

  "You don't seem very interested in finding out who did it, that's all. "

  "How can I be interested?"

  "The army says it was a civilian. "

  "I understand that. "

  "Do you know who it was?"

  "What?"

  "Do you know who it was?"

  "Are you saying I do?"

  I said, "I'm saying I know how these things work. There are some people you just can't arrest. Mrs. Lindsay would have been one of them, for instance. Suppose she'd gone the other way and gotten tooled up and gone and shot somebody. You wouldn't have arrested her for it. "

  "What are you saying?"

  "I'm saying in any town there are people the sheriff won't arrest. "

  She was quiet a long moment.

  "Maybe," she said. "Old man Clancy might be one of them. But he didn't cut any throats. And I'd arrest anyone else, whoever they were. "

  "OK," I said.

  "Maybe you think I'm bad at my job. "

  I said nothing.

  "Or maybe you think I've lost my edge because we have no crime here. "

  "I know you have crime here," I said. "I know you always did. I'm sure your father saw crimes I can't even imagine. "

  "But?"

  "You don't have investigation here. And you never did. I bet ninety-nine times out of a hundred your father knew exactly who did what, right down to the details. Whether he could do anything about it was a different issue. And I bet the one case in a hundred where he didn't know who did it went unsolved. "

  "You're saying I'm a bad investigator. "

  "I'm saying County Sheriff is not an investigator's job. It needs other skills. All kinds of community stuff. And you're good at it. You have a detective for the other things. Except right now you don't. "

  "Any other issues, before we order?"

  "Just one," I said.

  "Which is?"

  "Tell me again. You
never dated Reed Riley, right?"

  "Reacher, what is this?"

  "It's a question. "

  "No, I never dated Reed Riley. "

  "Are you sure?"

  "Reacher, please. "

  "Are you?"

  "I didn't even know he was here. I told you that. "

  "OK," I said. "Let's order. "

  She was mad at me, obviously, but she was hungry, too. More hungry than mad, clearly, because she stayed at the table. Changing tables wouldn't have been enough. She would have had to storm out emphatically, and she wasn't prepared to do that on an empty stomach.

  She ordered the chicken pie, of course.

  I ordered grilled cheese.

  She said, "There are things you aren't telling me. "

  I said, "You think?"

  "You know who it is. "

  I said nothing.

  "You do, don't you? You know who it is. So this whole thing wasn't about me knowing who it is. It was about you knowing who it is. "

  I said nothing.

  "Who is it?"

  I didn't answer.

  "Are you saying it's someone I won't arrest? Who won't I arrest? It makes no sense. I mean, obviously it's a great idea for the army to dump the blame on someone they know will never be arrested. I get that. Because if there's no arrest, there can be no charge, no interview, no trial, and no verdict. Hence no facts. So everyone can just walk away and live happily ever after. But how could the army know who I wouldn't arrest? Which is nobody, by the way. So this whole thing is crazy. "

  "I don't know who it is," I said. "Not for sure. Not yet. "

 
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