The affair, p.27
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       The Affair, p.27

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

  79

  We finished our lunch without saying much more. Then we had pie. Peach, naturally. And coffee. I asked her, "Did the Kelham PR squad come see you?"

  She nodded. "Just before I came out for lunch. "

  "So you know what's happening tonight. "

  "Eight o'clock," she said. "Everyone on best behavior. "

  "You OK with that?"

  "They know the rules. If they stick to them, I won't give them any trouble. "

  Then the phone rang. Deveraux whipped around and stared at it, as if she had never heard it ring before. Which was possible. I said, "It's for me. "

  I walked over and picked up. It was Munro. He said, "I have the transportation details, if you're interested. Reed Riley doesn't own a car anymore, as you know, so he's borrowing a plain olive drab staff car. He'll be driving with his father as his only passenger. The motor pool has been told to have the car ready at eight o'clock exactly. "

  "Thanks," I said. "Good to know. Is there a return ETA?"

  "There's an eleven o'clock curfew tonight. Unofficial, all done in whispers, but it'll happen. A few beers is authentic. Too many is embarrassing. That's the thinking. So people will be leaving town from ten-thirty onwards. The senator's plane is scheduled to be wheels-up at midnight. "

  "Good to know," I said again. "Thanks. Has he arrived yet?"

  "Twenty minutes ago, in an army Lear. "

  "Has the hoopla started yet?"

  "First pitch in about an hour. "

  "Will you bring me your interview notes?"

  "Why?"

  "There are a couple of things I want to check. As soon as the senator looks like he's going to stay put for ten minutes, would you bring them down to me in the diner?"

  Munro agreed to do that, so I hung up the phone and walked back to the table, but by then Deveraux was already getting up to leave. She said, "I'm sorry, I have to get back to work. I've got a lot to do. I have three homicides to solve. "

  Then she pushed past me and walked out the door.

  Waiting. I passed some of the time by taking a walk. I looped around the Sheriff's Department building and entered the acre of beaten earth behind Main Street from the top. The railroad track on my left was silent. The stores and bars on my right were all open, but they had no customers. The bars all had cleaners working in them, all of them black women over forty, all of them bent low over mops and pails, all of them supervised by anxious owners well aware that a U. S. senator would be passing by, and maybe even dropping in. Brannan's was getting more attention than most. Furniture was being moved, refrigerators were being topped off, trash was being hauled out. Even the windows were being wiped.

  Across the alley from Brannan's the loan office was doing no business at all. Shawna Lindsay had worked there before she died, and evidently she had been replaced by another young woman, less beautiful, but possibly just as good with her numbers. She was sitting on a high stool behind a counter, with a lit-up Western Union sign behind her head. I had time to kill, so on a whim I went inside. The woman looked up as the door opened, and she smiled like she was happy to see me. Maybe I was the only customer of the day so far.

  I asked her how the system worked, and after a little back and forth I understood I could call my bank on the phone and order money to be sent to any such office in America. I would need a password for the bank, and either ID or the same password for the office. This was 1997, remember. Things were still pretty casual back then. I knew there were all kinds of banks close to the Pentagon, because thirty thousand people all in one place was a big market to exploit. I decided next time I was in D. C. I would move my account to one of them, and find out its phone number, and register a password. Just in case.

  I thanked the young woman and moved on, to the next place in line, which was a gun shop. I bought spare ammunition for the Beretta, nine-millimeter Parabellums in a box of twenty, and a spare magazine to put fifteen of them in. I checked that it fit and worked, which it did. Most guys who don't check new equipment are still alive, but by no means all of them. I replaced the round I had put through the skinny runt's head, and then I put the gun back in one pocket and the new magazine and the four loose rounds in the other.

  And that was it for shopping. I didn't need a used stereo, and I didn't need auto parts. So I dog-legged through Janice Chapman's alley and walked back to the diner. The waitress met me at the door and told me she had taken no calls for me. I stood there for a second, unsure, and then I picked up the phone, fed it a quarter, and dialed the Treasury Department switchboard. The same number I had called from the old yellow phone in the Lindsay kitchen. The same woman answered. Middle-aged, and elegant.

  She asked, "How may I direct your inquiry?"

  I said, "Joe Reacher's office, please. "

  I heard the same scratching and clicking, and the same minute of dead air. Then the young woman I was sure wore a plaid skirt and a white sweater picked up and said, "Mr. Reacher's office. "

  I asked, "Is Mr. Reacher there?"

  She recognized my voice immediately, probably because it was just like Joe's. She said, "No, I'm sorry, he's not back yet. He's still in Georgia. I think. At least, I hope. "

  "You sound worried," I said.

  "I am, a little. "

  "Don't be," I said. "Joe's a big boy. He can handle whatever Georgia throws at him. I don't even think he's allergic to peanuts. "

  Then I hung up and walked deep into the room and holed up at the rearmost table for two. I just sat there, waiting for Munro, counting off the time in my head.

  Munro showed up more or less exactly as promised, an hour after our earlier phone call, plus five minutes for the drive. He parked a plain car on the curb and came in and found me in the gloom at the back of the room. He unbuttoned his top pocket and slid out the slim black notebook I had seen before. He put it on the table and said, "Keep it. No one else is going to want it. No one is saving a permanent place for it in the National Archives. "

  I nodded. "Some colonel just told me there are to be no reminders of recent suspicions. "

  Munro nodded in turn. "I just got the same speech. And that guy is real mad at you, by the way. Did you offend him somehow?"

  "I certainly hope so. "

  "He's writing a report for Garber. "

  "We always need toilet paper. "

  "Plus copies all over. You're going to be famous. " He looked straight at me for a second, perhaps regretfully, and then he headed back to his car. I opened the little black book and started to read.

  80

  Munro's handwriting was cramped and neat and meticulous. It filled about fifty of the small pages. His method was to record two or three conversations at a time, and then to summarize them before moving on to the next two or three. That way both his raw materials and his conclusions were preserved side by side, the latter for ease of reference, the former for reconfirming the latter. A circular system, safe, diligent, and conscientious. He was a good cop. Reed Riley's photograph was still in the book, wedged tight into the spine after the last note and before the first blank page. I realized he had been using it as a bookmark.

  The focus of all fifty pages was Janice May Chapman. It had emerged early on that she and Riley had been dating. Not that Riley had said anything about her. Or about anything else, either. He had lawyered up at the start and confined his answers to name, rank, and number. No big deal for an investigator of Munro's quality. He had spoken to every man in Bravo Company and teased out the facts from the blind sides and the unguarded rear. He had taken fragments of passing mentions and put them all together and woven them into a solid and reliable narrative.

  Riley's men had talked about him in a way I had heard many times before. He was too young to be a legend, too unproven to be a star, but he had some kind of celebrity charisma, partly because of who his father was, and partly because of his own personality. But he wasn't liked. The conversations as recor
ded were loyal to a fault, but it was institutional loyalty, not personal loyalty, all of it filtered through any soldier's traditional hatred for the military police. No one had a bad thing to say about the guy, but no one had a good thing to say either. By reading between the lines of what was and wasn't said I saw that Riley was a grandstander and a show pony, and that he was impatient, reckless, careless, and full of entitlement. No big deal in a low-temperature environment like Kosovo, but he would have been accidentally shot in the back or blown up with a faulty grenade on his first day if he had been a generation older in Vietnam. That was for damn sure. Better men than Riley had suffered that fate.

  Before Chapman it was clear he had dated Shawna Lindsay. They had been seen together many times. And before Lindsay he had dated Rosemary McClatchy. They too had been seen together many times, in the bars, in the diner, riding around in the blue '57 Chevy. There was a faint twice-removed reek of testosterone in Munro's notes, as one young man after another had chortled about the big dog mowing them down in sequence, all the best looking women in town, just like that, wham bam, thank you ma'am.

  And according to Bravo Company, that prestigious sequence had begun with Elizabeth Deveraux. She was well known at Kelham, because of an early courtesy visit at the start of the mission. Back then training had been intense, and there had been no leave or down time, but the big dog had snuck out at night and nailed the prize. That triumph had been revealed one evening during Bravo Company's first tour to Kosovo, over drinks around a fire. Again, I could almost hear the voices first-hand, full of chuckling delight at the way the rest of the regular 75th training grunts thought Deveraux was a lesbian, and at the way the boys of Bravo Company secretly knew better, because of their big dog, their alpha male, and his irresistible ways. They didn't like the guy, but they admired him. Personality, and charisma. And hormones too, I guessed.

  There was nothing else of interest in the notebook. I spent some time looking at Riley's picture again, and then I squared the whole thing away in my own top pocket, and I went back to waiting.

  * * *

  The rest of the afternoon was long and fruitless. The hours passed, and no one called, and no one came, and the town stayed quiet. At one point I heard some faint live-firing noise from the east, and I guessed the hoopla at Kelham was going swimmingly. From time to time I drank a cup of coffee and ate a slice of pie, but mostly I just rested in a semi-vegetative state, eyes open but half-asleep, breathing low, saving energy, like hibernation. Local people came and went in ones and twos, and at six o'clock Jonathan and Hunter Brannan came in for an early dinner, to fuel up ahead of their busy evening, which I thought was wise, and two or three others I took to be bar owners did the same thing, and some of what I took to be their cleaners stopped by before heading home, and at seven o'clock Main Street went dark outside the window, and at seven-thirty the old couple from the hotel came in for their meal, she with her book, he with his paper.

  Then a minute later Stan Lowrey called on the phone, and the evening began to unravel.

  81

  Lowrey started out by apologizing for the extreme lateness of his warning, and then he said he had just heard from an MP friend at Fort Benning in Georgia, where the 75th Ranger Regiment was based. Apparently a lieutenant colonel from their remote detachment at Kelham had phoned home and told his bosses there were still two CID majors on the scene locally, one on the post itself and one in town, the latter a prize pain in the ass, and because his bosses were determined that Senator Riley be shown nothing but a good time, they had dispatched a babysitting squad to muzzle the said CID majors for the remaining duration of the senator's visit. Just in case. Lowrey said the squad had left Benning in a Blackhawk helicopter some time ago, and therefore might well have already arrived at Kelham.

  "MPs?" I said. "They won't mess with me. "

  "Not MPs," Lowrey said. "Regular Rangers. Real tough guys. "

  "How many?"

  "Six," Lowrey said. "Three for you and three for Munro, I guess. "

  "Rules of engagement?"

  "I don't know. What does it take to muzzle you?"

  "More than three Rangers," I said. I scanned the street out the window and saw nothing moving. No vehicles, no pedestrians. I said, "Don't worry about me, Stan. It's Munro I'm concerned about. I need two pairs of hands tonight. It's going to make it harder if he gets hung up. "

  "Which he will," Lowrey said. "You will too, probably. Word is these guys aren't kidding around. "

  "Would you call him for me and give him the same warning?" I asked. "If they haven't already gotten to him, that is. " I recited Munro's VOQ number, and I heard the scratch of a pencil as Lowrey wrote it down. Then I asked, "Has your pet banker come through on Alice Bouton yet?"

  "Negative," Lowrey said. "He's been busy all day. But Neagley is still on it. "

  "Call her and tell her to take her thumb out of her ass and get me some results. Tell her if I'm busy with the GI Joes when she calls she's authorized to leave a message with the waitress. "

  "OK, and good luck," Lowrey said, and hung up. I stepped out to the sidewalk and looked up and down the street. Nothing doing. I guessed the Rangers would look for me first in one of the bars. Probably Brannan's. If I was planning to make trouble, that was where I would be. So I looped around through the dog-leg alley and scanned the acre of ground from deep in the shadows.

  And sure enough, there was a Humvee parked right there, big and green and obvious. I guessed the plan was to frog march me over to it and throw me in the back and drive me out to Kelham, and then to stash me in whatever room Munro was already locked up in. Then the plan would be to wait until the senator's Lear left at midnight, and let us out again, and apologize most sincerely for the misunderstanding.

  Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

  I eased out around the corner of Brannan's bar and looked in through the window. The place was sparkling clean. Tables and chairs were neatly arrayed, all around a focal point I assumed would be occupied by the senator and his son. Acolytes would sit close by, and there was plenty of open space where the less well connected could stand. Jonathan and Hunter Brannan were behind the bar, looking well rested and well nourished after their early dinner.

  Three guys in BDUs were talking to them.

  They were Rangers, each one of them a decent size, and none of them a rookie. One of them was a sergeant, and two of them were specialists. Their uniforms had seen plenty of wear, and their boots were clean but creased. Their faces were tanned and lined and blank. They were professional soldiers, pure and simple. Which was a dumb expression, because professional soldiers were all kinds of things, none of which was pure, and none of which was simple. But ultimately it didn't matter exactly what two of them were, because the sergeant was in charge. And I had never met a sergeant who was less than well aware that there were eighteen ranks above him in the hierarchy, all the way up to the commander-in-chief, and that they all made more money than he did, in exchange for making policy decisions.

  In other words, whatever a sergeant did, there were eighteen groups of people ready, willing, and waiting to criticize him.

  I eased back into the shadows and headed back to the diner.

  There were three customers still in the place, including the old couple from Toussaint's and the guy in the pale suit I had seen once before. Three was a good number, but not a great number. On the other hand the demographics were close to perfect. Local business people, solid citizens, mature, easily outraged. And the old couple at least were guaranteed to stay for hours, which was good, because I might need hours, depending on Neagley's progress, or the lack of it.

  I came in the door and stopped by the phone and the waitress shook her head at me, to tell me there had been no incoming calls. I used the phone book and found the number for Brannan's bar, and then I put a quarter in the slot and dialed. One of the Brannan brothers answered and I said, "Let me speak to the sergeant. "


  I heard a second of surprise and uncertainty, and then I heard the phone being reversed on the bar, and I heard the click of nails and the thump of palms as the receiver was passed from hand to hand, and then a voice said, "Who is this?"

  I said, "This is the guy you're looking for. I'm in the diner. "

  No answer.

  I said, "This is the part where you want to put your hand over the mouthpiece long enough to ask the barmen where the diner is, so you can send your guys to check while you keep me talking on the phone. But I'll save you the trouble. The diner is about twenty yards west of you and about fifty yards north. Send one guy through the alley on your left and the other counterclockwise out of the lot and around the Sheriff's Department building. You personally can come in through the kitchen door, which should be pretty close to where you parked your truck. That way you've got me covered in every direction. But don't worry. I'm not going anywhere. I'll wait for you right here. You'll find me at a table in back. "

  Then I hung up and walked to the rearmost table for four.

  82

  The sergeant was the first in. Shortest distance, biggest investment. He came through the kitchen door slowly and cautiously and let it swing shut behind him. I raised my hand in greeting. I was about seven feet away from him. Then one of the specialists came in the front. From the alley, I assumed. Second shortest distance. A minute later the third guy was there, a little out of breath. Longest distance, biggest hurry.

  They stood there, filling the aisle, two to my right and one to my left.

  "Sit down," I said. "Please. "

  The sergeant said, "Our orders are to take you to Kelham. "

  I said, "That isn't going to happen, sergeant. "

  No answer.

  The clock in my head showed a quarter to eight.

  I said, "Here's the thing, guys. To take me out of here against my will would involve a considerable amount of physical commotion. At a rough guess we would bust up at least three or four tables and chairs. There might be personal injuries too. And the waitress will assume we're Bravo Company personnel. Because no one else from Kelham has leave right now. Believe me, she keeps track of stuff like that, because her income depends on it. And she knows Bravo's company commander is expected right there in Brannan's bar at any minute. So it would be entirely natural for her to head around there to complain. And to get that done she'd almost certainly have to interrupt a moment of intimacy between father and son. Which would be a big embarrassment for all concerned, especially you. "

  No answer.

  "Sit down, guys," I said.

  They sat down. But not where I wanted them to. They weren't dumb. That was the problem with a volunteer army. There were selection criteria. I was in an aisle seat at my table for four, facing forward. If they had all joined me at the same table, I would have had freedom of movement. But they didn't all join me at the same table. The sergeant sat down face to face with me, but the specialists sat across the aisle, one each side of a table for two. They pulled their chairs out at an angle, one of them ready to intervene if I made a break one way, and the other ready if I broke the other way.

  "You should try the pie," I said. "It's really good. "

  "No pie," the sergeant said.

  "You better order something. Or the waitress might throw you out for loitering. And if you refuse to go, she knows who to call. "

  No answer.

  I said, "There are members of the public here, too. You really can't afford to attract attention. "

  Stalemate.

  Ten minutes to eight.

  The phone by the door stayed silent.

  The waitress came by and the sergeant shrugged and ordered three pies and three cups of coffee. Two more people came in the door, both of them civilians, one of them a young woman in a nice dress, the other a young man in jeans and a sport coat. They took a table for two, three along from the specialists and directly opposite the old couple from the hotel. They didn't look much like the kind of folks who would get straight on the phone with their congressman because of a little public mayhem, but the more warm bodies in the room the better.

  The sergeant said, "We're happy to sit here all night, if that's what it takes. "

  "Good to know," I said. "I'm going to sit here until the phone rings, and then I'm going to leave. "

  "I'm sorry, but I can't let you communicate with anyone. Those are my orders. "

  I said nothing.

  "And I can't let you leave. Unless you agree to go to Kelham. "

  I said, "Didn't we just have this discussion?"

  No response.

  The phone didn't ring.

  Five minutes to eight.

  At eight o'clock the guy in the pale suit paid his check and left, and the old lady from the hotel turned a page in her book. Nothing else happened. The phone stayed quiet. At five past eight I began to hear noise outside, behind us, the sound of cars and crunching tires, and I sensed a change in the nighttime air, like pressure building, as Bravo Company started to arrive in town, first in ones and twos, then by the dozens. I assumed Reed Riley had led the parade in his borrowed staff car, with his father in the seat beside him. I assumed the old guy was at that moment stationed at Brannan's door, greeting his son's men, ushering them in, grinning like an idiot.

  The three Rangers boxing me in had eaten their pies one at a time, with the other two always alert and watchful. They were pretty good. By no means the worst I had ever seen. The waitress collected their plates. She seemed to sense what was going on. Every time she passed by she gave me a concerned look. There was no doubt whose side she was on. She knew me, and she didn't know them. I had tipped her many times, and they hadn't, not even once.

  The noise from outside continued to build.

  The phone didn't ring.

  I spent the next few minutes thinking about their Humvee. I knew that like every other Humvee in the world it would have a big General Motors diesel in it, and I knew that like every other Humvee in the world it would have a three-speed automatic transmission in it, and I knew that like every other Humvee in the world it would weigh north of four tons, all of which I knew would make it good for about sixty miles an hour, tops. Which I knew wasn't race-car fast, but which I knew was fifteen times faster than walking, which I knew was a good thing.

  I waited.

  Then, just after eight-thirty, three things happened. The first was unfortunate, and the second was unprecedented, and the third was therefore awkward.

  First, the young couple left. The girl in the nice dress, and the boy in the sport coat. He laid money on the table, and they got up together and walked out holding hands, fast enough to suggest that an evening prayer meeting was not the next item on their agenda.

  And second, the old couple left. She closed her book, he folded his paper, and they got up and shuffled out the door. Back to the hotel, presumably. Far earlier than ever before. No obvious reason, except possibly a sudden hopeless intuition that old man Riley would cancel the Lear and decide on an early night in town.

  At that point the waitress was in the kitchen, which left just four people in the room, one of which was me, and three of which were my babysitters.

  The sergeant smiled and said, "Just us now. "

  I didn't answer.

  He said, "No members of the public. "

  I didn't answer.

  He said, "And I don't think the waitress is the complaining type. Not really. She knows this place could end up on the shit list easy as anything. For a month. Or two. Or for however long it takes to put her on welfare. "

  He was leaning forward across the table. Closer to me than before. Looking straight at me. His two men were leaning forward across the aisle, elbows on knees, hands loose, feet planted, watching me.

  Then the third thing happened.

  The phone rang.

  83

  The three Rangers were good. Very good
. The phone was a traditional old item with a big metal bell inside, which rang for a whole lazy second before adding a reverberation tail that took another whole lazy second to die away, whereupon the sequence would repeat itself endlessly until either the call was answered or the caller gave up. An old-fashioned, comforting sound, familiar for a hundred years. But on this occasion before the first ring was halfway over all three Rangers were in motion. The guy directly to my left was instantly on his feet, lunging behind me, putting big hands on my shoulders, pressing me down into my seat, hauling me back past the vertical, keeping me in a weak and inefficient position. The sergeant opposite me was instantly leaning forward, grabbing my wrists, pressing them into the tabletop with the flat of his hands. The third guy came up out of his chair and balled his fists and blocked the aisle, ready to hit me anywhere he could if I moved.

  A fine performance.

  I offered no resistance.

  I just sat there.

  Everyone has a plan, me included.

  The phone rang on.

  Three rings later the waitress came out of the kitchen. She paused a beat and took one look and then pushed past the Ranger in the aisle and headed for the phone. She picked up and listened and glanced my way and started talking, looking at me the whole time, as if she was describing my current predicament to someone.

  To Frances Neagley, I assumed.

  Or I hoped.

  The waitress listened again for a moment and then trapped the phone between her ear and her shoulder and took out her order pad and her pen. She started writing. And kept on writing. Practically an essay. She started a second page. The guy behind me kept the pressure on. The sergeant kept hold of my wrists. The third guy moved closer. The waitress made shapes with her mouth as she concentrated on spelling unfamiliar words. Then she stopped writing and checked back through what she had, and she swallowed once and blinked twice as if the next part of her task was going to be difficult.

  She hung up the phone. She tore out her two written pages and held them as if they were hot. She took a step toward us. The guy behind me took his weight off my shoulders. The sergeant let go of my wrists. The third guy sat down again.

  The waitress walked the length of the aisle, right into our little group, a fifth member, and she shuffled one written page on top of the other, and she checked the three guys' collars, and she focused on the sergeant. The man in charge.

  She said, "I have a two-part message for you, sir. "

  The guy nodded at her and she started reading.

  She said, "First, whoever you are, you should let this man go immediately, for both your own sake and the army's, because second, whoever you are and whatever your orders and whatever you think on this occasion, he's likely to be right and you're likely to be wrong. This message comes from an NCO of equal rank, with nothing but the army's and your best interests at heart. "

  Silence.

  The sergeant said, "Noted. "

  Nothing more.

  Neagley, I thought. Good try.

  Then the waitress leaned forward and put her second handwritten page face down on the table and slid it toward me, fast and easy, the same way she had slid a million diner checks before. I trapped it under my left palm and kept my right hand ready.

  No one moved.

  The waitress stood still for a second, and then she walked back to the kitchen.

  I used the ball of my left thumb and curled the top of the paper upward, like a guy playing poker, and I read the first two lines of my message. Seven words. The first of them was a Latin preposition. Typical Neagley. Per. Meaning in this context According to. The next six words were United States Marine Corps Personnel Command. Which meant that whatever information was contained in the rest of the note had come straight from the horse's mouth. It would be reliable. It would be definitive. It would be solid gold.

  It would be good enough for me.

  I let the top of the paper slap back down against the tabletop. I spread my thumb and my first two fingers and pincered them together and folded the note one-handed, blank side out, message side in. I crisped the fold with my right thumbnail and jammed the note in my right top pocket, behind Munro's little black book, below my name tape.

  Ten minutes to nine in the evening.

  I looked at the Ranger sergeant and said, "OK, you win. Let's go to Kelham. "

 
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