The affair, p.28
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       The Affair, p.28

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

  84

  We went out through the kitchen, single file, and we used the diner's rear door, because that was the fastest route back to their Humvee. The sergeant led the way. I was sandwiched between the two specialists. One of them kept his hand flat on my back, pushing, and the other had hold of the front of my jacket, pulling. The night air felt sharp, neither warm nor cold. The acre of bare ground was jammed with parked cars. There were people fifty yards to my right, all of them men, all of them in uniform, all of them quiet and on best behavior, all of them clustered in a rough semicircle around the front of Brannan's bar, like a living halo behind the head of a saint, or an overspill crowd watching a prize fight. Most had bottles of beer in their hands, probably purchased elsewhere and carried back within sight of the main attraction. I guessed the senator was loving the attention, and I guessed his son was pretending not to.

  The Humvee looked wide and massive in among the regular rides. Which it was. Parked next to it at a respectful interval was a plain sedan painted flat green. Reed Riley's borrowed staff car, I assumed, second into the lot and put next to the truck for the sake of the tough-guy image. Instinctive, for a politician.

  The sergeant slowed a step and the rest of us bunched up behind him, and then we struck off again on a new vector, straight toward the truck, not fast, not slow. No one paid us any attention. We were just four dark figures, and everyone else was facing in the other direction.

  The Humvee was not locked. The sergeant opened the left rear door and the specialists crowded behind me and left me no option but to get in. The interior smelled of canvas and sweat. The sergeant waited until the specialists were on board, one of them in the front passenger seat, the other across the wide transmission tunnel next to me in the back, both of them turned watchfully toward me, and then he climbed into the driver's seat and hit the button and started the engine. It idled for a second with a hammer-heavy diesel rattle, and he squirmed in his seat, and he got ready to move off. He turned the headlights on. He put the transmission in gear. He rolled forward, the ride lumpy, the steering vague, the speed low. He headed north across the rough ground, toward the Kelham road, past the ranks of parked cars, past the back of the Sheriff's Department building. He checked his mirror out of sheer habit, and he glanced left, and he prepared to turn right thirty yards ahead.

  I asked, "What are you guys trained for?"

  He said, "Man-portable shoulder-launch surface-to-air defense. "

  "Not police work?"

  "No. "

  "I could tell," I said. "You didn't search me. You should have. "

  I came out with my Beretta in my right hand. I reached forward and bunched his collar in my left hand tight enough to choke him. I hauled him back hard against his seat. I jammed the muzzle of the gun hard into the back of his right shoulder, directly above his armpit. Humvees are built pretty solid, including the seat frames. I had the guy pulled and pushed rigid against an immovable object. He wasn't going anywhere. He wasn't even going to breathe, unless I let him.

  I said, "Let's all sit still and stay calm. "

  They all did both things, because of where I had the gun. His ear or his neck would not have worked. They would not have believed I was prepared to shoot the guy dead. Not one soldier against another, however desperate I was supposed to be. But a non-fatal wound through the soft flesh just to the right of his shoulder blade was plausible. And terrible. It would have ended his career. It would have ended his life as he knew it, with nothing ahead of him but crippling pain and disability checks and left-handed household utensils.

  I let out half an inch of his collar but kept him tight against the seat back.

  I said, "Turn left. "

  He turned left, onto the east - west road.

  I said, "Drive on. "

  He drove on, into the die-straight tunnel through the trees, away from Kelham, toward Memphis.

  I said, "Faster. "

  He sped up, and pretty soon the big truck was rattling and straining close to sixty miles an hour. And at that point we entered the realm of simple arithmetic. It was nine o'clock in the evening, and that road was about forty miles long, and the chances of meeting traffic on it were low. I figured a thirty-minute, thirty-mile drive would meet all our needs.

  "Keep on going," I said.

  The guy kept on going.

  Thirty minutes later we were at some featureless point thirty miles west of Carter Crossing and maybe ten miles short of the minor road that led up toward Memphis. I said, "OK, this is far enough. Let's stop here. "

  I kept on hauling his collar one way and I kept on pushing the other way with the gun and the guy stepped off the gas and coasted and braked to a stop. He put the transmission in Park and took his hands off the wheel and sat there like he knew what was coming next, which maybe he did, and maybe he didn't. I turned my head and looked at the guy next to me and said, "Take your boots off. "

  And at that point they all knew what was coming next, and there was a pause, like a mutiny brewing, but I waited it out until the guy next to me shrugged and bent to his task.

  I said, "Now your socks. "

  The guy peeled them off and balled them up and stowed them in his boots, like a good soldier should.

  I said, "Now your jacket. "

  He took his jacket off.

  I said, "Now your pants. "

  There was another long, long pause, but then the guy hitched his butt up off the seat and slid his pants down over his hips. I looked at the guy in the front passenger seat and said, "Same four things for you. "

  He got right to it, and then I made him help his sergeant out. I wasn't about to let the guy fold forward and away from me. Not at that point. When they were done I turned back to the guy next to me and I said, "Now get out of the truck and walk forward twenty paces. "

  His sergeant said, "You better hope we never meet again, Reacher. "

  "No, I hope we do," I said. "Because after suitable reflection I'm sure you'll want to thank me for not hurting you in any way at all. Which I could have, you hopeless amateur. "

  No reply.

  "Get out of the truck," I said again.

  And a minute later all three of them were standing on the road in my headlight beams, barefoot, pantless, in nothing but T-shirts and boxers. They were thirty miles from where they wanted to be, which under the best of conditions was a seven- or eight-hour walk, and going barefoot on a rural road was no one's definition of the best of conditions. And even if by some miracle there was passing traffic, they stood no chance of hitching a ride. No chance at all. No one in his right mind would stop in the dark for three wildly gesticulating bare-legged men.

  I climbed through to the driver's seat and reversed a hundred yards and then turned around and headed back the way we had come, with nothing but engine noise and the sour smell of boots and socks for company. The clock in my head showed nine thirty-five, and I figured if the reduced payload let the Humvee hit sixty-five miles an hour I would be in Carter Crossing again at three minutes past ten.

  85

  In the event the big GM diesel gave me a little better than sixty-five miles an hour, and two minutes short of ten o'clock I pulled up and hid the truck in the last of the trees and walked the rest of the way. A man on foot can be a lot stealthier than a four-ton military vehicle, and safety is always the best policy.

  But there was nothing to hide from. Main Street was quiet. There was nothing to see except light in the diner's window and my borrowed Buick and Deveraux's Caprice parked nose to tail in front of it. I guessed Deveraux was keeping half an eye on the situation but not worrying too much about it. The senator's presence all but guaranteed a quiet and untypical night.

  I stayed on the Kelham road and skipped Main Street itself and looped around behind it on a wide and cautious radius. I kept myself concealed behind the last row of parked cars and walked down level with Brannan's bar. The crowd at the door wa
s still there. I could see maybe fifty guys clustered in the same semicircle I had seen before. Past them I could see a big crowd inside the bar itself, some guys standing and some, I assumed, sitting at the tables further into the room, although I had no direct view of the latter group. I moved closer, squeezing between parked cars and pick-up trucks, with the hubbub ahead of me getting a little louder with each step. But not much louder. The noise was a lot lower in level and a lot more polite and restrained than it would have been on any other night. Best behavior.

  I crossed an open lane between the first row of cars and the second and eased onward between a twenty-year-old Cadillac and a beat-up GMC Jimmy and a soft voice right next to me said, "Hello, Reacher. "

  I turned and saw Munro leaning against the far side of the Jimmy, neatly in the shadow, nearly invisible, relaxed and patient and vigilant.

  "Hello, Munro," I said. "It's good to see you. Although I have to say I didn't expect to. "

  He said, "Likewise. "

  "Did Stan Lowrey call you?"

  He nodded. "But a little too late. "

  "Three guys?"

  He nodded again. "Mortarmen from the 75th. "

  "Where are they now?"

  "Tied up with telephone wire, gagged with their own T-shirts, locked in my room. "

  "Good work," I said. Which it was. One against three, no warning, taken by surprise, but a satisfactory result nonetheless. I was impressed. Munro was nobody's fool. That was clear.

  He asked, "Who did you get?"

  "An anti-aircraft crew. "

  "Where are they?"

  "Walking back from halfway to Memphis with no shoes and no pants. "

  He smiled, white teeth in the dark.

  He said, "I hope I never get posted to Benning. "

  I asked, "Is Riley in the bar?"

  "First to arrive, with his dad. They're holding court big time. Tab must be three hundred bucks by now. "

  "Curfew still in place?"

  He nodded. "But it's going to be a last-minute rush. You know how it is. The mood turned out to be pretty good, and no one will want to be the first to leave. "

  "OK," I said. "Your job is to make sure Riley is the last to leave. I need him to be the very last car out of here. And not by a second or two, either. By a minute at least. Do whatever it takes to make that happen, will you? I'm depending on it. "

  With anyone else I might then have gone ahead and sketched out a few alternative ways to accomplish that goal, like suggestions, anything from puncturing a tire to asking for the old guy's autograph, but by then I was beginning to realize Munro didn't need help. He would think of all the same things I could, and maybe a few more besides.

  He said, "Understood. "

  "And then your job is to go sit on Elizabeth Deveraux. I need her to be under your eye throughout. In the diner, or wherever. Again, whatever it takes. "

  "Understood," he said again. "She's in the diner right now, as it happens. "

  "Keep her there," I said. "Don't let her go out on traffic patrol tonight. Tell her with the senator behind them the guys will behave. "

  "She knows that. She gave her deputies the night off. "

  "Good to know," I said. "And good luck. And thanks. "

  I squeezed back between the Cadillac and the Jimmy and crossed the open lane and threaded through the rearmost rank of cars and walked out of the lot the same way I had come in. Five minutes later I was just past the railroad crossing, hidden in the trees on the side of the road that led to Kelham, waiting again.

  Munro's assessment of the collective mood turned out to be correct. No one left as early as ten-thirty, because of the weird dynamic surrounding the senator. I had seen similar things before. I was pretty sure no one from Bravo Company would have pissed on the guy if he was on fire, but everyone seemed fascinated by his alien presence, and no doubt everyone still had the base commander's instructions ringing in his ears. Be nice to the VIP. Show him some respect. So no one peeled away early. No one wanted to go first. No one wanted to stand out. So ten-thirty came and went with no movement on the road. None at all.

  As did ten thirty-five.

  Ten-forty, likewise.

  Then at ten forty-five the dam broke and they came in droves.

  I heard noise like a muted version of an armored division firing up and I saw exhaust smoke and crisscross headlight beams far in the distance as they all started jockeying for position and funneling out of the lot. Lights swung toward me in an endless chain and thirty seconds later the lead car thumped over the crossing and sped on by. It was followed by all the others in sequence, too many to count, each just yards from the one in front, like stock cars on a racetrack straightaway. Engines roared and wheezed and worn tires pattered over the rails and I smelled the sweet sharp tang of unleaded gasoline. I saw the old Cadillac and the GMC sport utility I had squeezed between, and I saw Chevys and Dodges and Fords and Plymouths and Jeeps and Chryslers, sedans and pick-up trucks and four-wheel-drives and coupes and two-seaters. They kept on coming, an unbroken stream, heading home, relieved, exuberant, their duty done.

  Ten minutes later the stream was thinning and the gaps between cars were lengthening and in the distance I could see late stragglers moving out. The last dozen vehicles took a whole minute to pass me by. None of them was a flat green staff car. The final tail-end charlie was an old Pontiac sedan, scarred and sagging. I watched it approach. As soon as he passes us, I guarantee we're alone in the world, Deveraux had said. Then the old Pontiac thumped quietly over the track on soft tires, and then it was gone.

  I stepped out of the trees and faced east and saw tiny red tail lights disappearing into the darkness. The noise faded behind them and the exhaust smoke drifted and cleared. I turned the other way and far in the distance and right on cue I saw a lone pair of headlights click on. I saw their beams bounce and swing, side to side, up and down, and I saw them lead the way north, out through the lot, and then I saw them swing toward me and bounce twice more as the wheels behind them climbed up off the dirt and onto the blacktop.

  The clock in my head showed one minute to eleven.

  I walked west, back over the railroad crossing, ten yards toward the town, and then I stopped and stepped out to the crown of the road and raised my hand high, palm out, like a traffic cop.

  86

  The headlight beams picked me up maybe a hundred yards out. I felt the hot light on my face and on my palm and I knew Reed Riley could see me. I heard him lift off the gas and slow down. Pure habit. Infantrymen spend a lot of time riding in vehicles, and many of their journeys are enabled or directed or otherwise interrupted by guys in BDUs waving them through or pointing them left or pointing them right or bringing them to a temporary standstill.

  I stayed right where I was, my hand still raised, and the flat green staff car came to a stop with its front bumper a yard from my knees. By then my eye line was high above the headlights, and I could see Riley and his father side by side behind the windshield glass. Neither one looked surprised or impatient. Both looked prepared to waste a minute on a matter of routine. Riley looked exactly like his photograph, and his father was an older version, a little thinner, a little larger in the ears and the nose, a little more powdered and presentable. He was dressed like a jerk, like every other visiting politician I had ever seen. He was wearing a khaki canvas Ike jacket over a formal shirt with no tie. The jacket had a United States Senate roundel on it, as if that safe and insulated branch of the legislature was a combat unit.

  I stepped around to Reed Riley's door, and he wound his window down. His face started out one way, and then it changed when he saw the oak leaves on my collar. He said, "Sir?"

  I didn't answer. I took one more step and opened the rear door and got in the back seat behind him. I closed the door after me and shuffled over to the center of the bench and both men craned around to look at me.

  "Sir?" Riley said again.

  "What's go
ing on here?" his father asked.

  "Change of plan," I said.

  I could smell beer on their breath and smoke and sweat in their clothing.

  "I have a plane to catch," the senator said.

  "At midnight," I said. "No one will look for you before then. "

  "What the hell does that mean? Do you know who I am?"

  "Yes," I said. "I do. "

  "What do you want?"

  "Instant obedience," I said. I took out the Beretta for the second time that evening, fast, swift, like a magician. One minute my hand was empty, and the next it was full of dull steel. I clicked the safety to fire, a small sound, but ominous in the silence.

  The senator said, "You're making a very serious mistake, young man. As of right now your military career is over. Whether it gets any worse than that is entirely up to you. "

  "Be quiet," I said. I leaned forward and bunched Reed Riley's collar in my hand, the same way I had with the sergeant from Benning. But this time I put the muzzle of the gun in the hollow behind his right ear. Soft flesh, no bone. Just the right size.

  "Drive on," I said. "Very slowly. Turn left on the crossing. Head up the railroad line. "

  Riley said, "What?"

  "You heard me. "

  "But the train is coming. "

  "At midnight," I said. "Now hop to it, soldier. "

  It was a difficult task. Instinctively he wanted to lean forward over the wheel for a better view out the front. But I wouldn't let him. I had him hauled back hard against the seat, pulled and pushed. But even so, he did OK. He rolled forward and spun the wheel hard and crabbed diagonally up onto the rise. He lined it up and felt his right front tire hit the groove in the pavement. He eased forward, dead straight, and the edge of the blacktop fell away under us. His right-hand tires stayed up on the rail. His left-hand wheels were down on the ties. A fine job. As good as Deveraux.

  "You've done this before," I said.

  He didn't answer.

  We rolled on, less than walking pace, radically tilted, the right side of the car up and running smooth, the left side down and rising and falling over the ties like a boat on a swell. We rolled past the old water tower, then ten more yards, and then I said, "Stop. "

  "Here?"

  "It's a good spot," I said.

  He braked gently and the car stopped, right on the line, still tilted over. I kept hold of his collar and kept the gun in place. Ahead of me through the windshield the rails ran straight north to a vanishing point far in the distance, like slim silver streaks in the moonlight.

  I said, "Captain, use your left hand and open all the windows. "

  "Why?"

  "Because you guys already stink. And it's only going to get worse, believe me. "

  Riley scrabbled blindly with his fingers and first his father's window came down, then mine, then the one opposite me.

  Fresh night air came in on the breeze.

  I said, "Senator, lean over and turn the lights off. "

  It took him a second to find the switch, but he did it.

  I said, "Now turn the engine off and give me the key. "

  He said, "But we're parked on the railroad track. "

  "I'm aware of that. "

  "Do you know who I am?"

  "You asked me that before. And I answered. Now do what you're told. Or do I have to make a campaign contribution first? In which case please consider my contribution to be not shooting your son through the knee. "

  The old guy made a small sound in his throat, the kind of thing I had heard once or twice before, when jokes turned out not to be jokes, when dire situations turned from bad to worse, when nightmares were revealed to be waking realities. He leaned sideways and twisted the key and pulled it and held it out to me.

  "Toss it on the back seat," I said.

  He did so, and it landed next to me and skittered down the slope in the cushion made by the tilt of the car.

  I said, "Now both of you put your hands on your head. "

  The senator went first, and I pulled the Beretta back to let his son follow suit. I let go of his collar and sat back in my seat and said, "What's the muzzle velocity on a Beretta M9?"

  The senator said, "I have no idea. "

  "But your boy should. We spent a lot of time and money training him. "

  "I don't remember," Riley said.

  "Close to thirteen hundred feet per second," I said. "And your spinal cords are about three feet from me. Therefore about two-thousandths of a second after either one of you moves a single muscle, you're either dead or crippled. Get it?"

  No response.

  I said, "I need an answer. "

  "We get it," Riley said.

  His father said, "What do you want?"

  "Confirmation," I said. "I want to be sure I have this thing straight. "

 
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