The affair, p.3
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       The Affair, p.3
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         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Chapter Three

 

  6

  I showered and dressed in the dark, socks, boxers, pants, my old T, my new shirt. I laced my shoes and put my toothbrush in my pocket with a pack of gum and a roll of bills. I left everything else behind. No ID, no wallet, no watch, no nothing. Method acting. I figured that was how I would do it, if I was doing it for real.

  Then I headed out. I walked up the post's main drag and got to the guardhouse and Garber came out to meet me in the open. He had been waiting for me. Six o'clock in the morning. Not yet light. Garber was in BDUs, presumably fresh on less than an hour ago, but he looked like he had spent that hour rolling around in the dirt on a farm. We stood under the glow of a yellow vapor light. The air was very cold.

  Garber said, "You don't have a bag?"

  I said, "Why would I have a bag?"

  "People carry bags. "

  "What for?"

  "For their spare clothing. "

  "I don't own spare clothing. I had to buy these things especially. "

  "You chose that shirt?"

  "What's wrong with it?"

  "It's pink. "

  "Only in places. "

  "You're going to Mississippi. They'll think you're queer. They'll beat you to death. "

  "I doubt it," I said.

  "What are you going to do when those clothes get dirty?"

  "I don't know. Buy some more, I suppose. "

  "How are you planning to get to Kelham?"

  "I figured I'd walk into town and get a Greyhound bus to Memphis. Then hitchhike the rest of the way. I imagine that's how people do these things. "

  "Have you eaten breakfast?"

  "I'm sure I'll find a diner. "

  Garber paused a beat and asked, "Did John James Frazer get you on the phone yesterday? From Senate Liaison?"

  I said, "Yes, he did. "

  "How did he sound?"

  "Like we're in big trouble unless Janice May Chapman was killed by another civilian. "

  "Then let's hope she was. "

  "Is Frazer in my chain of command?"

  "Probably safest to assume he is. "

  "What kind of a guy is he?"

  "He's a guy under a whole lot of stress right now. Five years' work could go down the pan, just when it gets important. "

  "He told me not to do anything that makes me feel uncomfortable. "

  "Bullshit," Garber said. "You're not in the army to feel comfortable. "

  I said, "What some guy on leave does after he gets drunk in a bar is not a company commander's fault. "

  "Only in the real world," Garber said. "But this is politics we're talking about. " Then he went quiet again, just for a moment, as if he had many more points to make and was trying to decide which one of them to start with. But in the end all he said was, "Well, have a safe trip, Reacher. Stay in touch, OK?"

  * * *

  The walk to the Greyhound depot was long but not difficult. Just a case of putting one foot in front of the other. I was passed by a few vehicles. None of them stopped to offer me a ride. They might have if I had been in uniform. Off-post citizens are usually well disposed toward their military neighbors, in the heartland of America. I took their neglect as proof that my civilian disguise was convincing. I was glad to pass the test. I had never posed as a civilian before. It was unknown territory. Something new for me. I had never even been a civilian. I suppose technically I was, for eighteen years between birth and West Point, but those years had been spent inside a blur of Marine Corps bases, one after another, because of my father's career, and living on post as part of a military family had nothing to do with civilian life. Absolutely nothing at all. So that morning's walk felt fresh and experimental to me. The sun came up behind me and the air went warm and dewy and a ground mist rose off the road to my knees. I walked on through it and thought of my old pal Stan Lowrey, back on the base. I wondered if he had looked at the want ads. I wondered if he needed to. I wondered if I needed to.

  There was a coach diner a half-mile short of downtown and I stopped there for breakfast. I had coffee, of course, and scrambled eggs. I felt I integrated pretty well, visually and behaviorally. There were six other customers in there. All of them were civilians, all of them were men, and all of them were ragged and unkempt by the standards required to maintain uniformity within a military population. All six of them were wearing hats on their heads. Six mesh caps, printed with the names of what I took to be agricultural equipment manufacturers, or seed merchants. I wondered if I should have gotten such a hat. I hadn't thought about it, and I hadn't seen any in the PX.

  I finished my meal and paid the waitress and walked on bareheaded to where the Greyhounds came and went. I bought a ticket and sat on a bench and thirty minutes later I was in the back of a bus, heading south and west.

  7

  The bus ride was magnificent, in its way. Not a radical distance, no more than a small portion of the giant continent, no more than an inch on a one-page map, but it took six hours. The view out the window changed so slowly it seemed never to change at all, but even so the landscape at the end of the journey was very different than at the beginning. Memphis was a slick city, laced with wet streets, boxed in by low buildings painted muted pastel colors, heaving and bustling with furtive unexplained activity. I got out at the depot and stood a moment in the bright afternoon and listened to the hum and throb of people at work and at play. Then I kept the sun on my right shoulder and walked south and east. First priority was the mouth of a wide road leading out of town, and second priority was something to eat.

  I found myself in a built-up and insalubrious quarter full of pawn shops and porn shops and bail bond offices, and I figured getting a ride there would be next to impossible. The same driver that might stop on the open road would never stop in that part of town. So I put my second priority first and fueled up at a greasy spoon cafe, and resigned myself to a lengthy hike thereafter. I wanted a corner with a road sign, a big green rectangle marked with an arrow and Oxford or Tupelo or Columbus. In my experience a guy standing under such a sign with his thumb out left no doubt about what he wanted and where he was going. No explanation was required. No need for a driver to stop and ask, which helped a lot. People are bad at saying no face to face. Often they just drive on by, purely to avoid the possibility. Always better to reduce confusion.

  I found such a corner and such a sign at the end of a thirty-minute walk, on the front edge of what I took to be a leafy suburb, which would mean ninety percent of passing drivers would be respectable matrons returning home, which would mean they would ignore me completely. No suburban matron would stop for a stranger, and no driver with just a mile more to go would offer a ride. But to walk on would have been illusory progress. A false economy. Better to waste time standing still than to waste it walking and burning energy. Even with nine cars out of ten wafting on by, I figured I would be mobile within an hour.

  And I was. Less than twenty minutes later an old pick-up truck eased to a stop next to me and the driver told me he was heading for a lumberyard out past Germantown. It must have been clear that I didn't grasp the local geography, so the guy told me if I rode with him I would end up outside of the urban tangle with nothing but a straight shot into northeastern Mississippi ahead of me. So I climbed aboard and another twenty minutes later I was alone again, on the shoulder of a dusty two-lane that headed unambiguously in the direction I wanted to go. A guy in a sagging Buick sedan picked me up and we crossed the state line together and drove forty miles east. Then a guy in a stately old Chevy truck took me twenty miles south on a minor road and let me out at what he said was the turn I wanted. By that point it was late in the afternoon and the sun was heading for the far horizon, pretty fast. The road ahead was die-straight with low forest on both sides and nothing but darkness in the distance. I figured Carter Crossing straddled that road, perhaps thirty or forty miles away to the east, which put me close to completing the first part of my miss
ion, which was simply to get there. The second part was to make contact with the local cops, which might be harder. There was no cogent reason for a transient bum to pal up with people in police uniforms. No obvious mechanism either, short of getting arrested, which would start the whole relationship on the wrong foot.

  But in the event both objectives were achieved in one fell swoop, because the first eastbound car I saw was a police cruiser heading home. I had my thumb out, and the guy stopped for me. He was a talker and I was a listener, and within minutes I found out that some of what Garber had told me was wrong.

  8

  The cop's name was Pellegrino, like the sparkling water, although he didn't say that. I got the impression that people drank from the tap in that part of Mississippi. On reflection it was no surprise he stopped for me. Small-town cops are always interested in unexplained strangers heading into their territory. The easiest way to find out who they are is simply to ask, which he did, immediately. I told him my name and spent a minute on my cover story. I said I was recent ex-military, heading to Carter Crossing to look for a friend who might be living there. I said the friend had last served at Kelham and might have stuck around. Pellegrino had nothing to say in response to that. He just took his eyes off the empty road for a second and looked me up and down, calibrating, and then he nodded and faced front again. He was moderately short and very overweight, maybe French or Italian way back, with black hair buzzed short and olive skin and broken veins on both sides of his nose. He was somewhere between thirty and forty, and I guessed if he didn't stop eating and drinking he wasn't going to make it much beyond fifty or sixty.

  I finished saying my piece and he started talking, and the first thing I found out was that he wasn't a small-town cop. Garber had been wrong, technically. Carter Crossing had no police department. Carter Crossing was in Carter County, and Carter County had a County Sheriff's Department, which had jurisdiction over everything inside an area close to five hundred square miles. But there wasn't much inside those five hundred square miles except Fort Kelham and the town, which was where the Sheriff's Department was based, which made Garber right again, in a sense. But Pellegrino was indisputably a deputy sheriff, not a police officer, and he seemed very proud of the distinction.

  I asked him, "How big is your department?"

  Pellegrino said, "Not very. We got the sheriff, who we call the chief, we got a sheriff's detective, we got me and another deputy in uniform, we got a civilian on the desk, we got a woman on the phones, but the detective is out sick long term with his kidneys, so it's just the three of us, really. "

  I asked him, "How many people live in Carter County?"

  "About twelve hundred," he said. Which I thought was a lot, for three functioning cops. Apples to apples, it would be like policing New York City with a half-sized NYPD. I asked, "Does that include Fort Kelham?"

  "No, they're separate," he said. "And they have their own cops. "

  I said, "But still, you guys must be busy. I mean, twelve hundred citizens, five hundred square miles. "

  "Right now we're real busy," he said, but he didn't mention anything about Janice May Chapman. Instead he talked about a more recent event. Late in the evening the day before, under cover of darkness, someone had parked a car on the train track. Garber was wrong again. He had said there were two trains a day, but Pellegrino told me in reality there was only one. It rumbled through at midnight exactly, a mile-long giant hauling freight north from Biloxi on the Gulf Coast. That midnight train had smashed into the parked vehicle, wrecking it completely, hurling it way far up the line, bouncing it into the woods. The train had not stopped. As far as anyone could tell it hadn't even slowed down. Which meant the engineer had not even noticed. He was obliged to stop if he struck something on the line. Railroad policy. Pellegrino thought it was certainly possible the guy hadn't noticed. So did I. Thousands of tons against one, moving fast, no contest. Pellegrino seemed captivated by the senselessness of it all. He said, "I mean, who would do that? Who would park an automobile on the train track? And why?"

  "Kids?" I said. "For fun?"

  "Never happened before. And we've always had kids. "

  "No one in the car?"

  "No, thank God. Like I said, as far as we know it was just parked there. "

  "Stolen?"

  "Don't know yet. There's not much of it left. We think it might have been blue. It set on fire. Burned some trees with it. "

  "No one called in a missing car?"

  "Not yet. "

  I asked, "What else are you busy with?"

  And at that point Pellegrino went quiet and didn't answer, and I wondered if I had pushed it too far. But I reviewed the back-and-forth in my head and figured it was a reasonable question. Just making conversation. A guy says he's real busy but mentions only a wrecked car, another guy is entitled to ask for more, right? Especially while riding through the dusk in a companionable fashion.

  But it turned out Pellegrino's hesitation was based purely on courtesy and old-fashioned Southern hospitality. That was all. He said, "Well, I don't want to give you a bad impression, seeing as you're here for the first time. But we had a woman murdered. "

  "Really?" I said.

  "Two days ago," he said.

  "Murdered how?"

  And it turned out that Garber's information was inaccurate again. Janice May Chapman had not been mutilated. Her throat had been cut, that was all. And delivery of a fatal wound was not the same thing as mutilation. Not the same thing at all. Not even close.

  Pellegrino said, "Ear to ear. Real deep. One big slice. Not pretty. "

  I said, "You saw it, I guess. "

  "Up close and personal. I could see the bones inside her neck. She was all bled out. Like a lake. It was real bad. A good looking woman, real pretty, all dressed up for a night out, neat as a pin, just lying there on her back in a pool of blood. Not right at all. "

  I said nothing, out of respect for something Pellegrino's tone seemed to demand.

  He said, "She was raped, too. The doctor found that out when he got her clothes off and got her on the slab. Unless you could say she'd been into it enough at some point to throw herself down and scratch up her ass on the gravel. Which I don't think she would be. "

  "You knew her?"

  "We saw her around. "

  I asked, "Who did it?"

  He said, "We don't know. A guy off the base, probably. That's what we think. "

  "Why?"

  "Because those are who she spent her time with. "

  I asked, "If your detective is out sick, who is working the case?"

  Pellegrino said, "The chief. "

  "Does he have much experience with homicides?"

  "She," Pellegrino said. "The chief is a woman. "

  "Really?"

  "It's an elected position. She got the votes. " There was a little resignation in his voice. The kind of tone a guy uses when his team loses a big game. It is what it is.

  "Did you run for the job?" I asked.

  "We all did," he said. "Except the detective. He was already bad with his kidneys. "

  I said nothing. The car rocked and swayed. Pellegrino's tires sounded worn and soft. They set up a dull baritone roar on the blacktop. Up ahead the evening gloom had gone completely. Pellegrino's headlights lit the way fifty yards in front. Beyond that was nothing but darkness. The road was straight, like a tunnel through the trees. The trees were twisted and opportunistic, like weeds competing for light and air and minerals, like they had seeded themselves a hundred years ago on abandoned arable land. They flashed past in the light spill, like they were frozen in motion. I saw a tin sign on the shoulder, lopsided and faded and pocked with rusty coin-sized spots where the enamel had flaked loose. It advertised a hotel called Toussaint's. It promised the convenience of a Main Street location, and rooms of the highest quality.

  Pellegrino said, "She got elected because of her name. "

  "The sheriff?"<
br />
  "That's who we were talking about. "

  "Why? What's her name?"

  "Elizabeth Deveraux," he said.

  "Nice name," I said. "But no better than Pellegrino, for instance. "

  "Her daddy was sheriff before her. He was a well-liked man, in certain quarters. We think some folks voted out of loyalty. Or maybe they thought they were voting for the old guy himself. Maybe they didn't know he was dead. Things take time to catch on, in certain quarters. "

  I asked, "Is Carter Crossing big enough to have quarters?"

  Pellegrino said, "Halves, I guess. Two of them. West of the railroad track, or east. "

  "Right side, wrong side?"

  "Like everywhere. "

  "Which side is Kelham?"

  "East. You have to drive three miles. Through the wrong side. "

  "Which side is the Toussaint's hotel?"

  "Won't you be staying with your friend?"

  "When I find him. If I find him. Until then I need a place. "

  "Toussaint's is OK," Pellegrino said. "I'll let you out there. "

  And he did. We drove out of the tunnel through the trees and the road broadened and the forest itself died back to stunted saplings left and right, all choked with weeds and trash. The road became an asphalt ribbon laid through a wide flat area of earth the size of a football field. It led through a right turn to a straight street between low buildings. Main Street, presumably. There was no architecture. Just construction, a lot of it old, most of it wood, with some stone at the foundation level. We passed a building marked Carter County Sheriff's Department, and then a vacant lot, and then a diner, and then we arrived at the Toussaint's hotel. It had been a fancy place once. It had green paint and trim and moldings and iron railings on the second-floor balconies. It looked like it had been copied from a New Orleans design. It had a faded signboard with its name on it, and a row of dim lights washing the exterior facade, three of which were out.

  Pellegrino eased the cruiser to a stop and I thanked him for the ride and got out. He pulled a wide U-turn behind me and headed back the way we had come, presumably to park in the Sheriff's Department lot. I used a set of wormy wooden steps and crossed a bouncy wooden veranda and pushed in through the hotel door.

  9

  Inside the hotel I found a small square lobby and an unattended reception desk. The floor was worn boards partially covered by a threadbare rug of Middle Eastern design. The desk was a counter made of hardwood polished to a high shine by years of wear and labor. There was a matrix of pigeonholes on the wall behind it. Four high, seven wide. Twenty-eight rooms. Twenty-seven of them had their keys hanging in place. None of the pigeonholes contained letters or notes or any other kind of communication.

  There was a bell on the desk, a small brass thing going green around the edges. I hit it twice, and a polite ding ding echoed around for a spell, but it produced no results. None at all. No one came. There was a closed door next to the pigeonholes, and it stayed closed. A back office, I guessed. Empty, presumably. I saw no reason why a hotel owner would deliberately avoid doubling his occupancy rate.

  I stood still for a moment and then checked a door on the left of the lobby. It opened to an unlit lounge that smelled of damp and dust and mildew. There were humped shapes in the dark that I took to be armchairs. No activity. No people. I stepped back to the desk and hit the bell again.

  No response.

  I called out, "Hello?"

  No response.

  So I gave up for the time being and went back out, across the shaky veranda, down the worn steps, and I stood in a shadow on the sidewalk under one of the busted lamps. There was nothing much to see. Across Main Street was a long row of low buildings. Stores, presumably. All of them were dark. Beyond them was blackness. The night air was clear and dry and faintly warm. March, in Mississippi. Meteorologically I could have been anywhere. I could hear the thrill of breeze in distant leaves, and tiny granular sounds, like moving dust, or like termites eating wood. I could hear an extractor fan in the wall of the diner next door. Beyond that, nothing. No human sounds. No voices. No revelry, no traffic, no music.

  Tuesday night, near an army base.

  Not typical.

  I had eaten nothing since lunch in Memphis, so I headed for the diner. It was a narrow building, but deep, set end-on to Main Street. The kitchen entrance was probably on the block behind. Inside the front door was a pay phone on the wall and a register and a hostess station. Beyond that was a long straight aisle with tables for four on the left and tables for two on the right. Tables, not booths, with freestanding chairs. Like a cafe. The only customers in the place were a couple about twice my age. They were face to face at a table for four. The guy had a newspaper and the woman had a book. They were settled in, like they were happy to linger over their meal. The only staff on view was a waitress. She was close to the swing door in back that led to the kitchen. She saw me step in and she hustled the whole length of the aisle to greet me. She put me at a table for two, about halfway into the room. I sat facing the front, with my back to the kitchen. Not possible to watch both entrances at once, which would have been my preference.

  "Something to drink?" the waitress asked me.

  "Black coffee," I said. "Please. "

  She went away and came back again, with coffee in a mug, and a menu.

  I said, "Quiet night. "

  She nodded, unhappy, probably worried about her tips.

  She said, "They closed the base. "

  "Kelham?" I said. "They closed it?"

  She nodded again. "They locked it down this afternoon. They're all in there, eating army chow tonight. "

  "Does that happen a lot?"

  "Never happened before. "

  "I'm sorry," I said. "What do you recommend?"

  "For what?"

  "To eat. "

  "Here? It's all good. "

  "Cheeseburger," I said.

  "Five minutes," she said. She went away and I took my coffee with me and headed back past the hostess station to the pay phone. I dug in my pocket and found three quarters from my lunch-time change, which were enough for a short conversation, which was the kind I liked. I dialed Garber's office and a duty lieutenant put him on the line and he asked, "Are you there yet?"

  I said, "Yes. "

  "Trip OK?"

  "It was fine. "

  "Got a place to stay?"

  "Don't worry about me. I've got seventy-five cents and four minutes before I eat. I need to ask you something. "

  "Fire away. "

  "Who briefed you on this?"

  Garber paused.

  "I can't tell you that," he said.

  "Well, whoever it was, he's kind of hazy about the details. "

  "That can happen. "

  "And Kelham is locked down. "

  "Munro did that, as soon as he got there. "

  "Why?"

  "You know how it is. There's a risk of bad feeling between the town and the base. It was a common-sense move. "

  "It was an admission of guilt. "

  "Well, maybe Munro knows something you don't. Don't worry about him. Your only job is to eavesdrop on the local cops. "

  "I'm on it. I rode in with one. "

  "Did he buy the civilian act?"

  "He seemed to. "

  "Good. They'll clam up if they know you're connected. "

  "I need you to find out if anyone from Bravo Company owns a blue car. "

  "Why?"

  "The cop said someone parked a blue car on the railroad track. The midnight train wrecked it. Could have been an attempt to hide evidence. "

  "He'd have burned it out, surely. "

  "Maybe it was the kind of evidence that burning wouldn't conceal. Maybe a big dent in the fender or something. "

  "How would that relate to a woman getting carved up in an alley?"

  "She wasn't carved up. Her throat was cut. That was all. Deep and wi
de. One pass, probably. The cop I talked to said he saw bone. "

  Garber paused a beat.

  He said, "That's how Rangers are taught to do it. "

  I said nothing.

  He asked, "But how would that relate to a car?"

  "I don't know. Maybe it doesn't relate. But let's find out, OK?"

  "There are two hundred guys in Bravo Company. Law of averages says there's going to be about fifty blue cars. "

  "And all fifty of them should be parked on the base. Let's find out if one isn't. "

  "It was probably a civilian vehicle. "

  "Let's hope it was. I'll work that end. But either way, I need to know. "

  "This is Munro's investigation," Garber said. "Not yours. "

  I said, "And we need to know if someone got a gravel rash. Hands, knees, and elbows, maybe. From the rape. The cop said Chapman had matching injuries. "

  "This is Munro's investigation," Garber said again.

  I didn't answer that. I saw the waitress push in through the kitchen door. She was carrying a plate piled high with an enormous burger in a bun and a tangle of shoelace fries as big and untidy as a squirrel's nest. I said, "I have to go, boss. I'll call you tomorrow," and I hung up and carried my coffee back to my table. The waitress put my plate down with a degree of ceremony. The meal looked good and smelled good.

  "Thanks," I said.

  "Can I get you anything else?"

  "You can tell me about the hotel," I said. "I need a room, but there was nobody home. "

  The waitress half-turned and I followed her gaze to the old couple settled in at their table for four. They were still reading. The waitress said, "They usually sit a spell in here, and then they go back. That would be the best time to catch them. "

  Then she went away and left me to it. I ate slowly and enjoyed every bite. The old couple sat still and read. The woman turned a page every couple of minutes. Much less often the guy made a big loud production out of snapping the spine of his paper and refolding it ready for the next section. He was studying it intently. He was practically reading the print off it.

  Later the waitress came back and picked up my plate and offered me dessert. She said she had great pies. I said, "I'm going to take a walk. I'll look in again on my way back and if those two are still here, then I'll stop in for pie. I guess there's no hurrying them. "

  "Not usually," the waitress said.

  I paid for the burger and the coffee and added a tip that didn't compare to a roomful of hungry Rangers, but it was enough to make her smile a little. Then I headed back to the street. The night was turning cold and there was a little mist in the air. I turned right and strolled past the vacant lot and the Sheriff's Department building. Pellegrino's car was parked outside and there was a glow in one window suggesting an interior room was occupied. I kept on going and came to the T where we had turned. To the left was the way Pellegrino had brought me in, through the forest. To the right that road continued east into the darkness. Presumably it crossed the railroad line and then led onward through the wrong side of town to Kelham. Garber had described it as a dirt track, which it might have been once. Now it was a standard rural road, with a stony surface bound with tar. It was dead straight and unlit. There were deep ditches either side of it. There was a thin moon in the sky, and a little light to see by. I turned right and walked on into the gloom.

 
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