The affair, p.4
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       The Affair, p.4

         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Four

 

  10

  Two minutes and two hundred yards later I found the railroad track. First came the warning sign on the shoulder of the road, two diagonal arms bolted together at ninety degrees, one marked RAILROAD and the other marked CROSSING. There were red lights attached to the pole and somewhere beyond it there would be an electric bell in a box. Twenty yards farther on the ditches either side of the road ended abruptly, and the track itself was up on a hump, gleaming faintly in the moonlight, two parallel rails running not very level and not completely straight north and south, looking old and worn and short on maintenance. The gravel bed was lumpy and compacted and matted with weeds. I stood on a tie between the rails and looked first one way and then the other. Twenty yards to the north, on the left, was the shadowy bulk of an old ruined water tower, still with a wide soft hose like an elephant's trunk, which once must have been connected to Carter Crossing's freshwater spring, and which once must have stood ready to replenish the greedy steam locomotives that halted there.

  I turned a full 360 in the dark. There was absolute stillness and silence everywhere. I could smell charcoal on the night air, maybe from where the blue car had burned the trees to the north. I could smell barbecue faintly in the east, where I guessed the rest of the township was, on the wrong side of the tracks. But I could see only darkness in that direction. Just the suggestion of a hole through the woods, where the road ran, and then nothing more.

  I turned back the way I had come, the hard road under my feet, thinking about pie, and I saw headlights in the distance. A large car or a small truck, coming straight at me, moving slow. At one point it looked ready to make the turn into Main Street, and then it seemed to change its mind. Maybe it had picked me up in its beams. It straightened again and kept on coming. I kept on walking. It was a blunt-nosed pick-up truck. It dipped and wallowed over the humps in the road. Its lights rose and fell in the mist. I could hear a low wet burble from a worn V-8 motor.

  It came over into the wrong lane and stopped twenty feet from me and idled. I couldn't see who was in it. Too much glare. I walked on. I wasn't about to step into the weeds, and the shoulder was narrow anyway, because of the ditch on my right, so I held my course, which was going to take me close to the driver's door. The driver saw me coming, and when I was ten feet out he dropped his window and put his left wrist on the door and his left elbow in my path. By that point there was enough light spill to make him out. He was a civilian, white, heavy, wearing a T-shirt with the sleeve rolled above a thick arm covered in fur and ink. He had long hair that hadn't been washed for a week or more.

  Three choices.

  First, stop and chat.

  Second, step into the weeds between the pavement and the ditch, and pass him by.

  Third, break his arm.

  I chose the first option. I stopped. But I didn't chat. Not immediately. I just stood there.

  There was a second man in the passenger seat. Same type of a guy. Fur, ink, hair, dirt, grease. But not identical. A cousin, maybe, not a brother. Both men looked right at me, with the kind of smug, low-wattage insolence some kinds of strangers get in some kinds of bars. I looked right back at them. I'm not that kind of stranger.

  The driver said, "Who are you and where are you going?"

  I said nothing. I'm good at saying nothing. I don't like talking. I could go the rest of my life without saying another word, if I had to.

  The driver said, "I asked you a question. "

  I thought: two questions, actually. But I said nothing. I didn't want to have to hit the guy. Not with my hands. I'm no hygiene freak, but even so, with a guy like that, I would feel the need to wash up afterward, extensively, with good soap, especially if there was pie in my future. So I planned on kicking him instead. I saw the moves in my head: he opens his door, he steps out, he comes around the door toward me, and then he goes down, puking and retching and clutching his groin.

  No major difficulty.

  He said, "Do you speak English?"

  I said nothing.

  The guy in the passenger seat said, "Maybe he's a Mexican. "

  The driver asked me, "Are you a Mexican?"

  I didn't answer.

  The driver said, "He doesn't look like a Mexican. He's too big. "

  Which was true in a general sense, although I had heard of a guy from Mexico called Jose Calderon Torres, who had stood seven feet six and a quarter inches, which was more than a foot taller than me. And I remembered a Mexican guy called Jose Garces from the LA Olympics, who had cleaned-and-jerked more than four hundred and twenty pounds, which was probably what the two guys in the truck weighed both together.

  The driver asked, "Are you coming in from Kelham?"

  There's a risk of bad feeling between the town and the base, Garber had said. People are always tribal, when it comes right down to it. Maybe these guys had known Janice May Chapman. Maybe they couldn't understand why she had dated soldiers, and not them. Maybe they had never looked in a mirror.

  I said nothing. But I didn't walk on. I didn't want the truck loose behind me. Not in a lonely spot, not on a dark country road. I just stood there, looking directly at the two guys, at their faces, first one, then the other, with nothing much in my own face except frankness and skepticism and a little amusement. It's a look that usually works. It usually provokes something, out of a certain type of person.

  It provoked the passenger first.

  He wound his window down and reared up through it, almost all the way out to his waist, twisting and leaning so he could face me directly across the hood of the truck. He held on to the pillar with one hand and moved the other through a fast violent arc, like he was cracking a whip or throwing something at me. He said, "We're talking to you, asshole. "

  I said nothing.

  He said, "Is there a reason I don't get out of this truck and kick your butt?"

  I said, "Two hundred and six reasons. "

  He said, "What?"

  "That's how many bones you got in your body. I could break them all before you put a glove on me. "

  Which got his buddy going. His instinct was to stick up for his friend and face down a challenge. He leaned further out his own window and said, "You think?"

  I said, "Often all day long. It's a good habit to have. " Which shut the guy up, while he tried to piece together what I meant. He went back over our conversation in his head. His lips were moving.

  I said, "Let's all go about our legitimate business and leave each other alone. Where are you guys staying?"

  Now I was asking the questions, and they weren't answering.

  I said, "It looked to me like you were about to turn into Main Street. Is that your way home?"

  No answer.

  I said, "What, you're homeless?"

  The driver said, "We got a place. "

  "Where?"

  "A mile past Main Street. "

  "So go there. Watch TV, drink beer. Don't worry about me. "

  "Are you from Kelham?"

  "No," I said. "I'm not from Kelham. "

  The two guys went quiet and kind of deflated themselves, like parade balloons, back through their windows, back into the cab, back into their seats. I heard the truck's transmission engage, and then it took off backward, fast, and then it slewed and lurched through a 180 turn, with dust coming up and tire squeal, and then it drove away and braked hard and turned into Main Street. Then it was lost to sight behind the dark bulk of the Sheriff's Department. I breathed out and started walking again. No damage done. The best fights are the ones you don't have, a wise man once said to me. It was not advice I always followed, but on that occasion I was pleased to walk away with clean hands, both literally and figuratively.

  Then I saw another car coming toward me. It did the same thing the truck had done. It went to turn, and then it paused and straightened and headed in my direction. It was a cop car. I could tell by the shape and the size, and I
could make out the silhouette of a light bar on the roof. At first I thought it was Pellegrino out on patrol, but when the car got closer it killed its lights and I saw a woman behind the wheel, and Mississippi suddenly got a lot more interesting.

  11

  The car came over into the wrong lane and stopped alongside me. It was an old Chevy Caprice police cruiser painted up in the Carter County Sheriff's Department colors. The woman behind the wheel had an unruly mass of dark hair, somewhere between wavy and curly, tied back in an approximate ponytail. Her face was pale and flawless. She was low in the seat, which meant either she was short or the seat was caved in by long years of use. I decided the seat must be caved in, because her arms looked long and the set of her shoulders didn't suggest a short person. I pegged her at somewhere in her middle thirties, old enough to show some mileage, young enough to still find some amusement in the world. She was smiling slightly, and the smile was reaching her eyes, which were big and dark and liquid and seemed to have some kind of a glow in them. Although that might have been a reflection from the Chevy's instrument panel.

  She wound down her window and looked straight at me, first my face, then a careful up-and-down, side-to-side appraisal all the way from my shoes to my hair, with nothing but frankness in her gaze. I stepped in closer to give her a better look, and to take a better look. She was more than flawless. She was spectacular. She had a revolver in a holster on her right hip, and next to it was a shotgun stuffed muzzle-down in a scabbard mounted between the seats. There was a big radio slung under the dash on the passenger side, and a microphone on a curly wire in a clip near the steering wheel. The car was old and worn, almost certainly bought secondhand from a richer municipality.

  She said, "You're the guy Pellegrino brought in. "

  Her voice was quiet but clear, warm but not soft, and her accent sounded local.

  I said, "Yes, ma'am, I am. "

  She said, "You're Reacher, right?"

  I said, "Yes, ma'am, I am. "

  She said, "I'm Elizabeth Deveraux. I'm the sheriff here. "

  I said, "I'm very pleased to meet you. "

  She paused a beat and said, "Did you eat dinner yet?"

  I nodded.

  "But not dessert," I said. "As a matter of fact I'm heading back to the diner for pie right now. "

  "Do you usually take a walk between courses?"

  "I was waiting out the hotel people. They didn't seem in much of a hurry. "

  "Is that where you're staying tonight? The hotel?"

  "I'm hoping to. "

  "You're not staying with the friend you came to find?"

  "I haven't found him yet. " She nodded in turn.

  "I need to talk to you," she said. "Find me in the diner. Five minutes, OK?"

  There was authority but no menace in her voice. No agenda. Just the kind of easy command I guessed came from being first a sheriff's daughter and then a sheriff herself.

  "OK," I said. "Five minutes. "

  She wound up her window again and reversed away and turned around, in a slower version of the same maneuver the two guys in the truck had used. She switched her headlights back on and drove away. I saw her brake lights flare red and she turned into Main Street. I followed on foot, in the weeds, between the pavement and the ditch.

  * * *

  I got to the diner well inside the five minutes I had been given and found Elizabeth Deveraux's cruiser parked at the curb outside. She herself was at the same table I had used. The old couple from the hotel had finally decamped. The place was empty apart from Deveraux and the waitress.

  I went in and Deveraux said nothing specific but used one foot under the table to shove the facing chair out a little. An invitation. Almost a command. The waitress got the message. She didn't try to seat me elsewhere. Clearly Deveraux had already ordered. I asked the waitress for a slice of her best pie and another cup of coffee. She went through to the kitchen and silence claimed the room.

  Up close and personal I was prepared to concede that Elizabeth Deveraux was a seriously good looking woman. Truly beautiful. Out of the car she was relatively tall, and her hair was amazing. There must have been five pounds of it in her ponytail alone. She had all the right parts in all the right proportions. She looked great in her uniform. But then, I liked women in uniform, possibly because I had known very few of the other kind. But best of all was her mouth. And her eyes. Together they put a kind of wry, amused animation into her face, as if whatever happened to her she would stay cool and calm and collected through it all, and then she would find some quality in it to make her smile. There was still light in her eyes. Not just a reflection from the Caprice's speedometer.

  She said, "Pellegrino told me you've been in the army. "

  I paused a beat. Undercover work is all about lying, and I hadn't minded lying to Pellegrino. But for some unknown reason I found myself not wanting to lie to Deveraux. So I said, "Six weeks ago I was in the army," which was technically true.

  "What branch?"

  "I was with an outfit called the 110th, mostly," I said. Also true.

  "Infantry?"

  "It was a special unit. Combined operations, basically. " Which was true, technically.

  "Who's your local friend?"

  "A guy called Hayder," I said. An outright invention.

  Deveraux said, "He must have been infantry. Kelham is all infantry. "

  I nodded.

  "The 75th Ranger Regiment," I said.

  "Was he an instructor?" she asked.

  "Yes," I said.

  She nodded. "They're the only ones who are here long enough to want to stick around afterward. "

  I said nothing.

  She said, "I've never heard of him. "

  "Then maybe he moved on again. "

  "When might he have done that?"

  "I'm not sure. How long have you been sheriff?"

  "Two years," she said. "Long enough to get to know the locals, anyway. "

  "Pellegrino said you'd been here all your life. I mean, as far as getting to know the locals is concerned. "

  "Not true," she said. "I haven't been here all my life. I was here as a kid, and I'm here now. But there were years in between. "

  There was something wistful about her tone. There were years in between. I asked her, "How did you spend those years?"

  "I had a rich uncle," she said. "I toured the world at his expense. "

  And at that point I suspected I was in trouble. At that point I suspected my mission was about to fail. Because I had heard that answer before.

  12

  The waitress brought out Elizabeth Deveraux's main course and my dessert both together. Deveraux had ordered the same thing I had eaten, the fat cheeseburger and the squirrel's nest of fries. My pie was peach and the slice I got was about half the size of a Major League home plate. It was bigger than the dish it was in. My coffee was in a tall stoneware mug. Deveraux had plain water in a chipped glass.

  It's easier to let a pie go cold than a cheeseburger, so I figured I had a chance to talk while Deveraux had no choice but to eat and listen and comment briefly. So I said, "Pellegrino told me you guys are real busy. "

  Deveraux chewed and nodded.

  I said, "A wrecked car and a dead woman. "

  She nodded again and chased an errant pearl of mayonnaise back into her mouth with the tip of her little finger. An elegant gesture, for an inelegant act. She had short nails, nicely trimmed and polished. She had slender hands, a little tanned and sinewy. Good skin. No rings. None at all. Especially not on her left ring finger.

  I asked, "Any progress on any of that?"

  She swallowed and smiled and held her hand up like a traffic cop. Stop. Wait. She said, "Give me a minute, OK? No more talking. "

  So I ate my pie, which was good. The crust was sweet and the peaches were soft. Probably local. Or maybe from Georgia. I didn't know much about the cultivation of fruit. She ate, with th
e burger in her right hand, her left taking fries one by one from her plate, her eyes on mine most of the time. The grease from the meat made her lips glisten. She was a slim woman. She must have had a metabolism like a nuclear reactor. She took occasional long sips of water. I drained my mug. The coffee was OK, but not as good as the pie.

  She asked, "Doesn't coffee keep you awake?"

  I nodded. "Until I want to go to sleep. That's what it's for. "

  She took a last sip of water and left a rind of bun and six or seven fries on her plate. She wiped her mouth and then her hands on her napkin. She folded her napkin and laid it down next to her plate. Dinner was over.

  I asked, "So are you making progress?"

  She smiled at some inner amusement and then leaned sideways away from the table, hands braced to increase her angle, and she looked me over again, slowly, a crooked path, all the way from my feet in the shadows to my head. She said, "You're pretty good. Nothing to be ashamed about, really. It's not your fault. "

  I asked, "What isn't?"

  She leaned back in her chair. She kept her eyes on mine. She said, "My daddy was sheriff here before me. Since before I was born, actually. He won about twenty consecutive elections. He was firm, but fair. And honest. No fear or favor. He was a good public servant. "

  I said, "I'm sure he was. "

  "But I didn't like it here very much. Not as a kid. I mean, can you imagine? It's the back of beyond. We got books in the mail. I knew there was a big wide world out there. So I had to get away. "

  I said, "I don't blame you. "

  She said, "But some ideas get ingrained. Like public service. Like law enforcement. It starts to feel like a family business, the same as any other. "

  I nodded. She was right. Kids follow their parents into law enforcement far more than most other professions. Except baseball. The son of a pro ballplayer is eight hundred times more likely to make the Majors than some other random kid.

  She said, "So look at it from my point of view. What do you think I did when I turned eighteen?"

  I said, "I don't know," although by that point I was pretty sure I did know, more or less, and I wasn't happy about it.

  She said, "I went to South Carolina and joined the Marine Corps. "

  I nodded. Worse than I had expected. For some reason I had been betting on the Air Force.

  I asked her, "How long were you in?"

  "Sixteen years. "

  Which made her thirty-six years old. Eighteen years at home, plus sixteen as a jarhead, plus two as Carter County Sheriff. Same age as me.

  I asked her, "What branch of the Corps?"

  "Provost Marshal's office. " I looked away.

  I said, "You were a military cop. "

  She said, "Public service and law enforcement. I killed two birds with one stone. "

  I looked back, beaten.

  I asked her, "Terminal rank?"

  "CWO5," she said.

  Chief Warrant Officer 5. An expert in a specific specialized field. The sweet spot, where the real work was done.

  I asked her, "Why did you leave?"

  "Rumblings," she said. "The Soviets are gone, reductions in force are coming. I figured it would feel better to step up than be thrown out. Plus my daddy died, and I couldn't let some idiot like Pellegrino take over. "

  I asked her, "Where did you serve?"

  "All over," she said. "Uncle Sam was my rich uncle. He showed me the world. Some parts of it were worth seeing, and some parts of it weren't. "

  I said nothing. The waitress came back and took away our empty plates.

  "Anyway," Deveraux said. "I was expecting you. It's exactly what we would have done, frankly, under the same circumstances. A homicide behind a bar near a base? Some kind of big secrecy or sensitivity on the base? We would have put an investigator on the post, and we would have sent another into town, undercover. "

  I said nothing.

  She said, "The idea being, of course, that the undercover guy in town would keep his ear to the ground and then step in and stop the locals embarrassing the Corps. If strictly necessary, that is. It was a policy I supported back then, naturally. But now I am the locals, so I can't really support it anymore. "

  I said nothing.

  "Don't feel bad," she said. "You were doing it better than some of our guys did. I love the shoes, for instance. And the hair. You're fairly convincing. You ran into a bit of bad luck, that's all, with me being who I am. Although the timing wasn't subtle, was it? But then, it never is. I don't see how it ever could be. And to be honest, you're not a very fluent liar. You shouldn't have said the 110th. I know about the 110th, of course. You were nearly as good as we were. But really, Hayder? Far too uncommon a name. And the khaki socks were a mistake. Obvious PX. You probably bought them yesterday. I wore socks just like them. "

  "I didn't want to lie," I said. "Didn't seem right. My father was a Marine. Maybe I sensed it in you. "

  "He was a Marine but you joined the army? What was that, mutiny?"

  "I don't know what it was," I said. "But it felt right at the time. "

  "How does it feel now?"

  "Right this minute? Not so great. "

  "Don't feel bad," she said again. "You gave it a good try. "

  I said nothing.

  She asked, "What rank are you?"

  I said, "Major. "

  "Should I salute?"

  "Only if you want to. "

  "Still with the 110th?"

  "Temporarily. Home base right now is the 396th MP. The Criminal Investigation Division. "

  "How many years in?"

  "Thirteen. Plus West Point. "

  "I'm honored. Maybe I should salute. Who did they send to Kelham?"

  "A guy called Munro. Same rank as me. "

  "That's confusing," she said.

  I said, "Are you making progress?"

  She said, "You don't give up, do you?"

  "Giving up was not in the mission statement. You know how it is. "

  "OK, I'll trade," she said. "One answer for one answer. And then you ship back out. You hit the road at first light. In fact I'll get Pellegrino to drive you back to where he picked you up. Do we have a deal?"

  What choice did I have? I said, "We have a deal. "

  "No," she said. "We're not making progress. Absolutely none at all. "

  "OK," I said. "Thanks. Your turn. "

  "Obviously it would give me an insight to know if you're the ace, or if the guy they sent to Kelham is the ace. I mean, in terms of the army's current thinking. About the balance of probabilities here. As in, do they think the problem is inside the gates or outside? So, are you the big dog? Or is the other guy?"

  "Honest answer?"

  "That's what I would expect from the son of a fellow Marine. "

  "The honest answer is I don't know," I said.

 

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