The affair, p.5
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       The Affair, p.5
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         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Chapter Five

  13

  Elizabeth Deveraux paid for her burger and my pie and coffee, which I thought was generous, so I left the tip, which made the waitress smile again. We stepped out to the sidewalk together and stood for a moment next to the old Caprice. The moon had gotten brighter. A thin layer of high cloud had moved away. There were stars out.

  I said, "Can I ask you another question?"

  Deveraux was immediately guarded. She said, "About what?"

  "Hair," I said. "Ours is supposed to conform to the shape of our heads. Tapered, they call it. Curving inward to a natural termination point at the base of the neck. What about yours?"

  "I wore a buzz cut for fifteen years," she said. "I started growing it out when I knew I was going to quit. "

  I looked at her in the moonlight and the spill from the diner window. I pictured her with a buzz cut. She must have looked sensational. I said, "Good to know. Thanks. "

  She said, "I had no chance, right from the beginning. The regulation for women in the Corps required what they called a non-eccentric style. Your hair could touch your collar, but it couldn't fall below the bottom edge. You were allowed to pin it up, but then I couldn't get my hat on. "

  "Sacrifices," I said.

  "It was worth it," she said. "I loved being a Marine. "

  "You still are," I said. "Once a Marine, always a Marine. "

  "Is that what your daddy said?"

  "He never got the chance. He died in harness. "

  She asked, "Is your mom still alive?"

  "She died a few years later. "

  "Mine died when I was in boot camp. Cancer. "

  "Really? Mine too. Cancer, I mean. Not boot camp. "

  "I'm sorry. "

  "Not your fault," I said, automatically. "She was in Paris. "

  "So was I. Parris Island, anyway. Did she emigrate?"

  "She was French. "

  "Do you speak French?"

  I said, "Un peu, mais doucement. "

  "What does that mean?"

  "A little, and slowly. "

  She nodded and put her hand on the Caprice's door. I took the hint and said, "OK, goodnight, Chief Deveraux. It was a pleasure meeting you. "

  She just smiled.

  I turned left and walked down toward the hotel. I heard the big Chevy motor start up, and I heard the tires start to roll, and then the car passed me, going slow, and then it pulled a wide U-turn across the width of the street and stopped again, just ahead of me, facing me, at the curb right next to the Toussaint's hotel. I walked on and got there just as Deveraux opened her door and got out again. Naturally I assumed she had something more to say to me, so I stopped walking and waited politely.

  "I live here," she said. "Goodnight. "

  She had already gone upstairs before I got into the lobby. The old guy I had seen in the diner was behind the reception counter. He was open for business. I could tell he was disconcerted by my lack of luggage, but cash money is cash money, and he took eighteen dollars of mine and in return he gave me the key to room twenty-one. He told me it was on the second floor, at the front of the building, overlooking the street, which he said was quieter than the back, which made no sense at all until I remembered the railroad track.

  On the second floor the staircase came up in the center of a long north - south corridor, which was uncarpeted and dimly lit by four mean and ungenerous bulbs. It had eight doors off the back side and nine off the street side. There was a slim bar of brighter yellow light showing through the crack under room seventeen's door, which was on the street side. Deveraux, presumably, getting ready for bed. My room was four doors further north. I unlocked it and went in and turned on the light and found the kind of still air and dusty chill that indicates long disuse. It was a rectangular space with a high ceiling and what would have been pleasant proportions, except that at some point in the last decade an attached bathroom had been shoehorned into one corner. The window was a pair of glazed doors that gave out on the iron balcony I had seen from the street. There was a bed and a chair and a dressing table, and on the floor there was a threadbare Persian rug worn thin by use and beating.

  I pulled the drapes closed and unpacked, which consisted solely of assembling my new toothbrush and propping it upright in a milky glass on the bathroom shelf. I had no toothpaste, but then, I had never been convinced toothpaste was anything more than a pleasant-tasting lubricant. An army dentist I had known swore that the mechanical action of the brush's bristles was all that was needed for perfect oral health. And I had chewing gum for freshness. And I still had all my teeth, apart from a top-row molar knocked out many years before by a lucky knuckle in a street fight in Cleveland, Ohio.

  The clock in my head said it was about twenty after eleven. I sat on the bed for a spell. I had been up early and was moderately tired, but not exhausted. And I had things to do, and limited time to do them in, so I waited long enough to let an average person get off to sleep, and then I went out to the corridor again. Deveraux's light was off. There was nothing showing under her door. I crept down the stairs to the lobby. The reception desk was once again unattended. I went out to the street and turned left, toward territory as yet unexplored.

  14

  I looked at the whole length of Main Street as carefully as was possible in the gray moonlight. It ran on south for about two hundred yards, as straight as a die, and then it narrowed a little and started to meander and became residential, with modest homes randomly spaced in yards of varying sizes. The west side of the straight downtown stretch had stores and commercial operations of various kinds, punctuated with narrow alleys, some of which led onward into the scrub and had more small houses on the left and the right. Those stores and commercial operations were matched by similar establishments on the east side of Main Street, neatly in line with the diner and the hotel, and the alleys to the west were matched by broader paved passageways opposite, which linked all the way through to a one-sided street built parallel to and behind Main Street. I guessed that one-sided street had been the whole point of the town in the early days, and was certainly the point in my being there that night.

  It ran north and south and had a long line of establishments that faced the railroad track across nothing but a blank width of beaten earth. I imagined old passenger trains wheezing to a stop, with their panting locomotives next to the water tower a little ways up the line, the trains' long windowed sides stretching south. I imagined restaurant staff and cafe owners running across the beaten earth and placing wooden steps below the train doors. I imagined passengers stepping down, spilling out, dry and hungry from their long haul, hundreds of them eagerly crossing the width of earth, and then eating and drinking their fill. I imagined coins clattering, cash registers ringing, the train whistles blowing, the passengers returning, the trains moving onward, the wooden steps being retrieved, then stillness returning for an hour, then the next train easing in, and the whole process repeating itself endlessly.

  That single-sided street had powered the local economy, and it still did.

  The passenger trains were long gone, of course, and so were the cafes and the restaurants. But the cafes and the restaurants had been replaced by bars, and auto parts stores, and bars, and loan offices, and bars, and gun shops, and bars, and secondhand stereo stores, and bars, and the trains had been replaced by streams of cars coming in from Kelham. I imagined the cars parking on the beaten earth, and small groups of Rangers-in-training spilling out and spending Uncle Sam's money up and down the row. A captive market, miles from anywhere, like Garber had said, just like the railroad passengers back in the day. I had seen the proposition repeated at a hundred bases all around the world. The cars would be old Mustangs or Gran Torinos or GTOs, or secondhand BMWs or Mercedes in Germany, or strange Toyota Crowns or Datsuns in the Far East, and the beer would be different brands and different strengths, and the loans would be in different currencies, and the guns would be chambered for different loads in d
ifferent calibers, and the used stereo equipment would operate on different voltages, but other than that the give and take was exactly the same everywhere.

  I found the spot where Janice May Chapman had been killed easily enough. Pellegrino had said she had bled out like a lake, which meant sand would have been used to soak up the spill, and I found a fresh spreading pile of it in a paved alley near the rear left-hand corner of a bar called Brannan's. Brannan's was about in the center of the one-sided street, and the alley in question ran along its left flank before dog-legging twice and exiting on Main Street between an old-style pharmacy and a hardware store. Maybe the hardware store was where the sand had come from. Three or four sixty-pound bags would have done the job. It was spread in a neat teardrop shape over the smooth flagstones, about three or four inches deep.

  The spot was not directly overlooked. Brannan's rear door was about fifteen feet away, and the bar had no side windows. The back of the pharmacy was a blank wall. Brannan's neighbor was a loan office with a Western Union franchise, and its right flank had a window toward the rear, but the place would have been closed at night. No witnesses. Not that there would have been much to witness. Cutting a throat doesn't take much time. Given a decent blade and enough weight and force, it takes as long as it takes to move your hand eight inches. That's all.

  I stepped out of the alley and walked halfway to the railroad track and stood on the beaten earth and judged the light. No point in looking for things I wouldn't be able to see. But the moon was still high and the sky was still clear, so I kept on going and stepped over the first rail and turned left and hiked north, walking on the ties like guys used to way back, when they were leaving the land and heading to Chicago or New York. I passed over the road crossing, and I passed the old water tower.

  Then the ground began to shake.

  Just faintly at first, a mild constant tremor, like the edge of a distant earthquake. I stopped walking. The tie under my feet trembled. The rails either side of me started to sing. I turned around and saw a tiny pinpoint of light far in the distance. A single headlight. The midnight train, a couple of miles south of me, coming on fast.

  I stood there. The rails hummed and keened. The ties hammered up and down through tiny microscopic distances. The gravel under them clicked and hopped. The ground tremors deepened to big bass shudders. The distant headlight twinkled like a star, jumping minutely left and right through hard constrained limits.

  I stepped off the track and looped back to the old water tower and leaned against a tarred wooden upright. It shook against my shoulder. The ground shook under my feet. The rails howled. The train whistle blew, long and loud and forlorn in the distance. The warning bells at the roadside twenty yards away started ringing. The red lights started flashing.

  The train kept on coming toward me, for a long time resolutely distant, then all of a sudden right next to me, right on top of me, huge, just insanely massive, and impossibly loud. The ground shook so hard that the old water tower next to me danced mutely in place and I was bounced up and down whole inches. Moving air whipped and battered at me. The locomotive flashed past, and then began an endless sequence of cars, hammering, juddering, strobing in the moonlight, hurtling north without pause, ten of them, twenty, fifty, a hundred. I clung to the tarred pole for a whole long minute, sixty long seconds, deafened by squealing metal, beaten numb by the throbbing ground, scoured by the slipstream.

  Then the train was gone.

  The butt end of a bulk silo car rolled away from me at sixty miles an hour, and the howl of the wind dropped a half tone, and the earthquake subsided to mild tremors again, and then to nothing, and the screaming rails quieted to a low hiss. The manic bells stopped dead.

  Silence came back.

  The first thing I did was change my mind about how far I was going to have to walk to find the wreckage of the blue car. I had assumed it would be close by. But after that awesome display of power I figured it might be somewhere in New Jersey. Or Canada.

  15

  In the end I found most of the car about two hundred yards north. It was preceded by a debris field that stretched most of the intervening distance. There were pebbles of broken windshield glass, glistening and glinting in the dew and the moonlight. The glass had been flung along random curved trajectories, as if by a giant hand. There was a chrome bumper, torn off and folded capriciously in half, a tight V, like a drinking straw. It had embedded itself in the ground, like a lawn dart. There was a wheel with no hub cap. The impact had been colossal. The car had been smashed forward like a baseball off a tee. Zero to sixty, instantaneously.

  I guessed it had been parked on the track about twenty yards north of the water tower. That was where the first of the glass was located. The locomotive had hit the car, and it had flown fifty or more yards through the air, and then it had landed and cartwheeled. Maybe wheels to roof to wheels to roof, or end over end. I guessed the initial impact had more or less disassembled it. Like an explosion. Then the rolling action had flung its constituent parts all over the place. Including its fuel, which had ignited. There were narrow black tongues of burned scrub all over the last fifty yards, and what was left of the vehicle itself was nested against the trees in the epicenter of a starburst of blackened trunks and branches. Arson investigators I had met could have worked out its rate of rotation from the fuel splatter alone.

  Pellegrino had seen the car in daylight and called it blue. In the moonlight it looked ash gray to me. I couldn't find an intact painted surface. I couldn't find an intact anything larger than a square inch. It was a burned-out mess, crushed and crumpled to the point of being virtually unrecognizable. I was prepared to accept it was a car, but only because I couldn't imagine what else it could be.

  If someone's intention had been to conceal evidence, then that someone had succeeded, big time, and comprehensively.

  I got back to the hotel at one o'clock exactly, and went straight to bed. I set the alarm in my head for seven in the morning, which was when I figured Deveraux would be getting up for work. I figured her day would start at eight. Clearly she was not neglectful of her appearance, but she was a Marine and a pragmatic person, so she wouldn't budget more than an hour to get ready. I figured I could match her shower time with my own, and then I could find her in the diner for breakfast. Which was as far ahead as my planning extended. I wasn't sure what I was going to say to her.

  But I didn't sleep until seven in the morning. I was woken up at six. By someone knocking loudly on my door. I wasn't thrilled. I rolled out of bed and pulled on my pants and opened up. It was the old guy. The hotel keeper.

  He said, "Mr. Reacher?"

  I said, "Yes?"

  He said, "Good. I'm glad I got the right person. At this hour, I mean. It's always better to be sure. "

  "What do you want?"

  "Well, initially, as I said, I'm confirming who you are. "

  "I sincerely hope there's more to it than that. At this hour. You only have two guests. And the other one isn't mister anything. "

  "You have a phone call. "

  "Who from?"

  "Your uncle. "

  "My uncle?"

  "Your uncle Leon Garber. He said it was urgent. And judging by his tone, it's important, too. "

  I put my T-shirt on and followed the guy downstairs, barefoot. He led me through a side door into the office behind the counter. There was a worn mahogany desk with a phone on it. The handset was off the hook, resting on the desk top.

  The old guy said, "Please make yourself at home," and left, and closed the door on me. I sat down in his chair and picked up the phone.

  I said, "What?"

  Garber said, "You OK?"

  "I'm fine. How did you find me?"

  "Phone book. There's only one hotel in Carter Crossing. Everything going well?"

  "Terrific. "

  "You sure?"

  "Positive. "

  "Because you're supposed to check in eve
ry morning at six. "

  "Am I?"

  "That's what we agreed. "

  "When?"

  "We spoke yesterday at six. As you were leaving. "

  "I know," I said. "I remember. But we didn't agree we'd talk at six every day. "

  "You called me yesterday. At dinner time. You said you would call again today. "

  "I didn't specify the time. "

  "I think you did. "

  "Well, you're wrong, you old coot. What do you want?"

  "You're cranky this morning. "

  "I was up late last night. "

  "Doing what?"

  "Looking around. "

  "And?"

  "There are a couple of things," I said.

  "Like what?"

  "Just two specific items. Matters of interest. "

  "Do they represent progress?"

  "At this point they're just questions. The answers might represent progress, eventually. If I ever get them. "

  Garber said, "Munro is getting nowhere at Kelham. Not so far. This whole thing might be more complicated than we thought. "

  I didn't answer that. Garber was quiet for a beat.

  "Wait," he said. "What do you mean, if you ever get the answers?"

  I didn't answer.

  Garber said, "And why were you looking around in the dark? Wouldn't it have been better to wait for first light?"

  I said, "I met the chief here. "

  "And?"

  "Different from what you might expect. "

  "How?" Garber asked. "Is he honest?"

  "He's a she," I said. "Her father was sheriff before her. "

  Garber paused again.

  "Don't tell me," he said. "She figured you out. "

  I didn't answer.

  "Christ on a bike," he said. "This has got to be a new world record. How long did it take her? Ten minutes? Five?"

  "She was a Marine MP," I said. "One of us, practically. She knew all along. She was expecting me. To her it was a predictable move. "

  "What are you going to do?"

  "I don't know. "

  "Is she going to shut you out?"

  "Worse. She wants to throw me out. "

  "Well, you can't let her do that. No way. You have to stay there. That's for damn sure. In fact, I'm ordering you not to come back. You hear me? Your orders are to stay. She can't throw you out anyway. It's a question of civil rights. The First Amendment, or something. Free association. Mississippi is part of the Union, same as anywhere else. It's a free country. So stay there, OK?"

  I hung up with Garber and sat in the little office for a moment. I found a dollar bill in my pocket and left it on the desk, to cover the cost of an outgoing call, and I dialed the Pentagon. The Pentagon has a lot of numbers and a lot of operators, and I chose one that always answered. I asked the guy to try John James Frazer's billet, just on the off chance. The Senate Liaison guy. I wasn't expecting him to be there not long after six in the morning, but he was. Which told me something. I introduced myself and told him I had no news.

  "You must have something," he said. "Or you wouldn't have called. "

  "I have a warning," I said.

  "What kind?"

  "I've seen a couple of things, and they're enough to tell me this situation is going to turn out bad. It's going to turn out sick and weird and it's going to be all over every newspaper for a month. Even if it's nothing to do with Kelham, we could end up tainted. Just because of the proximity. "

  Frazer paused. "How sick?"

  "Potentially very sick. "

  "Gut feeling? Is it anything to do with Kelham?"

  "Too early to say. "

  "Help me out here, Reacher. Best guess?"

  "At this stage, I'd say no. No military involvement. "

  "That's good to hear. "

  "It's only a guess," I said. "Don't break out the cigars just yet. "

  I didn't go back to bed. No point. Too late. I just brushed my teeth and showered and chewed some gum and got fully dressed. Then I stood by my window and watched the dawn. The creeping daylight enlarged the world. I saw Main Street in all its detailed glory. I saw scrub and fields and forest extending in every direction.

  Then I sat in my chair to wait. I figured I would hear Deveraux go out to her car. I was more or less right above where it was parked at the curb.

  16

  I heard Deveraux leave the hotel at twenty past seven exactly. First the street door creaked open and slammed shut, and then her car door creaked open and slammed shut. I got up and looked out the window. She was behind the wheel, low in the seat, in what looked like a clean version of the same uniform she had worn the day before. Her riot of hair was still wet from the shower. She was talking on the radio. Probably telling Pellegrino that job one for the day was to haul my ass halfway back to Memphis.

  I went down the stairs and stepped out to the sidewalk. The morning air was fresh and cold. I looked up the street and saw that Deveraux's car was parked again, right outside the diner. So far, so good. I walked in that direction and pushed in through the door, past the pay phone, past the hostess station. There were six customers inside, including Deveraux. The other five were men, four of them in work clothes and the fifth in a pale-colored suit. A professional gentleman. Maybe a country lawyer or a country doctor, or the guy that ran the loan office next to Brannan's bar. The waitress was the same woman as the night before. She was busy toting plates of food, so I didn't wait for her. I just walked up to Deveraux's table and said, "Would you mind if I joined you?"

  She was sipping coffee. She didn't have her food yet. She smiled and said, "Good morning. "

  Her tone was warm. She seemed happy to see me.

  I said, "Yes, good morning. "

  She said, "Have you come to say goodbye? That's very polite and very formal. "

  I said nothing in reply to that. She did her thing with her foot again, under the table, and kicked the facing chair out. I sat down. She asked, "Did you sleep well?"

  I said, "Fine. "

  "The train didn't wake you at midnight? It takes some getting used to. "

  "I was still up," I said.

  "Doing what?"

  "This and that," I said.

  "Inside or out?"

  "Out," I said.

  "You found the crime scene?"

  I nodded.

  She nodded in turn.

  "And you found two things of note," she said. "So you thought you'd stop by and make sure I appreciated their significance before you got on your way. That's very public-spirited of you. "

  The waitress came by and put a heaping plate of French toast on the table. Then she turned to me and I ordered the same thing, with coffee. Deveraux waited until she was gone, and asked, "Or was it entirely private-spirited? Is this your one last attempt to protect the army before you go?"

  "I'm not going," I said.

  She smiled again. "Are you going to give me your civil rights speech now? Free country, and all that bullshit?"

  "Something like that. "

  She paused a beat.

  "I'm all for civil rights," she said. "And certainly there's room at the inn, as they say. So sure, by all means, please stay. Enjoy yourself. There are trails to hike, and there are things to hunt, and there are sights to see. Knock yourself out. Do whatever you want to. Just don't get between me and my investigation. "

  I asked her, "How do you explain the two things?"

  "Do I need to? To you?"

  "Two heads are better than one. "

  "I can't trust you," she said. "You're here to steer me wrong, if you have to. "

  "No, I'm here to warn the army if things start to look bad. Which I will, if I have to. But we're a long way from any kind of a conclusion here. We've barely even started. It's too early to steer anybody anywhere, even if I was going to. Which I'm not. "

  "We?" she said. "We're a long way from a conclusion? What is this
, a democracy?"

  "OK, you," I said.

  "Yes," she said. "Me. "

  At that point the waitress came back with my meal. And my coffee. I sniffed the steam and took a long first sip. A little ritual. Nothing better than just-made coffee, early in the morning. Across the table from me Deveraux continued eating. She was cleaning her plate. A metabolism like a nuclear plant.

  She said, "OK, time out. Convince me. Put your cards on the table. Tell me about the first thing, and spin it so it looks bad for the army. Which it does, by the way, spin or no spin. "

  I looked straight at her. "Have you been on the base?"

  "All over it. "

  "I haven't. Therefore apparently you know what I'm only guessing. "

  She nodded. "So bear that in mind. Tread carefully. Don't blow smoke. "

  I said, "Janice May Chapman was not raped in that alley. "

  "Because?"

  "Because Pellegrino reported gravel abrasions on the corpse. And there's no gravel in that alley. Nor anywhere else that I could see. It's all dirt or blacktop or smooth paving stones for miles around. "

  "The railroad track has gravel," she said.

  A test. She wanted me to jump all over it.

  "Not really gravel," I said. "The railroad track has larger stones. Ballast, they call it, in a rail bed. Pieces of granite, bigger than a pebble, smaller than a fist. The injuries would look completely different. They wouldn't look like gravel rash. "

  "The roads are gravel. "

  Another test.

  "Bound with tar and rolled," I said. "Not the same at all. "

  "So?"

  The final test.

  Spin it so it looks bad for the army.

  "Kelham is for the elite," I said. "It's a finishing school for the 75th, which is special ops support. It's a big place. They must have all kinds of simulated terrain. Sand, to simulate the desert. Concrete, like the frozen steppes. Fake villages, all that kind of shit. I'm sure they have plenty of gravel there, for one reason or another. "

  Deveraux nodded again. "They have a running track made of gravel. For endurance training. Ten laps is like ten hours on a road surface. Plus low-scoring individuals get to rake it smooth every morning. As a punishment. Two birds with one stone. "

  I said nothing.

  Deveraux said, "She was raped on the base. "

  I said, "Not impossible. "

  Deveraux said, "You're an honest man, Reacher. The son of a Marine. "

  "Marines have got nothing to do with it. I'm a commissioned officer in the United States Army. We have standards too. "

  I started to eat my breakfast just as she finished hers. She said, "The second thing is more problematical, though. I can't make it fit. "

  "Really?" I said. "Isn't it basically the same as the first thing?"

  She looked at me, blankly.

  She said, "I don't see how. "

  I stopped eating and looked back at her.

  I said, "Talk me through it. "

  "It's a simple question," she said. "How did she get there? She left her car at home, and she didn't walk. For one thing, she was wearing four-inch heels, and for another thing, no one walks anywhere anymore. But she wasn't picked up from home either. Her neighbors are the worst busybodies in the world, and both of them swear no one came calling on her. And I believe them. And no one saw her arrive in town with a soldier. Or with a civilian, for that matter. Or even on her own. And trust me, those barkeeps watch the traffic. All of them. It's a habit. They want to know if they can afford to eat tomorrow. So she just materialized in that alley, unexplained. "

  I was quiet for a second.

  Then I said, "That wasn't my second thing. "

  "Wasn't it?"

  "Your two things and my two things are not the same two things. Which means there are three things in total. "

  "So what's your second thing?"

  I said, "She wasn't killed in that alley, either. "

 
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