Killing floor, p.6
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       Killing Floor, p.6

         Part #1 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Chapter Seven



  He was staring over at me. Waiting for a reply. What would I do? If somebody threatened me like that, they would die. I'd rip them apart. Either as they spoke, or days or months or years later. I would hunt them down and rip them apart. But Hubble couldn't do that. He had a family. Three hostages waiting to be taken. Three hostages already taken. Taken as soon as the threat was made.

  "What should I do?" he asked me again.

  I felt pressure. I had to say something. And my forehead hurt. It was bruising up after the massive impact with the Red Boy's face. I stepped to the bars and glanced down the row of cells. Leaned against the end of the bunk. Thought for a moment. Came up with the only possible answer. But not the answer Hubble wanted to hear.

  "Nothing you can do," I said. "You've been told to keep your mouth shut, so you keep it shut. Don't tell anybody what's going on. Ever. "

  He looked down at his feet. Dropped his head into his hands. Gave a moan of abject misery. Like he was crushed with disappointment.

  "I've got to talk to somebody," he said. "I've got to get out of this. I mean it, I've got to get out. I've got to talk to somebody. "

  I shook my head at him.

  "You can't do that," I said. "They've told you to say nothing, so you say nothing. That way you stay alive. You and your family. "

  He looked up. Shuddered.

  "Something very big is going on," he said. "I've got to stop it if I can. "

  I shook my head again. If something very big was going on around people who used threats like that, then he was never going to stop it. He was on board, and he was going to stay on board. I smiled a bleak smile at him and shook my head for the third time. He nodded like he understood. Like he finally accepted the situation. He went back to rocking and staring at the wall. His eyes were open. Red and naked without the gold rims. He sat silently for a long time.

  I COULDN'T UNDERSTAND THE CONFESSION. HE SHOULD have kept his mouth shut. He should have denied any involvement with the dead guy. Should have said he had no idea why his phone number was written down in the guy's shoe. Should have said he had no idea what Pluribus was. Then he could have just gone home.

  "Hubble?" I said. "Why did you confess?"

  He looked up. Waited a long moment before replying.

  "I can't answer that," he said. "I'd be telling you more than I should. "

  "I already know more than I should," I said. "Finlay asked about the dead guy and Pluribus and you flipped. So I know there's a link between you and the dead guy and whatever Pluribus is. "

  He gazed at me. Looking vague.

  "Is Finlay that black detective?" he said.

  "Yes," I said. "Finlay. Chief of detectives. "

  "He's new," Hubble said. "Never seen him before. It was always Gray. He was there years, since I was a kid. There's only one detective, you know, don't know why they say chief of detectives when there's only one. There's only eight people in the whole police department. Chief Morrison, he's been there years, then the desk man, four uniformed men, a woman, and the detective, Gray. Only now it's Finlay. The new man. Black guy, the first we've ever had. Gray killed himself, you know. Hung himself from a rafter in his garage. February, I think. "

  I let him ramble on. Prison conversation. It passes the time. That's what it's for. Hubble was good at it. But I still wanted him to answer my question. My forehead hurt and I wanted to bathe it with cold water. I wanted to walk around for a while. I wanted to eat. I wanted coffee. I waited without listening as Hubble rambled through the municipal history of Margrave. Suddenly he stopped.

  "What were you asking me?" he said.

  "Why did you confess to killing the guy?" I repeated.

  He looked around. Then he looked straight at me.

  "There's a link," he said. "That's all it's safe to say right now. The detective mentioned the guy, and used the word 'Pluribus,' which made me jump. I was startled. I couldn't believe he knew the connection. Then I realized he hadn't known there was a connection, but I'd just told him by being startled. You see? I'd given it away. I felt I'd blown it. Given away the secret. And I mustn't do that, because of the threat. "

  He tailed off and went quiet. An echo of the fright and panic he had felt in Finlay's office was back. He looked up again. Took a deep breath.

  "I was terrified," he said. "But then the detective told me the guy was dead. He'd been shot. I got scared because if they had killed him, they might kill me, too. I can't really tell you why. But there's a link, like you worked out. If they got that particular guy, does that mean they are going to get me too? Or doesn't it? I had to think it out. I didn't even know for sure who had killed the guy. But then the detective told me about the violence. Did he tell you about that?"

  I nodded.

  "The injuries?" I said. "Sounded pretty unpleasant. "

  "Right," Hubble said. "And it proves it was who I thought it was. So I was really scared. I was thinking, are they looking for me too? Or aren't they? I just didn't know.

  I was terrified. I thought for ages. It was going around and around in my head. The detective was going crazy. I didn't say anything because I was thinking. Seemed like hours. I was terrified, you know?"

  He fell back into silence. He was running it through his head again. Probably for the thousandth time. Trying to figure out if his decision had been the right one.

  "I suddenly figured out what to do," he said. "I had three problems. If they were after me too, I had to avoid them. Hide, you know? To protect myself. But if they weren't after me, then I had to stay silent, right? To protect my wife and kids. And from their point of view that particular guy needed shooting. Three problems. So I confessed. "

  I didn't follow his reasoning. Didn't make much sense, the way he was explaining it to me. I looked blankly at him.

  "Three separate problems, right?" he said. "I decided to get arrested. Then I was safe if they were after me. Because they can't get at me in here, right? They're out there and I'm in here. That's problem number one solved. But I also figured, this is the complicated bit, if they actually were not after me at all, then why don't I get arrested but don't say anything about them? They would think I had got arrested by mistake or whatever, and they see that I'm not talking. They see, OK? It proves I'm safe. It's like a demonstration that I'm dependable. A sort of proof. Trial by ordeal sort of a thing. That's problem number two solved. And by saying it was me actually killed the guy, it sort of definitely puts me on their side. It's like a statement of loyalty, right? And I thought they might be grateful I'd pointed the heat in the wrong direction for a while. So that was problem number three solved. "

  I stared at him. No wonder he had clammed up and thought like crazy for forty minutes when he was in with Finlay. Three birds with one stone. That's what he had been aiming for.

  The part about proving he could be trusted not to spill his guts was OK. Whoever they were, they would notice that. A spell in jail without talking was a rite of passage. A badge of honor. Counted for a lot. Good thinking, Hubble.

  Unfortunately the other part was pretty shaky. They couldn't get to him in here? He had to be joking. No better place in the world to ace a guy than prison. You know where he is, you've got all the time you need. Lots of people who'll do it for you. Lots of opportunity. Cheap, too. On the street, a hit would cost you what? A grand, two grand? Plus a risk. Inside, it costs you a carton of cigarettes. Plus no risk. Because nobody would notice. No, prison was not a safe hiding place. Bad thinking, Hubble. And there was another flaw, too.

  "What are you going to do on Monday?" I asked him. "You'll be back home, doing whatever you do. You'll be walking around Margrave or Atlanta or wherever it is you walk around. If they're after you, won't they get you then?"

  He started up with the thinking again. Going at it like crazy. He hadn't thought very far ahead before. Yesterday
afternoon it had been blind panic. Deal with the present. Not a bad principle. Except pretty soon the future rolls in and that needs dealing with, too.

  "I'm just hoping for the best," Hubble said. "I sort of felt if they wanted to get me, they might cool off after a while. I'm very useful to them. I hope they'll think about that. Right now it's a very tense situation. But it's all going to calm back down very soon. I might just make it through. If they get me, they get me. I don't care anymore. It's my family I'm worried about. "

  He stopped and shrugged. Blew a sigh. Not a bad guy. He hadn't set out to be some big criminal. It had crept up on the blind side. Sucked him in so gently he hadn't noticed. Until he wanted out. If he was very lucky they wouldn't break all his bones until after he was dead.

  "How much does your wife know?" I asked him.

  He glanced over. An expression of horror on his face.

  "Nothing," he said. "Nothing at all. I haven't told her anything. Not a thing. I couldn't. It's all my secret. Nobody else knows a thing. "

  "You'll have to tell her something," I said. "She's sure to have noticed you're not at home, vacuuming the pool or whatever you do on the weekend. "

  I was just trying to lighten it up, but it didn't work out. Hubble went quiet. Misting over again at the thought of his backyard in the early fall sunlight. His wife maybe fussing over rosebushes or whatever. His kids darting about shrieking. Maybe they had a dog. And a three-car garage with European sedans waiting to be hosed off. A basketball hoop over the middle door waiting for the nine-year-old to grow strong enough to dunk the heavy ball. A flag over the porch. Early leaves waiting to be swept. Family life on a Saturday. But not this Saturday. Not for this guy.

  "Maybe she'll think it's all a mistake," he said. "Maybe they've told her, I don't know. We know one of the policemen, Dwight Stevenson. My brother married his wife's sister. I don't know what he'll have said to her. I guess I'll deal with that on Monday. I'll say it was some kind of terrible mistake. She'll believe it. Everybody knows mistakes are made. "

  He was thinking out loud.

  "Hubble?" I said. "What did the tall guy do to them that was liable to get himself shot in the head?"

  He stood up and leaned on the wall. Rested his foot on the edge of the steel toilet pan. Looked at me. Wouldn't answer. Now for the big question.

  "What about you?" I asked him. "What have you done to them liable to get yourself shot in the head?"

  He wouldn't answer. The silence in our cell was terrible. I let it crash around for a while. Couldn't think of anything more to say. Hubble clunked his shoe against the metal toilet pan. A rattly little rhythm. Sounded like a Bo Diddley riff.

  "You ever heard of Blind Blake?" I asked him.

  He stopped clunking and looked up.

  "Who?" he said blankly.

  "Doesn't matter," I said. "I'm going to find a bathroom. I need to put a wet towel on my head. It hurts. "

  "I'm not surprised," he said. "I'll come with you. "

  He was anxious not to be left alone. Understandable. I was going to be his minder for the weekend. Not that I had any other plans.

  WE WALKED DOWN THE CELL ROW TO A KIND OF OPEN AREA at the end. I saw the fire door Spivey had used the night before. Beyond it was a tiled opening. Over the opening was a clock. Nearly twelve noon. Clocks in prisons are bizarre. Why measure hours and minutes when people think in years and decades?

  The tiled entrance was clogged with men. I pushed through and Hubble followed. It was a large tiled room, square. A strong disinfectant stink. One wall had the doorway. On the left was a row of shower stalls. Open. The back wall was a row of toilet cubicles. Open at the front, divided by waist-high partitions. The right wall was a row of washbasins. Very communal. Not a big deal if you'd been in the army all your life, but Hubble wasn't happy. Not what he was used to at all.

  All the fittings were steel. Everything that would normally be porcelain was stainless-steel. For safety. A smashed-up porcelain washbasin yields some pretty good shards. A decent-sized sharp piece would make a good weapon. For the same reason the mirrors over the basins were sheets of polished steel. A bit dull, but fit for the purpose. You could see yourself in them, but you couldn't smash them up and stab somebody with a fragment.

  I stepped over to a basin and ran cold water. Took a wad of paper towels from the dispenser and soaked them. Held them to my bruised forehead. Hubble stood around doing nothing. I kept the cold towels on for a while and then took some more. Water ran down my face. Felt good. There was no real injury. No flesh there, just skin over solid bone. Not much to injure, and impossible to break. A perfect arch, nature's strongest structure. That's why I avoid hitting anything with my hands. Hands are pretty fragile. All kinds of small bones and tendons in there. A punch big enough to deck that Red Boy would have smashed my hand up pretty good. I'd have joined him in the hospital. Not much point in that.

  I patted my face dry and leaned up close to the steel mirror to check out the damage. Not bad. I combed my hair with my fingers. As I leaned against the sink I could feel the sunglasses in my pocket. The Red Boy's shades. The spoils of victory. I took them out and put them on. Gazed at my dull reflection.

  As I messed about in front of the steel mirror I saw the start of some kind of a commotion happening behind me. I heard a brief warning from Hubble and I turned around. The sunglasses dimmed the bright light. Five white guys were trawling across the room. Biker types. Orange suits, of course, more torn-off sleeves, but with black leather additions. Caps, belts, fingerless gloves. Big beards. All five were big, heavy men, with that hard, slabby fat which is almost muscle but not quite. All five had crude tattoos on their arms and their faces. Swastikas. On their cheeks under their eyes and on their foreheads. The Aryan Brotherhood. White trash prison gang.

  As the five swept the room, the other occupants melted away. Any who didn't get the message were seized and hustled to the door. Thrown out into the corridor. Even the soapy naked guys from the shower stalls. Within seconds the big bathroom was empty. Except for the five bikers and Hubble and me. The five big men fanned out in a loose arc around us. These were big ugly guys. The swastika tattoos on their faces were scratched in. Roughly inked.

  My assumption was they'd come to recruit me. Somehow hijack the fact that I'd knocked over a Red Boy. Claim my bizarre celebrity for their cause. Turn it into a race triumph for the Brotherhood. But I was wrong. My assumption was way out. So I was left unprepared. The guy in the middle of the five was looking back and forth between Hubble and me. His eyes flicked across. They stopped on me.

  "OK, he's the one," he said. Looking straight at me.

  Two things happened. The end two bikers grabbed Hubble and ran him to the door. And the boss man swung a big fist at my face. I saw it late. Dodged left and it caught me on the shoulder. I was spun around by the blow. Grabbed from behind by the neck. Two huge hands at my throat. Strangling me. The boss man lined up for another shot at my gut. If it landed, I was a dead man. I knew that much. So I leaned back and kicked out. Smashed the boss man's balls like I was trying to punt a football right out of the stadium. The big Oxford shoe crunched him real good. The welt hit him like a blunt ax.

  My shoulders were hunched and I was pumping up my neck to resist the strangler. He was wrenching hard. I was losing it. I reached up and broke his little fingers. I heard the knuckles splinter over the roaring in my ears. Then I broke his ring fingers. More splintering. Like pulling a chicken apart. He let go.

  The third guy waded in. He was a solid mountain of lard. Sheathed with heavy slabs of meat. Like armor. Nowhere to hit him. He was pounding me with short jabs to the arm and chest. I was jammed back between two sinks. The mountain of lard pressing up. Nowhere to hit him. Except his eyes. I jammed my thumb into his eye. Hooked the tips of my fingers in his ear and squeezed. My thumbnail popped his eyeball sideways. I pushed my thumb in. His eyeball was nearly out. He was screaming and pulling on my wrist. I hel
d on.

  The boss man was up on one knee. I kicked hard at his face. Missed. Caught him in the throat instead. Smashed his voice box. He went back down. I went for the big guy's other eye. Missed. I held on with my thumb. Like pushing it through a bloody steak. He went down. I spun away from the wall. The guy with the broken fingers ran for the door. The guy with the eye out was flopping about on the floor. Screaming. The boss man was choking on his smashed voice box.

  I was grabbed from behind again. I twisted away. A Red Boy. Two of them. I was dizzy. I was going to lose it now. But they just grabbed me and ran me to the door. Sirens were going off.

  "Get out of here, man," screamed the Red Boys over the sirens. "This is ours. We did this. Understand? Red Boys did this. We'll take the fall, man. "

  They hurled me into the crowd outside. I understood. They were going to say they did it. Not because they wanted to protect me from the blame. Because they wanted to claim the credit. A race victory.

  I saw Hubble bouncing around in the crowd. I saw guards. I saw hundreds of men. I saw Spivey. I grabbed Hubble and we hustled back to the cell. Sirens were blasting. Guards were tumbling out of a door. I could see shotguns and clubs. Boots clattered. Shouting and screaming. Sirens. We raced to the cell. Fell inside. I was dizzy and panting. I had taken a battering. The sirens were deafening. Couldn't talk. I splashed water on my face. The sunglasses were gone. Must have fallen off.

  I heard screaming at the door. I turned and saw Spivey. He was screaming at us to get out. He rushed into the cell. I grabbed my coat from the bunk. Spivey seized Hubble by the elbow. Then he grabbed me and straight-armed both of us out of there. He was screaming at us to run. Sirens were blasting. He ran us to the emergency door where the guards had rushed out. Shoved us through and ran us upstairs. Up and up. My lungs were giving out. There was a door at the top of the last flight painted with a big figure six. We crashed through. He hustled us down a row of cells. Shoved us into an empty cell and flung the iron gate shut. It crashed and locked. He ran off. I collapsed on the bed, eyes tight shut.

  WHEN I OPENED THEM AGAIN HUBBLE WAS SITTING ON A bed looking over at me. We were in a big cell. Probably twice as wide as the last one. Two separate beds, one on each side. A sink, a john. A wall of bars. Everything was brighter and cleaner. It was very quiet. The air smelled better. This was the holding floor. This was floor six. This was where we should have been all the time.

  "What the hell happened to you in there?" Hubble asked.

  I just shrugged at him. A meal cart appeared outside our cell. It was dragged by an old white guy. Not a guard, some kind of an orderly. Looked more like an old steward on an ocean liner. He passed a tray through an oblong slot in the bars. Covered plates, paper cups, Thermos. We ate the food sitting on our beds. I drank all the coffee. Then I paced the cell. Shook the gate. It was locked. The sixth floor was calm and quiet. A big clean cell. Separate beds. A mirror. Towels. I felt much better up here.

  Hubble piled the meal debris on the tray and shoved it out under the gate into the corridor. He lay down on his bed. Put his hands behind his head. Stared at the ceiling. Doing time. I did the same. But I was thinking hard. Because they had definitely gone through a selection process. They had looked us both over very carefully and chosen me. Quite definitely chosen me. Then they had tried to strangle me.

  They would have killed me. Except for one thing. The guy with his hands around my throat had made a mistake. He had me from behind, which was in his favor, and he was big enough and strong enough. But he hadn't balled up his fingers. The best way is to use the thumbs on the back of the neck but fold up the fingers. Do it with knuckle pressure, not finger pressure. The guy had left his fingers out straight. So I had been able to reach up and snap them off. His mistake had saved my life. No doubt about that. Soon as he was neutralized, it was two against one. And I'd never had a problem with those kind of odds.

  But it was still a straightforward attempt to kill me. They came in, chose me, tried to kill me. And Spivey had just happened to be outside the bathroom. He had set it up. He had employed the Aryan Brotherhood to kill me. He had ordered the attack and waited ready to burst in and find me dead.

  And he had planned it yesterday before ten in the evening. That was clear. That's why he had left us on the wrong floor. On the third, not the sixth. On a convict floor, not the holding floor. Everybody had known we should have been on the holding floor. The two guards last night in the reception bunker, they had been totally clear about it. It had said so on their battered clipboard. But at ten o'clock, Spivey had left us on the third floor where he knew he could have me killed. He'd told the Aryans to attack me at twelve o'clock the next day. He had been waiting outside that bathroom at twelve o'clock ready to burst in. Ready to see my body lying on the tiles.

  But then his plan had fouled up. I wasn't killed. The Aryans were beaten off. The Red Boys had piled in to seize the moment. Mayhem had broken out. A riot was starting. Spivey was panicking. He hit the alarms and called the crash squads. Rushed us off the floor, up to the sixth, and left us up here. According to all the paperwork, the sixth floor is where we'd been all the time.

  A neat fallback. It made me fireproof as far as investigation went. Spivey had chosen the fallback option which said we were never there. He had a couple of serious injuries on his hands, probably even a dead guy. I figured the boss man must have choked to death. Spivey must know I had done it. But he could never say so now. Because according to him, I was never there.

  I lay on the bed and stared at the concrete ceiling. I exhaled gently. The plan was clear. No doubt about Spivey's plan at all. The fallback was coherent. An aborted plan with a neat fallback position. But why? I didn't understand it. Let's say the strangler had balled up his fingers. They would have got me then. I would have been dead. Dumped on the bathroom floor with my big swollen tongue sticking out. Spivey would have rushed in and found me. Why? What was Spivey's angle? What did he have against me? I'd never seen him before. Never been anywhere near him or his damn prison. Why the hell should he operate an elaborate plan to get me dead? I couldn't begin to figure it out.

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