The affair, p.7
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       The Affair, p.7
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         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Chapter Seven

  20

  Elizabeth Deveraux said nothing more. She just climbed into her Caprice and drove away. She pulled a wide U-turn in front of me and headed north, back to town. I lost sight of her after the first curve. I stood still for a long moment and then set off walking. Ten minutes later I was through the last of the rural meanders and the road widened and straightened in front of me. Main Street, in fact as well as name. Some daytime activity was starting up. The stores were opening. I saw two cars and two pedestrians. But that was all. Carter Crossing was no kind of a bustling metropolis. That was for damn sure.

  I walked on the right-hand sidewalk and passed the hardware store, and the pharmacy, and the hotel, and the diner, and the empty space next to it. Deveraux's car was not parked in the Sheriff's Department lot. No police vehicles were. There were two civilian pick-up trucks there, both of them old and battered and modest. The desk clerk and the dispatcher, presumably. Locally recruited, no union, no benefits. I thought again about my friend Stan Lowrey and his want ads. He would aim higher, I guessed. He would have to. He had girlfriends. Plural. He had mouths to feed.

  I made it to the T-junction and turned right. In the daylight the road speared dead straight ahead of me. Narrow shoulders, deep ditches. The traffic lanes banked up and over the rail crossing and then the shoulders and the ditches resumed and the road ran onward through the trees.

  There was a truck parked my side of the crossing. Facing me. A big, blunt-nosed thing. Brush-painted in a dark color. Two guys in it. Staring at me. Fur, ink, hair, dirt, grease.

  My two pals, from the night before.

  I walked on, not fast, not slow, just strolling. I got within about twenty yards. Close enough for me to see detail in their faces. Close enough for them to see detail in mine.

  This time they got out of their truck. The doors opened as one and they climbed out and down. They skirted the hood and stood together in front of the grille. Same height, same build. Like cousins. They were each about six-two and around two hundred or two hundred and ten pounds. They had long knotted arms and big hands. Work boots on their feet.

  I walked on. I stopped ten feet away. I could smell them from there. Beer, cigarettes, rancid sweat, dirty clothes.

  The guy on my right said, "Hello again, soldier boy. "

  He was the alpha dog. Both times he had been driving, and both times he was the first to speak. Unless the other guy was some kind of a silent mastermind, which seemed unlikely.

  I said nothing, of course.

  The guy asked, "Where are you going?"

  I didn't answer.

  The guy said, "You're going to Kelham. I mean, where the hell else does this road go?"

  He turned and swept his arm through an extravagant gesture, indicating the road, and its relentless straightness, and its lack of alternative destinations. He turned back and said, "Last night you told us you weren't from Kelham. You lied to us. "

  I said, "Maybe I live on that side of town. "

  "No," the guy said. "If you'd tried living on that side of town, we'd have visited you before. "

  "For what purpose?"

  "To explain the facts of life. Different places are for different folks. " He came a little closer. His buddy came with him. The smell grew stronger.

  I said, "You guys need to take a bath. Not necessarily together. "

  The guy on my right asked, "What have you been doing this morning?"

  I said, "You don't want to know. "

  "Yes, we do. "

  "No, you really don't. "

  "You're not welcome here. Not anymore. None of you. "

  "It's a free country," I said.

  "Not for people like you. " Then he paused, and his gaze suddenly shifted and focused into the far distance over my shoulder. The oldest trick in the book. Except this time he wasn't faking. I didn't turn, but I heard a car on the road behind me. Far away. A big car, quiet, with wide highway tires. Not a cop car, because no recognition dawned in the guy's eyes. No familiarity. It was a car he hadn't seen before. A car he couldn't explain.

  I waited and it swept past us. It was going fast. It was a black town car. Urban. Dark windows. It thumped up the rise, pattered across the tracks, and thumped back down again. Then it kept on going straight. A minute later it was tiny in the haze. Effectively lost to sight.

  An official visitor, heading to Kelham. Rank and prestige.

  Or panic.

  The guy on my right said, "You need to get back on the base. And then stay there. "

  I said nothing.

  "But first you need to tell us what you've been doing. And who you've been seeing. Maybe we should go check she's still alive. "

  I said, "I'm not from Kelham. "

  The guy took a step forward.

  He said, "Liar. "

  I took a breath and made like I was going to speak. Then I head-butted the guy full in the face. No warning. I just braced my feet and snapped forward from the waist and crashed my forehead into his nose. Bang. It was perfectly done. Timing, force, impact. It was all there in full measure. Plus surprise. No one expects a head butt. Humans don't hit things with their heads. Some inbuilt atavistic instinct says so. A head butt changes the game. It adds a kind of unhinged savagery to the mix. An unprovoked head butt is like bringing a sawed-off shotgun to a knife fight.

  The guy went down like an empty suit. His brain told his knees it was out of business and he folded up and fell over backward. He was unconscious before he hit the floor. I could tell by the way the back of his head hit the road. No attempt to soften the blow. It just smacked down with a thud. Maybe he added some fractures in back, to match the ones I had given him in front. His nose was bleeding badly. It was already starting to swell. The human body is a self-healing machine, and it doesn't waste time.

  The other guy just stood there. The silent mastermind. Or the beta dog. He was staring at me. I took a long step to my left and head-butted him too. Bang. Like a double bluff. He was completely unprepared. He was expecting a fist. He went down in the same kind of heap. I left him there, on his back, six feet from his buddy. I would have taken their truck, to save myself some time and effort, but I couldn't stand the stink in the cab. So I walked on, to the railroad track, where I turned left on the ties and headed north.

  I came off the track a little earlier than I had the night before and traced the wreck's debris field from its very beginning. The smaller and lighter pieces had traveled shorter distances. Less momentum, I supposed. Less kinetic energy. Or more air resistance. Or something. But the smaller beads of glass and the smaller flakes of metal were the first to be found. They had stalled and fluttered and fallen to earth and come to rest well before the heavier items, which had barreled onward.

  It had been a fairly old car. The collision had exploded it, like a diagram, but some parts hadn't put up much of a fight. There were squares and flakes of rust, from the underbody. They were layered and scaly and caked with dirt.

  An old car, with significant time spent in cold climates where they salt the roads in winter. Not a Mississippi native. A car that had been hauled from pillar to post, six months here, six months there, regularly, unpredictably.

  A soldier's car, probably.

  I walked on and turned and tried to gauge the general vector. Debris had sprayed through a fan shape, narrow at first, widening later. I pictured a license plate, a small rectangle of thin featherweight alloy, bursting free of its bolts, sailing through the nighttime air, stalling, falling, maybe end over end. I tried to figure out where it might have landed. I couldn't see it anywhere, not inside the fan shape, not on its edges, not beyond its edges. Then I remembered the howling gale that had accompanied the train, and I widened my area of search. I pictured the plate caught in a miniature tornado, whipping and spiraling through the roiled air, going high, maybe even going backward.

  In the end I found it still attached to the chrome bumper I had seen
the night before. The bumper had folded up just left of the plate, and made a point, which had half buried itself in the scrub. Like a spear. I rocked it loose and pulled it out and turned it over and saw the plate hanging from a single black bolt.

  It was an Oregon plate. It featured a drawing of a salmon behind the number. Some kind of a wildlife initiative. Protect the natural environment. The tags were current and up to date. I memorized the number and reburied the bent bumper in its hole. Then I walked on, to where the bulk of the wreck had burned against the trees.

  By bright daylight I agreed with Pellegrino. The car had been blue, a light powdery shade like a winter sky. Maybe it had started life that way, or maybe it had faded a little with age. But either way I found enough unblemished paint to be sure. There was an intact patch inside what had been the glove box. There was an overspray stripe under melted plastic trim inside one of the doors. Not much else had survived. No personal items. No paperwork of any kind. No discarded material. No hairs, no fibers. No ropes, no belts, no straps, no knives.

  I wiped my hands on my pants and walked back the way I had come. The two guys and their truck had gone. I guessed the silent mastermind had woken up first. The beta dog. I had hit him less hard. I guessed he had hauled his buddy into the truck and taken off, slow and shaky. No harm done. No major harm, anyway. Nothing permanent. For him, at least. The other one would have a headache, for six months or so.

  I stood on the spot where they had gone down and saw another black car coming toward me from the west. Another town car, fast and purposeful, wallowing and wandering a little on the uneven road. It had a good wax shine and black window glass. It blew past me at speed, thumped up, pattered over the rail line, thumped down again, and rushed onward toward Kelham. I turned and watched it, and then I turned back and started walking again. No particular place to go, except I was hungry by that point, so I headed for Main Street and the diner. The place was empty. I was the only customer. The same waitress was on duty. She met me at the hostess station and asked, "Is your name Jack Reacher?"

  I said, "Yes, ma'am, it is. "

  She said, "There was a woman in here an hour ago, looking for you. "

  21

  The waitress was a typical eyewitness. She was completely unable to describe the woman who had been looking for me. Tall, short, heavy, slender, old, young, she had no reliable recollection. She hadn't gotten a name. She had formed no impression of the woman's status or profession or her relationship to me. She hadn't seen a car or any other mode of transportation. All she could remember was a smile and the question. Was there a new guy in town, very big, very tall, answering to the name Jack Reacher?

  I thanked her for the information and she sat me at my usual table. I ordered a piece of pie and a cup of coffee and I asked her for coins for the phone. She opened the register and gave me a wrapped roll of quarters in exchange for a ten dollar bill. She brought my coffee and told me my pie would be right along in a moment. I walked across the silent room to the phone by the door and split the roll with my thumbnail and dialed Garber's office. He answered the phone himself, instantly.

  I asked, "Have you sent another agent down here?"

  "No," he said. "Why?"

  "There's a woman asking for me by name. "

  "Who?"

  "I don't know who. She hasn't found me yet. "

  "Not one of mine," Garber said.

  "And I saw two cars heading for Kelham. Limousines. DoD or politicians, probably. "

  "Is there a difference?"

  I asked, "Have you heard anything from Kelham?"

  "Nothing about the Department of Defense or politicians," he said. "I heard that Munro is pursuing something medical. "

  "Medical? Like what?"

  "I don't know. Is there a medical dimension here?"

  "With a potential perpetrator? Not that I've seen. Apart from the gravel rash question I asked before. The victim is covered in it. The perp should have some too. "

  "They've all got gravel rash. Apparently there's some crazy running track there. They run till they drop. "

  "Even Bravo Company right after they get back?"

  "Especially Bravo Company right after they get back. There's some serious self-image at work there. These are seriously hard men. Or so they like to think. "

  "I got the license plate off the wreck. Light blue car, from Oregon. " I recited the number from memory, and I heard him write it down.

  He said, "Call me back in ten minutes. Don't speak to a soul before that. No one, OK? Not a word. "

  I ignored the letter of the law by speaking to the waitress. I thanked her for my pie and coffee. She hung around a beat longer than she needed to. She had something on her mind. Turned out she was worried she might have gotten me in trouble by telling a stranger she had seen me. She was prepared to feel guilty about it. I got the impression Carter Crossing was the kind of place where private business stayed private. Where a small slice of the population didn't want to be found.

  I told her not to worry. By that point I was pretty sure who the mystery woman was. A process of elimination. Who else had the information and the imagination to find me?

  The pie was good. Blueberries, pastry, sugar, and cream. Nothing healthy. No vegetable matter. It hit the spot. I took the full ten minutes to eat it, a little at a time. I finished my coffee. Then I walked over to the phone again and called Garber back.

  He said, "We traced the car. "

  I said, "And?"

  "And what?"

  "Whose is it?"

  He said, "I can't tell you that. "

  "Really?"

  "Classified information, as of five minutes ago. "

  "Bravo Company, right?"

  "I can't tell you that. I can't confirm or deny. Did you write the number down?"

  "No. "

  "Where's the plate?"

  "Where I found it. "

  "Who have you told?"

  "Nobody. "

  "You sure?"

  "Completely. "

  "OK," Garber said. "Here are your orders. Firstly, do not, repeat, do not give that number to local law enforcement. Not under any circumstances. Secondly, return to the wreck and destroy that plate immediately. "

  22

  I obeyed the first part of Garber's order, by not immediately rushing around to the Sheriff's Department and passing on the news. I disobeyed the second part, by not immediately rushing back to the debris field. I just sat in the diner and drank coffee and thought. I wasn't even sure how to destroy a license plate. Burning it would conceal the state of origin, but not the number itself, which was embossed. In the end I figured I could fold it twice and stamp it flat and bury it.

  But I didn't go do that. I just sat there. I figured if I sat in a diner long enough, drinking coffee, my mystery woman would surely find me.

  Which she did, five minutes later.

  I saw her before she saw me. I was looking out at a bright street, and she was looking in at a dim room. She was on foot. She was wearing black pants and black leather shoes, a black T-shirt, and a leather jacket the color and texture of an old baseball glove. She was carrying a briefcase made of the same kind of material. She was lean and lithe and limber, and she seemed to be moving slower than the rest of the world, like fit strong people always do. Her hair was still dark, still cut short, and her face was still full of fast intelligence and rapid glances. Frances Neagley, First Sergeant, United States Army. We had worked together many times, tough cases and easy, long hauls and short. She was as close to a friend as I had, back in 1997, and I hadn't seen her in more than a year.

  She came in scanning for the waitress, ready to ask for an update. She saw me at my table and changed course immediately. No surprise in her face. Just fast assimilation of new information, and satisfaction that her method had worked. She knew the state and she knew the town, and she knew I drank a lot of coffee, and therefore a diner was where she would find me.
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  I used my toe and poked the facing chair out, like Deveraux had twice done for me. Neagley sat down, smooth and easy. She put her briefcase on the floor by her feet. No greeting, no salute, no handshake, no peck on the cheek. There were two things people needed to understand about Neagley. Despite her personal warmth she couldn't bear to be physically touched, and despite her considerable talents she refused to become an officer. She had never given reasons for either thing. Some folks thought she was smart, and some folks thought she was crazy, but all agreed that with Neagley, no one would ever know for sure.

  "Ghost town," she said.

  "The base is closed," I said.

  "I know. I'm up to speed. Closing the base was their first mistake. It's as good as a confession. "

  "Story is, they were worried about tension with the town. "

  Neagley nodded. "Wouldn't take much to start some, either way around. I saw the street behind this one. All those stores, lined up like a row of teeth, facing the base? Very predatory. Our people must be sick of getting laughed at and ripped off. "

  "Seen anything else?"

  "Everything. I've been here two hours. "

  "How are you, anyway?"

  "We have no time for social chit-chat. "

  "What do you need?"

  "Nothing," she said. "It's you that needs. "

  "What do I need?"

  "You need to get a damn clue," she said. "This is a suicide mission, Reacher. Stan Lowrey called me. He's worried. So I asked around. And Lowrey was right. You should have turned this whole thing down. "

  "I'm in the army," I said. "I go where I'm told. "

  "I'm in the army too. But I avoid sticking my head in a noose. "

  "Kelham is the noose. Munro is the one risking his neck. I'm on the sidelines here. "

  "I don't know Munro," she said. "Never met him. Never even heard of him before. But dollars to doughnuts he'll do what he's told. He'll cover it up and swear black is white. But you won't. "

  "A woman was killed. We can't ignore that. "

  "Three women were killed. "

  "You know about that already?"

  "I told you, I've been here two hours. I'm up to speed. "

  "How did you find out?"

  "I met the sheriff. Chief Deveraux herself. "

  "When?"

  "She dropped by her office. I happened to be there. I was asking for you. "

  "And she told you stuff?"

  "I gave her the look. "

  "What look?"

  Neagley blinked and composed herself and then tilted her face down a little and looked up at me, her eyes on mine, her eyes open wide and serious and frank and sympathetic and understanding and encouraging, her lips parted a fraction as if imminently ready to exhale a murmur of absolute empathy, her whole demeanor astonished and marveling at how bravely I was bearing the many heavy burdens my lot in life had brought me. She said, "This is the look. Works great with women. Kind of conspiratorial, right? Like we're in the same boat?"

  I nodded. It was a hell of a look. But I found myself disappointed that Deveraux had fallen for it. Some damn jarhead she was. I asked, "What else did she tell you?"

  "Something about a car. She's assuming it's critical to the case and that it belonged to a Kelham guy. "

  "She's right. I just found the plate. Garber ran it and told me to sit on it. "

  "And are you going to?"

  "I don't know. Might not be a lawful order. "

  "See what I mean? You're going to commit suicide. I knew it. I'm going to stick around and keep you out of trouble. That's why I came. "

  "Aren't you deployed?"

  "I'm in D. C. At a desk. They won't miss me for a day or two. "

  I shook my head.

  "No," I said. "I don't need help. I know what I'm doing. I know how the game is played. I won't sell myself cheap. But I don't want to bring you down with me. If that's the way it has to turn out. "

  "Nothing has to turn out any which way, Reacher. It's a choice. "

  "You don't really believe that. "

  She made a face. "At least pick your battles. "

  "I always do. And this one is as good as any. "

  At that point the waitress came out of the kitchen. She saw me, saw Neagley, recognized her from before, saw that we weren't rolling around on the floor tearing each other's eyes out, and her earlier guilt evaporated. She refilled my coffee mug. Neagley ordered tea, Lipton's breakfast blend, water properly boiling. We sat in silence until the order was filled. Then the waitress went away again and Neagley said, "Chief Deveraux is a very beautiful woman. "

  I said, "I agree. "

  "Have you slept with her yet?"

  "Certainly not. "

  "Are you going to?"

  "I guess I can dream. Hope dies last, right?"

  "Don't. There's something wrong with her. "

  "Like what?"

  "She doesn't care. She's got three unsolved homicides and her pulse is as slow as a bear in winter. "

  "She was a Marine MP. She's been digging the same ditch we have, all her life. How excited do you get about three dead people?"

  "I get professionally excited. "

  "She thinks a Kelham guy did it. Therefore she has no jurisdiction. Therefore she has no role. Therefore she can't get professionally excited. "

  "Whatever, there's a bad vibe there. That's all I'm saying. Trust me. "

  "Don't worry. "

  "I mentioned your name and she looked at me like you owe her money. "

  "I don't. "

  "Then she's crazy about you. I could tell. "

  "You say that about every woman I meet. "

  "But this time it's true. I mean it. Her cold little heart was going pitter patter. Be warned, OK?"

  "Thanks anyway," I said. "But I don't need a big sister on this occasion. "

  "Which reminds me," she said. "Garber is asking about your brother. "

  "My brother?"

  "Scuttlebutt on the sergeants' network. Garber has put a watch on your office, for notes or calls from your brother. He wants to know if you're in regular contact. "

  "Why would he?"

  "Money," Neagley said. "That's all I can think of. Your brother is still at Treasury, right? Maybe there's a financial issue with Kosovo. Got to be warlords and gangsters over there. Maybe Bravo Company is bringing money home for them. You know, laundering it. Or stealing it. "

  "How would that tie in with a woman named Janice May Chapman, from the armpit of Mississippi?"

  "Maybe she found out. Maybe she wanted some for herself. Maybe she was a Bravo Company girlfriend. "

  I didn't reply.

  "Last chance," Neagley said. "Do I stay or do I go?"

  "Go," I said. "This is my problem, not yours. Live long and prosper. "

  "Parting gift," she said. She leaned down and opened her briefcase and came out with a slim green file folder. It was printed on the outside with the words Carter County Sheriff's Department. She laid it on the table and put her hand flat on it, ready to slide it across. She said, "You'll find this interesting. "

  I asked, "What is it?"

  "Photographs of the three dead women. They've all got something in common. "

  "Deveraux gave this to you?"

  "Not exactly. She left it unattended. "

  "You stole it?"

  "Borrowed it. You can return it when you're done. I'm sure you'll find a way. " She slid the file across to me, she stood up, and she walked away. No handshake, no kiss, no touch. I watched her push out through the door, watched her turn right on Main Street, and watched her disappear.

  The waitress heard the door as Neagley left. Maybe there was a repeater bell in the kitchen. She came out to check if there was a new arrival and saw that there wasn't. She contented herself with refilling my mug for the second time, and then she went back to the kitchen. I squared the green file in front of me and opened it up.
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  Three women. Three victims. Three photographs, all taken in the last weeks or months of their lives. Nothing sadder. Cops ask for a recent likeness, and distraught relatives scurry to choose from what they have. Usually they come up with joy and smiles, prom pictures or studio portraits or vacation snapshots, because joy and smiles are what they want to remember. They want the long grim record to start with life and energy.

  Janice May Chapman had showed plenty of both. Her photograph was a waist-up color shot taken at what looked like a party. She was half-turned toward the camera, looking directly into the lens, smiling in the first seconds of spontaneity. A well-timed click. The photographer had not caught her unawares, but neither had he made her pose too long.

  Pellegrino had been wrong. He had called her real pretty, but that was like calling America fairly big. Real pretty was a serious underestimate. In life Chapman had been absolutely spectacular. It was hard to imagine a more beautiful woman. Hair, eyes, face, smile, shoulders, figure, everything. Janice May Chapman had had it all going on, that was for sure.

  I shuffled her to the bottom of the pack and looked at the second woman. She had died in November 1996. Four months ago. A note pasted to the bottom corner of the photograph told me so. The photograph was one of those rushed, semi-formal color portraits like you see from a college service at the start of the academic year, or from a hard-worked hack on a cruise ship. A murky canvas background, a stool, a couple of umbrella flashes, three, two, one, pop, thank you. The woman in the picture was black, probably in her middle twenties, and was every bit as spectacular as Janice May Chapman. Maybe even more so. She had flawless skin and the kind of smile that starts the AC running. She had the kind of eyes that start wars. Dark, liquid, radiant. She wasn't looking at the camera. She was looking right through it. Right at me. Like she was sitting across the table.

  The third woman had died in June 1996. Nine months ago. She was also black. Also young. Also spectacular. Truly spectacular. She had been photographed outside, in a yard, in the shade, with late-afternoon light coming off a white clapboard wall and bathing her in its glow. She had a short natural hairstyle and a white blouse with three buttons undone. She had liquid eyes and a shy smile. She had magnificent cheekbones. I just stared. If some white-coated lab guy had fed an IBM supercomputer with all we had ever known about beauty, from Cleopatra to the present day, the circuits would have hummed for an hour and then printed this exact image.

  I moved my mug and laid all three pictures side by side on the table. They've all got something in common, Neagley had said. They were all roughly the same age. Two or three years might have covered them all. But Chapman was white, and the other two were black. Chapman was at least economically comfortable, judging by her dress and her jewelry, and the first black woman looked less so, and the second looked close to marginal, in a rural way, judging by her clothes and her unadorned neck and ears, and by the yard she was sitting in.

  Three lives, lived in close geographic proximity, but separated by vast gulfs. They may never have met or spoken. They may never have even laid eyes on each other. They had absolutely nothing in common.

  Except that all three were amazingly beautiful.

 
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