Killing floor, p.7
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       Killing Floor, p.7

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

  HUBBLE SLEPT FOR A WHILE ON THE COT ACROSS FROM mine. Then he stirred and woke up. Writhed around. Looked disoriented for a moment, until he remembered where he was. Tried to check the time on his watch but saw only a band of pale skin where the heavy Rolex had been. Pushed against the bridge of his nose and remembered he'd lost his eyeglasses. Sighed and flopped his head back onto the striped prison pillow. One very miserable guy.

  I could understand his fear. But he also looked defeated. Like he'd just rolled the dice and lost. Like he'd been counting on something to happen, and it hadn't happened, so now he was back in despair.

  Then I began to understand that, too.

  "The dead guy was trying to help you, wasn't he?" I said.

  The question scared him.

  "I can't tell you that, can I?" he answered.

  "I need to know," I said. "Maybe you approached the guy for help. Maybe you talked to him. Maybe that's why he got killed. Maybe it looks like now you'll start talking to me. Which could get me killed, too. "

  Hubble nodded and rocked back and forth on his bed. Took a deep breath. Looked straight at me.

  "He was an investigator," he said. "I brought him down here because I want this whole thing stopped. I don't want to be involved anymore. I'm not a criminal. I'm scared to death and I want out. He was going to get me out and take down the scam. But he slipped up somehow and now he's dead and I'm never going to get out. And if they find out it was me brought him down here, they'll kill me. And if they don't kill me, I'll probably go to jail for a thousand years anyway, because right now the whole damn thing is very exposed and very dangerous. "

  "Who was the guy?" I asked him.

  "He didn't have a name," Hubble said. "Just a contact code. He said it was safer that way. I can't believe they got him. He seemed like a capable guy to me. Tell the truth, you remind me of him. You seem like a capable guy to me, too. "

  "What was he doing up there at the warehouse?" I asked him.

  He shrugged and shook his head.

  "I don't understand that situation," he said. "I put him together with another guy, and he was meeting with him up there, but wouldn't they have shot the other guy as well? I don't understand why they only got one of them. "

  "Who was the other guy he was meeting with?" I said.

  He stopped and shook his head.

  "I've told you way too much already," he said. "I must be crazy. They'll kill me. "

  "Who's on the inside of this thing?" I asked him.

  "Don't you listen?" he said. "I'm not saying another word. "

  "I don't want names," I said. "Is it a big deal?"

  "It's huge," he said. "Biggest thing you ever heard of. "

  "How many people?" I said.

  He shrugged and thought about it. Counted up in his head.

  "Ten people," he said. "Not counting me. "

  I looked at him and shrugged.

  "Ten people doesn't sound like a big deal," I said.

  "Well, there's hired help," he said. "They're around when they're needed. I mean a core of ten people around here. Ten people in the know, not counting me. It's a very tight situation, but believe me, it's a big deal. "

  "What about the guy you sent to meet with the investigator?" I said. "Is he one of the ten people?"

  Hubble shook his head.

  "I'm not counting him either," he said.

  "So there's you and him and ten others?" I said. "Some kind of a big deal?"

  He nodded glumly.

  "Biggest thing you ever heard of," he said again.

  "And right now it's very exposed?" I asked him. "Why? Because of this investigator poking about?"

  Hubble shook his head again. He was writhing around like my questions were tearing him up.

  "No," he said. "For another reason altogether. It's like a window of vulnerability is wide open right now. An exposure. It's been very risky, getting worse all the time. But now it could go either way. If we get through it, nobody will ever know anything. But if we don't get through it, it'll be the biggest sensation you ever heard of, believe me. Either way, it's going to be a close call. "

  I looked at him. He didn't look to me much like the sort of a guy who could cause the biggest sensation I ever heard of.

  "So how long is this exposure going to last?" I asked him.

  "It's nearly over," he said. "Maybe a week. A week tomorrow is my guess. Next Sunday. Maybe I'll live to see it. "

  "So after next Sunday you're not vulnerable anymore?" I said. "Why not? What's going to happen next Sunday?"

  He shook his head and turned his face away. It was like if he couldn't see me, I wasn't there, asking him questions.

  "What does Pluribus mean?" I asked him.

  He wouldn't answer. Just kept on shaking his head. His eyes were screwed shut with terror.

  "Is it a code for something?" I said.

  He wasn't hearing me. The conversation was over. I gave it up and we lapsed back into silence. That suited me well enough. I didn't want to know anything more. I didn't want to know anything at all. Being an outsider and knowing Hubble's business didn't seem to be a very smart combination. It hadn't done the tall guy with the shaved head a whole lot of good. I wasn't interested in sharing the same fate as him, dead at a warehouse gate, partially hidden under some old cardboard, two holes in my head, all my bones smashed. I just wanted to pass the time until Monday, and then get the hell out. By next Sunday, I planned to be a very long way away indeed.

  "OK, Hubble," I said. "No more questions. "

  He shrugged and nodded. Sat silent for a long time. Then he spoke, quietly, with a lot of resignation in his voice.

  "Thanks," he said. "It's better that way. "

  I WAS ROLLED OVER ON THE NARROW COT TRYING TO FLOAT away into some kind of limbo. But Hubble was restless. He was tossing and turning and blowing tight sighs. He was coming close to irritating me again. I turned to face him.

  "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm very uptight. It was doing me good just to talk to somebody. I'd go crazy in here on my own. Can't we talk about something else? What about you? Tell me about yourself. Who are you, Reacher?"

  I shrugged at him.

  "I'm nobody," I said. "Just a guy passing through. I'll be gone on Monday. "

  "Nobody's nobody," he said. "We've all got a story. Tell me. "

  So I talked for a while, lying on my bed, running through the last six months. He lay on his bed, looking at the concrete ceiling, listening, keeping his mind off his problems. I told him about leaving from the Pentagon. Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago. Museums, music, cheap hotels, bars, buses and trains. Solitude. Traveling through the land of my citizenship like a cheap tourist. Seeing most things for the first time. Looking at the history I'd learned in dusty schoolrooms half a world away. Looking at the big things that had shaped the nation. Battlefields, factories, declarations, revolutions. Looking for the small things. Birthplaces, clubs, roads, legends. The big things and the small things which were supposed to represent home. I'd found some of them.

  I told Hubble about the long hop through the endless plains and deltas all the way down from Chicago to New Orleans. Sliding around the Gulf Coast as far as Tampa. Then the Greyhound blasting north toward Atlanta. The crazy decision to bail out near Margrave. The long walk in the rain yesterday morning. Following a whim. Following some half-remembered note from my brother saying he'd been through some little place where Blind Blake might have died over sixty years ago. As I told him about it, I felt pretty stupid. Hubble was scuffling with a nightmare and I was following a meaningless pilgrimage. But he understood the urge.

  "I did that once," he said. "On our honeymoon. We went to Europe. We stopped off in New York and I spent half a day looking for the Dakota building, you know, where John Lennon was shot. Then we spent three days in England walking around Liverpool, looking for the Cav
ern Club. Where the Beatles started out. Couldn't find it. I guess they knocked it down. "

  He talked on for a while. Mostly about traveling. He'd taken plenty of trips with his wife. They'd enjoyed it. Been all over, Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean. All over the States and Canada. Had a great time together.

  "Don't you get lonely?" he asked me. "Traveling on your own all the time?"

  I told him no, I enjoyed it. I told him I appreciated the solitude, the anonymity. Like I was invisible.

  "How do you mean, invisible?" he said. He seemed interested.

  "I travel by road," I said. "Always by road. Walk a bit, and ride the buses. Sometimes trains. Always pay cash. That way there's never a paper trail. No credit card transactions, no passenger manifests, nothing. Nobody could trace me. I never tell anybody my name. If I stay in a hotel, I pay cash and give them a made-up name. "

  "Why?" he said. "Who the hell's after you?"

  "Nobody," I said. "It's just a bit of fun. I like anonymity. I feel like I'm beating the system. And right now, I'm truly pissed at the system. "

  I saw him fall back to thinking. He thought a long time. I could see him deflate as he struggled with the problems that wouldn't go away. I could see his panic come and go like a tide.

  "So give me your advice about Finlay," he said. "When he asks me about the confession, I'll say I was stressed-out because of some business situation. I'll say there was some kind of rivalry, threats against my family. I'll say I don't know anything about the dead guy or anything about the phone number. I'll deny everything. Then I'll just try to settle everything down. What do you think?"

  I thought it sounded like a pretty thin plan.

  "Tell me one thing," I said. "Without giving me any more details, do you perform a useful function for them? Or are you just some kind of onlooker?"

  He pulled on his fingers and thought for a moment.

  "Yes, I perform a useful function for them," he said. "Crucial, even. "

  "And if you weren't there to do it?" I asked him. "Would they have to recruit someone else?"

  "Yes, they would," he said. "And it would be moderately difficult to do that, given the parameters of the function. "

  He was rating his chances of staying alive like he would rate a credit application up at his office.

  "OK," I said. "Your plan is as good as you're going to get. Go for it. "

  I didn't see what else he could do. He was a small cog in some kind of a big operation. But a crucial cog. And nobody wrecks a big operation for no reason. So his future was actually clear-cut. If they ever figured it was him who had brought in the outside investigator, then he was definitely dead. But if they never found that out, then he was definitely safe. Simple as that. I figured he had a good enough chance, because of one very persuasive fact.

  He had confessed because he had thought prison was some kind of a safe sanctuary where they couldn't get him. That had been part of his thinking behind it. It was bad thinking. He'd been wrong. He wasn't safe from attack, quite the reverse. They could have got him if they had wanted to. But the other side of that particular coin was that he hadn't been attacked. As it happened, I had been. Not Hubble. So I figured there was some kind of a proof there that he was OK. They weren't out to get him, because if they had wanted to kill him, they could have killed him by now, and they would have killed him by now. But they hadn't. Even though they were apparently very uptight right now because of some kind of a temporary risk. So it seemed like proof. I began to think he would be OK.

  "Yes, Hubble," I said again. "Go for it, it's the best you can do. "

  The cell stayed locked all day. The floor was silent. We lay on our beds and drifted through the rest of the afternoon. No more talking. We were all talked out. I was bored and wished I had brought that newspaper with me from the Margrave station house. I could have read it all over again. All about the president cutting crime prevention so he could get re-elected. Saving a buck on the Coast Guard today so he could spend ten bucks on prisons like this one tomorrow.

  At about seven the old orderly came by with dinner. We ate. He came back and picked up the tray. We drifted through the empty evening. At ten the power banged off and we were in darkness. Nightfall. I kept my shoes on and slept lightly. Just in case Spivey had any more plans for me.

  AT SEVEN IN THE MORNING THE LIGHTS CAME BACK ON. Sunday. I woke up tired, but I forced myself to get up. Forced myself to do a bit of stretching to ease off my sore body. Hubble was awake, but silent. He was vaguely watching me exercise. Still drifting. Breakfast arrived before eight. The same old guy dragging the meal cart. I ate the breakfast and drank the coffee. As I finished up the flask, the gate lock clunked and sprang the door. I pushed it open and stepped out and bumped into a guard aiming to come in.

  "It's your lucky day," the guard said. "You're getting out. "

  "I am?" I said.

  "You both are," he said. "Reacher and Hubble, released by order of the Margrave PD. Be ready in five minutes, OK?"

  I stepped back into the cell. Hubble had hauled himself up onto his elbows. He hadn't eaten his breakfast. He looked more worried than ever.

  "I'm scared," he said.

  "You'll be OK," I said.

  "Will I?" he said. "Once I'm out of here, they can get to me. "

  I shook my head.

  "It would have been easier for them to get you in here," I said. "Believe me, if they were looking to kill you, you'd be dead by now. You're in the clear, Hubble. "

  He nodded to himself and sat up. I picked up my coat and we stood together outside the cell, waiting. The guard was back within five minutes. He walked us along a corridor and through two sets of locked gates. Put us in a back elevator. Stepped in and used his key to send it down. Stepped out again as the doors began to close.

  "So long," he said. "Don't come back. "

  The elevator took us down to a lobby and then we stepped outside into a hot concrete yard. The prison door sucked shut and clicked behind us. I stood face up to the sun and breathed in the outside air. I must have looked like some guy in a corny old movie who gets released from a year in solitary.

  There were two cars parked in the yard. One was a big dark sedan, an English Bentley, maybe twenty years old, but it looked brand-new. There was a blond woman in it, who I guessed was Hubble's wife, because he was on his way over to her like she was the sweetest sight he ever saw. The other car had Officer Roscoe in it.

  She got out and walked straight over to me. Looked wonderful. Out of uniform. Dressed in jeans and a soft cotton shirt. Leather jacket. Calm intelligent face. Soft dark hair. Huge eyes. I'd thought she was nice on Friday. I'd been right.

  "Hello, Roscoe," I said.

  "Hello, Reacher," she said, and smiled.

  Her voice was wonderful. Her smile was great. I watched it for as long as it lasted, which was a good long time. Ahead of us, the Hubbles drove off in the Bentley, waving. I waved back and wondered how things would turn out for them. Probably I would never know, unless they got unlucky and I happened to read about it in a newspaper somewhere.

  Roscoe and I got into her car. Not really hers, she explained, just a department unmarked she was using. A brand-new Chevrolet something, big, smooth and quiet. She'd kept the motor running and the air on and inside it was cool. We wafted out of the concrete yard and shunted through the wire vehicle cages. Outside the last cage Roscoe spun the wheel and we blasted away down the road. The nose of the car rose up and the back end squatted down on the soft suspension. I didn't look back. I just sat there, feeling good. Getting out of prison is one of life's good feelings. So is not knowing what tomorrow holds. So is cruising silently down a sunny road with a pretty woman at the wheel.

  "SO WHAT HAPPENED?" I SAID AFTER A MILE. "TELL ME. "

  She told me a pretty straightforward story. They'd started work on my alibi late Friday evening. She and Finlay. A dark squad room. A couple of desk lights on. Pads of paper. C
ups of coffee. Telephone books. The two of them cradling phones and chewing pencils. Low voices. Patient enquiries. A scene I'd been in myself a thousand times.

  They'd called Tampa and Atlanta and by midnight they'd gotten hold of a passenger from my bus and the ticket clerk at the Tampa depot. Both of them remembered me. Then they got the bus driver as well. He confirmed he'd stopped at the Margrave cloverleaf to let me out, eight o'clock Friday morning. By midnight my alibi was looking rock solid, just like I'd said it would be.

  Saturday morning, a long fax was in from the Pentagon about my service record. Thirteen years of my life, reduced to a few curling fax pages. It felt like somebody else's life now, but it backed my story. Finlay had been impressed by it. Then my prints came back from the FBI database. They'd been matched by the tireless computer at two thirty in the morning. U. S. Army, printed on induction, thirteen years ago. My alibi was solid, and my background checked out.

  "Finlay was satisfied," Roscoe told me. "You are who you say you are, and midnight Thursday you were over four hundred miles away. That was nailed down. He called the medical examiner again just in case he had a new opinion on the time of death, but no, midnight was still about right. "

  I shook my head. Finlay was one very cautious guy.

  "What about the dead guy?" I said. "Did you run his prints again?"

  She concentrated on passing a farm truck. The first vehicle we'd seen in a quarter hour. Then she looked across and nodded.

  "Finlay told me you wanted me to," she said. "But why?"

  "They came back too quickly for a negative result," I said.

  "Too quickly?" she said.

  "You told me there was a pyramid system, right?" I said. "The top ten, then the top hundred, then the top thousand, all the way down, right?"

  She nodded again.

  "So take me as an example," I said. "I'm in the database, but I'm pretty low down the pyramid. You just said it took fourteen hours to get down to me, right?"

  "Right," she said. "I sent your prints in about twelve thirty at lunchtime and they were matched at two thirty in the morning. "

  "OK," I said. "Fourteen hours. So if it takes fourteen hours to reach nearly to the bottom of the pyramid, it's got to take more than fourteen hours to get all the way down to the bottom. That's logical, right?"

  "Right," she said.

  "But what happened with this dead guy?" I said. "The body was found at eight o'clock, so the prints went in when? Eight thirty, earliest. But Baker was already telling me there was no match on file when they were talking to me at two thirty. I remember the time, because I was looking at the clock. That's only six hours. If it took fourteen hours to find out that I'm in there, how could it take just six hours to say the dead guy's not in there?"

  "God," she said. "You're right. Baker must have screwed up. Finlay took the prints and Baker sent them. He must have screwed up the scan. You got to be careful, or it doesn't transmit clearly. If the scan's not clear, the database tries to decipher it, then it comes back as unreadable. Baker must have thought that meant a null result. The codes are similar. Anyway, I sent them again, first thing. We'll know soon enough. "

  We drove on east and Roscoe told me she'd pushed Finlay to get me out of Warburton right away yesterday afternoon. Finlay had grunted and agreed, but there was a problem. They'd had to wait until today, because yesterday afternoon Warburton had been just about shut down. They had told Finlay there had been some trouble in a bathroom. One convict was dead, one had lost an eye, and a full-scale riot had started, black and white gangs at war.

  I just sat there next to Roscoe and watched the horizon reeling in. I'd killed one guy and blinded another. Now I'd have to confront my feelings. But I didn't feel much at all. Nothing, in fact. No guilt, no remorse. None at all. I felt like I'd chased two roaches around that bathroom and stomped on them. But at least a roach is a rational, reasonable, evolved sort of a creature. Those Aryans in that bathroom had been worse than vermin. I'd kicked one of them in the throat and he had suffocated on his smashed larynx. Well, tough shit. He started it, right? Attacking me was like pushing open a forbidden door. What waited on the other side was his problem. His risk. If he didn't like it, he shouldn't have pushed open the damn door. I shrugged and forgot about it. Looked over at Roscoe.

  "Thank you," I said. "I mean it. You worked hard to help me out. "

  She waved away my thanks with a blush and a small gesture and just drove on. I was starting to like her a lot. But probably not enough to stop me getting the hell out of Georgia as soon as I could. Maybe I might just stay an hour or two and then get her to drive me to a bus depot somewhere.

  "I want to take you to lunch," I said. "Kind of a thank-you thing. "

  She thought about it for a quarter mile and then smiled across at me.

  "OK," she said.

  She jinked the right turn onto the county road and accelerated south toward Margrave. Drove past Eno's shiny new place and headed down to town.

 
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