The affair, p.8
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       The Affair, p.8
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         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
Chapter Eight

  23

  I repacked the file and tucked it in the back of my pants under my shirt. I paid my bill and left a tip and walked out to the street. I figured I would walk up to the Sheriff's Department. I figured it was time for some reconnaissance. Time for an initial foray. Time for an exploratory penetration. A toe in the water. Not a democracy, but it was a public building. And I had a legitimate reason to be there. I had lost property to return. I figured if Deveraux was out, I could leave the file with the desk clerk. And if Deveraux was in, I could play it by ear.

  She was in.

  Her old Caprice was in the lot, slotted neatly in the parking bay closest to the door. A privilege of rank, presumably. Office cultures all work the same way. I walked past it and hauled open a heavy glass door and found myself in a dowdy, beat-up lobby. Plastic tile on the floor, scarred paint on the walls, and an inquiry desk facing me, with an old guy behind it. He had no hair and a toothless, caved-in face, and he was wearing a suit vest with no coat, like an old-time newspaperman. As soon as he saw me he picked up a phone and hit a button and said, "He's here. " He listened to a reply and then he pointed with the phone, using it like a baton, stretching its cord, and he said, "End of the corridor on the right. She's expecting you. "

  I walked the corridor and got a glimpse through a half-closed door of a stout woman at a telephone switchboard, and then I arrived at Deveraux's billet. Her door was open. I knocked on it once as a courtesy and went in.

  It was a plain square space in no better condition than the lobby. Same tile, same battered paint, same grime. It was full of stuff bought cheap at the end of the last geological era. Desk, chairs, file cabinets, all plain and municipal and well out of date. There were grip-and-grin pictures on the wall, of an old guy in uniform that I took to be Deveraux's father, the previous incumbent. There was a stand-up hat rack with an old cardigan sweater on one of the pegs. It had hung there so long it looked crusted and rigid with age.

  At first glance, not a wonderful room.

  But it had Deveraux in it. I had pictures of three stunning women digging into my back, but she held her own with any of them. She was right up there. Maybe she even beat them all. A very beautiful woman, Neagley had said, and I was glad my subjectivity had been confirmed by someone else's objectivity. She looked small in the desk chair, slender in the shoulders, lithe and relaxed. As usual, she was smiling.

  She asked, "Did you ID the car for me?"

  I didn't answer that question, and her phone rang. She picked it up and listened for a moment, and then she said, "OK, but it's still a felony assault. Keep it on the front burner, OK?" Then she put the phone down and said, "Pellegrino," by way of explanation.

  I said, "Busy day?"

  "Two guys were beaten up this morning by someone they swear was a soldier from Kelham. But the army says the base is still closed. I don't know what's going on. The doctor is working overtime. Concussions, he says. But it's my budget that's going to be concussed. "

  I said nothing.

  Deveraux smiled again and said, "Anyway, first of all, tell me about your friend. "

  "My friend?"

  "I met her. Frances Neagley. I'm guessing she's your sergeant. She was very army. "

  "She was my sergeant once. Many years, on and off. "

  "I'm wondering why she came. "

  "Maybe I asked her to come. "

  "No, in that case she'd have known where and when to meet you. It would have been prearranged. She wouldn't have had to ask all over town. "

  I nodded. "She came to warn me. Apparently I'm in a lose-lose situation. She called it a suicide mission. "

  "She's right," Deveraux said. "She's a smart woman. I liked her. She was good. She does this thing with her face. Like a special look, all collegial and confiding. I bet she's a great interrogator. Did she give you the photographs?"

  "You meant her to take them?"

  "I hoped she would. I left them accessible, and ducked out for a minute. "

  "Why?"

  "It's complicated," Deveraux said. "I wanted you to see them, alone and on your own time. Like a controlled experiment. No pressure from me, and especially no influence from me. No context. I wanted a completely unguarded first impression. "

  "From me?"

  "Yes. "

  "Is this a democracy now?"

  "Not yet. But any port in a storm, as they say. "

  "OK," I said.

  "So what was it? Your first impression?"

  "All three of them were amazingly beautiful. "

  "Is that all they had in common?"

  "I imagine so. Apart from all being women. "

  Deveraux nodded.

  "Good," she said. "I agree. They were all amazingly beautiful. I'm very glad to have confirmation from an independent point of view. It was a hard thing for me to articulate, even to myself. And I'd certainly avoid saying it out loud. It would sound very weird, like some gay thing. "

  "Is that an issue for you?"

  "I live in Mississippi," she said. "I was in the Marine Corps and I'm not married. "

  "OK," I said.

  "And I'm not currently dating. "

  "OK," I said.

  "I'm not gay," she said.

  "Understood. "

  "But even so, for a woman cop to be seen obsessing over a female victim's looks never goes down well. "

  "Understood," I said again. I leaned forward to let my back clear the chair, and I pulled the file out of my waistband. I laid it on the desk.

  "Mission accomplished," I said. "Nice moves, by the way. Not many people beat Neagley in a mind game. "

  "Takes one to know one," she said. She slid the file closer and ran her palm over it, left and right, and her hand came to rest at one end, and she kept it there. Maybe where it was warm from the small of my back.

  She asked, "Did you ID the car?"

  24

  She kept her palm pressed on the file folder, and looked straight at me. Her question hung in the air between us. Did you ID the car? In my head I heard Garber's emphatic squawk in my ear, on the phone in the diner: Do not, repeat, do not give that number to local law enforcement.

  My commanding officer.

  Orders are orders.

  Deveraux said, "Did you?"

  I said, "Yes. "

  "And?"

  "I can't tell you. "

  "Can't or won't?"

  "Both. Classified information, as of five minutes after I called it in. "

  She didn't respond.

  I said, "Well, what would you do in this situation?"

  "Now?"

  "Not now. Then. When you were in the Corps. "

  "As a Marine I would have done exactly what you're doing. "

  "I'm glad you understand. "

  She nodded. She kept her hand on the file. She said, "I didn't tell you the truth before. Not the whole truth, anyway. About my father's house. It wasn't always rented. He owned it, from when he was married. But when my mother got sick, they found out they didn't have insurance. They were supposed to. It was supposed to come with the job. But the county guy who was responsible had run into trouble and had been stealing the premiums. Just a two-year hiatus, but that happened to be when my mother got sick. After that, it was a pre-existing condition. My father refinanced, things got worse, and he defaulted. The bank took the title, but they let him live there as a renter. I admired both parties. The bank did the right thing, as far as it could, and my daddy kept on serving his community, even though it had kicked him in the teeth. Honor and obligation are things I appreciate. "

  "Semper Fi," I said.

  "You bet your ass. And you answered my question anyway, as I'm sure you intended. If the ID is classified, then it's a Kelham car. That's all I really need to know. "

  "Only if there's a connection," I said. "Between the car and the homicide. "

  "Unlikely to be a coincidence. "

 
; I said, "I'm sorry about your father. "

  "Me too. He was a nice man, and he deserved better. "

  I said, "It was me who beat on those civilians. "

  Deveraux said, "Really? How on earth did you get there?"

  "I walked. "

  "You can't have. You didn't have time, surely. It's more than twelve miles. Almost past Kelham's northern limit. Practically in Tennessee. "

  "What happened there?"

  "Two guys were out doing something. Maybe just taking a walk. They could see the woods around Kelham's fence, but they weren't particularly close to it. A guy came out of the woods, the two hikers got rousted, it turned bad, they got hit. They claim the guy that hit them was a soldier. "

  "Was he in uniform?"

  "No. But he had the look, and he had an M16 rifle. "

  "That's bizarre. "

  "I know. It's like they're establishing a quarantine zone. "

  "Why would they? They've already got about a million acres all to themselves. "

  "I don't know why. But what else are they doing? They're chasing anyone that gets anywhere near the fence. "

  I said nothing.

  Deveraux said, "Wait. Who did you beat on?"

  "Two guys in a pick-up truck. They harassed me last night, they harassed me again this morning. Once too often. "

  "Description?"

  "Dirt, grease, hair, and tattoos. "

  "In an old black truck painted with a housepainter's brush?"

  "Yes. "

  "Those are the McKinney cousins. In an ideal world they should be beat on at least once a week, regular as clockwork. So I thank you for your full and frank confession, but I propose to take no action at this time. "

  "But?"

  "Don't do it again. And watch your back. I'm sure that right now they're planning to get the whole family together and come looking for you. "

  "There are more of them?"

  "There are dozens of McKinneys. But don't worry. Not yet, at least. It will take time for them to assemble. None of them has a phone. None of them knows how to use a phone. "

  And at that point phones started ringing all throughout the building. And I heard urgent radio chatter from the dispatcher's hutch, where the stout woman sat. Ten seconds later she appeared in the doorway, out of breath, holding both jambs to steady herself, and she said, "Pellegrino is calling in from near the Clancy place. Near the split oak. He says we got ourselves another homicide. "

  25

  Both Deveraux and I glanced instinctively at the file folder on her desk. Three photographs. Soon to be four. Another sad visit to grieving relatives. Another request for a good recent likeness. The worst part of the job.

  Then Deveraux glanced at me, and hesitated. Not a democracy. I said, "You owe it to me. I need to see this. I need to know what I'm committing suicide over. "

  She hesitated another second, and then she said, "OK," and we ran for her car.

  The Clancy place turned out to be more than ten miles north and east of the town. We crossed the silent railroad and headed toward Kelham for a mile, deep into the hidden half of Carter Crossing. The wrong side of the tracks. Over there the road had no shoulders and no ditches. I guessed the ditches had silted up and the shoulders had been plowed. Flat fields full of dirt came right up to the edge of the blacktop. I saw old frame houses standing in yards, and low barns, and swaybacked sheds, and tumbledown shacks. I saw old women on porches and raggedy kids on bikes. I saw old trucks moving slow and a solitary shopper with a straw hat and a straw basket. Every face I saw was black. Different places are for different folks, the McKinney cousins had told me. Rural Mississippi, in 1997.

  Then Deveraux turned due north on a washboard two-lane and left the dwellings behind us. She hit the gas. The car responded. The Chevy Caprice was every working cop's favorite car for a reason. It was a perfect what if proposition. What if we took a roomy sedan and put a Corvette motor in it? What if we beefed up the suspension a little? What if we used four disc brakes? What if we gave it a top speed of 130 miles an hour? Deveraux's example was well used and worn, but it still motored along. The rough surface pattered under the tires, and the body wallowed and shuddered, but we got where we were going pretty fast.

  Where we were going turned out to be a large hardscrabble acreage with a battered house in its center. We turned in and used a two-rut driveway that became a plain farm track as it passed the house. Deveraux blipped her siren once as a courtesy. I saw an answering wave from a window. An old man. A black face. We headed onward across flat barren land. Way far in the distance I could see a lone tree, chopped vertically by lightning down two-thirds of its height. Each half was leaning away from the other in a dramatic Y shape. Both halves were dusted with pale green springtime leaves. The split oak, I assumed. Still alive and in business. Still enduring. Near it was parked a police cruiser, right out on the dirt. Pellegrino's, I assumed.

  Deveraux put her car next to his and we got out. Pellegrino himself was fifty yards away, just standing there, at ease, facing us, with his hands clasped behind his back.

  Like a sentry.

  Ten yards farther on was a shape on the ground.

  We hiked across the fifty yards of dirt. There were turkey vultures in the air, three of them, looping lazily high above us, just waiting for us to be gone. Far to my right I could see a line of trees, thick in parts, and thin in others. Through the thin parts I could see a wire fence. Kelham's northwestern boundary, I guessed. The left shoulder of whatever vast acreage the DoD had requisitioned fifty years before. And a small portion of what some well-connected fencing contractor had been overpaid to install.

  Halfway to Pellegrino I could see some details in the shape behind him. A back, facing toward me. A short brown jacket. A suggestion of dark hair and white skin. The empty slump of a corpse. The absolute stillness of the recently dead. The impossible relaxation. Unmistakable.

  Deveraux did not pause for a verbal report. She walked straight past Pellegrino and kept on going. She looped around wide and approached the collapsed shape from the far side. I stopped five yards short and hung back. Her case. Not a democracy.

  She shuffled closer to the shape, slowly and carefully, watching where she was putting her feet. She got close enough to touch and squatted down with her elbows on her knees and her hands clasped together. She looked right to left, at the head, the torso, the arms, the legs. Then she looked left to right, the same sequence all over again, but in reverse.

  Then she looked up and said, "What the hell is this?"

  26

  I followed the same long loop Deveraux had used and tiptoed in from the north side. I squatted down next to her. I put my elbows on my knees. I clasped my hands together.

  I looked, right to left, and then left to right.

  The corpse was male.

  And white.

  Forty-five years old, maybe a little less, maybe a little more.

  Maybe five-ten, maybe a hundred and eighty pounds. Dark hair, going mousy. Two or three days' stubble, going white. A green work shirt, a brown canvas windbreaker jacket. Blue jeans. Brown engineer boots, creased and cracked and starved of polish and caked with dirt.

  I asked Deveraux, "Do you know him?"

  She said, "I never saw him before. "

  He had bled to death. He had taken what I guessed was a high-velocity rifle round through the meat of his right thigh. His pants were soaked with blood. Almost certainly the round had torn his femoral artery. The femoral artery is a high-capacity vessel. Absolutely crucial. Any significant breach will be fatal within minutes, absent prompt and effective emergency treatment.

  But what was extraordinary about the scene in front of us was that prompt and effective emergency treatment had been attempted. The guy's pants leg had been slit with a knife. The wound was partially covered with an absorbent bandage pad.

  The absorbent bandage pad was a general-issue military field dress
ing.

  Deveraux stood up and backed away, short mincing tiptoe steps, her eyes on the corpse, until she got ten or twelve feet away. I did the same thing and joined her. She talked low, as if noise was disrespectful. As if the corpse could hear us. She asked, "What do you make of that?"

  "There was a dispute," I said. "A shot was fired. Probably a warning shot that went astray. Or a giddy-up shot that came too close. "

  "Why not a killing shot that missed?"

  "Because the shooter would have tried again right away. He would have stepped in closer and put one through the guy's head. But he didn't do that. He tried to help the guy instead. "

  "And?"

  "And he saw that he was failing in his attempt. So he panicked and ran away. He left the guy to die. Won't have taken long. "

  "The shooter was a soldier. "

  "Not necessarily. "

  "Who else carries GI field dressings?"

  "Anyone who shops at surplus stores. "

  Deveraux turned around. Turned her back on the corpse. She raised her arm and pointed at the horizon on our right. A short sweep of her arm.

  She asked, "What do you see?"

  I said, "Kelham's perimeter. "

  "I told you," she said. "They're enforcing a quarantine zone. "

  Deveraux headed back to her car for something and I stood still and looked at the ground around my feet. The earth was soft and there were plenty of footprints. The dead guy's looped and staggered, some of them backward like an old-fashioned dance chart. Their curving sequence ended where he lay. All around the lower half of his body were toe marks and round depressions from knees, where his assailant had first squatted and then knelt to work on him. Those marks were at the head of a long straight line of partial prints, mostly toe, not much heel, all widely spaced. The shooter had run in fast. A reasonably tall person. Not a giant. Not especially heavy. There were identical prints facing the other way, where the shooter had run away again. I didn't recognize the tread patterns. They were unlike any army boot I had ever seen.

  Deveraux came back from her car with a camera. It was a silver SLR. She got ready to take her crime-scene pictures and I followed the line of panicked running prints away from the area. I kept them three feet to my right and tracked them a hundred yards, and then they petered out on a broad vein of bone-hard dirt. Some kind of a geological issue, or an irrigation thing, or I had reached the limit of what old man Clancy liked to plow. I saw no reason why a fleeing man would change direction at that point, so I kept on going straight, hoping to pick up the prints again, but I didn't. Within fifty yards the ground became matted with low wiry weeds of some description. Ahead of me they grew a little taller, and then they shaded into the brush that had grown up at the base of Kelham's fence. I saw no bruised stalks, but it was tough vegetation and I wouldn't have expected it to show much damage.

  I turned back and took a step and saw a glint of light twelve feet to my right. Metallic. Brassy. I detoured and bent down and saw a cartridge case lying on the dirt. Bright and fresh. New. Long, from a rifle. Best case, it was a . 223 Remington, made for a sporting gun. Worst case, it was a 5. 56 millimeter NATO round, made for the military. Hard to tell the difference, with the naked eye. The Remington case has thinner brass. The NATO case is heavier.

  I picked it up and weighed it in my palm.

  Dollars to doughnuts, it was a military round.

  * * *

  I looked ahead at Deveraux and Pellegrino and the dead guy in the distance. They were about a hundred and forty yards away. Practically touching distance, for a rifleman. The 5. 56 NATO round was designed to penetrate one side of a steel helmet at six hundred meters, which works out to about six hundred and fifty yards. The dead guy was more than four times closer than that. An easy shot. Hard to miss, which was my only real consolation. The kind of guy that gets sent from Benning to Kelham for finishing school isn't the kind of guy that misplaces a round at point-blank range. Yet this was clearly an unintentional hit. The bandage proved it. It was a warning shot gone wrong. Or a giddy-up shot. But the kind of guy that gets sent from Benning to Kelham has worked out his testosterone issues long ago. He puts his warning shots high and wide. And his giddy-up shots. All the subject needs is to see the muzzle flash and hear the noise of the gun. That's all the situation requires. And no soldier does more than he has to. No soldier ever has, since Alexander the Great first put his army together. Initiative in the ranks usually ends in tears. Especially where live ammunition is involved. And civilians.

  I put the brass in my pocket and hiked back. I saw nothing else of significance. Deveraux had snapped a whole roll of film, and she rewound it and took it out of her camera and sent Pellegrino back to the pharmacy to get it printed. She told him to ask for rush service, and then she told him to bring the doctor back with him, with the mortuary wagon. He departed on cue and Deveraux and I were left standing together in a thousand acres of emptiness, with nothing for company except a corpse and a blasted tree.

  I asked, "Did anyone hear a shot?"

  She said, "Mr. Clancy is the only one who could. Pellegrino talked to him already. He claims not to have heard anything. "

  "Any yelling? A warning shot presupposes some yelling first. "

  "If he didn't hear a shot, he wouldn't have heard yelling. "

  "A single NATO round far away and outdoors isn't necessarily loud. The yelling could have been louder. Especially if it was two-way yelling, which it might have been, back and forth. You know, if there was a dispute or an argument. "

  "You accept it was a NATO round now?"

  I put my hand in my pocket and came out with the shell case. I held it in my open palm. I said, "I found it a hundred and forty yards out, twelve feet off the straight vector. Exactly where an M16 ejection port would have put it. "

  Deveraux said, "It could be a Remington . 223," which was kind of her. Then she took it from me. Her nails felt sharp on the skin of my palm. It was the first time we had touched. The first physical contact. We hadn't shaken hands when we met.

  She did what I had done. She weighed the brass in her palm. Unscientific, but long familiarity can be as accurate as a laboratory instrument. She said, "NATO for sure. I've fired a lot of these, and picked them up afterward. "

  "Me too," I said.

  "I'm going to raise hell," she said. "Soldiers against civilians, on American soil? I'll go all the way to the Pentagon. The White House, if I have to. "

  "Don't," I said.

  "Why the hell not?"

  "You're a country sheriff. They'll crush you like a bug. "

  She said nothing.

  "Believe me," I said. "If they've gotten as far as deploying soldiers against civilians, they've gotten as far as working out ways to beat local law enforcement. "

 
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