The affair, p.9
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       The Affair, p.9

         Part #16 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
 
Chapter Nine

 

  27

  The guy was finally pronounced dead thirty minutes later, at one o'clock in the afternoon, when the doctor showed up with Pellegrino. Pellegrino was in his cruiser and the doctor was in a fifth-hand meat wagon that looked like something out of a history book. I guessed it was a riff on a 1960s hearse, but built on a Chevrolet platform, not Cadillac, and devoid of viewing windows or other funereal hoo-hah of any kind. It was like a half-height panel van, painted dirty white.

  Merriam checked pulse and heartbeat and poked around the wound for a minute. He said, "This man bled out through his femoral artery. Death by gunshot. " Which was obvious, but then he added something interesting. He teased up the slit edge of the guy's pants leg and said, "Wet denim is not easy to cut. Someone used a very sharp knife. "

  I helped Merriam put the guy on a canvas gurney, and then we loaded him in the back of the truck. Merriam drove him away, and Deveraux spent five minutes on the radio in her car. I stood around with Pellegrino. He didn't say anything, and neither did I. Then Deveraux got out of her car again and sent him about his business. He drove away, and Deveraux and I were alone once more, except for the blasted tree and a patch of dark tone on the ground, where the dead guy's blood had soaked into the soil.

  Deveraux said, "Butler claims no one came out of Kelham's main gate at any time this morning. "

  I said, "Who's Butler?"

  "My other deputy. Pellegrino's opposite number. I've had him stationed outside the base. I wanted a quick warning, in case they cancel the lockdown. There's going to be all kinds of tension. People are very upset about Chapman. "

  "But not about the first two?"

  "Depends who you ask, and where. But the soldiers never stop short of the tracks. The bars are all on the other side. "

  I said nothing.

  She said, "There must be more gates. Or holes in the fence. It's got to be, what? Thirty miles long? And it's fifty years old. Got to be weak spots. Someone came out somewhere, that's for sure. "

  "And went back in again," I said. "If you're right, that is. Someone went back in bloody to the elbows, with a dirty knife, and at least one round short in his magazine. "

  "I am right," she said.

  "I never heard of a quarantine zone before," I said. "Not inside the United States, anyway. I just don't buy it. "

  "I buy it," she said.

  Something in her tone. Something in her face.

  I said, "What? Did the Marines do this once?"

  "It was no big thing. "

  "Tell me all about it. "

  "Classified information," she said.

  "Where was it?"

  "I can't tell you that. "

  "When was it?"

  "I can't tell you that either. "

  I paused a beat and asked, "Have you spoken to Munro yet? The guy they sent to the base?"

  She nodded. "He called and left a message when he arrived. First thing. As a courtesy. He gave me a number to reach him. "

  "Good," I said. "Because now I need to speak to him. "

  We drove back together, across Clancy's land, out his gate, south on the washboard two-lane, then west through the black half of town, away from Kelham, toward the railroad. I saw the same old women on the same front porches, and the same kids on the same bikes, and men of various ages moving slow between unknown starting points and unknown destinations. The houses leaned and sagged. There were abandoned work sites. Slabs laid, with no structures built on them. Tangles of rusted rebar. Weedy piles of bricks and sand. All around was flat tilled dirt and trees. There was a kind of hopeless crushed torpor in the air, like there probably had been every day for the last hundred years.

  "My people," Deveraux said. "My base. They all voted for me. I mean it, practically a hundred percent. Because of my father. He was fair to them. They were voting for him, really. "

  I asked, "How did you do with the white folks?"

  "Close to a hundred percent with them too. But that's all going to change, on both ends of the deal. Unless I get some answers for all concerned. "

  "Tell me about the first two women. "

  Her response to that was to brake sharply and twist in her seat and back up twenty yards. Then she nosed into the turning she had just passed. It was a dirt track, well smoothed and well scoured. It had a humped camber and shallow bar ditches left and right. It ran straight north, and was lined on both sides with what might once have been slave shacks. Deveraux passed by the first ten or so, passed by a gap where one had burned out, and then she turned into a yard I recognized from the third photograph I had seen. The poor girl's house. The unadorned neck and ears. The amazing beauty. I recognized the shade tree she had been sitting under, and the white wall that had reflected the setting sun softly and obliquely into her face.

  We parked on a patch of grass and got out. A dog barked somewhere, and its chain rattled. We walked under the limbs of the shade tree and knocked on the back door. The house was small, not much bigger than a cabin, but it was well tended. The white siding was not new, but it had been frequently painted. It was stained auburn at the bottom, the color of hair, where heavy rains had bounced up out of the mud.

  The back door was opened by a woman not much older than either Deveraux or me. She was tall and thin and she moved slow, with a kind of sun-beat languor, and with the kind of iron stoicism I imagined all her neighbors shared. She smiled a resigned smile at Deveraux, and shook her hand, and asked her, "Any news about my baby?"

  Deveraux said, "We're still working on it. We'll get there in the end. "

  The bereaved mother was too polite to respond to that. She just smiled her wan smile again and turned to me. She said, "I don't believe we've met. "

  I said, "Jack Reacher, ma'am," and shook her hand. She said, "I'm Emmeline McClatchy. I'm delighted to meet you, sir. Are you working with the Sheriff's Department?"

  "The army sent me to help. "

  "Now they did," she said. "Not nine months ago. "

  I didn't answer that.

  The woman said, "I have some deer meat in the pot. And some tea in the pitcher. Would you two care to join me for lunch?"

  Deveraux said, "Emmeline, I'm sure that's your dinner, not your lunch. We'll be OK. We'll eat in town. But thanks anyway. "

  It was the answer the woman seemed to have been expecting. She smiled again and backed away into the gloom behind her. We walked back to the car. Deveraux backed out to the street, and we drove away. Further down the row was a shack much like the others, but it had electric beer signs in the windows. A bar of some kind. Maybe music. We threaded through a matrix of dirt streets. I saw another abandoned construction project. Knee-high foundation walls had been built out of cinder blocks, and four vertical wooden posts had been raised at the corners. But that was all. Building materials were scattered around the rest of the lot in untidy piles. There were surplus cinder blocks, there were bricks, there was a pile of sand, there was a stack of bagged cement, gone all smooth and rigid with dew and rain.

  There was also a pile of gravel.

  I turned and looked at it as we drove past. Maybe two yards of it, the small sharp gray kind they mix with sand and cement to make into concrete. The pile had spread and wandered into a low hump about the size of a double bed, all weedy at the edges. It had pockmarks and divots in its top surface, as if kids had walked on it.

  I didn't say anything. Deveraux's mind was already made up. She drove on and turned left into a broader street. Bigger houses, bigger yards. Picket fences, not hurricane wire. Cement paths to the doors, not beaten earth. She slowed and then eased to a stop outside a place twice the size of the shack we had just left. A decent one-story house. Expensive, if it had been in California. But shabby. The paint was peeling and the gutters were broken-backed. The roof was asphalt and some of the tiles had slipped. There was a boy in the yard, maybe sixteen years old. He was standing still and doing nothing. Just watchin
g us.

  Deveraux said, "This is the other one. Shawna Lindsay was her name. That's her baby brother right there, staring at us. "

  The baby brother was no oil painting. He had lucked out with the genetic lottery. That was for damn sure. He was nothing like his sister. Nothing at all. He had fallen out of the ugly tree, and hit every branch. He had a head like a bowling ball, and eyes like the finger holes, and about as close together.

  I asked, "Are we going in?"

  Deveraux shook her head. "Shawna's mom told me not to come back until I could tell her who slit her first-born's throat. Those were her words. And I can't blame her for them. Losing a child is a terrible thing. Especially for people like this. Not that they thought their girls would grow up to be models and buy them a house in Beverly Hills. But to have something truly special meant a lot to them. You know, after having nothing else, ever. "

  The boy was still staring. Quiet, baleful, and patient.

  "So let's go," I said. "I need to use the phone. "

  28

  Deveraux let me use the phone in her office. Not a democracy, not yet, but we were getting there. She found the number Munro had left for her, and she dialed it for me, and she told whoever answered that Sheriff Elizabeth Deveraux was on the line for Major Duncan Munro. Then she handed the receiver to me and vacated her chair and the room.

  I sat down behind her desk with nothing but dead air in my ear and the remnant of her body heat on my back. I waited. The silence hissed at me. The army did not play hold music. Not back in 1997. Then a minute later there was a plastic click and clatter as a handset was scooped up off a desk, and a voice said, "Sheriff Deveraux? This is Major Munro. How are you?"

  The voice was hard, and brisk, and hyper-competent, but it had an undertone of good cheer in it. But then, I figured anyone would be happy to get a call from Elizabeth Deveraux.

  I said, "Munro?"

  He said, "I'm sorry, I was expecting Elizabeth Deveraux. "

  "Well, sadly you didn't get her," I said. "My name is Reacher. I'm using the sheriff's phone right now. I'm with the 396th, currently TDY with the 110th. We're of equal rank. "

  Munro said, "Jack Reacher? I've heard of you, of course. How can I help you?"

  "Did Garber tell you he was sending an undercover guy to town?"

  "No, but I guessed he would. That would be you, right? Tasked to snoop on the locals? Which must be going pretty well, seeing as you're calling from the sheriff's phone. Which must be fun, in a way. People here say she's a real looker. Although they also say she's a lesbian. You got an opinion on any of that?"

  "That stuff is none of your business, Munro. "

  "Call me Duncan, OK?"

  "No, thanks. I'll call you Munro. "

  "Sure. How can I help you?"

  "We've got shit happening out here. There was a guy shot to death this morning, close to your fence, northwestern quadrant. Unknown assailant, but probably a military round, and definitely a half-assed attempt to patch the fatal wound with a GI field dressing. "

  "What, someone shot a guy and then gave him first aid? Sounds like a civilian accident to me. "

  "I hoped you weren't going to be that predictable. How do you explain the round and the dressing?"

  "Remington . 223 and a surplus store. "

  "And two guys were beat up before that, by someone they swear was a soldier. "

  "Not a soldier based at Kelham. "

  "Really? How many Kelham personnel can you vouch for? In terms of their exact whereabouts this morning?"

  "All of them," Munro said.

  "Literally?"

  "Yes, literally," he said. "We've got Alpha Company overseas as of five days ago, and I've got everyone else confined to quarters, or else sitting in the mess hall or the officers' club. There's a good MP staff here, and they're watching everyone, while also watching each other. I can guarantee no one left the base this morning. Or since I got here, for that matter. "

  "Is that your standard operating procedure?"

  "It's my secret weapon. Sitting down all day, no reading, no television, no nothing. Sooner or later someone talks, out of sheer boredom. Never fails. My arm-breaking days are over. I learned that time is my friend. "

  "Tell me again," I said. "This is very important. You're absolutely sure no one left the base this morning? Or last night? Not even under secret orders, maybe local, or from Benning, or maybe even from the Pentagon? I'm serious here. And don't bullshit a bullshitter. "

  "I'm sure," Munro said. "I guarantee it. On my mother's grave. I know how to do this stuff, you know. Give me that, at least. "

  "OK," I said.

  Munro asked, "Who was the dead guy?"

  "No ID at this time. Civilian, almost certainly. "

  "Near the fence?"

  "Same as the guys that got beat up. Like a quarantine zone. "

  "That's ridiculous. That's not happening. I know that for sure. "

  We both went quiet for a second, and then I asked, "What else do you know for sure?"

  "I can't tell you. Orders are to keep this thing tighter than a fish's butt. "

  "Let's play Twenty Questions. "

  "Let's not. "

  "The short version. Three questions. Yes or no answers. "

  "Don't put me on the spot, OK?"

  "We're both on the spot already. Don't you see that? We've got a real mess here. And either it's in there with you or it's out here with me. So sooner or later one of us is going to have to help the other. We might as well start now. "

  Silence. Then: "OK, Jesus, three questions. "

  "Did they tell you about the car?"

  "Yes. "

  "Did anyone mention money from Kosovo as a possible motive?"

  "Yes. "

  "Did they tell you about two other dead women?"

  "No. What other dead women?"

  "Last year. Local. Same MO. Cut throats. "

  "Connected?"

  "Probably. "

  "Jesus. No, nobody said a word. "

  "Do you have written records of Bravo Company's movements? June and November last year?"

  "That's your fourth question. "

  "We're just chatting now. Two officers, equal rank, just shooting the shit. The game is over. "

  "There are no records of Bravo Company's movements here. They're operating under special ops protocols. Therefore everything is filed at Fort Bragg. It would take the biggest subpoena you ever saw just to get a look at the outside of the file cabinet. "

  I asked, "You making any general progress there?"

  No answer.

  I asked, "How long does it normally take for your secret weapon to work?"

  He said, "It's usually much faster than this. "

  I didn't answer, and there was more dead air, and some quiet breathing, and then Munro said, "Listen, Reacher, I guess this is hardly worth talking about, because you're just going to think, well, what else would I say, because we both know I was sent here to cover someone's ass. But I'm not like that. Never have been. "

  "And?"

  "From what I know so far, none of our guys killed any women. Not this month, or November, or June. That's how it looks right now. "

  29

  I put the phone down on Munro, and Deveraux came back into the office immediately. Maybe she had been watching a light on the switchboard. She said, "Well?"

  "No quarantine patrols. No one has left Kelham since Munro arrived. "

  "He would say that, though, wouldn't he?"

  "And he's not smelling anything. He thinks the perp is not on the base. "

  "Ditto. "

  I nodded. Smoke and mirrors. Politics and the real world. Utter confusion. I said, "You want to get lunch?"

  She said, "After. "

  "After what?"

  "You have a problem to deal with. The McKinney cousins are out on the street. They're waiting for you. And they've brought reinforcements. "
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  Deveraux led me across the corridor to a dim corner room with windows in two walls. The view across Main Street was empty. Nothing happening. But the view north toward the T-junction showed four figures. My two old friends, plus two more similar guys. Dirt, hair, fur, and ink. They were standing around in the wide area where the two roads met, hands in pockets, kicking the dirt, doing nothing at all.

  My first reaction was a kind of dumbfounded admiration. A head butt is a serious blow, especially one of mine. To be walking and talking just a few hours later was impressive. My second reaction was annoyance. With myself. I had been too gentle. Too new in town, too reluctant, too proper, too ready to see mitigating circumstances in sheer animal stupidity. I looked at Deveraux and asked, "What do you want me to do?"

  She said, "You could apologize and make them go away. "

  "What's my second choice?"

  "You could let them hit you first. Then I could arrest them for unprovoked assault. I'd love to get the chance to do that. "

  "They won't hit me at all if you're there. "

  "I'll stay out of sight. "

  "I'm not sure I want to do either thing. "

  "One or the other, Reacher. Your choice. "

  I stepped out to Main Street like some guy in an old movie. There should have been music playing. I turned right and faced north. I stood still. The four guys saw me. They showed a moment of surprise, and then a moment of warm anticipation. They formed up in a side-to-side line, all four of them strung out west to east, about four feet apart. They all took a step toward me, and then they all stopped and waited. There were two trucks parked on the Kelham road, behind them and to the right. There was the brush-painted pick-up I had seen before, and in front of it was another one just as bad.

  I walked on, like a fish toward a net. The sun was about as high as it was going to get in March. The air was warm. I could feel heat on my skin. I could feel the road surface under the soles of my shoes. I put my hands in my pockets. Nothing in there, except most of the roll of quarters I had gotten in the diner. I closed my fist around the paper tube. A ten dollar punch, less what I had spent on the phone.

  I walked on and stopped ten feet from the skirmish line. The two guys I had met before were on the left. The silent mastermind was on the outside, and the alpha dog was in second position. Both of them had noses like spoiled eggplants. Both of them had two black eyes. Both of them had crusted blood on their lips. Neither one of them exhibited much in the way of balance or focus. Right of the alpha dog was a guy slightly smaller than the others, and next to him was a big guy in a biker vest.

  I looked at the alpha dog and said, "This is your plan?"

  He didn't answer.

  I said, "Four guys? Is that all?"

  He didn't answer.

  I said, "I was told there were dozens of you. "

  No answer.

  "But I guess logistics and communications were difficult. So you settled on a lighter force, quickly assembled and rapidly deployed. Which is very up to date, actually. You should go to the Pentagon and sit in on some seminars. You'd feel right at home with their thinking. "

  The new guy second from the right was drunk. He had a low level buzz going on. It was oozing from his pores. I could practically smell it. Beer for breakfast. Maybe with chasers. A decade-long diet, judging by the look of him. So he would be slow to react, and then wild and unaimed afterward. No big problem. The new guy with the biker vest was carrying some kind of back pain. Low down, base of his spine. I could tell because he was standing with his pelvis rolled forward, taking the pressure off. Some kind of rupture or strain. A dozen possible causes. He was a country boy. He could have lifted a bale, or fallen off a horse. No major threat. He would defeat himself. One enthusiastic swing, and all kinds of things would tear loose inside. He would hobble away like a cripple. By which time his drunken friend would already be down. And the other two were already in no kind of good shape. The two I knew. The two that knew me. The alpha dog was slightly on my left, and I'm a right-handed fighter. He was practically volunteering.

  Overall, an encouraging situation.

  I said, "It's a shame one of you isn't bigger. Or two or three of you. Or all of you, actually. "

  No answer.

  I said, "But hey, a plan's a plan. Did it take long to work out?"

  No answer.

  I said, "You know what we used to say about plans, up at West Point?"

  "What?"

  "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. "

  No answer. No movement. I unwrapped my hand from around the roll of quarters. I wasn't going to need them. I took my hands out of my pockets. I said, "The problem with light forces is if things go bad, they go real bad real quick. Look at what happened in Somalia. So you should think very carefully about this choice. You're at a fork in the road here. You have to decide which way to go. You could wade in, just the four of you, right now. But the next stop after that will be the hospital. That's a promise. That's a cast iron guarantee. You'll get hit harder than you've ever been hit before. I'm talking broken bones. I can't promise brain damage. Looks like someone already beat me to that. "

  No response.

  I said, "Or you could attempt a tactical withdrawal now, and then you could take your time putting that big force together. You could come back in a couple of days. Dozens of you. You could find your granddaddy's varmint gun. You could start the painkillers early. "

  No response. Nothing verbal, anyway. But shoulders slumped a fraction, and feet started shuffling.

  "Good decision," I said. "Overwhelming force is always better. You really should go to the Pentagon. You could walk them through your reasoning. They'd listen to you. They're listening to everyone except us. "

  The alpha dog said, "We'll be back. "

  "I'll be here," I said. "Whenever you're ready. "

  They walked away, trying to be casual about it, trying to salvage some dignity. They climbed into their trucks and made a big show of revving their engines and squealing their tires through tight 180 turns. They drove off west into the forest, toward Memphis, toward the rest of the world. I watched them go, and then I walked back to the Sheriff's Department.

  * * *

  Deveraux had seen the whole thing from the window in the dim corner room. Like a silent movie. No dialogue. She said, "You made them go away. You apologized. I can't believe it. "

  "Not exactly," I said. "I took a rain check. They're coming back later, dozens of them. "

  "Why did you do that?"

  "More arrests for you. They'll look good for your reelection campaign. "

  "You're crazy. "

  "You want to get lunch now?"

  "I already have a lunch date," she said.

  "Since when?"

  "Five minutes ago. Major Duncan Munro called back and asked me to dine with him in the Kelham Officers' Club. "

 
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