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Killing Floorby Lee Child
There were three watchers, two men and a boy. They were using telescopes, not field glasses. It was a question of distance. They were almost a mile from their target area, because of the terrain. There was no closer cover. It was low, undulating country, burned khaki by the sun, grass and rock and sandy soil alike. The nearest safe concealment was the broad dip they were in, a bone-dry gulch scraped out a million years ago by a different climate, when there had been rain and ferns and rushing rivers.
The men lay prone in the dust with the early heat on their backs, their telescopes at their eyes. The boy scuttled around on his knees, fetching water from the cooler, watching for waking rattlesnakes, logging comments in a notebook. They had arrived before first light in a dusty pick-up truck, the long way around, across the empty land from the west. They had thrown a dirty tarpaulin over the truck and held it down with rocks. They had eased forward to the rim of the dip and settled in, raising their telescopes as the low morning sun dawned to the east behind the red house almost a mile away. This was Friday, their fifth consecutive morning, and they were low on conversation.
"Time?" one of the men asked. His voice was nasal, the effect of keeping one eye open and the other eye shut.
The boy checked his watch.
"Six-fifty," he answered.
"Any moment now," the man with the telescope said.
The boy opened his book and prepared to make the same notes he had made four times before.
"Kitchen light on," the man said.
The boy wrote it down. 6:50, kitchen light on. The kitchen faced them, looking west away from the morning sun, so it stayed dark even after dawn.
"On her own?" the boy asked.
"Same as always," the second man said, squinting.
Maid prepares breakfast, the boy wrote. Target still in bed. The sun rose, inch by inch. It jacked itself higher into the sky and pulled the shadows shorter and shorter. The red house had a tall chimney coming out of the kitchen wing like the finger on a sundial. The shadow it made swung and shortened and the heat on the watchers' shoulders built higher. Seven o'clock in the morning, and it was already hot. By eight, it would be burning. By nine, it would be fearsome. And they were there all day, until dark, when they could slip away unseen.
"Bedroom drapes opening," the second man said. "She's up and about."
The boy wrote it down. 7:04, bedroom drapes open.
"Now listen," the first man said.
They heard the well pump kick in, faintly from almost a mile away. A quiet mechanical click, and then a steady low drone.
"She's showering," the man said.
The boy wrote it down. 7:06, target starts to shower.
The men rested their eyes. Nothing was going to happen while she was in the shower. How could it? They lowered their telescopes and blinked against the brassy sun in their eyes. The well pump clicked off after six minutes. The silence sounded louder than the faint noise had. The boy wrote: 7:12, target out of shower. The men raised their telescopes again.
"She's dressing, I guess," the first man said.
The boy giggled. "Can you see her naked?"
The second man was triangulated twenty feet to the south. He had the better view of the back of the house, where her bedroom window was.
"You're disgusting," he said. "You know that?"
The boy wrote: 7:15, probably dressing. Then: 7:20, probably downstairs, probably eating breakfast.
"She'll go back up, brush her teeth," he said.
The man on the left shifted on his elbows.
"For sure," he said. "Prissy little thing like that."
"She's closing her drapes again," the man on the right said.
It was standard practice in the west of Texas, in the summer, especially if your bedroom faced south, like this one did. Unless you wanted to sleep the next night in a room hotter than a pizza oven.
"Stand by," the man said. "A buck gets ten she goes out to the barn now."
It was a wager that nobody took, because so far four times out of four she had done exactly that, and watchers are paid to notice patterns.
"Kitchen door's open."
The boy wrote: 7:27, kitchen door opens.
"Here she comes."
She came out, dressed in a blue gingham dress that reached to her knees and left her shoulders bare. Her hair was tied back behind her head. It was still damp from the shower.
"What do you call that sort of a dress?" the boy asked.
"Halter," the man on the left said.
7:28, comes out, blue halter dress, goes to barn, the boy wrote.
She walked across the yard, short hesitant steps against the uneven ruts in the baked earth, maybe seventy yards. She heaved the barn door open and disappeared in the gloom inside.
The boy wrote: 7:29, target in barn.
"How hot is it?" the man on the left asked.
"Maybe a hundred degrees," the boy said.
"There'll be a storm soon. Heat like this, there has to be."
"Here comes her ride," the man on the right said.
Miles to the south, there was a dust cloud on the road. A vehicle, making slow and steady progress north.
"She's coming back," the man on the right said.
7:32, target comes out of barn, the boy wrote.
"Maid's at the door," the man said.
The target stopped at the kitchen door and took her lunch box from the maid. It was bright blue plastic with a cartoon picture on the side. She paused for a second. Her skin was pink and damp from the heat. She leaned down to adjust her socks and then trotted out to the gate, through the gate, to the shoulder of the road. The school bus slowed and stopped and the door opened with a sound the watchers heard clearly over the faint rattle of the idling engine. The chrome handrails flashed once in the sun. The diesel exhaust hung and drifted in the hot still air. The target heaved her lunch box onto the step and grasped the bright rails and clambered up after it. The door closed again and the watchers saw her corn-colored head bobbing along level with the base of the windows. Then the engine noise deepened and the gears caught and the bus moved away with a new cone of dust kicking up behind it.
7:36, target on bus to school, the boy wrote.
The road north was dead straight and he turned his head and watched the bus all the way until the heat on the horizon broke it up into a shimmering yellow mirage. Then he closed his notebook and secured it with a rubber band. Back at the red house, the maid stepped inside and closed the kitchen door. Nearly a mile away, the watchers lowered their telescopes and turned their collars up for protection from the sun.
Seven thirty-seven, Friday morning.
Seven thirty-nine, more than three hundred miles to the north and east, Jack Reacher climbed out of his motel room window. One minute earlier, he had been in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. One minute before that, he had opened the door of his room to check the morning temperature. He had left it open, and the closet just inside the entrance passageway was faced with mirrored glass, and there was a shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm, and by a freak of optical chance he caught sight of four men getting out of a car and walking toward the motel office. Pure luck, but a guy as vigilant as Jack Reacher gets lucky more times than the average.
The car was a police cruiser. It had a shield on the door, and because of the bright sunlight and the double reflection he could read it clearly. At the top it said City Police, and then there was a fancy medallion in the middle with Lubbock, Texas written underneath. All four men who got out were in uniform. They had bulky belts with guns and radios and nightsticks and handcuffs. Three of the men he had never seen before, but the fourth guy was familiar. The fourth guy was a tall heavyweight with a gelled blond brush-cut above a meaty red face. This morning the meaty red face was partially obscured by a glinting aluminum splint carefully taped over a shattered nose. His right hand was similarly bound up with a splint and bandages protecting a broken forefinger.
The guy had neither injury the night before. And Reacher had no idea the guy was a cop. He just looked like some idiot in a bar. Reacher had gone there because he heard the music was good, but it wasn't, so he had backed away from the band and ended up on a bar stool watching ESPN on a muted television fixed high on a wall. The place was crowded and noisy, and he was wedged in a space with a woman on his right and the heavyweight guy with the brush-cut on his left. He got bored with the sports and turned around to watch the room. As he turned, he saw how the guy was eating.
The guy was wearing a white tank-top shirt and he was eating chicken wings. The wings were greasy and the guy was a slob. He was dripping chicken fat off his chin and off his fingers onto his shirt. There was a dark teardrop shape right between his pecs. It was growing and spreading into an impressive stain. But the best barroom etiquette doesn't let you linger on such a sight, and the guy caught Reacher staring.
"Who you looking at?" he said.
It was said low and aggressively, but Reacher ignored it.
"Who you looking at?" the guy said again.
Reacher's experience was, they say it once, maybe nothing's going to happen. But they say it twice, then trouble's on the way. Fundamental problem is, they take a lack of response as evidence that you're worried. That they're winning. But then, they won't let you answer, anyway.
"You looking at me?" the guy said.
"No," Reacher answered.
"Don't you be looking at me, boy," the guy said.
The way he said boy made Reacher think he was maybe a foreman in a lumber mill or a cotton operation. Whatever muscle work was done around Lubbock. Some kind of a traditional trade passed down through the generations. Certainly the word cop never came to his mind. But then, he was relatively new to Texas.
"Don't you look at me," the guy said.
Reacher turned his head and looked at him. Not really to antagonize the guy. Just to size him up. Life is endlessly capable of surprises, so he knew one day he would come face to face with his physical equal. With somebody who might worry him. But he looked and saw this wasn't the day. So he just smiled and looked away again.
Then the guy jabbed him with his finger.
"I told you not to look at me," he said, and jabbed.
It was a meaty forefinger and it was covered in grease. It left a definite mark on Reacher's shirt.
"Don't do that," Reacher said.
The guy jabbed again.
"Or what?" he said. "You want to make something out of it?"
Reacher looked down. Now there were two marks. The guy jabbed again. Three jabs, three marks. Reacher clamped his teeth. What were three greasy marks on a shirt? He started a slow count to ten. Then the guy jabbed again, before he even reached eight.
"You deaf?" Reacher said. "I told you not to do that."
"You want to do something about it?"
"No," Reacher said. "I really don't. I just want you to stop doing it, is all."
The guy smiled. "Then you're a yellow-bellied piece of shit."
"Whatever," Reacher said. "Just keep your hands off me."
"Or what? What you going to do?"
Reacher restarted his count. Eight, nine.
"You want to take this outside?" the guy asked.
"Touch me again and you'll find out," Reacher said. "I warned you four times."
The guy paused a second. Then, of course, he went for it again. Reacher caught the finger on the way in and snapped it at the first knuckle. Just folded it upward like he was turning a door handle. Then because he was irritated he leaned forward and headbutted the guy full in the face. It was a smooth move, well delivered, but it was backed off to maybe a half of what it might have been. No need to put a guy in a coma, over four grease marks on a shirt. He moved a pace to give the man room to fall, and backed into the woman on his right.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he said.
The woman nodded vaguely, disoriented by the noise, concentrating on her drink, unaware of what was happening. The big guy thumped silently on the floorboards and Reacher used the sole of his shoe to roll him half onto his front. Then he nudged him under the chin with his toe to pull his head back and straighten his airway. The recovery position, paramedics call it. Stops you choking while you're out.
Then he paid for his drinks and walked back to his motel, and didn't give the guy another thought until he was at the bathroom mirror and saw him out and about in a cop's uniform. Then he thought hard, and as fast as he could.
He spent the first second calculating reflected angles and figuring if I can see him, does that mean he can see me? The answer was yes, of course he can. If he was looking the right way, which he wasn't yet. He spent the next second mad at himself. He should have picked up the signs. They had been there. Who else would be poking at a guy built like him, except somebody with some kind of protected status? Some kind of imagined invulnerability? He should have picked up on it.
So what to do? The guy was a cop on his own turf. And Reacher was an easily recognizable target. Apart from anything else he still had the four grease spots on his shirt, and a brand-new bruise on his forehead. There were probably forensics people who could match its shape to the bones in the guy's nose.
So what to do? An angry cop bent on revenge could cause trouble. A lot of trouble. A noisy public arrest, for sure, maybe some wild gunshots, definitely some four-on-one fun and games in an empty out-of-the-way cell down at the station house, where you can't fight back without multiplying your original legal problem. Then all kinds of difficult questions, because Reacher habitually carried no ID and nothing else at all except his toothbrush and a couple of thousand dollars cash in his pants pocket. So he would be regarded as a suspicious character. Almost certainly he'd be charged with attacking a law officer. That was probably a big deal in Texas. All kinds of witnesses would materialize to swear it was malicious and completely unprovoked. He could end up convicted and in the penitentiary, easy as anything. He could end up with seven-to-ten in some tough establishment. Which was definitely not number one on his wish list.
So discretion was going to be the better part of valor. He put his toothbrush in his pocket and walked through the room and opened the window. Unclipped the screen and dropped it to the ground. Climbed out and closed the window and rested the screen back in its frame and walked away across a vacant lot to the nearest street. Turned right and kept on walking until he was hidden by a low building. He looked for buses. There weren't any. He looked for taxis. Nothing doing. So he stuck out his thumb. He figured he had ten minutes to find a ride before they finished at the motel and started cruising the streets. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen at the outside.
Which meant it wasn't going to work. It couldn't work. Seven thirty-nine in the morning, the temperature was already over a hundred degrees. It was going to be impossible to get a ride at all. In heat like that no driver on the planet would open their door long enough for him to slide right in, never mind for any long prior discussions about destinations. So finding a getaway in time was going to be impossible. Absolutely impossible. He started planning alternatives, because he was so sure of it. But it turned out he was wrong. It turned out his whole day was a series of surprises.
There were three killers, two men and a woman. They were an out-of-state professional crew, based in Los Angeles, contactable through an intermediary in Dallas and a second cut-out in Vegas. They had been in business ten years, and they were very good at what they did, which was take care of problems anywhere in the Southwest and survive to get paid and do it over again as many times as anybody asked them to. Ten years, and never once a hint of a problem. A good team. Meticulous, inventive, perfectionist. As good as it gets, in their strange little world. And perfectly suited to it. They were bland, forgettable, white, anonymous. To see them together, they looked like the branch office of a photocopier company on its way to a sales convention.
Not that they were ever seen together, except by their victims. They traveled separately. One always drove, and the other two flew, always by different routes. The driver was one of the men, because invisibility was their aim, and a woman driving a long distance alone was still slightly more memorable than a man. The car was always rented, always at LAX arrivals, which had the busiest rental counters in the world. It was always a generic family sedan, a mud-colored nothing car. The license and the credit card used to obtain it were always real, properly issued in a distant state to a person who had never existed. The driver would wait on the sidewalk and then line up when a busy flight was spilling out into baggage claim when he would be just one face among a hundred. He was small and dark and had a rolling duffel and a carry-on and a harassed expression, same as everybody else.
He did the paperwork at the counter and rode the bus to the rental compound and found his allotted car. He dumped his bags in the trunk, waited at the exit check, and drove out into the glare. He spent forty minutes on the freeways, driving a wide aimless circle around the whole of the metropolitan area, making sure he wasn't followed. Then he ducked off into West Hollywood and stopped at a lock-up garage in an alley behind a lingerie salon. He left the motor running and opened the garage door and opened the trunk and swapped his rolling duffel and his carry-on for two big valises made of thick black nylon. One of them was very heavy. The heavy valise was the reason he was driving, not flying. It contained things best kept away from airport scanners.
He closed up the garage and rolled east on Santa Monica Boulevard and turned south on 101 and hooked east again on 10. Squirmed in his seat and settled in for the two-day drive all the way out to Texas. He wasn't a smoker, but he lit numerous cigarettes and held them between his fingers and flicked ash on the carpets, on the dash, on the wheel. He let the cigarettes burn out and crushed the butts in the ashtray. That way, the rental company would have to vacuum the car very thoroughly, and spray it with air freshener, and wipe down the vinyl with detailing fluid. That would eliminate every trace of him later, including his fingerprints.
The second man was on the move, too. He was taller and heavier and fairer, but there was nothing memorable about him. He joined the end-of-the-workday crush at LAX and bought a ticket to Atlanta. When he got there, he swapped his wallet for one of the five spares in his carry-on and a completely different man bought another ticket for Dallas-Fort Worth.
The woman traveled a day later. That was her privilege, because she was the team leader. She was closing in on middle age, medium-sized, medium-blond. Nothing at all special about her, except she killed people for a living. She left her car in the LAX long-term parking, which wasn't dangerous because her car was registered to a Pasadena infant who had died of the measles thirty years previously. She rode the shuttle bus to the terminal and used a forged MasterCard to buy her ticket, and a genuine New York driver's license for photo ID at the gate. She boarded her plane about the time the driver was starting his second day on the road.
After his second stop for gas on the first day, he had made a detour into the New Mexico hills and found a quiet dusty shoulder where he squatted in the cool thin air and changed the car's California plates for Arizona plates, which he took from the heavier valise. He wound his way back to the highway and drove another hour, then pulled off the road and found a motel. He paid cash, used a Tucson address, and let the desk clerk copy the Arizona plate number onto the registration form.
He slept six hours with the room air on low and was back on the road early. Made it to Dallas-Fort Worth at the end of the second day and parked in the airport long-term lot. Took his valises with him and used the shuttle bus to departures. Took the moving stairs straight down to arrivals and lined up at the Hertz counter. Hertz, because they rent Fords, and he needed a Crown Victoria.
He did the paperwork, with Illinois ID. Rode the bus to the Hertz lot and found his car. It was the plain-jane Crown Vic, in steel blue metallic, neither light nor dark. He was happy with it. He heaved his bags into the trunk and drove to a motel near the new ballpark on the road from Fort Worth to Dallas. Checked in with the same Illinois ID, ate, and slept a few hours. He woke early and met his two partners in the fierce morning heat outside the motel at exactly the same moment Jack Reacher first stuck out his thumb, more than four hundred miles away in Lubbock.
Second surprise after the cop showing up was he got a ride within three minutes. He wasn't even sweating yet. His shirt was still dry. Third surprise was the driver who stopped for him was a woman. Fourth and biggest surprise of all was the direction their subsequent conversation took.
He had been hitching rides for the best part of twenty-five years, in more countries than he could easily recall, and three minutes was about the shortest interval between sticking out his thumb and climbing into a car he could remember. As a mode of transportation, hitching rides was dying out. That was his conclusion, based on a lot of experience. Commercial drivers had insurance problems with it, and private citizens were getting worried about it. Because who knew what kind of a psycho you were? And in Reacher's case, it was worse than the average, especially right then. He wasn't some dapper little guy, neat and inoffensive. He was a giant, six-five, heavily built, close to two hundred and fifty pounds. Up close, he was usually scruffy, usually unshaven, and his hair was usually a mess. People worried about him. They stayed away from him. And now he had the fresh new bruise on his forehead. Which was why he was surprised about the three minutes.
And why he was surprised about the woman driver. There's usually a pecking order, based on some kind of subconscious assessment of risk. Top of the list, a young girl will get a ride from an older man easiest of all, because where's the threat in that? Although now, with some of the young girls turning into scam artists wanting a hundred bucks in exchange for dropping fake molestation claims, even that is getting harder. And whatever, right down there at the bottom of the list is a big scruffy guy getting a ride from a neat slender woman in an expensive coupe. But it happened. Within three minutes.
He was hurrying south and west of the motel strip, stunned by the heat, hard to see in the jagged morning shadows, his left thumb jammed out urgently, when she pulled over at his side with the wet hiss of wide tires on hot pavement. It was a big white car and the sun on the hood dazzled him. He turned blindly and she buzzed her far window down. Seven forty-two, Friday morning.
"Where to?" she called, like she was a cab driver, not a private citizen.
"Anywhere," he said.
He regretted it, instantly. It was a dumb thing to say, because to have no specific destination usually makes things worse. They think you're some kind of an aimless drifter, which makes them suspicious, and makes them worried they might never get rid of you. Makes them worried you'll want to ride all the way home with them. But this woman just nodded.
"O.K.," she said. "I'm headed down past Pecos."
He paused a beat, surprised. Her head was ducked down, her face tilted up, looking out at him through the window.
"Great," he said.
He stepped off the curb and opened the door and slid inside. The interior was freezing cold. She had the air roaring on maximum and the seat was leather and it felt like a block of ice. She buzzed the window up again with the button on her side as he swung the door shut behind him.
"Thanks," he said. "You don't know how much I appreciate this."
She said nothing. Just made some kind of all-purpose dismissive gesture away from him as she craned to look over her shoulder at the traffic stream behind her. People have their reasons for giving rides, all of them different. Maybe they hitched a lot when they were younger and now they're settled and comfortable they want to put back what they took out. Like a circular thing. Maybe they have charitable natures. Or maybe they're just lonely and want a little conversation.
But if this woman wanted conversation she was in no kind of a hurry to get it started. She just waited for a couple of trucks to labor past and pulled out behind them without a word. Reacher glanced around inside the car. It was a Cadillac, two doors, but as long as a boat, and very fancy. Maybe a couple of years old, but as clean as a whistle. The leather was the color of old bones and the glass was tinted like an empty bottle of French wine. There was a pocketbook and a small briefcase thrown on the back seat. The pocketbook was anonymous and black, maybe plastic. The briefcase was made from weathered cowhide, the sort of thing that already looks old when you buy it. It was zipped open and there was a lot of folded paper stuffed in it, the sort of thing you see in a lawyer's office.
"Move the seat back, if you want," the woman said. "Give yourself room."
"Thanks," he said again.
He found switches on the door shaped like seat cushions. He fiddled with them and quiet motors eased him rearward and reclined his backrest. Then he lowered the seat, to make himself inconspicuous from outside. The motors whirred. It was like being in a dentist's chair.
"That looks better," she said. "More comfortable for you."
Her own chair was tight up to the wheel, because she was small. He twisted in his seat so he could look her over without staring straight at her. She was short and slim, dark-skinned, fine-boned. Altogether a small person. Maybe a hundred pounds, maybe thirty years old. Long black wavy hair, dark eyes, small white teeth visible behind a tense half-smile. Mexican, he guessed, but not the type of Mexican who swims the Rio Grande looking for a better life. This woman's ancestors had enjoyed a better life for hundreds of years. That was pretty clear. It was in her genes. She looked like some kind of Aztec royalty. She was wearing a simple cotton dress, printed with a pale pattern. Not much to it, but it looked expensive. It was sleeveless and finished above her knees. Her arms and legs were dark and smooth, like they had been polished.
"So, where are you headed?" she asked.
Then she paused and smiled wider. "No, I already asked you that. You didn't seem very clear about where you want to go."
Her accent was pure American, maybe more western than southern. She was steering two-handed, and he could see rings on her fingers. There was a slim wedding band, and a platinum thing with a big diamond.
"Anywhere," Reacher said. "Anywhere I end up, that's where I want to go."
She paused and smiled again. "Are you running away from something? Have I picked up a dangerous fugitive?"
Her smile meant it wasn't a serious question, but he found himself thinking maybe it ought to have been. It wasn't too far-fetched, in the circumstances. She was taking a risk. The sort of risk that was killing the art of hitching rides, as a mode of transportation.
"I'm exploring," he said.
"Exploring Texas? They already discovered it."
"Like a tourist," he said.
"But you don't look like a tourist. The tourists we get wear polyester leisure suits and come in a bus."
She smiled again as she said it. She looked good when she smiled. She looked assured and self-possessed, and refined to the point of elegance. An elegant Mexican woman, wearing an expensive dress, clearly comfortable with talking. Driving a Cadillac. He was suddenly aware of his short answers, and his hair and his stubble and his stained shirt and his creased khaki pants. And the big bruise on his forehead.
"You live around here?" he asked, because she'd said the tourists we get, and he felt he needed something to say.
"I live south of Pecos," she said. "More than three hundred miles from here. I told you, that's where I'm headed."
"Never been there," he said.
She went quiet and waited at a light. Took off again through a wide junction and hugged the right lane. He watched her thigh move as she pressed on the gas pedal. Her bottom lip was caught between her teeth. Her eyes were narrowed. She was tense about something, but she had it under control.
"So, did you explore Lubbock?" she asked.
"I saw the Buddy Holly statue."
He saw her glance down at the radio, like she was thinking this guy likes music, maybe I should put some on.
"You like Buddy Holly?" she asked.
"Not really," Reacher said. "Too tame for me."
She nodded at the wheel. "I agree. I think Ritchie Valens was better. He was from Lubbock, too."
He nodded back. "I saw him in the Walk of Fame."
"How long were you in Lubbock?"
"And now you're moving on."
"That's the plan."
"To wherever," she said.
"That's the plan," he said again.
They passed the city limit. There was a small metal sign on a pole on the sidewalk. He smiled to himself. City Police, the shield on the cop car had said. He turned his head and watched danger disappear behind him. The two men sat in the front of the Crown Victoria, with the tall fair man driving to give the small dark man a break. The woman sat in the back. They rolled out of the motel lot and picked up speed on I-20, heading west, toward Fort Worth, away from Dallas. Nobody spoke. Thinking about the vast interior of Texas was oppressing them. The woman had read a guidebook in preparation for the mission that pointed out that the state makes up fully seven percent of America's land mass and is bigger than most European countries. That didn't impress her. Everybody knew all that standard-issue Texas-is-real-big bullshit. Everybody always has. But the guide book also pointed out that side-to-side Texas is wider than the distance between New York and Chicago. That information had some impact. And it underlined why they were facing such a long drive, just to get from one nowhere interior location to another.
But the car was quiet and cool and comfortable, and it was as good a place to relax as any motel room would be. They had a little time to kill, after all.
The woman slowed and made a shallow right, toward New Mexico, then a mile later a left, straight south, toward old Mexico. Her dress was creased across the middle, like maybe she was wearing it a second day. Her perfume was subtle, mixed into the freezing air from the dashboard vents.
"So is Pecan worth seeing?" Reacher asked, in the silence.
"Pecos," she said.
"I like it," she said. "It's mostly Mexican, so I'm comfortable there."
Her right hand tensed on the wheel. He saw tendons shifting under the skin.
"You like Mexican people?" she asked.
He shrugged back. "As much as I like any people, I guess."
"You don't like people?"
"You like cantaloupe?"
"As much as I like any fruit."
"Pecos grows the sweetest cantaloupe in the whole of Texas," she said. "And therefore, in their opinion, in the whole of the world. Also there's a rodeo there in July, but you've missed it for this year. And just north of Pecos is Loving County. You ever heard of Loving County?"
He shook his head. "Never been here before."
"It's the least-populated county in the whole of the United States," she said. "Well, if you leave out some of the places in Alaska, I guess. But also the richest, per capita. Population is a hundred and ten souls, but there are four hundred and twenty oil leases active."
He nodded. "So let me out in Pecos. It sounds like a fun place."
"It was the real Wild West," she said. "A long time ago, of course. The Texas and Pacific Railroad put a stop there. So there were saloons and all. Used to be a bad place. It was a word, too, as well as a town. A verb, and also a place. To pecos somebody meant to shoot them and throw them in the Pecos River."
"They still do that?"
She smiled again. A different smile. This smile traded some elegance for some mischief. It eased her tension. It made her appealing.
"No, they don't do that so much, now," she said.
"Your family from Pecos?"
"No, California," she said. "I came to Texas when I got married."
Keep talking, he thought. She saved your ass.
"Been married long?" he asked.
"Just under seven years."
"Your family been in California long?"
She paused and smiled again.
"Longer than any Californian, that's for sure," she said.
They were in flat empty country and she eased the silent car faster down a dead-straight road. The hot sky was tinted bottle-green by the windshield. The instrumentation on her dashboard showed it was a hundred and ten degrees outside and sixty inside.
"You a lawyer?" he asked.
She was puzzled for a moment, and then she made the connection and craned to glance at her briefcase in the mirror.
"No," she said. "I'm a lawyer's client."
The conversation went dead again. She seemed nervous, and he felt awkward about it.
"And what else are you?" he asked.
She paused a beat.
"Somebody's wife and mother," she said. "And somebody's daughter and sister, I guess. And I keep a few horses. That's all. What are you?"
"Nothing in particular," Reacher said.
"You have to be something," she said.
"Well, I used to be things," he said. "I was somebody's son, and somebody's brother, and somebody's boyfriend."
"My parents died, my brother died, my girlfriend left me."
Not a great line, he thought. She said nothing back.
"And I don't have any horses," he added.
"I'm very sorry," she said.
"That I don't have horses?"
"No, that you're all alone in the world."
"Water under the bridge," he said. "It's not as bad as it sounds."
"You're not lonely?"
He shrugged. "I like being alone."
She paused. "Why did your girlfriend leave you?"
"She went to work in Europe."
"And you couldn't go with her?"
"She didn't really want me to go with her."
"I see," she said. "Did you want to go with her?"
He was quiet for a beat.
"Not really, I guess," he said. "Too much like settling down."
"And you don't want to settle down?"
He shook his head. "Two nights in the same motel gives me the creeps."
"Hence one day in Lubbock," she said.
"And the next day in Pecos," he said.
"And after that?"
"After that, I have no idea," he said. "And that's the way I like it."
She drove on, silent as the car.
"So you are running away from something," she said. "Maybe you had a very settled life before and you want to escape from that particular feeling."
He shook his head again. "No, the exact opposite, really. I was in the army all my life, which is very unsettled, and I grew to like the feeling."
"I see," she said. "You became habituated to chaos, maybe."
"I guess so."
She paused. "How is a person in the army all his life?"
"My father was in, too. So I grew up on military bases all over the world, and then I stayed in afterward."
"But now you're out."
He nodded. "All trained up and nowhere to go."
He saw her thinking about his answer. He saw her tension come back. She started stepping harder on the gas, maybe without realizing it, maybe like an involuntary reflex. He had the feeling her interest in him was quickening, like the car.
Ford builds Crown Victorias at its plant up in St. Thomas, Canada, tens of thousands a year, and almost all of them without exception are sold to police departments, taxicab companies, or rental fleets. Almost none of them are sold to private citizens. Full-size turnpike cruisers no longer earn much of a market share, and for those die-hards who still want one from the Ford Motor Company, the Mercury Grand Marquis is the same car in fancier clothes for about the same money, so it mops up the private sales. Which makes private Crown Vics rarer than red Rolls-Royces, so the subliminal response when you see one that isn't taxicab yellow or black and white with Police all over the doors is to think it's an unmarked detective's car. Or government issue of some other kind, maybe U.S. Marshals, or FBI, or Secret Service, or a courtesy vehicle given to a medical examiner or a big-city fire chief.
That's the subliminal impression, and there are ways to enhance it a little.
In the empty country halfway to Abilene, the tall fair man pulled off the highway and headed through vast fields and past dense woodlands until he found a dusty turn-out probably ten miles from the nearest human being. He stopped there and turned off the motor and popped the trunk. The small dark man heaved the heavy valise out and laid it on the ground. The woman zipped it open and handed a pair of Virginia plates to the tall fair man. He took a screwdriver from the valise and removed the Texas plates, front and rear. Bolted the Virginia issue in their place. The small dark man pulled the plastic covers off all four wheels, leaving the cheap black steel rims showing. He stacked the wheel covers like plates and pitched them into the trunk. The woman took radio antennas from the valise, four of them, CB whips and cellular telephone items bought cheap at a Radio Shack in L.A. The cellular antennas stuck to the rear window with self-adhesive pads. She waited until the trunk was closed again and placed the CB antennas on the lid. They had magnetic bases. They weren't wired up to anything. They were just for show.
Then the small dark man took his rightful place behind the wheel and U-turned through the dust and headed back to the highway, cruising easily. A Crown Vic, plain steel wheels, a forest of antennas, Virginia plates. Maybe an FBI pool car, three agents inside, maybe on urgent business. "What did you do in the army?" the woman asked, very casually.
"I was a cop," Reacher said.
"They have cops in the army?"
"Sure they do," he said. "Military police. Like cops, inside the service."
"I didn't know that," she said.
She went quiet again. She was thinking hard. She seemed excited.
"Would you mind if I asked you some questions?" she said.
He shrugged. "You're giving me a ride."
She nodded. "I wouldn't want to offend you."
"That would be hard to do, in the circumstances. Hundred and ten degrees out there, sixty in here."
"There'll be a storm soon. There has to be, with a temperature like this."
He glanced ahead at the sky. It was tinted bottle-green by the windshield glass, and it was blindingly clear.
"I don't see any sign of it," he said.
She smiled again, briefly. "May I ask where you live?"
"I don't live anywhere," he said. "I move around."
"You don't have a home somewhere?"
He shook his head. "What you see is what I've got."
"You travel light," she said.
"Light as I can."
She paused for a fast mile.
"Are you out of work?" she asked.
He nodded. "Usually."
"Were you a good cop? In the army?"
"Good enough, I guess. They made me a major, gave me some medals."
She paused. "So why did you leave?"
It felt like an interview. For a loan, or for a job.
"They downsized me out of there," he said. "End of the Cold War, they wanted a smaller army, not so many people in it, so they didn't need so many cops to look after them."
She nodded. "Like a town. If the population gets smaller, the police department gets smaller, too. Something to do with appropriations. Taxes, or something."
He said nothing.
"I live in a very small town," she said. "Echo, south of Pecos, like I told you. It's a lonely place. That's why they named it Echo. Not because it's echoey, like an empty room. It's from ancient Greek mythology. Echo was a young girl in love with Narcissus. But he loved himself, not her, so she pined away until just her voice was left. So that's why it's called Echo. Not many inhabitants. But it's a county, too. A county and a township. Not as empty as Loving County, but there's no police department at all. Just the county sheriff, on his own."
Something in her voice.
"Is that a problem?" he asked.
"It's a very white county," she said. "Not like Pecos at all."
"So one feels there might be a problem, if push came to shove."
"And has push come to shove?"
She smiled, awkwardly.
"I can tell you were a cop," she said. "You ask so many questions. And it's me who wanted to ask all the questions."
She fell silent for a spell and just drove, slim dark hands light on the wheel, going fast but not hurrying. He used the cushion-shaped buttons again and laid his seat back another fraction. Watched her in the corner of his eye. She was pretty, but she was troubled. Ten years from now, she was going to have some excellent frown lines.
"What was life like in the army?" she asked.
"Different," he said. "Different from life outside the army."
"Different rules, different situations. It was a world of its own. It was very regulated, but it was kind of lawless. Kind of rough and uncivilized."
"Like the Wild West," she said.
"I guess," he said back. "A million people trained first and foremost to do what needed doing. The rules came afterward."
"Like the Wild West," she said again. "I think you liked it."
He nodded. "Some of it."
She paused. "May I ask you a personal question?"
"Go ahead," he said.
"What's your name?"
"Reacher," he said.
"Is that your first name? Or your last?"
"People just call me Reacher," he said.
She paused again. "May I ask you another personal question?"
"Have you killed people, Reacher? In the army?"
He nodded again. "Some."
"That's what the army is all about, fundamentally, isn't it?" she said.
"I guess so," he said. "Fundamentally."
She went quiet again. Like she was struggling with a decision.
"There's a museum in Pecos," she said. "A real Wild West museum. It's partly in an old saloon, and partly in the old hotel next door. Out back is the site of Clay Allison's grave. You ever heard of Clay Allison?"
Reacher shook his head.
"They called him the Gentleman Gunfighter," she said. "He retired, actually, but then he fell under the wheels of a grain cart and he died from his injuries. They buried him there. There's a nice headstone, with 'Robert Clay Allison, 1840-1887' on it. I've seen it. And an inscription. The inscription says, 'He never killed a man that did not need killing.' What do you think of that?"
"I think it's a fine inscription," Reacher said.
"There's an old newspaper, too," she said. "In a glass case. From Kansas City, I think, with his obituary in it. It says, 'Certain it is that many of his stern deeds were for the right as he understood that right to be.'"
The Cadillac sped on south.
"A fine obituary," Reacher said.
"You think so?"
He nodded. "As good as you can get, probably."
"Would you like an obituary like that?"
"Well, not just yet," Reacher said.
She smiled again, apologetically.
"No," she said. "I guess not. But do you think you would like to qualify for an obituary like that? I mean, eventually?"
"I can think of worse things," he said.
She said nothing.
"You want to tell me where this is heading?" he asked.
"This road?" she said, nervously.
"No, this conversation."
She drove on for a spell, and then she lifted her foot off the gas pedal and coasted. The car slowed and she pulled off onto the dusty shoulder. The shoulder fell away into a dry irrigation ditch and it put the car at a crazy angle, tilted way down on his side. She put the transmission in park with a small delicate motion of her wrist, and she left the engine idling and the air roaring.
"My name is Carmen Greer," she said. "And I need your help."
2. "It wasn't an accident I picked you up, you know," Carmen Greer said.
Reacher's back was pressed against his door. The Cadillac was listing like a sinking ship, canted hard over on the shoulder. The slippery leather seat gave him no leverage to struggle upright. The woman had one hand on the wheel and the other on his seat back, propping herself above him. Her face was a foot away. It was unreadable. She was looking past him, out at the dust of the ditch.
"You going to be able to drive off this slope?" he asked.
She glanced back and up at the blacktop. Its rough surface was shimmering with heat, about level with the base of her window.
"I think so," she said. "I hope so."
"I hope so, too," he said.
She just stared at him.
"So why did you pick me up?" he asked.
"Why do you think?"
"I don't know," he said. "I thought I just got lucky. I guess I thought you were a kind person doing a stranger a favor."
She shook her head.
"No, I was looking for a guy like you," she said.
"I must have picked up a dozen guys," she said. "And I've seen hundreds. That's about all I've been doing, all month long. Cruising around West Texas, looking at who needs a ride."
She shrugged the question away. A dismissive little gesture.
"The miles I've put on this car," she said. "It's unbelievable. And the money I've spent on gas."
"Why?" he asked again.
She went quiet. Wouldn't answer. Just went into a long silence. The armrest on the door was digging into his kidney. He arched his back and pressed with his shoulders and adjusted his position. Found himself wishing somebody else had picked him up. Somebody content just to motor from A to B. He looked up at her.
"Can I call you Carmen?" he asked.
She nodded. "Sure. Please."
"O.K., Carmen," he said. "Tell me what's going on here, will you?"
Her mouth opened, and then it closed again. Opened, and closed.
"I don't know how to start," she said. "Now that it's come to it."
"Come to what?"
She wouldn't answer.
"You better tell me exactly what you want," he said. "Or I'm getting out of the car right here, right now."
"It's a hundred and ten degrees out there."
"I know it is."
"A person could die in this heat."
"I'll take my chances."
"You can't get your door open," she said. "The car is tilted too much."
"Then I'll punch out the windshield."
She paused a beat.
"I need your help," she said again.
"You never saw me before."
"Not personally," she said. "But you fit the bill."
She went quiet again. Came up with a brief, ironic smile.
"It's so difficult," she said. "I've rehearsed this speech a million times, but now I don't know if it's going to come out right."
Reacher said nothing. Just waited.
"You ever had anything to do with lawyers?" she asked. "They don't do anything for you. They just want a lot of money and a lot of time, and then they tell you there's nothing much to be done."
"So get a new lawyer," he said.
"I've had four," she said. "Four, in a month. They're all the same. And they're all too expensive. I don't have enough money."
"You're driving a Cadillac."
"It's my mother-in-law's. I'm only borrowing it."
"You're wearing a big diamond ring."
She went quiet again. Her eyes clouded.
"My husband gave it to me," she said.
He looked at her. "So can't he help you?"
"No, he can't help me," she said. "Have you ever gone looking for a private detective?"
"Never needed one. I was a detective."
"They don't really exist," she said. "Not like you see in the movies. They just want to sit in their offices and work with the phone. Or on their computers, with their databases. They won't come out and actually do anything for you. I went all the way to Austin. A guy there said he could help, but he wanted to use six men and charge me nearly ten thousand dollars a week."
"So I got desperate. I was really panicking. Then I got this idea. I figured if I looked at people hitching rides, I might find somebody. One of them might turn out to be the right type of person, and willing to help me. I tried to choose pretty carefully. I only stopped for rough-looking men."
"Thanks, Carmen," Reacher said.
"I don't mean it badly," she said. "It's not uncomplimentary."
"But it could have been dangerous."
She nodded. "It nearly was, a couple of times. But I had to take the risk. I had to find somebody. I figured I might get rodeo guys, or men from the oil fields. You know, tough guys, roughnecks, maybe out of work, with a little time on their hands. Maybe a little anxious to earn some money, but I can't pay much. Is that going to be a problem?"
"So far, Carmen, everything is going to be a problem."
She went quiet again.
"I talked to them all," she said. "You know, chatted with them a little, discussed things, like we did. I was trying to make some kind of judgment about what they were like, inside, in terms of their characters. I was trying to assess their qualities. Maybe twelve of them. And none of them were really any good. But I think you are."
"You think I'm what?"
"I think you're my best chance so far," she said. "Really, I do. A former cop, been in the army, no ties anywhere, you couldn't be better."
"I'm not looking for a job, Carmen."
She nodded happily. "I know. I figured that out already. But that's better still, I think. It keeps it pure, don't you see that? Help for help's sake. No mercenary aspect to it. And your background is perfect. It obligates you."
He stared at her. "No, it doesn't."
"You were a soldier," she said. "And a policeman. It's perfect. You're supposed to help people. That's what cops do."
"We spent most of our time busting heads. Not a whole lot of helping went on."
"But it must have. That's what cops are for. It's like their fundamental duty. And an army cop is even better. You said it yourself, you do what's necessary."
"If you need a cop, go to the county sheriff. Pecos, or wherever it is."
"Echo," she said. "I live in Echo. South of Pecos."
"Wherever," he said. "Go to the sheriff."
She was shaking her head. "No, I can't do that."
Reacher said nothing more. Just lay half on his back, pressed up against the door by the car's steep angle. The engine was idling patiently, and the air was still roaring. The woman was still braced above him. She had gone silent. She was staring out past him and blinking, like she was about to cry. Like she was ready for a big flood of tears. Like she was tragically disappointed, maybe with him, maybe with herself.
"You must think I'm crazy," she said.
He turned his head and looked hard at her, top to toe. Strong slim legs, strong slim arms, the expensive dress. It was riding up on her thighs, and he could see her bra strap at her shoulder. It was snow white against the color of her skin. She had clean combed hair and trimmed painted nails. An elegant, intelligent face, tired eyes.
"I'm not crazy," she said.
Then she looked straight at him. Something in her face. Maybe an appeal. Or maybe hopelessness, or desperation.
"It's just that I've dreamed about this for a month," she said. "My last hope. It was a ridiculous plan, I guess, but it's all I had. And there was always the chance it would work, and with you I think maybe it could, and now I'm screwing it up by coming across like a crazy woman."
He paused a long time. Minutes. He thought back to a pancake house he'd seen in Lubbock, right across the strip from his motel. It had looked pretty good. He could have crossed the street, gone in there, had a big stack with bacon on the side. Lots of syrup. Maybe an egg. He would have come out a half hour after she blew town. He could be sitting next to some cheerful trucker now, listening to rock and roll on the radio. On the other hand, he could be bruised and bleeding in a police cell, with an arraignment date coming up.
"So start over," he said. "Just say what you've got to say. But first, drive us out of this damn ditch. I'm very uncomfortable. And I could use a cup of coffee. Is there anyplace up ahead where we could get coffee?"
"I think so," she said. "Yes, there is. About an hour, I think."
"So let's go there. Let's get a cup of coffee."
"You're going to dump me and run," she said.
It was an attractive possibility. She stared at him, maybe five long seconds, and then she nodded, like a decision was made. She put the transmission in D and hit the gas. The car had front-wheel drive, and all the weight was on the back, so the tires just clawed at nothing and spun. Gravel rattled against the underbody and a cloud of hot khaki dust rose up all around them. Then the tires caught and the car heaved itself out of the ditch and bounced up over the edge of the blacktop. She got it straight in the lane, and then she floored it and took off south.
"I don't know where to begin," she said.
"At the beginning," he said. "Always works best that way. Think about it, tell me over coffee. We've got the time."
She shook her head. Stared forward through the windshield, eyes locked on the empty shimmering road ahead. She was quiet for a mile, already doing seventy.
"No, we don't," she said. "It's real urgent." Fifty miles southwest of Abilene, on a silent county road ten miles north of the main east-west highway, the Crown Victoria waited quietly on the shoulder, its engine idling, its hood unlatched and standing an inch open for better cooling. All around it was flatness so extreme the curvature of the earth was revealed, the dusty parched brush falling slowly away to the horizon in every direction. There was no traffic, and therefore no noise beyond the tick and whisper of the idling engine and the heavy buzz of the earth baking and cracking under the unbearable heat of the sun.
The driver had the electric door mirror racked all the way outward so he could see the whole of the road behind him. The Crown Vic's own dust had settled and the view was clear for about a mile, right back to the point where the blacktop and the sky mixed together and broke and boiled into a silvery shimmering mirage. The driver had his eyes focused on that distant glare, waiting for it to be pierced by the indistinct shape of a car.
He knew what car it would be. The team was well briefed. It would be a white Mercedes Benz, driven by a man on his own toward an appointment he couldn't miss. The man would be driving fast, because he would be running late, because he was habitually late for everything. They knew the time of his appointment, and they knew his destination was thirty miles farther on up the road, so simple arithmetic gave them a target time they could set their watches by. A target time that was fast approaching.
"So let's do it," the driver said.
He stepped out of the car into the heat and clicked the hood down into place. Slid back into the seat and took a ball cap from the woman. It was one of three bought from a souvenir vendor on Hollywood Boulevard, thirteen ninety-five each. It was dark blue, with FBI machine-embroidered in white cotton thread across the front. The driver squared it on his head and pulled the peak low over his eyes. Moved the transmission lever into drive and kept his foot hard on the brake. Leaned forward a fraction and kept his eyes on the mirror.
"Right on time," he said.
The silver mirage was boiling and wobbling and a white shape pulled free of it and speared out toward them like a fish leaping out of water. The shape settled and steadied on the road, moving fast, crouching low. A white Mercedes sedan, wide tires, dark windows.
The driver eased his foot off the brake and the Crown Vic crawled forward through the dust. He touched the gas when the Mercedes was still a hundred yards behind him. The Mercedes roared past and the Crown Vic pulled out into the hot blast of its slipstream. The driver straightened the wheel and accelerated. Smiled with his lips hard together. The killing crew was going to work again. The Mercedes driver saw headlights flashing in his mirror and looked again and saw the sedan behind him. Two peaked caps silhouetted in the front seat. He dropped his eyes automatically to his speedometer, which was showing more than ninety. Felt the cold oh-shit stab in his chest. Eased off the gas while he calculated how late he was already and how far he still had to go and what his best approach to these guys should be. Humility? Or maybe I'm-too-important-to-be-hassled? Or what about a sort of come-on-guys, I'm-working-too camaraderie?
The sedan pulled alongside as he slowed and he saw three people, one of them a woman. Radio antennas all over the car. No lights, no siren. Not regular cops. The driver was waving him to the shoulder. The woman was pressing an ID wallet against her window. It had FBI in two-inch-high letters. Their caps said FBI. Serious-looking people, in some kind of duty fatigues. Serious-looking squad car. He relaxed a little. The FBI didn't stop you for speeding. Must be something else. Maybe some kind of security check, which made sense considering what lay thirty miles up the road. He nodded to the woman and braked and eased right, onto the shoulder. He feathered the pedal and coasted to a stop in a big cloud of dust. The Bureau car eased up and stopped behind him, the brightness of its headlight beams dimmed by the cloud. The way to do it is to keep them quiet and alive as long as possible. Postpone any kind of struggle. Struggling leads to evidence, blood and fibers and body fluids spraying and leaking all over the place. So they all three got out of the car at a medium speed, like they were harassed professionals dealing with something important, but not something right up there at the top of their agenda.
"Mr. Eugene?" the woman called. "Al Eugene, right?"
The Mercedes driver opened his door and slid out of his seat and stood up in the heat and the glare. He was around thirty, not tall, dark and sallow, soft and rounded. He faced the woman, and she saw some kind of innate southern courtesy toward women place him at an immediate disadvantage.
"What can I do for you, ma'am?" he asked.
"Your cellular phone not working, sir?" the woman asked.
Eugene patted at the pocket of his suit coat.
"Should be," he said.
"May I see it, sir?"
Eugene took it out of his pocket and handed it over. The woman dialed a number and looked surprised.
"Seems O.K.," she said. "Sir, can you spare us five minutes?"
"Maybe," Eugene said. "If you tell me what for."
"We have an FBI assistant director a mile up the road, needs to speak with you. Something urgent, I guess, or we wouldn't be here, and something pretty important, or we'd have been told what it's all about."
Eugene pulled back his cuff and looked at his watch.
"I have an appointment," he said.
The woman was nodding. "We know about that, sir. We took the liberty of calling ahead and rescheduling for you. Five minutes is all we need."
"Can I see some ID?" he asked.
The woman handed over her wallet. It was made of worn black leather and had a milky plastic window on the outside. There was an FBI photo-ID behind it, laminated and embossed and printed with the kind of slightly old-fashioned typeface the federal government might use. Like most people in the United States, Eugene had never seen an FBI ID. He assumed he was looking at his first.
"Up the road a-piece?" he said. "O.K., I'll follow you, I guess."
"We'll drive you," the woman said. "There's a checkpoint in place, and civilian cars make them real nervous. We'll bring you right back. Five minutes, is all."
Eugene shrugged again.
"O.K.," he said.
They all walked as a group back toward the Crown Vic. The driver held the front passenger door for Eugene.
"You ride up here, sir," he said. "They're listing you as a class-A individual, and if we put a class-A individual in the backseat, then we'll get our asses kicked but good, that's for damn sure."
They saw Eugene swell up a little from his assigned status. He nodded and ducked down and slid into the front seat. Either he hadn't noticed they still had his phone, or he didn't care. The driver closed the door on him and ducked around the hood to his own. The tall fair man and the woman climbed into the rear. The Crown Vic eased around the parked Benz and pulled left onto the blacktop. Accelerated up to about fifty-five.
"Ahead," the woman said.
The driver nodded.
"I see it," he said. "We'll make it."
There was a plume of dust on the road, three or four miles into the distance. It was rising up and dragging left in the faint breeze. The driver slowed, hunting the turn he had scouted thirty minutes before. He spotted it and pulled left and crossed the opposite shoulder and bumped down through a depression where the road was built up like a causeway. Then he slewed to the right, tight in behind a stand of brush tall enough to hide the car. The man and the woman in the rear seat came out with handguns and leaned forward and jammed them into Eugene's neck, right behind the ears where the structure of the human skull provides two nice muzzle-shaped sockets.
"Sit real still," the woman said.
Eugene sat real still. Two minutes later, a big dark vehicle blasted by above them. A truck, or a bus. Dust clouded the sky and the brush rustled in the moving air. The driver got out and approached Eugene's door with a gun in his hand. He opened the door and leaned in and jammed the muzzle into Eugene's throat, where the ends of the collarbones make another convenient socket.
"Get out," he said. "Real careful."
"What?" was all Eugene could say.
"We'll tell you what," the woman said. "Now get out."
Eugene got out, with three guns at his head.
"Step away from the car," the woman said. "Walk away from the road."
This was the tricky time. Eugene was glancing around as far and as fast as he dared move his head. His eyes were jumping. His body was twitching. He stepped away from the car. One pace, two, three. Eyes everywhere. The woman nodded.
"Al," she called loudly.
Her two partners jumped away, long sideways strides. Eugene's head snapped around to face the woman who had called his name. She shot him through the right eye. The sound of the gun clapped and rolled across the hot landscape like thunder. The back of Eugene's head came off in a messy cloud and he went straight down and sprawled in a loose tangle of arms and legs. The woman stepped around him and crouched down and took a closer look. Then she stepped away and stood up straight with her legs and arms spread, like she was ready to be searched at the airport.
"Check," she said.
The two men stepped close and examined every inch of her skin and clothing. They checked her hair and her hands.
"Clear," the small dark man said.
"Clear," the tall fair man said.
She nodded. A faint smile. No residue. No evidence. No blood or bone or brains anywhere on her person.
"O.K.," she said.
The two men stepped back to Eugene and took an arm and a leg each and dragged his body ten feet into the brush. They had found a narrow limestone cleft there, a crack in the rock maybe eight feet deep and a foot and a half across, wide enough to take a man's corpse sideways, too narrow to admit the six-foot wingspan of a vulture or a buzzard. They maneuvered the body until the trailing hand and the trailing foot fell into the hole. Then they lowered away carefully until they were sure the torso would fit. This guy was fatter than some. But he slid in without snagging on the rock. As soon as they were sure, they dropped him the rest of the way. He wedged tight, about seven feet down.
The bloodstains were already drying and blackening. They kicked desert dust over them and swept the area with a mesquite branch to confuse the mass of footprints. Then they walked over and climbed into the Crown Vic and the driver backed up and swung through the brush. Bounced through the dip and up the slope to the roadway. The big car nosed back the way it had come and accelerated gently to fifty-five miles an hour. Moments later it passed by Eugene's white Mercedes, parked right where he'd left it, on the other side of the road. It already looked abandoned and filmed with dust. "I have a daughter," Carmen Greer said. "I told you that, right?"
"You told me you were a mother," Reacher said.
She nodded at the wheel. "Of a daughter. She's six and a half years old."
Then she went quiet for a minute.
"They called her Mary Ellen," she said.
"My husband's family."
"They named your kid?"
"It just happened, I guess. I wasn't in a good position to stop it."
Reacher was quiet for a beat.
"What would you have called her?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Gloria, maybe. I thought she was glorious."
She went quiet again.
"But she's Mary Ellen," he said.
She nodded. "They call her Ellie, for short. Miss Ellie, sometimes."
"And she's six and a half?"
"But we've been married less than seven years. I told you that, too, right? So you can do the math. Is that a problem?"
"Doing the math?"
"Thinking about the implication."
He shook his head at the windshield. "Not a problem to me. Why would it be?"
"Not a problem to me, either," she said. "But it explains why I wasn't in a good position."
He made no reply.
"We got off to all kinds of a bad start," she said. "Me and his family."
She said it with a dying fall in her voice, the way a person might refer back to a tragedy in the past, a car wreck, a plane crash, a fatal diagnosis. The way a person might refer back to the day her life changed forever. She gripped the wheel and the car drove itself on, a cocoon of cold and quiet in the blazing landscape.
"Who are they?" he asked.
"The Greers," she said. "An old Echo County family. Been there since Texas was first stolen. Maybe they were there to steal some of it themselves."
"What are they like?"
"They're what you might expect," she said. "Old white Texans, big money from way back, a lot of it gone now but a lot of it still left, some history with oil and cattle ranching, river-baptized Protestants, not that they ever go to church or think about what the Lord might be saying to them. They hunt animals for pleasure. The father died some time ago, the mother is still alive, there are two sons, and there are cousins all over the county. My husband is the elder boy, Sloop Greer."
"Sloop?" Reacher said.
She smiled for the first time since driving out of the ditch.
"Sloop," she said again.
"What kind of a name is that?"
"An old family name," she said. "Some ancestor, I guess. Probably he was at the Alamo, fighting against mine."
"Sounds like a boat. What's the other boy called? Yacht? Tug? Ocean liner? Oil tanker?"
"Robert," she said. "People call him Bobby."
"Sloop," Reacher said again. "That's a new one to me."
"New to me, too," she said. "The whole thing was new to me. But I used to like his name. It marked him out, somehow."
"I guess it would."
"I met him in California," Carmen said. "We were in school together, UCLA."
"Off of his home turf," Reacher said.
She stopped smiling. "Correct. Only way it could have happened, looking back. If I'd have met him out here, you know, with the whole package out in plain view, it would never have happened. No way. I can promise you that. Always assuming I'd even come out here, in the first place, which I hope I wouldn't have."
She stopped talking and squinted ahead into the glare of the sun. There was a ribbon of black road and a bright shape up ahead on the left, shiny aluminum broken into moving fragments by the haze boiling up off the blacktop.
"There's the diner," she said. "They'll have coffee, I'm sure."
"Strange kind of a diner if it didn't," he said.
"There are lots of strange things here," she said. The diner sat alone on the side of the road, set on a slight rise in the center of an acre of beaten dirt serving as its parking lot. There was a sign on a tall pole and no shade anywhere. There were two pick-up trucks, carelessly parked, far from each other.
"O.K.," she said, hesitant, starting to slow the car. "Now you're going to run. You figure one of those guys with the pick-ups will give you a ride."
He said nothing.
"If you are, do it later, O.K.?" she said. "Please? I don't want to be left alone in a place like this."
She slowed some more and bounced off the road onto the dirt. Parked right next to the sign pole, as if it was a shade tree offering protection from the sun. Its slender shadow fell across the hood like a bar. She pushed the lever into Park and switched off the engine. The air conditioner's compressor hissed and gurgled in the sudden silence. Reacher opened his door. The heat hit him like a steelyard furnace. It was so intense he could barely catch his breath. He stood dumb for a second and waited for her and then they walked together across the hot dirt. It was baked dry and hard, like concrete. Beyond it was a tangle of mesquite brush and a blinding white-hot sky as far as the eye could see. He let her walk half a pace ahead of him, so he could watch her. She had her eyes half-closed and her head bowed, like she didn't want to see or be seen. The hem on her dress had fallen to a decorous knee-length. She moved very gracefully, like a dancer, her upper body erect and perfectly still and her bare legs scissoring elegantly below it.
The diner had a tiny foyer with a cigarette machine and a rack full of flyers about real estate and oil changes and small-town rodeos and gun shows. Inside the second door it was cold again. They stood together in the delicious chill for a moment. There was a register next to the door and a tired waitress sitting sideways on a counter stool. A cook visible in the kitchen. Two men in separate booths, eating. All four people looked up and paused, like there were things they could say but wouldn't.
Reacher looked at each of them for a second and then turned away and led Carmen to a booth at the far end of the room. He slid across sticky vinyl and tilted his head back into a jet of cold air coming down from a vent in the ceiling. Carmen sat opposite and raised her head and he looked at her face-on for the first time.
"My daughter looks nothing at all like me," she said. "Sometimes I think that's the cruelest irony in this whole situation. Those big old Greer genes just about steamrollered mine, that's for sure."
She had spectacular dark eyes with long lashes and a slight tilt to them, and a straight nose that made an open Y-shape against her brows. High cheekbones framed by thick black hair that shone navy in the light. A rosebud of a mouth with a subtle trace of red lipstick. Her skin was smooth and clear, the color of weak tea or dark honey, and it had a translucent glow behind it. It was actually a whole lot lighter in color than Reacher's own sunburned forearms, and he was white and she wasn't.
"So who does Ellie look like?" he asked.
"Them," she said.
The waitress brought ice water and a pad and a pencil and an upturned chin and no conversation. Carmen ordered iced coffee and Reacher ordered his hot and black.
"She doesn't look like she's mine at all," Carmen said. "Pink skin, yellow hair, a little chubby. But she's got my eyes."
"Lucky Ellie," Reacher said.
She smiled briefly. "Thank you. Plan is she should stay lucky."
She held the water glass flat against her face. Then she used a napkin to wipe the dew away. The waitress brought their drinks. The iced coffee was in a tall glass, and she spilled some of it as she put it down. Reacher's was in an insulated plastic carafe, and she shoved an empty china mug across the table next to it. She left the check face down halfway between the two drinks, and walked away without saying anything at all.
"You need to understand I loved Sloop once," Carmen said.
Reacher made no reply, and she looked straight at him.
"Does it bother you to hear this kind of stuff?" she asked.
He shook his head, although the truth was it did bother him, a little. Loners aren't necessarily too comfortable with a stranger's intimacies.
"You told me to start at the beginning," she said.
"Yes," he said. "I did."
"So I will," she said. "I loved him once. You need to understand that. And you need to understand that wasn't hard to do. He was big, and he was handsome, and he smiled a lot, and he was casual, and he was relaxed. And we were in school and we were young, and L.A. is a very special place, where anything seems possible and nothing seems to matter very much."
She took a drinking straw from the canister on the table and unwrapped it.
"And you need to know where I was coming from," she said. "Truth is, I had it all completely backward. I wasn't some Mexican worrying about whether the white family would accept me. I was worrying about my family accepting this gringo boy. That's how it seemed to me. I come from a thousand acres in Napa, we've been there forever, we were always the richest people I knew. And the most cultured. We had the art, and the history, and the music. We gave to museums. We employed white people. So I spent my time worrying about what my folks would say about me marrying out."
He sipped his coffee. It was stewed and old, but it would do.
"And what did they say?" he asked.
"They went insane. I thought they were being foolish. Now I understand they weren't."
"So what happened?"
She sipped her drink through the straw. Took a napkin from a canister and dabbed her lips. It came away marked with her lipstick.
"Well, I was pregnant," she said. "And that made everything a million times worse, of course. My parents are very devout, and they're very traditional, and basically they cut me off, I guess. They disowned me. It was like the whole Victorian thing, expelled from the snowy doorstep with a bundle of rags, except it wasn't snowing, of course, and the bundle of rags was really a Louis Vuitton valise."
"So what did you do?"
"We got married. Nobody came, just a few friends from school. We lived a few months in L.A., we graduated, we stayed there until the baby was a month away. It was fun, actually. We were young and in love."
He poured himself a second cup of coffee.
"But?" he asked.
"But Sloop couldn't find a job. I began to realize he wasn't trying very hard. Getting a job wasn't in his plan. College was four years of fun for him, then it was back to the fold, go take over Daddy's business. His father was ready to retire by then. I didn't like that idea. I thought we were starting up fresh, on our own, you know, a new generation on both sides. I felt I'd given stuff up, and I thought he should, too. So we argued a lot. I couldn't work, because of being so pregnant, and I had no money of my own. So in the end we couldn't make the rent, so in the end he won the argument, and we trailed back here to Texas, and we moved in to the big old house with his folks and his brother and his cousins all around, and I'm still there."
The dying fall was back in her voice. The day her life changed forever.
"And?" he asked.
She looked straight at him. "And it was like the ground opens up and you fall straight through to hell. It was such a shock, I couldn't even react at all. They treated me strange, and the second day I suddenly realized what was going on. All my life I'd been like a princess, you know, and then I was just a hip kid among ten thousand others in L.A., but now I was suddenly just a piece of beaner trash. They never said it straight out, but it was so clear. They hated me, because I was the greaseball whore who'd hooked their darling boy. They were painfully polite, because I guess their strategy was to wait for Sloop to come to his senses and dump me. It happens, you know, in Texas. The good old boys, when they're young and foolish, they like a little dark meat. Sometimes it's like a rite of passage. Then they wise up and straighten out. I knew that's what they were thinking. And hoping. And it was a shock, believe me. I had never thought of myself like that. Never. I'd never had to. Never had to confront it. The whole world was turned upside down, in an instant. Like falling in freezing water. Couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't even move."
"But he didn't dump you, evidently."
She looked down at the table.
"No," she said. "He didn't dump me. He started hitting me instead. First time, he punched me in the face. Then Ellie was born the next day." The Crown Victoria turned back into a normal Hertz rental behind a stand of trees eight miles off the highway, halfway between Abilene and Big Spring. The Virginia plates came off, and the Texas plates went back on. The plastic wheel covers were kicked back into place. The cellular antennas were peeled off the rear glass and laid back in the valise. The CB whips pulled clear of the sheet metal and joined them. The souvenir ball caps were nested together and packed away with the handguns. Eugene's mobile phone was smashed against a rock and the pieces hurled deep into the thicket. A little grit from the shoulder of the road was sprinkled onto the front passenger seat, so that the rental people would have to vacuum up any of Eugene's stray hairs and fibers along with it.
Then the big sedan pulled back onto the blacktop and wound its way back to the highway. It cruised comfortably, heading west, a forgettable vehicle filled with three forgettable people. It made one more stop, at a comfort area named for the Colorado River, where sodas were consumed and a call was made from an untraceable payphone. The call was to Las Vegas, from where it was re-routed to Dallas, from where it was rerouted to an office in a small town in the west of Texas. The call reported complete success so far, and it was gratefully received. "He split my lip and loosened my teeth," Carmen Greer said.
Reacher watched her face.
"That was the first time," she said. "He just lost it. But straight away he was full of remorse. He drove me to the emergency room himself. It's a long, long drive from the house, hours and hours, and the whole way he was begging me to forgive him. Then he was begging me not to tell the truth about what had happened. He seemed really ashamed, so I agreed. But I never had to say anything anyway, because as soon as we arrived I started into labor and they took me straight upstairs to the delivery unit. Ellie was born the next day."
"And then what?"
"And then it was O.K.," she said. "For a week, at least. Then he started hitting me again. I was doing everything wrong. I was paying too much attention to the baby, I didn't want sex because I was hurting from the stitches. He said I had gotten fat and ugly from the pregnancy."
Reacher said nothing.
"He got me believing it," she said. "For a long, long time. That happens, you know. You've got to be very self-confident to resist it. And I wasn't, in that situation. He took away all my self-esteem. Two or three years, I thought it was my fault, and I tried to do better."
"What did the family do?"
She pushed her glass away. Left the iced coffee half-finished.
"They didn't know about it," she said. "And then his father died, which made it worse. He was the only reasonable one. He was O.K. But now it's just his mother and his brother. He's awful, and she's a witch. And they still don't know. It happens in secret. It's a big house. It's like a compound, really. We're not all on top of each other. And it's all very complicated. He's way too stubborn and proud to ever agree with them he's made a mistake. So the more they're down on me, the more he pretends he loves me. He misleads them. He buys me things. He bought me this ring."
She held up her right hand, bent delicately at the wrist, showing off the platinum band with the big diamond. It looked like a hell of a thing. Reacher had never bought a diamond ring. He had no idea what they cost. A lot, he guessed.
"He bought me horses," she said. "They knew I wanted horses, and he bought them for me, so he could look good in front of them. But really to explain away the bruises. It was his stroke of genius. A permanent excuse. He makes me say I've fallen off. They know I'm still just learning to ride. And that explains a lot in rodeo country, bruises and broken bones. They take it for granted."
"He's broken your bones?"
She nodded, and started touching parts of her body, twisting and turning in the confines of the tight booth, silently recounting her injuries, hesitating slightly now and then like she couldn't recall them all.
"My ribs, first of all, I guess," she said. "He kicks me when I'm on the floor. He does that a lot, when he's mad. My left arm, by twisting it. My collarbone. My jaw. I've had three teeth reimplanted."
He stared at her.
She shrugged. "The emergency room people think I'm the worst rider in the history of the West."
"They believe it?"
"Maybe they just choose to."
"And his mother and brother?"
"Likewise," she said. "Obviously I'm not going to get the benefit of the doubt."
"Why the hell did you stick around? Why didn't you just get out, the very first time?"
She sighed, and she closed her eyes, and she turned her head away. Spread her hands on the table, palms down, and then turned them over, palms up.
"I can't explain it," she whispered. "Nobody can ever explain it. You have to know what it's like. I had no confidence in myself. I had a newborn baby and no money. Not a dime. I had no friends. I was watched all the time. I couldn't even make a call in private."
He said nothing. She opened her eyes and looked straight at him.
"And worst of all, I had nowhere to go," she said.
"Home?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"I never even thought about it," she said. "Taking the beatings was better than trying to crawl back to my family, with a white blond baby in my arms."
He said nothing.
"And the first time you pass up the chance, you've had it," she said. "That's how it is. It just gets worse. Whenever I thought about it, I still had no money, I still had a baby, then she was a one-year-old, then a two-year-old, then a three-year-old. The time is never right. If you stay that first time, you're trapped forever. And I stayed that first time. I wish I hadn't, but I did."
He said nothing. She looked at him, appealing for something.
"You have to take it on faith," she said. "You don't know how it is. You're a man, you're big and strong, somebody hits you, you hit him back. You're on your own, you don't like someplace, you move on. It's different for me. Even if you can't understand it, you have to believe it."
He said nothing.
"I could have gone if I'd left Ellie," she said. "Sloop told me if I left the baby with him, he'd pay my fare anyplace I wanted to go. First class. He said he'd call a limo all the way from Dallas, right there and then, to take me straight to the airport."
He said nothing.
"But I wouldn't do that," she said quietly. "I mean, how could I? So Sloop makes out this is my choice. Like I'm agreeing to it. Like I want it. So he keeps on hitting me. Punching me, kicking me, slapping me. Humiliating me, sexually. Every day, even if he isn't mad at me. And if he is mad at me, he just goes crazy."
There was silence. Just the rush of air from the cooling vents in the diner's ceiling. Vague noise from the kitchens. Carmen Greer's low breathing. The clink of fracturing ice in her abandoned glass. He looked across the table at her, tracing his gaze over her hands, her arms, her neck, her face. The neckline of her dress had shifted left, and he could see a thickened knot on her collarbone. A healed break, no doubt about it. But she was sitting absolutely straight, with her head up and her eyes defiant, and her posture was telling him something.
"He hits you every day?" he asked.
She closed her eyes. "Well, almost every day. Not literally, I guess. But three, four times in a week, usually. Sometimes more. It feels like every day."
He was quiet for a long moment, looking straight at her.
Then he shook his head.
"You're making it up," he said.
The watchers stayed resolutely on station, even though there was nothing much to watch. The red house baked under the sun and stayed quiet. The maid came out and got in a car and drove away in a cloud of dust, presumably to the market. There was some horse activity around the barn. A couple of listless ranch hands walked the animals out and around, brushed them down, put them back inside. There was a bunkhouse way back beyond the barn, same architecture, same blood-red siding. It looked mostly empty, because the barn was mostly empty. Maybe five horses in total, one of them the pony for the kid, mostly just resting in their stalls because of the terrible heat.
The maid came back and carried packages into the kitchen. The boy made a note of it in his book. The dust from her wheels floated slowly back to earth and the men with the telescopes watched it, with their tractor caps reversed to keep the sun off their necks. "You're lying to me," Reacher said.
Carmen turned away to the window. Red spots the size of quarters crept high into her cheeks. Anger, he thought. Or embarrassment, maybe.
"Why do you say that?" she asked, quietly.
"Physical evidence," he said. "You've got no bruising visible anywhere. Your skin is clear. Light makeup, too light to be hiding anything. It's certainly not hiding the fact you're blushing like crazy. You look like you've just stepped out of the beauty parlor. And you're moving easily. You skipped across that parking lot like a ballerina. So you're not hurting anyplace. You're not stiff and sore. If he's hitting you almost every day, he must be doing it with a feather."
She was quiet for a beat. Then she nodded.
"There's more to tell you," she said.
He looked away.
"The crucial part," she said. "The main point."
"Why should I listen?"
She took another drinking straw and unwrapped it. Flattened the paper tube that had covered it and began rolling it into a tight spiral, between her finger and thumb.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But I had to get your attention."
Reacher turned his head and looked out of the window, too. The sun was moving the bar of shadow across the Cadillac's hood like the finger on a clock. His attention? He recalled opening his motel room door that morning. A brand-new day, ready and waiting to be filled with whatever came his way. He recalled the reflection of the cop in the mirror and the sticky whisper of the Cadillac's tires on the hot pavement as they slowed alongside him.
"O.K., you got my attention," he said, looking out at the car.
"It happened for five whole years," she said. "Exactly like I told you, I promise. Almost every day. But then it stopped, a year and a half ago. But I had to tell it to you backward, because I needed you to listen to me."
He said nothing.
"This isn't easy," she said. "Telling this stuff to a stranger."
He turned back to face her. "It isn't easy listening to it."
She took a breath. "You going to run out on me?"
He shrugged. "I almost did, a minute ago."
She was quiet again.
"Please don't," she said. "At least not here. Please. Just listen a little more."
He looked straight at her.
"O.K., I'm listening," he said.
"But will you still help me?"
She said nothing.
"What did it feel like?" he asked. "Getting hit?"
"Feel like?" she repeated.
"Physically," he said.
She looked away. Thought about it.
"Depends where," she said.
He nodded. She knew it felt different in different places.
"The stomach," he said.
"I threw up a lot," she said. "I was worried, because there was blood."
He nodded again. She knew what it felt like to be hit in the stomach.
"I swear it's true," she said. "Five whole years. Why would I make it up?"
"So what happened?" he said. "Why did he stop?"
She paused, like she was aware people might be looking at her. Reacher glanced up, and saw heads turn away. The cook, the waitress, the two guys at the distant tables. The cook and the waitress were faster about it than the two guys chose to be. There was hostility in their faces.
"Can we go now?" she asked. "We need to get back. It's a long drive."
"I'm coming with you?"
"That's the whole point," she said.
He glanced away again, out of the window.
"Please, Reacher," she said. "At least hear the rest of the story, and then decide. I can let you out in Pecos, if you won't come all the way to Echo. You can see the museum. You can see Clay Allison's grave."
He watched the bar of shadow touch the Cadillac's windshield. The interior would be like a furnace by now.
"You should see it anyway," she said. "If you're exploring Texas."
"O.K.," he said.
"Thank you," she said.
He made no reply.
"Wait for me," she said. "I need to go to the bathroom. It's a long drive."
She slid out of the booth with uninjured grace and walked the length of the room, head down, looking neither left nor right. The two guys at the tables watched her until she was almost past them and then switched their blank gazes straight back to Reacher. He ignored them and turned the check over and dumped small change from his pocket on top of it, exact amount, no tip. He figured a waitress who didn't talk didn't want one. He slid out of the booth and walked to the door. The two guys watched him all the way. He stood in front of the glass and looked out beyond the parking lot. Watched the flat land bake under the sun for a minute or two until he heard her footsteps behind him. Her hair was combed and she had done something with her lipstick.
"I guess I'll use the bathroom too," he said.
She glanced right, halfway between the two guys.
"Wait until I'm in the car," she said. "I don't want to be left alone in here. I shouldn't have come in here in the first place."
She pushed out through the doors and he watched her to the car. She got in and he saw it shudder as she started the engine to run the air. He turned and walked back to the men's room. It was a fair-sized space, two porcelain urinals and one toilet cubicle. A chipped sink with a cold water faucet. A fat roll of paper towels sitting on top of the machine it should have been installed in. Not the cleanest facility he had ever seen.
He unzipped and used the left-hand urinal. Heard footsteps outside the door and glanced up at the chromium valve that fed the flush pipes. It was dirty, but it was rounded and it reflected what was behind him like a tiny security mirror. He saw the door open and a man step inside. He saw the door close again and the man settle back against it. He was one of the customers. Presumably one of the pick-up drivers. The chromium valve distorted the view, but the guy's head was nearly to the top of the door. Not a small person. And he was fiddling blindly behind his back. Reacher heard the click of the door lock. Then the guy shifted again and hung his hands loose by his sides. He was wearing a black T-shirt. There was writing on it, but Reacher couldn't read it backward. Some kind of an insignia. Maybe an oil company.
"You new around here?" the guy asked.
Reacher made no reply. Just watched the reflection.
"I asked you a question," the guy said.
Reacher ignored him.
"I'm talking to you," the guy said.
"Well, that's a big mistake," Reacher said. "All you know, I might be a polite type of person. I might feel obligated to turn around and listen, whereupon I'd be pissing all over your shoes."
The guy shuffled slightly, caught out. Clearly he had some kind of set speech prepared, which was what Reacher had been counting on. A little improvised interruption might slow him down some. Maybe enough to get zipped up and decent. The guy was still shuffling, deciding whether to react.
"So I guess it's down to me to tell you," he said. "Somebody's got to."
He wasn't reacting. No talent for repartee.
"Tell me what?" Reacher asked.
"How it is around here."
Reacher paused a beat. The only problem with coffee was its diuretic effect.
"And how is it around here?" he asked.
"Around here, you don't bring beaners into decent folks' places."
"What?" Reacher said.
"What part don't you understand?"
Reacher breathed out. Maybe ten seconds to go.
"I didn't understand any of it," he said.
"You don't bring beaners in a place like this."
"What's a beaner?" Reacher asked.
The guy took a step forward. His reflection grew disproportionately larger.
"Latinos," he said. "Eat beans all the time."
"Latina," Reacher said. "With an a. Gender counts with inflected languages. And she had iced coffee. Haven't seen her eat a bean all day."
"You some kind of a smart guy?"
Reacher finished and zipped up with a sigh. Didn't flush. A place like that, it didn't seem like standard practice. He just turned to the sink and operated the faucet.
"Well, I'm smarter than you," he said. "That's for damn sure. But then, that's not saying much. This roll of paper towels is smarter than you. A lot smarter. Each sheet on its own is practically a genius, compared to you. They could stroll into Harvard, one by one, full scholarships for each of them, while you're still struggling with your GED."
It was like taunting a dinosaur. Some kind of a brontosaurus, where the brain is a very long distance from anyplace else. The sound went in, and some time later it was received and understood. Four or five seconds, until it showed in the guy's face. Four or five seconds after that, he swung with his right. It was a ponderous slow swing with a big bunched fist on the end of a big heavy arm, aiming wide and high for Reacher's head. It could have caused some damage, if it had landed. But it didn't land. Reacher caught the guy's wrist in his left palm and stopped the swing dead. A loud wet smack echoed off the bathroom tile.
"The bacteria on this floor are smarter than you," he said.
He twisted his hips ninety degrees so his groin was protected and he squeezed the guy's wrist with his hand. There had been a time when he could break bones by squeezing with his hand. It was more about blind determination than sheer strength.
But right then, he didn't feel it.
"This is your lucky day," he said. "All I know, you could be a cop. So I'm going to let you go."
The guy was staring desperately at his wrist, watching it get crushed. The clammy flesh was swelling and going red.
"After you apologize," Reacher said.
The guy stared on, four or five seconds. Like a dinosaur.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I apologize."
"Not to me, asshole," Reacher said. "To the lady."
The guy said nothing. Reacher turned up the pressure. Felt his thumb go slick with sweat, sliding up over the tip of his index finger. Felt the bones in the guy's wrist click and move. The radius and the ulna, getting closer than nature intended.
"O.K.," the guy gasped. "Enough."
Reacher released the wrist. The guy snatched it back and cradled his hand, panting, looking up, looking down.
"Give me the keys to your truck," Reacher said.
The guy twisted awkwardly to get into his right pocket with his left hand. Held out a large bunch of keys.
"Now go wait for me in the parking lot," Reacher said.
The guy unlocked the door left-handed and shuffled out. Reacher dropped the keys in the unflushed urinal and washed his hands again. Dried them carefully with the paper towels and left the bathroom behind him. He found the guy out in the lot, halfway between the diner door and the Cadillac.
"Be real nice, now," Reacher called to him. "Maybe offer to wash her car or something. She'll say no, but it's the thought that counts, right? If you're creative enough, you get your keys back. Otherwise, you're walking home."
He could see through the tinted glass that she was watching them approach, not understanding. He motioned with his hand that she should let her window down. A circular motion, like winding a handle. She buzzed the glass down, maybe two inches, just wide enough to frame her eyes. They were wide and worried.
"This guy's got something to say to you," Reacher said.
He stepped back. The guy stepped up. Looked down at the ground, and then back at Reacher, like a whipped dog. Reacher nodded, encouragingly. The guy put his hand on his chest, like an operatic tenor or a fancy maître d'. Bent slightly from the waist, to address the two-inch gap in the glass.
"Ma'am," he said. "Just wanted to say we'd all be real pleased if y'all would come back real soon, and would you like me to wash your car, seeing as you're here right now?"
"What?" she said.
They both turned separately to Reacher, the guy pleading, Carmen astonished.
"Beat it," he said. "I left your keys in the bathroom."
Four, five seconds later, the guy was back on his way to the diner. Reacher stepped around the hood to his door. Pulled it open.
"I thought you were running out on me," Carmen said. "I thought you'd asked that guy for a ride."
"I'd rather ride with you," he said.
The Crown Victoria drove south to a lonely crossroads hamlet. There was an old diner on the right and a vacant lot on the left. A melted stop line on the road. Then a decrepit gas station, and opposite it a one-room schoolhouse. Dust and heat shimmer everywhere. The big car slowed and crawled through the junction at walking pace. It rolled past the school gate and then suddenly picked up speed and drove away.
Little Ellie Greer watched it go. She was in a wooden chair at the schoolroom window, halfway through raising the lid of her big blue lunch box. She heard the brief shriek of rubber as the car accelerated. She turned her head and stared after it. She was a serious, earnest child, much given to silent observation. She kept her big dark eyes on the road until the dust settled. Then she turned back to matters at hand and inspected her lunch, and wished her mom had been home to pack it, instead of the maid, who belonged to the Greers and was mean.
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