standing by the major oak
THE EYEWITNESS SAID he didn’t actually see it happen. But how else could it have gone down? Not long after midnight a man in a green winter coat had gone into a small concrete bunker through its only door. Two men in black suits had followed him in. There had been a short pause. The two men in the black suits had come out again.
The man in the green winter coat had not come out again.
The two men in the black suits had walked thirty brisk feet and climbed into a bright red car. Fire-engine red, the eyewitness called it. Vivid red. Fairly new. A regular four-door sedan, the eyewitness thought. Or maybe a five-door. Or a three-door. But definitely not a two-door coupé. A Toyota, the eyewitness thought. Or maybe a Honda. Or a Hyundai. Maybe a Kia.
But whichever, the two men in the black suits had driven away in it.
There was still no sign of the man in the green winter coat.
Then blood had pooled out from under the concrete bunker’s door.
The eyewitness had called 911.
The county sheriff had shown up and gotten the story. He was good at hustling folk along while looking patient. It was one of his many talents. Eventually the eyewitness had finished up. Then the county sheriff had thought for a long moment. He was in a part of the nation where in every direction there were hundreds of square miles of emptiness just over the dark horizon. Where roads were long lonely ribbons.
He was in roadblock country.
So he had called the highway patrol, and then he had ordered up the helicopter from the state capital. He had put out an urgent APB on a bright red import carrying two men in black suits.
Jack Reacher rode for ninety miles and ninety minutes with a woman in a dirty grey van, and then he saw bright vapour lights up ahead at the highway cloverleaf, with big green signs pointing west and east. The woman slowed the van, and stopped, and Reacher got out and thanked her and waved her away. She used the first ramp, west towards Denver and Salt Lake City, and he walked under the bridge and set up on the eastbound ramp, one foot on the shoulder and one in the traffic lane, and he stuck out his thumb and smiled and tried to look friendly.
Which was not easy. Reacher was a big man, six feet five inches tall, heavily built, and that night as always he looked a little ragged and unkempt. Lonely drivers wanted pleasant and unthreatening company, and Reacher knew from long experience that visually he was no one’s first choice of companion. Too intimidating. And right then he was further handicapped by a freshly broken nose. He had patched the injury with a length of silver duct tape, which he knew must make him look even more grotesque. He knew the tape must be shining and glittering in the yellow light. But he felt the tape was helping him medically, so he decided to keep it in place for the first hour. If he didn’t get a ride inside sixty minutes, he would consider peeling it off.
He didn’t get a ride inside sixty minutes. Traffic was light. Nebraska, at night, in the wintertime. The cloverleaf he was at was the only significant interchange for miles around, but even so whole minutes passed with no action at all. Up on the bridge the through traffic was fairly steady, but few people seemed keen to join it. In the first hour only forty vehicles showed up to turn east. Cars, trucks, SUVs, different makes, different models, different colours. Thirty of them blew past without even slowing. Ten drivers checked him out and then looked away and accelerated onward.
Not unusual. Hitchhiking had been getting harder for years.
Time to shorten the odds.
He turned away and used a splintered thumbnail to pick at the edge of the duct tape on his face. He got half an inch of it loose and gripped that makeshift tab between the pad of his thumb and his forefinger. Two schools of thought. One went for the fast rip. The other advocated a slow peel. An illusory choice, Reacher thought. The pain was the same either way. So he split the difference and opted for a fast peel. No big deal on his cheek. A different story across his nose. Cuts reopened, the swelling lifted and moved, the fracture itself clicked and ground.
No big deal on the other cheek.
He rolled the bloodied tape into a cylinder and stuck it in his pocket. He spat on his fingers and wiped his face. He heard a helicopter a thousand feet overhead and saw a high-power searchlight beam stabbing down through the darkness, resting here, resting there, moving on. He turned back and put one foot in the traffic lane again and stuck out his thumb. The helicopter hung around for a spell and then lost interest and hammered away west until its noise died back to nothing. Traffic heading cross-country on the bridge stayed sparse but steady. Feeder traffic heading north and south on the county road got thinner. But almost all of it turned one way or the other on the highway. Almost none of it continued straight. Reacher remained optimistic.
The night was cold, which helped his face. Numbness dulled the ache. A pick-up truck with Kansas plates came out of the south and turned east and slowed to a roll. The driver was a rangy black guy bundled into a thick coat. Maybe his heater wasn’t working. He eyeballed Reacher long and hard. He almost stopped. But he didn’t. He looked away and drove on by.
Reacher had money in his pocket. If he could get to Lincoln or Omaha he could get a bus. But he couldn’t get to Lincoln or Omaha. Not without a ride. He took to tucking his right hand under his left arm between cars, to stop it from freezing. He stamped his feet. His breath pooled around his head like a cloud. A highway patrol cruiser blew by with lights but no siren. Two cops inside. They didn’t even glance Reacher’s way. Their focus was up ahead. Some kind of an incident, maybe.
Two more cars almost stopped. One out of the south, and one out of the north, minutes apart. They both slowed, stumbled, stuttered, eyeballed, and then picked up speed and drove on by. Getting closer, Reacher thought. It’s coming. Maybe the late hour was helping. People were more compassionate at midnight than midday. And night driving already felt a little out of the ordinary. Picking up a random stranger wasn’t such a big leap.
Another driver took a good long look, but kept on going.
Reacher spat on his palms and slicked his hair into place.
He kept the smile on his face.
He remained optimistic.
And then finally, after a total of ninety-three minutes on the ramp, a car stopped for him.
THE CAR STOPPED thirty feet upstream of him. It had a local plate, and was a reasonable size, and American, and dark in colour. A Chevrolet, Reacher thought, probably dark blue, or grey, or black. It was hard to tell, in the vapour light. Dark metallics were always anonymous at night.
There were three people in the car. Two men in the front, and a woman in the back. The two men were twisted around in their seats, like there was a big three-way discussion going on. Like a democracy. Should we pick this guy up or not? Which suggested to Reacher that the three people didn’t know each other very well. Such decisions among good friends were usually instinctive. These three were business colleagues, maybe, a team of equals, thrown together for the duration, exaggeratedly respectful of each other’s positions, especially the outnumbered woman’s.
Reacher saw the woman nod, and he lip-read her yes, and the men turned back and faced front again, and the car rolled forward. It stopped again with the front passenger’s window alongside Reacher’s hip. The glass came down. Reacher bent at the waist and felt warmth on his face. This car’s heater was working just fine. That was for damn sure.
The guy in the front passenger seat asked, ‘Where are you headed tonight, sir?’
Reacher had been a cop in the army for thirteen years, and then for almost as long had lived on his wits, and he had survived both phases of his life by being appropriately caut
ious and by staying alert. All five senses, all the time. Deciding whether or not to take an offered ride depended mostly on smell. Could he smell beer? Weed? Bourbon? But right then he could smell nothing at all. His nose had just been broken. His nasal passages were clogged with blood and swellings. Maybe his septum was permanently deviated. It felt entirely possible he would never smell anything ever again.
Touch was not an option in that situation, either. Nor was taste. He would learn nothing by groping around like a blind man, or by licking things. Which left sight and sound. He heard neutral tones from the front passenger, no marked regional accent, an educated cadence, an air of authority and executive experience. On all three of them he saw soft uncalloused hands, unmuscled frames, neat hair, no tans. Indoor people. Office folk. Not at the top of the tree, but a long way from the bottom. They each looked somewhere in their middle forties, perhaps halfway through their lives, but more than halfway through their careers. Like lieutenant colonels, maybe, in army terms. Solid achievers, but not superstars.
Each of them had on black pants and a blue denim shirt. Like uniforms. The shirts looked cheap and new, still creased from the wrapper. A team-building exercise, Reacher figured. Some kind of corporate bullshit. Fly a bunch of middle-ranking executives out from their regional offices, get them together in the wilderness, give them shirts, set them tasks. Maybe all the hoo-hah was making them feel a little bit adventurous, which was why they were picking him up. And maybe there would be candid mutual critiquing afterwards, which was why they had laboured through the big three-way democratic discussion. Teams needed teamwork, and teamwork needed consensus, and consensus needed to be unforced, and gender issues were always sensitive. In fact Reacher was a little surprised the woman wasn’t riding in front, or driving. Although driving might have been seen as a subservient role, for the only woman in a trio. Like fetching coffee.
‘I’m heading east,’ Reacher said.
‘Into Iowa?’ the front passenger asked.
‘Through Iowa,’ Reacher said. ‘All the way to Virginia.’
‘Hop in,’ the guy said. ‘We’ll get you some of the way there.’
The woman was sitting behind the front passenger, so Reacher tracked around the trunk and got in on the driver’s side. He settled on the rear bench and closed the door. The woman nodded to him a little shyly. A little cautiously, maybe. Perhaps because of his busted nose. Maybe the sight upset her.
The guy at the wheel checked his mirror and took off up the ramp.
THE COUNTY SHERIFF’S name was Victor Goodman, which most folks thought was entirely appropriate. He was a good man, and he was usually victorious in whatever he set his mind to. Not that there was a necessary connection between the two halves of his name. He won not because he was good, but because he was smart. Smart enough, certainly, to check and recheck his prior decisions before moving on. Two steps forward, one step back. That was his system. It served him well. It always had. And right then it was leading him to believe he had been hasty with his APB.
Because the crime scene in the concrete bunker was serious shit. The man in the green winter coat had been executed, basically. Assassinated, even. There had been some direct and to-the-point knife work going on. This was not a dispute or a scuffle that had gotten out of hand. This was professional stuff, straight from the major leagues. Which was rare in rural Nebraska. Practically unknown, more accurately.
So first Goodman had called the FBI in Omaha, to give them a heads-up. He was far too smart to worry about turf wars. And second he had reconsidered the two men in the red car. Fire-engine red, the eyewitness had called it. Vivid red. Which made no sense. It was way too bright for professionals to use as a getaway vehicle. Too obvious. Too memorable. So it was likely the two guys had stashed an alternative vehicle nearby, in a convenient spot. It was likely they had driven over there and switched.
And it was the work of a second to take off two suit coats. The eyewitness was unclear about their shirts. White, he thought. Basically. Or cream. Maybe striped. Or checked. Or something. No ties. Or maybe one of them was wearing a tie.
So Goodman got back on the line to the highway patrol and the airborne unit and dumbed down his APB: now he wanted any two men in any kind of vehicle.
The guy in the front passenger seat turned around in a fairly friendly fashion and said, ‘If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your face?’
Reacher said, ‘I walked into a door.’
‘No, not really. I tripped and fell over. Not very exciting. Just one of those things.’
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Nothing an aspirin wouldn’t put right.’
The guy twisted further around and looked at the woman. Then at the driver. ‘Do we have an aspirin available? To help this man out?’
Reacher smiled. A team, standing ready to solve problems big or small. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’
The woman said, ‘I’ve got one.’ She ducked down and picked up her bag from the floor. She rooted around in it. The guy in the front passenger seat watched her do it, full of eager attention. He seemed excited. A goal had been set, and was about to be met. The woman came out with a packet of Bayers. She shook one pill loose.
‘Give him two,’ the guy in the front said. ‘He looks like he could use them. Hell, give him three.’
Which Reacher thought was a little too commanding. Might not play well in the postgame analysis. It placed the woman in a difficult situation. Maybe she needed her aspirins for herself. Maybe she had an internal condition. Maybe she would find it embarrassing to say so. Or perhaps the guy up front was into some kind of a double bluff. Maybe he was so stainless in every other way he could get away with making control look like innocent exuberance.
Reacher said, ‘One will do the trick, thanks.’
The woman tipped the small white pill from her palm to his. The guy up front passed back a bottle of water. Unopened, and still cold from a refrigerator. Reacher swallowed the pill and split the seal on the bottle and took a good long drink.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I appreciate it.’
He passed the bottle back. The guy in front took it and offered it to the driver. The driver shook his head, mute. He was focused on the road ahead, holding the car between seventy and eighty, just bowling along. He was close to six feet tall, Reacher figured, but narrow in the shoulders, and a little stooped. He had a thin neck, with no fuzz on it. A recent haircut, in a conservative style. No rings on his fingers. The cheap blue shirt had arms too short for him. He was wearing a watch full of small complicated dials.
The guy in the front passenger seat was shorter but wider. Not exactly fat, but hamburgers more than once a week might push him over the edge. His face was tight and pink. His hair was fairer than the driver’s, cut equally recently and equally short and brushed to the side like a schoolboy’s. His shirt was long in the arms, small in the waist, and loose in the shoulders. Its collar was still triangular from the packet, and the wings were resting tight against the flesh of his neck.
Up close the woman looked maybe a year or two younger than the men. Early forties, possibly, rather than mid. She had jet black hair piled up high on her head and tied in a bun. Or a chignon. Or something. Reacher didn’t know the correct hairdressing term. She looked to be medium height and lean. Her shirt was clearly a smaller size than the men’s, but it was still loose on her. She was pretty, in a rather severe and no-nonsense kind of a way. Pale face, large eyes, plenty of make-up. She looked tired and a little ill at ease. Possibly not entirely enchanted with the corporate bullshit. Which made her the best of the three, in Reacher’s opinion.
The guy in the front passenger seat twisted around again and offered his smooth round hand. He said, ‘I’m Alan King, by the way.’
Reacher shook his hand and said, ‘Jack Reacher.’
leased to meet you, Mr Reacher.’
‘Likewise, Mr King.’
The driver said, ‘Don McQueen,’ but he didn’t try to shake hands.
‘What were the odds?’ Reacher said. ‘King and McQueen.’
King said, ‘I know, right?’
The woman offered her hand, smaller and paler and bonier than King’s.
She said, ‘Karen Delfuenso.’
‘I’m pleased to meet you, Karen,’ Reacher said, and shook. She held on a split second longer than he had expected. Then McQueen got off the gas in a hurry and they all pitched forward a little. Up ahead brake lights were flaring red. Like a solid wall.
And way far in the distance there was rapid blue and red strobing from a gaggle of cop cars.
TWO STEPS FORWARD, one step back. Check and recheck. Sheriff Victor Goodman was revisiting the issue of the alternate car he figured the two men had switched to. He tried to stay as current as a guy in his position could, way out there in the sticks, which wasn’t easy, but a year or so before he had read a sidebar in a Homeland Security bulletin which said that at night a dark blue colour was the hardest to pick out with surveillance cameras. Coats, hats, cars, whatever, dark blue showed up as little more than a hole in the night-time air. Hard to see, hard to define. Not that Goodman’s county had any surveillance cameras. But he figured what was true for an electronic lens would be true for the human eye, too. And he figured the two men might be clued in about such stuff. They were professionals, apparently. Therefore the car they had stashed might be dark blue.
Or it might not.
So what should he do?
In the end, he did nothing. Which he figured was the wisest choice. If he was guessing wrong, then to ask the roadblocks to pay special attention to dark blue cars would be self-defeating. So he let his revised APB stand as it was: he wanted any two men in any kind of vehicle.