Nothing to Lose (Jack Reacher #12)(12)


by Lee Child

He watched and listened and then he headed east, for a look at the far side of town.

It was bright daylight, so he stayed cautious and moved slow. There was a long empty gap between the plant and the town itself. Maybe three miles. He covered them in a straight line, well out in the scrub. By the middle of the afternoon he was level with where he had been at six o'clock in the morning, but due south of the settlement, not due north, looking at the backs of houses, not the fronts of commercial buildings.

The houses were neat and uniform, cheaply but adequately built. They were mostly one-story ranches with shingle siding and asphalt roofs. Some were painted, some were stained wood. Some had garages, some didn't. Some had picket fences around their yards, some yards were open. Most had satellite dishes, tilted up and facing southwest like a regiment of expectant faces. People were visible, here and there. Mostly women, some children. Some men. The part-time workers, Reacher guessed, unlucky today. He moved along a hundred-yard arc, left and right, east and west, changing his point of view. But what he saw didn't change. Houses, in a strange little suburb, tight in to the town, but miles from anywhere else, with empty vastness all around. The skies were high and huge. The Rockies looked a million miles away. Reacher suddenly understood that Despair had been built by people who had given up. They had come over the rise and seen the far horizon and had quit there and then. Just pitched camp and stayed where they were. And their descendants were still in town, working or not working according to the plant owner's whim.

Reacher ate his last PowerBar and drained the last of his water. He hacked a hole in the scrub with his heel and buried the wrappers and the empty bottles and his garbage bag. Then he dodged from rock to rock and got a little closer to the houses. The low noise coming from the distant plant was getting quieter. He guessed it was close to quitting time. The sun's last rays were kissing the tops of the distant mountains. The temperature was falling.

The first cars and pick-up trucks straggled back close to twelve hours after they had left. A long day. They were heading east, toward darkness, so they had their headlights on. Their beams swung south down the cross-streets, bouncing and dipping, coming Reacher's way. Then they turned again, and scattered toward driveways and garages and car ports and random patches of oil-stained earth. They stopped moving, one after another, and the beams died. Engines stopped. Doors creaked open and slammed shut. Lights were on inside houses. The blue glow of televisions was visible behind windows. The sky was darkening.

Reacher moved closer. Saw men carrying empty lunch pails into kitchens, or standing next to their cars, stretching, rubbing their eyes with the backs of their hands. He saw hopeful boys with balls and mitts looking for a last game of catch. He saw some fathers agree and some refuse. He saw small girls run out with treasures that required urgent inspection.

He saw the big guy who had blocked the end of the restaurant table. The guy who had held the police car's door like a concierge with a taxicab. The senior deputy. He got out of the old listing crew-cab pick-up truck that Reacher had seen outside the restaurant. He clutched his stomach with both hands. He passed by his kitchen door and stumbled on into his yard. There was no picket fence. The guy kept on going, past a cultivated area, out into the scrub beyond.

Straight toward Reacher.

Then the guy stopped walking and stood still on planted feet and bent from the waist and threw up in the dirt. He stayed doubled up for maybe twenty seconds and then straightened, shaking his head and spitting.

Reacher moved closer. He got within twenty yards and then the guy bent again and threw up for a second time. Reacher heard him gasp. Not in pain, not in surprise, but in annoyance and resignation.

"You OK?" Reacher called, out of the gloom.

The guy straightened up.

"Who's there?" he called.

Reacher said, "Me."

"Who?"

Reacher moved closer. Stepped into a bar of light coming from a neighbor's kitchen window.

The guy said, "You."

Reacher nodded. "Me."

"We threw you out."

"Didn't take."

"You shouldn't be here."

"We could discuss that further, if you like. Right now. Right here."

The guy shook his head. "I'm sick. Not fair."

Reacher said, "It wouldn't be fair if you weren't sick."

The guy shrugged.

"Whatever," he said. "I'm going inside now."

"How's your buddy? With the jaw?"

"You bust him up good."

"Tough," Reacher said.

"I'm sick," the guy said again. "I'm going inside. I didn't see you, OK?"

"Bad food?"

The guy paused. Then he nodded.

"Must have been," he said. "Bad food."

He headed for his house, slow and stumbling, holding his belt one-handed, like his pants were too big for him. Reacher watched him go, and then he turned and walked back to the distant shadows.

He moved fifty yards south and fifty yards east of where he had been before, in case the sick guy changed his mind and decided he had seen something after all. He wanted some latitude, if the cops started a search in the guy's back yard. He wanted to begin the chase outside of a flashlight beam's maximum range.

But no cops showed up. Clearly the guy never called. Reacher waited the best part of thirty minutes. Way to the west he heard the aero engine again, straining hard, climbing. The small plane, taking off once more. Seven o'clock in the evening. Then the noise died away and the sky went full dark and the houses closed up tight. Clouds drifted in and covered the moon and the stars. Apart from the glow from draped windows the world went pitch black. The temperature dropped like a stone. Nighttime, in open country.

A long day.

Reacher stood up and loosened the neck of his shirt and set off east, back toward Hope. When the lit houses fell away he looped left into the dark and skirted where he knew the dry goods emporium and the gas station and the abandoned motor court and the vacant lot must be. He couldn't see the line of the road. He moved toward where he figured it must be, as close as he dared. Eventually he saw a black stripe in the darkness. Indistinct, but different from the black plain that was the scrubland. He lined himself up with it and fixed its direction in his mind and retreated sideways a safe ten yards and then moved on forward. Walking was difficult in the dark. He stumbled into bushes. He held his hands out in front of him to ward off table rocks. Twice he tripped on low football-sized boulders, and fell. Twice he got up and brushed himself off and staggered onward.