Nothing to Lose (Jack Reacher #12)(13)


by Lee Child

Stubborn, Vaughan had said.

Stupid,Reacher thought.

The third time he tripped was not on a rock. It was on something altogether softer and more yielding.

12

Reacher sprawled forward and some kind of a primitive instinct made him avoid landing right on top of the thing he had tripped on. He kicked his legs up and tucked his head in and rolled, like judo. He ended up on his back, winded, and hurting from having landed on sharp stones, one under his shoulder and one under his hip. He lay still for a moment and then rolled on his front and pushed himself to his knees and shuffled around until he was facing the way he had come. Then he opened his eyes wide and stared back into the blackness.

Too dark to see.

No flashlight.

He shuffled forward on both knees and one hand, with the other held low in front of him and curled into a fist. A slow yard later it touched something.

Soft.

Not fur.

Cloth.

He spread his fingers. Clamped them loosely. Rubbed his fingertips and the ball of his thumb left and right. Squeezed.

A leg. He had his hand on a human leg. The size and heft of a thigh was unmistakable. He could feel a hamstring under his fingers and a long quadriceps muscle under his thumb. The cloth was thin and soft. Probably cotton twill, worn and washed many times. Old chinos, maybe.

He moved his hand to the left and found the back of a knee. He pushed his thumb around and underneath and found the kneecap. It was jammed down in the sand. He skipped his hand three feet to the right and slid it up a back to a shoulder blade. Walked his fingers to a neck, and a nape, and an ear.

No pulse.

Cold flesh. No warmer than the nighttime air.

Below the ear was a collar. Knit, rolled, faintly abrasive. A polo shirt, maybe. He shuffled closer on his knees and opened his eyes so wide the muscles in his face hurt.

Too dark to see.

Five senses. Too dark to see, nothing to hear. He wasn't about to try tasting anything. That left smell, and touch. Reacher had smelled more than his fair share of deceased organisms. This one wasn't particularly offensive. Unwashed clothes, stale sweat, ripe hair, dry sun-baked skin, the faintest trace of methane from early decomposition. No voided bowel or bladder.

No blood.

No perfume, no cologne.

No real information.

So, touch. He used both hands and started with the hair. It was not long, not short, and tousled. Maybe an inch and a half or two inches. Wiry, with a tendency to wave. Caucasian. Impossible to say what color. Under it was a small, neat skull.

Man or woman?

He ran his thumbnail the length of the spine. No bra strap under the shirt, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. He poked and probed the back of the ribcage like a blind man reading Braille. Light skeleton, pronounced backbone, light and stringy musculature. Narrow shoulders. Either a thin boy, slightly wasted, or a fit woman. The kind who runs marathons or rides her bike for a hundred miles at a time.

So, which?

Only one way to find out.

He found folds of cloth at the hip and the shoulder and rolled the body on its side. It was reasonably heavy. The way his hands were spaced told him it was maybe five-eight in height, and the weight was probably close to one-forty, which made it probable it was male. A woman marathon runner would have been much lighter, maybe a hundred and five. He kept hold of the bunches of cloth and eased the body past the vertical and let it flop on its back. Then he spread his fingers and started again at the head.

A man, for sure.

The forehead was ridged and bony and the chin and the upper lip were rough with maybe four days of stubble. The cheeks and the throat were smoother.

A young man, not much more than a boy.

The cheekbones were pronounced. The eyes were hard and dry, like marbles. The facial skin was firm and shrunken. It was slightly gritty with grains of sand, but not much had stuck. The skin was too dry. The mouth was dry, inside and out. The tendons in the neck were obvious. They stood out like cords. No fat anywhere. Barely any flesh at all.

Starved and dehydrated,Reacher thought.

The polo shirt had two buttons, both of them undone. No pocket, but it had a small embroidered design on the left chest. Under it there was a thin pectoral muscle and hard ribs. The pants were loose at the waist. No belt. The shoes were some kind of athletic sneakers, hook-and-loop closures, thick waffle soles.

Reacher wiped his hands on his own pants and then started again from the feet upward, looking for a wound. He went at it like a conscientious airport screener starting a patient full-body search. He did the front and rolled the body again and did the back.

He found nothing.

No gashes, no gunshot wounds, no dried blood, no swellings, no contusions, no broken bones.

The hands were small and fairly delicate, but a little calloused. The nails were ragged. No rings on the fingers. No pinkie ring, no class ring, no wedding band.

He checked the pants pockets, two front, two rear.

He found nothing.

No wallet, no coins, no keys, no phone. Nothing at all.

He sat back on his heels and stared up at the sky, willing a cloud to move and let some moonlight through. But nothing happened. The night stayed dark. He had been walking east, had fallen, had turned around. Therefore he was now facing west. He pushed back off his knees and stood up. Made a quarter-turn to his right. Now he was facing north. He started walking, slowly, with small steps, concentrating hard on staying straight. He bent and swept his hands flat on the scrub and found four stones the size of baseballs. Straightened again and walked on, five yards, ten, fifteen, twenty.

He found the road. The packed scrub gave way to the tarred pebbles. He used his toe to locate the edge. He bent and butted three of his stones together and stacked the fourth on top, like a miniature mountain cairn. Then he turned a careful one-eighty and walked back, counting his paces. Five yards, ten, fifteen, twenty. He stopped and squatted and felt ahead of him.

Nothing.

He shuffled forward with his arms out straight, patting downward, searching, until his right palm came down on the corpse's shoulder. He glanced up at the sky. Still solid.

Nothing more to be done.

He stood up again and turned left and blundered on through the dark, east toward Hope.

13

The closer he got to the Hope town line, the more he let himself drift left toward the road. Hope wasn't a big place, and he didn't want to miss it in the dark. Didn't want to walk on forever, all the way back to Kansas. The clock in his head said that it was midnight. He had made good progress, close to three miles an hour, despite falling four more times and detouring every thirty minutes to confirm he wasn't drastically off course.