Nothing to Lose (Jack Reacher #12)(14)


by Lee Child

Despair's cheap road crunched loudly under his feet but the hard level surface allowed him to speed up. He hit a good rhythm and covered what was left of the last mile in less than fifteen minutes. It was still very cold. Still pitch dark. But he sensed the new blacktop ahead. He felt it coming. Then he felt the surface change under his feet. His left foot pushed off rough stones and his right foot landed on velvet-smooth asphalt.

He was back over the line.

He stood still for a second. Held his arms wide and looked up at the black sky. Then bright headlights hit him head-on and he was trapped in their beams. A spotlight clicked on and played over him, head to foot and back again.

A cop car.

Then the beams died as suddenly as they had appeared and a dome light came on inside the car and showed a small figure at the wheel. Tan shirt, fair hair. Half a smile.

Vaughan.

She was parked head-on, with her push bars twenty yards inside her own jurisdiction, just waiting in the dark. Reacher walked toward her, moving left, skirting her hood and her fender. He stepped to the passenger door and put his hand on the handle. Opened it up and crammed himself into the space inside. The interior was full of soft radio chatter and the smell of perfume.

He asked, "So are you free for a late dinner?"

She said, "I don't eat with jerks."

"I'm back, like I said I would be."

"Did you have fun?"

"Not really."

"I'm working the graveyard shift. I don't get off until seven."

"Breakfast, then. Drinking coffee with jerks is not the same as eating with them."

"I don't drink coffee for breakfast. I need to sleep in the daytime."

"Tea, then."

"Tea has caffeine, too."

"Milk shake?"

"Maybe." She was resting easy in the seat, one elbow on the door and the other hand in her lap.

"How did you see me coming?" Reacher asked. "I didn't see you."

"I eat a lot of carrots," Vaughan said. "And our video has night-vision enhancement." She leaned forward and tapped a black box mounted high on the dash. "Traffic camera and a hard disc recorder." She moved her hand again and hit a key on the computer. The screen changed to a ghostly green wide-angle image of the scene ahead. The road was lighter than the scrub. It had retained more of the daytime heat than its surroundings. Or less. Reacher wasn't sure.

"I saw you half a mile away," Vaughan said. "A little green speck." She tapped another key and spooled back through the time code and Reacher saw himself, a luminous sliver in the dark, getting bigger, coming closer.

"Very fancy," he said.

"Homeland Security money. Got to spend it on something."

"How long have you been out here?"

"An hour."

"Thanks for waiting."

Vaughan started the motor and backed up a little and then turned across the width of the road, in a wide arc that took the front wheels off the blacktop and through the sand on the shoulder. She got straightened up and accelerated.

"Hungry?" she asked.

"Not really," Reacher said.

"You should eat anyway."

"Where?"

"The diner will still be open. It stays open all night."

"In Hope? Why?"

"This is America. It's a service economy."

"Whatever, I might go take a nap instead. I walked a long way."

"Go eat in the diner first."

"Why?"

"Because I think you should. Nutrition is important."

"What are you, my mother?"

"Someone was asking about you."

"Who?"

"Some girl."

"I don't know any girls."

"She wasn't asking about you personally," Vaughan said. "She was asking if anyone had been thrown out of Despair more recently than her."

"She was thrown out?"

"Four days ago."

"They throw women out, too?"

"Vagrancy isn't a gender-specific offense."

"Who is she?"

"Just some kid. I told her about you. No names, but I said you might be eating in the diner tonight. I was assuming you would get out OK. I try to live on the sunny side of the street. So I think she might come looking for you."

"What does she want?"

"She wouldn't tell me," Vaughan said. "But my impression was her boyfriend is missing."

14

Reacher got out of Vaughan's cruiser on First Street and walked straight down to Second. The diner was all lit up inside and three booths were occupied. A guy on his own, a young woman on her own, two guys together. Maybe some Hope residents commuted for work. Not to Despair, obviously, but maybe to other towns. Maybe to other states, like Kansas or Nebraska. And those were big distances. Maybe they all got back too late to face KP at home. Or maybe they were shift workers, just starting out, with long trips ahead of them.

The sidewalks close to the diner were deserted. No girls hanging around. No girls watching who was going in and coming out. No girls leaning on walls. No girls hiding in the shadows. Reacher pulled the door and went in and headed for a booth in the far corner where he could sit with his back protected and see the whole room at once. Pure habit. He never sat any other way. A waitress came over and gave him a napkin and silverware and a glass of ice water. Not the same waitress he had met before, during his caffeine marathon. This one was young, and not particularly tired, even though it was very late. She could have been a college student. Maybe the diner stayed open all night to give people jobs, as well as meals. Maybe the owner felt some kind of a civic responsibility. Hope seemed to be that kind of a town.

The menu was in a chromium clip at the end of the table. It was a laminated card with pictures of the food on it. The waitress came back and Reacher pointed to a grilled cheese sandwich and said, "And coffee." The waitress wrote it down and walked away and Reacher settled back and watched the street through the windows. He figured that the girl who was looking for him might pass by once every fifteen or twenty minutes. It was what he would have done. Longer intervals might make her miss his visit. Most diner customers were in and out pretty fast. He was sure there was a trade association somewhere with the exact data. His personal average was certainly less than half an hour. Shorter if he was in a hurry, longer if it was raining. The longest stay he could recall might be upward of two hours. The shortest in recent memory was the day before, in Despair. One fast cup of coffee, supervised by hostile glares.