Nothing to Lose (Jack Reacher #12)(8)


by Lee Child

So Reacher looped around the trunk and opened the front passenger door. The seat was all hemmed in with radio consoles and a laptop terminal on a bracket, but the space was clear. No hat. He crammed himself in. Not much legroom, because of the security screen behind him. Up front the car smelled of oil and coffee and perfume and warm electronics. The laptop screen showed a GPS map. A small arrow was pointing west and blinking away at the far edge of a pink shape labeledHope Township. The shape was precisely rectangular, almost square. A fast and arbitrary land allocation, like the state of Colorado itself. Next to it Despair township was represented by a light purple shape. Despair was not rectangular. It was shaped like a blunt wedge. Its eastern border matched Hope's western limit exactly, then it spread wider, like a triangle with the point cut off. Its western line was twice as long as its eastern and bordered gray emptiness. Unincorporated land, Reacher figured. Spurs came off I-70 and I-25 and ran through the unincorporated land and clipped Despair's northwestern corner.

The woman cop buzzed her window back up and craned her neck and glanced behind her and K-turned across the road. She was slightly built under a crisp tan shirt. Probably less than five feet six, probably less than a hundred and twenty pounds, probably less than thirty-five years old. No jewelry, no wedding band. She had a Motorola radio on her collar and a tall gold badge bar pinned over her left breast. According to the badge her name was Vaughan. And according to the badge she was a pretty good cop. She seemed to have won a bunch of awards and commendations. She was good-looking, but different from regular women. She had seen stuff they hadn't. Reacher was familiar with the concept. He had served with plenty of women, back in the MPs.

He asked, "Why did Despair run me out?"

The woman called Vaughan turned out the dome light. Now she was front-lit by red instrument lights from the dash and the pink and purple glow from the GPS screen and white scatter from the headlight beams on the road.

"Look at yourself," she said.

"What about me?"

"What do you see?"

"Just a guy."

"A blue-collar guy in work clothes, fit, strong, healthy, and hungry."

"So?"

"How far did you get?"

"I saw the gas station and the restaurant. And the town court."

"Then you didn't see the full picture," Vaughan said. She drove slow, about thirty miles an hour, as if she had plenty more to say. She had one hand on the wheel, with her elbow propped on the door. Her other hand lay easy in her lap. Five miles at thirty miles an hour was going to take ten minutes. Reacher wondered what she had to tell him, that less than ten minutes wouldn't cover.

He said, "I'm more green-collar than blue."

"Green?"

"I was in the army. Military cop."

"When?"

"Ten years ago."

"You working now?"

"No."

"Well, then."

"Well what?"

"You were a threat."

"How?"

"West of downtown Despair is the biggest metal recycling plant in Colorado."

"I saw the smog."

"There's nothing else in Despair's economy. The metal plant is the whole ballgame."

"A company town," Reacher said.

Vaughan nodded at the wheel. "The guy who owns the plant owns every brick of every building. Half the population works for him full time. The other half works for him part time. The full-time people are happy enough. The part-time people are insecure. They don't like competition from outsiders. They don't like people showing up, looking for casual labor, willing to work for less."

"I wasn't willing to work at all."

"You tell them that?"

"They didn't ask."

"They wouldn't have believed you anyway. Standing around every morning waiting for a nod from the foreman does things to people. It's kind of feudal. The whole place is feudal. The money the owner pays out in wages comes right back at him, in rents. Mortgages too. He owns the bank. No relief on Sundays, either. There's one church and he's the lay preacher. You want to work, you have to show up in a pew from time to time."

"Is that fair?"

"He likes to dominate. He'll use anything."

"So why don't people move on?"

"Some have. Those who haven't never will."

"Doesn't this guy want people coming in to work for less?"

"He likes the people he owns, not strangers."

"So why were those guys worried?"

"People always worry. Company towns are weird."

"And the town judge toes their line?"

"It's an elected position. And the vagrancy ordinance is for real. Most towns have one. We do, for sure, in Hope. No way around it, if someone complains."

"But nobody complained in Hope. I stayed there last night."

"We're not a company town."

Vaughan slowed. Hope's first built-up block was ahead in the distance. Reacher recognized it. A mom-and-pop hardware store. That morning an old guy had been putting stepladders and wheelbarrows out on the sidewalk, building a display. Now the store was all closed up and dark.

He asked, "How big is the Hope PD?"

Vaughan said, "Me and two others and a watch commander."

"You got sworn deputies?"

"Four of them. We don't use them often. Traffic control, maybe, if we've got construction going on. Why?"

"Are they armed?"

"No. In Colorado, deputies are civilian peace officers. Why?"

"How many deputies does the Despair PD have?"

"Four, I think."

"I met them."

"And?"

"Theoretically, what would the Hope PD do if someone showed up and got in a dispute with one of your deputies and busted his jaw?"

"We'd throw that someone's sorry ass in jail, real quick."

"Why?"

"You know why. Zero tolerance for assaults on peace officers, plus an obligation to look after our own, plus pride and self-respect."

"Suppose there was a self-defense issue?"

"Civilian versus a peace officer, we'd need some kind of amazing reasonable doubt. You'd have felt the same in the MPs."

"That's for damn sure."