A Wanted Man (Jack Reacher #17)(10)

by Lee Child

They drove on, numb and silent and patient, and eventually Alan King chose a no-name turn not long after Des Moines.

He said, 'This one will be fine, Don.'

There was a single brand on each of the blue boards ahead of the exit, all different. Reacher recognized none of them specifically, but all of them generically. He knew the grammar. There would be a no-name gas station, and a microwave oven and an urn of stewed coffee in a dismal hut across the street, and a faded mom-and-pop motel a mile down the road. He could see the gas station lights a mile away, blue and white in the night-time mist. A big place, probably, set up for trucks as well as cars.

Don McQueen slowed well ahead of the turn, like a jumbo jet on approach. He checked his mirror and used his signal, even though he must have known there was no one closer than a mile behind him. The asphalt on the ramp was coarse and loud. The ramp led to a two-lane county road, and then the gas station was a hundred feet away to the right, to the south, on the far shoulder, to the east. It was a big place in terms of area, but sketchy in terms of facilities. Six pumps and an air hose and an interior vacuum for regular sized vehicles, and a separate area with truck pumps and puddles of spilled diesel. No canopy. A small pay hut, and a bathroom block standing alone and distant on the edge of the lot. No food.

But sure enough, directly across the street from the gas station was a long low ramshackle barn-shaped building, with Food And Drink All Day All Night hand-painted in white on the slope of its roof, in shaky letters close to six feet high. Beyond the barn was a smaller version of the blue accommodation sign, with a discreet arrow pointing onward into the darkness towards the motel. There was knee-high night mist above the roadway, with the glitter of ice crystals in it.

McQueen drove the hundred feet on the two-lane and turned in at the gas station and eased to a stop, facing the way he had come, with the flank of the car next to a pump. He shut the motor down and dropped his hands off the wheel and sat still in the sudden silence.

Alan King said, 'Mr Reacher, you go get us all coffee, and we'll fill the car.'

Reacher said, 'No, I'll get the gas. Seems only fair.'

King smiled. 'Gas, ass, or grass, right? The price of hitchhiking?'

'I'm willing to pay my way.'

'And I'd let you,' King said. 'But I don't buy the gas. Not for a trip like this. This is company business, so we spend company money. I couldn't let you subsidize the corporation I work for.'

'Then at least let me pump it. You shouldn't have to do all the work.'

'You're about to drive three hundred miles. That's work enough.'

'It's cold out there.'

King said, 'I think you want to see how much gas goes in the car. Am I right? You don't believe my gauge is busted?'

Reacher said nothing.

King said, 'I believe it would be minimally courteous to trust a simple factual statement made by the guy who has offered to get you a considerable part of the way to your destination.'

Reacher said nothing.

'Coffee,' King said. 'Two with cream and one spoonful of sugar, plus whatever Karen wants.'

Delfuenso didn't speak. There was a beat of silence, and King said, 'Nothing for Karen, then.'

Reacher climbed out of the car and headed across the two-lane.

Sheriff Goodman's call went straight to voice mail. He said, 'The waitress's phone is switched off.'

'Of course it is,' Sorenson said. 'She's fast asleep. She's tired after a long evening's work. Does she have a landline?'

'The cell was the only number Missy Smith gave me.'

'So call the Smith woman back and get an address. We'll have to go bang on her door.'

'I can't call Missy Smith again.'

'I think you can.' But right then Sorenson's own cell started ringing. A plain electronic sound. No tune. No download. She answered, and listened, and said, 'OK,' and clicked off again.

'The Mazda was rented at the Denver airport,' she said. 'By a lone individual. My people say his DL and his credit card were phony.'

'Why Denver?' Goodman asked. 'If you wanted to come here, wouldn't you fly into Omaha and rent a car there?'

'Denver is much bigger and much more anonymous. Their rental traffic must be twenty times Omaha's.'

Her phone rang again. The same plain electronic sound. She answered and this time Goodman saw her back go straight. She was talking to a superior. Universal body language. She said, 'Say that again, please?' Then she listened a little, and then she said, 'Yes, sir.'

And then she clicked off the call.

She said, 'Now this thing just got weird.'

Goodman asked, 'How?'

'My guys over at your pumping station already transmitted the dead guy's fingerprints. And they already came back. And along the way they lit up some computer at the State Department.'

'The State Department? They aren't your people. That's foreign affairs. You belong to the Justice Department.'

'I don't belong to anyone.'

'But why the State Department?'

'We don't know yet. The dead guy could be one of theirs. Or known to them.'

'Like a diplomat?'

'Or someone else's diplomat.'

'In Nebraska?'

'They're not chained to their desks.'

'He didn't look foreign.'

'He didn't look like anything. He was covered in blood.'

'So what do we do?'

'Maximum effort,' Sorenson said. 'That's what they're asking for. Where are the two guys now?'

'Now? They could be in a million different places.'

'So it's time to gamble. Before I get taken off this thing. Or supervised. One or the other is sure to happen first thing in the morning. That's what maximum effort means. So suppose the two guys are still on the road?'

'But which road? There are a million roads.'

'Suppose they stayed on the Interstate?'

'Would they?'

'They're probably not local. They're probably running home right now, which could be a big distance.'

'In which direction?'

'Either one.'

'You said they might be travelling separately.'

'It's a possibility, but a small one. Statistics show most paired perpetrators stick together after the commission of a serious crime. Human nature. They don't necessarily trust each other to deal with the aftermath.'