A Wanted Man (Jack Reacher #17)(2)


by Lee Child

There were three people in the car. Two men in the front, and a woman in the back. The two men were twisted around in their seats, like there was a big three-way discussion going on. Like a democracy. Should we pick this guy up or not? Which suggested to Reacher that the three people didn't know each other very well. Such decisions among good friends were usually instinctive. These three were business colleagues, maybe, a team of equals, thrown together for the duration, exaggeratedly respectful of each other's positions, especially the outnumbered woman's.

Reacher saw the woman nod, and he lip-read her yes, and the men turned back and faced front again, and the car rolled forward. It stopped again with the front passenger's window alongside Reacher's hip. The glass came down. Reacher bent at the waist and felt warmth on his face. This car's heater was working just fine. That was for damn sure.

The guy in the front passenger seat asked, 'Where are you headed tonight, sir?'

Reacher had been a cop in the army for thirteen years, and then for almost as long had lived on his wits, and he had survived both phases of his life by being appropriately cautious and by staying alert. All five senses, all the time. Deciding whether or not to take an offered ride depended mostly on smell. Could he smell beer? Weed? Bourbon? But right then he could smell nothing at all. His nose had just been broken. His nasal passages were clogged with blood and swellings. Maybe his septum was permanently deviated. It felt entirely possible he would never smell anything ever again.

Touch was not an option in that situation, either. Nor was taste. He would learn nothing by groping around like a blind man, or by licking things. Which left sight and sound. He heard neutral tones from the front passenger, no marked regional accent, an educated cadence, an air of authority and executive experience. On all three of them he saw soft uncalloused hands, unmuscled frames, neat hair, no tans. Indoor people. Office folk. Not at the top of the tree, but a long way from the bottom. They each looked somewhere in their middle forties, perhaps halfway through their lives, but more than halfway through their careers. Like lieutenant colonels, maybe, in army terms. Solid achievers, but not superstars.

Each of them had on black pants and a blue denim shirt. Like uniforms. The shirts looked cheap and new, still creased from the wrapper. A team-building exercise, Reacher figured. Some kind of corporate bullshit. Fly a bunch of middle-ranking executives out from their regional offices, get them together in the wilderness, give them shirts, set them tasks. Maybe all the hoo-hah was making them feel a little bit adventurous, which was why they were picking him up. And maybe there would be candid mutual critiquing afterwards, which was why they had laboured through the big three-way democratic discussion. Teams needed teamwork, and teamwork needed consensus, and consensus needed to be unforced, and gender issues were always sensitive. In fact Reacher was a little surprised the woman wasn't riding in front, or driving. Although driving might have been seen as a subservient role, for the only woman in a trio. Like fetching coffee.

A minefield.

'I'm heading east,' Reacher said.

'Into Iowa?' the front passenger asked.

'Through Iowa,' Reacher said. 'All the way to Virginia.'

'Hop in,' the guy said. 'We'll get you some of the way there.'

The woman was sitting behind the front passenger, so Reacher tracked around the trunk and got in on the driver's side. He settled on the rear bench and closed the door. The woman nodded to him a little shyly. A little cautiously, maybe. Perhaps because of his busted nose. Maybe the sight upset her.

The guy at the wheel checked his mirror and took off up the ramp.

THREE

THE COUNTY SHERIFF'S name was Victor Goodman, which most folks thought was entirely appropriate. He was a good man, and he was usually victorious in whatever he set his mind to. Not that there was a necessary connection between the two halves of his name. He won not because he was good, but because he was smart. Smart enough, certainly, to check and recheck his prior decisions before moving on. Two steps forward, one step back. That was his system. It served him well. It always had. And right then it was leading him to believe he had been hasty with his APB.

Because the crime scene in the concrete bunker was serious shit. The man in the green winter coat had been executed, basically. Assassinated, even. There had been some direct and to-the-point knife work going on. This was not a dispute or a scuffle that had gotten out of hand. This was professional stuff, straight from the major leagues. Which was rare in rural Nebraska. Practically unknown, more accurately.

So first Goodman had called the FBI in Omaha, to give them a heads-up. He was far too smart to worry about turf wars. And second he had reconsidered the two men in the red car. Fire-engine red, the eyewitness had called it. Vivid red. Which made no sense. It was way too bright for professionals to use as a getaway vehicle. Too obvious. Too memorable. So it was likely the two guys had stashed an alternative vehicle nearby, in a convenient spot. It was likely they had driven over there and switched.

And it was the work of a second to take off two suit coats. The eyewitness was unclear about their shirts. White, he thought. Basically. Or cream. Maybe striped. Or checked. Or something. No ties. Or maybe one of them was wearing a tie.

So Goodman got back on the line to the highway patrol and the airborne unit and dumbed down his APB: now he wanted any two men in any kind of vehicle.

The guy in the front passenger seat turned around in a fairly friendly fashion and said, 'If you don't mind me asking, what happened to your face?'

Reacher said, 'I walked into a door.'

'Really?'

'No, not really. I tripped and fell over. Not very exciting. Just one of those things.'

'When?'

'Last night.'

'Does it hurt?'

'Nothing an aspirin wouldn't put right.'

The guy twisted further around and looked at the woman. Then at the driver. 'Do we have an aspirin available? To help this man out?'

Reacher smiled. A team, standing ready to solve problems big or small. He said, 'Don't worry about it.'

The woman said, 'I've got one.' She ducked down and picked up her bag from the floor. She rooted around in it. The guy in the front passenger seat watched her do it, full of eager attention. He seemed excited. A goal had been set, and was about to be met. The woman came out with a packet of Bayers. She shook one pill loose.

'Give him two,' the guy in the front said. 'He looks like he could use them. Hell, give him three.'