A Wanted Man (Jack Reacher #17)(3)


by Lee Child

Which Reacher thought was a little too commanding. Might not play well in the postgame analysis. It placed the woman in a difficult situation. Maybe she needed her aspirins for herself. Maybe she had an internal condition. Maybe she would find it embarrassing to say so. Or perhaps the guy up front was into some kind of a double bluff. Maybe he was so stainless in every other way he could get away with making control look like innocent exuberance.

Reacher said, 'One will do the trick, thanks.'

The woman tipped the small white pill from her palm to his. The guy up front passed back a bottle of water. Unopened, and still cold from a refrigerator. Reacher swallowed the pill and split the seal on the bottle and took a good long drink.

'Thank you,' he said. 'I appreciate it.'

He passed the bottle back. The guy in front took it and offered it to the driver. The driver shook his head, mute. He was focused on the road ahead, holding the car between seventy and eighty, just bowling along. He was close to six feet tall, Reacher figured, but narrow in the shoulders, and a little stooped. He had a thin neck, with no fuzz on it. A recent haircut, in a conservative style. No rings on his fingers. The cheap blue shirt had arms too short for him. He was wearing a watch full of small complicated dials.

The guy in the front passenger seat was shorter but wider. Not exactly fat, but hamburgers more than once a week might push him over the edge. His face was tight and pink. His hair was fairer than the driver's, cut equally recently and equally short and brushed to the side like a schoolboy's. His shirt was long in the arms, small in the waist, and loose in the shoulders. Its collar was still triangular from the packet, and the wings were resting tight against the flesh of his neck.

Up close the woman looked maybe a year or two younger than the men. Early forties, possibly, rather than mid. She had jet black hair piled up high on her head and tied in a bun. Or a chignon. Or something. Reacher didn't know the correct hairdressing term. She looked to be medium height and lean. Her shirt was clearly a smaller size than the men's, but it was still loose on her. She was pretty, in a rather severe and no-nonsense kind of a way. Pale face, large eyes, plenty of make-up. She looked tired and a little ill at ease. Possibly not entirely enchanted with the corporate bullshit. Which made her the best of the three, in Reacher's opinion.

The guy in the front passenger seat twisted around again and offered his smooth round hand. He said, 'I'm Alan King, by the way.'

Reacher shook his hand and said, 'Jack Reacher.'

'Pleased to meet you, Mr Reacher.'

'Likewise, Mr King.'

The driver said, 'Don McQueen,' but he didn't try to shake hands.

'What were the odds?' Reacher said. 'King and McQueen.'

King said, 'I know, right?'

The woman offered her hand, smaller and paler and bonier than King's.

She said, 'Karen Delfuenso.'

'I'm pleased to meet you, Karen,' Reacher said, and shook. She held on a split second longer than he had expected. Then McQueen got off the gas in a hurry and they all pitched forward a little. Up ahead brake lights were flaring red. Like a solid wall.

And way far in the distance there was rapid blue and red strobing from a gaggle of cop cars.

FOUR

TWO STEPS FORWARD, one step back. Check and recheck. Sheriff Victor Goodman was revisiting the issue of the alternate car he figured the two men had switched to. He tried to stay as current as a guy in his position could, way out there in the sticks, which wasn't easy, but a year or so before he had read a sidebar in a Homeland Security bulletin which said that at night a dark blue colour was the hardest to pick out with surveillance cameras. Coats, hats, cars, whatever, dark blue showed up as little more than a hole in the night-time air. Hard to see, hard to define. Not that Goodman's county had any surveillance cameras. But he figured what was true for an electronic lens would be true for the human eye, too. And he figured the two men might be clued in about such stuff. They were professionals, apparently. Therefore the car they had stashed might be dark blue.

Or it might not.

So what should he do?

In the end, he did nothing. Which he figured was the wisest choice. If he was guessing wrong, then to ask the roadblocks to pay special attention to dark blue cars would be self-defeating. So he let his revised APB stand as it was: he wanted any two men in any kind of vehicle.

At that point the Interstate was a six-lane road, and the three eastbound lanes were jammed solid with inching vehicles. Cars, trucks, SUVs, they were all creeping forward, braking, stopping, waiting, creeping forward again. McQueen was drumming his fingers on the wheel, frustrated. King was staring ahead through the windshield, patient and resigned. Delfuenso was staring ahead too, anxious, like she was late for something.

Reacher asked in the silence, 'Where are you guys headed tonight?'

'Chicago,' King said.

Which Reacher was privately very pleased about. There were plenty of buses in Chicago. Plenty of morning departures. South through Illinois, east through Kentucky, and then Virginia was right there. Good news. But he didn't say so out loud. It was late at night, and he felt a sympathetic tone was called for.

He said, 'That's a long way.'

'Six hundred miles,' King said.

'Where are you coming from?'

The car stopped, rolled forward, and stopped again.

'We were in Kansas,' King said. 'We were doing real well, too. No traffic. No delays. Up till now. This thing here is the first time we've stopped in more than three hours.'

'That's pretty good.'

'I know, right? Minimum of sixty all the way. I think this is literally the first time Don has touched the brake. Am I right, Don?'

McQueen said, 'Apart from when we picked Mr Reacher up.'

'Sure,' King said. 'Maybe that broke the spell.'

Reacher asked, 'Are you on business?'

'Always.'

'What kind of business?'

'We're in software.'

'Really?' Reacher said, trying to be polite.

'We're not programmers,' King said. 'That's all pizza and skateboards. We're in corporate sales.'

'You guys work hard.'

'Always,' King said again.

'Successful trip so far?'

'Not so bad.'

'I thought you might be on some kind of a team-building thing. Like an exercise. Or a retreat.'