A Wanted Man (Jack Reacher #17)(4)

by Lee Child

'No, just business as usual.'

'So what's with the shirts?'

King smiled.

'I know, right?' he said. 'New corporate style. Casual Fridays all week long. But clearly branded. Like a sports uniform. Because that's how software is these days. Very competitive.'

'Do you live here in Nebraska?'

King nodded. 'Not so very far from right here, actually. There are plenty of tech firms in Omaha now. Way more than you would think. It's a good business environment.'

The car rolled forward, braked, stopped, moved on again. It was McQueen's own vehicle, Reacher guessed. Not a rental. Not a pool car. Too worn, too messy. The guy must have drawn the short straw. Designated driver for this particular trip. Or maybe he was the designated driver for every trip. Maybe he was low man on the totem pole. Or maybe he just liked driving. A road warrior. A road warrior who was taking time away from his family. Because he was a family man, clearly. Because it was a family car. But only just. There was kid stuff in it, but not a lot. There was a sparkly pink hair band on the floor. Not the kind of thing an adult woman would wear, in Reacher's opinion. There was a small fur animal in a tray on the console. Most of its stuffing was compressed to flatness, and its fur was matted, as if it was regularly chewed. One daughter, Reacher figured. Somewhere between eight and twelve years old. He couldn't be more precise than that. He knew very little about children.

But the kid had a mother or a stepmother. McQueen had a wife or a girlfriend. That was clear. There was feminine stuff everywhere in the car. There was a box of tissues with flowers all over it, and a dead lipstick in the recess in the console, right next to the fur animal. There was even a crystal pendant on the key. Reacher was pretty sure he would be smelling perfume on the upholstery, if he had been able to smell anything at all.

Reacher wondered if McQueen was missing his family. Or maybe the guy was perfectly happy. Maybe he didn't like his family. Then from behind the wheel McQueen asked, 'What about you, Mr Reacher? What line of work are you in?'

'No line at all,' Reacher said.

'You mean casual labour? Whatever comes your way?'

'Not even that.'

'You mean you're unemployed?'

'But purely by choice.'

'Since when?'

'Since I left the army.'

McQueen didn't reply to that, because he got preoccupied. Up ahead traffic was all jockeying and squeezing into the right-hand lane. Those slow-motion manoeuvres were what was causing most of the delay. A wreck, Reacher figured. Maybe someone had spun out and hit the barrier and clipped a couple of other cars on the rebound. Although there were no fire trucks present. No ambulances. No tow trucks. All the flashing lights were at the same height, on car roofs. There were so many of them and they were blinking so fast that they looked continuous, like a permanent wash of red-blue glare.

The car inched onward. Start, stop, start, stop. Fifty yards ahead of the lights McQueen put his turn signal on and bullied his way into the right-hand lane. Which gave Reacher a straight line of sight to the obstruction.

It wasn't a wreck.

It was a roadblock.

The nearest cop car was parked at an angle across the left-hand lane, and the second was parked a little farther on, at the same angle, across the middle lane. Together they sat there like arrows, one, two, both pointing towards the right-hand lane, giving drivers no choice at all but to move over. Then there were two cars parked in the middle lane, in line with the traffic flow, opposite two parked in line on the shoulder, and then came two more, angled again, positioned in such a way as to force people through a tight and awkward turn, all the way across the width of the road, all the way into the left-hand lane, after which they could fan out and accelerate away and go about their business.

A well organized operation, Reacher thought. A slow approach was guaranteed by the congestion, and slow progress through the obstruction was guaranteed by the sharp left turn at the end of it. Careful and extended scrutiny was guaranteed by the long narrow gauntlet between the two in-line cars in the middle lane and the parallel in-line pair on the shoulder. This was no one's first rodeo.

But what was it for? Eight cars was a big deal. And Reacher could see shotguns out. This was no kind of a routine check. This was not about seatbelts or licence tags. He asked, 'Have you had the radio on? Has something bad happened?'

'Relax,' King said. 'We get this from time to time. Escaped prisoner, most likely. There are a couple of big facilities west of here. They're always losing people. Which is crazy, right? I mean, it ain't brain surgery. It's not like their doors don't have locks.'

McQueen made eye contact in the mirror and said, 'It's not you, I hope.'

'Not me what?' Reacher asked.

'Who just escaped from jail.'

A smile in his voice.

'No,' Reacher said. 'It's definitely not me.'

'That's good,' McQueen said. 'Because that would get us all in trouble.'

They inched onward, in the impatient queue. Through a long glassy tunnel of windshields and rear windows Reacher could see the troopers at work. They were wearing their hats. They had shotguns held low and big Maglites held overhand. They were shining their flashlight beams into one car after another, front, back, up, down, counting heads, checking floors, sometimes checking trunks. Then, satisfied, they were waving cars away and turning to the next in line.

'Don't worry, Karen,' King said, without turning his head. 'You'll be home again soon.'

Delfuenso didn't reply.

King glanced back at Reacher and said, 'She hates being on the road,' by way of explanation.

Reacher said nothing.

They crept forward. Up ahead the routine never changed. Eventually Reacher identified a pattern. The only circumstance under which the troopers were checking trunks was when there was a male driver alone in a car. Which ruled out King's escaped prisoner theory. No reason why an escaped prisoner couldn't hide in the trunk of a car occupied by two people, or three, or four. Or five, or six, or a whole busload. Much more likely the troopers had gotten a specific tip about a lone guy hauling something large and something bad. Drugs, guns, bombs, stolen goods, whatever.

They crept forward. Now they were third in line. Both cars ahead had lone men at the wheel. Both got their trunks checked. Both got waved onward. McQueen rolled forward and stopped where a trooper told him to. One guy stepped in front of the hood and flicked his flashlight beam across the licence plate. Four more stepped up, two on each side, and shone their lights in through the windows, front, back, counting. Then the guy in front stepped aside and the guy nearest McQueen waved him onward, his hand gesturing low and urgent, right in McQueen's line of vision.