Personal (Jack Reacher #19)(12)


by Lee Child

After the hairpin turn there was a long straight stretch along the uphill side of the ravine, and then a suggestion of a clearing in the trees, and maybe a house made of the same dark boards as its neighbour. And maybe a wink of dull blue paint, to the left, behind distant leaves. Maybe a parked pick-up truck, from way back long ago. Total distance from me to there was about a hundred yards.

Up ahead Casey Nice had moved over to the edge of the track. Slower going, but I guess she felt better there. As did I. I crabbed over to the opposite edge. No point in presenting a single linear target. No point in her getting killed by a miss aimed at me, and no point in me getting killed by a miss aimed at her.

We moved on, in diagonal lock step, until she reached the edge of the clearing, where she paused and looked back. I gestured hold still, a standard infantry hand signal from way back in basic, but she got it and pulled back a step into the trees. I crossed the track, three long strides, and I joined her. She said, ‘Want me to go knock on the door?’

I said, ‘I think you’re going to have to.’

‘Does he have a dog?’

‘It would have barked already.’

She nodded and took a breath and stepped out. I heard the sound change under her feet, from clicking stones to crunching gravel. I heard her knock on the door. No bell. Just a loud tap-tap-tap from her knuckles on the wood, which might have sounded urgent in the city, but which seemed appropriate in the countryside, where people can be busy far away.

There was no response.

No tread or creak inside the house, no scuffle or crunch around it.

Nothing.

She knocked again.

Tap-tap-tap.

Silence. No response. No one home, no watchers, no surveillance.

I stepped out and hiked across and joined her. Most of the windows in the house had closed drapes behind them, and what few peeks in we got showed us nothing much except plain rooms furnished cheaply some years ago. The house was a long low ranch, very similar in style to the neighbour’s below. Maybe built by the same people, at the same time. It was solid. The clearing where it stood was beaten earth half-heartedly sown with gravel. Last year’s weeds were coming back, thinner by the front door, because of foot traffic, and equally by the back door, and equally along informal curving paths that led from both doors to where the blue truck was parked.

The blue truck was indeed a Ford, and ancient. A hundred bucks in cash, probably. Perfect for a guy just out of Leavenworth. It was stone cold and looked like it hadn’t been moved in a while, but who could tell with a truck that old?

Casey Nice was looking for places to hide a spare key. Of which there was a notable lack. No flowerpots by the door, no statues, no stone lions. She said, ‘Should we break in?’

I saw a third path. Nothing more than a long shallow depression, and damaged weeds coming back differently, smaller in size, with dark bruised leaves. The path led beyond the old truck, and up towards the next ravine.

I said, ‘Let’s check this out first.’

She followed me single file, into the woods, right and left, and we found ourselves at the eastern end of another ravine. It was very like the one we had already seen, a gouge in the earth, maybe thirty feet deep, shaped like a bathtub of tremendous length. Some old geological event. Glaciation, possibly, a million years ago, giant sharp boulders embedded in a trillion tons of ice, grinding slow but certain, like ploughs in a field. Like its twin it had broken rocks in the bottom, with not much growing there. Either side the trees grew tall, emphasizing the trench’s depth, and exaggerating its length.

Three trees had blown over. Right at the eastern end of the hole. Three pines, straight and true. Two had come down parallel, about ten feet from each other, spanning the drop like the outer frame of a bridge. The third had been chainsawed into ten-foot lengths, which had been lashed across the gap between the fallen trunks to make a solid platform. The platform’s upper face was an eight-by-four plywood board, exterior grade, nailed down hard.

Casey Nice said, ‘For what?’

We climbed on to the platform, inching out, using overhanging branches for support, unsteady for a second, and then we stood still on the board and looked all around. Behind us were trees. To our left and our right were trees. In front of us the ravine ran away west, into the far distance, straight and narrow. What little that grew in it was way down below us. The far end was almost out of sight. There was a smudge of grey there, an interruption, as if the trench was stopping shorter than it wanted to, maybe because of an unrelated rockfall aeons later.

I looked down at the plywood and saw two vague oval shapes, close together, each one of them about the size of an ostrich egg, or a quarter-size football, side by side, like footprints from a person standing still. The shapes were grey, or slightly silvery, the way plywood gets when rubbed with metal, and there was graphite too, from lubricating grease, as well as plain old dirt from the air, because deep down at a microscopic level the grease would always be sticky.

I squatted down and traced the shapes with my finger. I said, ‘A rifle that size has biped legs coming down off the front of the forestock. They can lock up or down. He put a little grease on the hinges, to protect them, like a cautious man should, and he wiped the excess with a cloth, and then he rubbed the cloth on the biped legs, against corrosion, especially the feet, which are the only parts that touch the world, after all, and then he came out here to practise so many times and in so many slightly different positions he left marks this big.’

‘Sherlock Homeless,’ she said.

I stared down the length of the ravine. I said, ‘Suppose those rocks make a kind of shelf or table? Suppose that’s where he put his targets?’

She said, ‘What rocks?’

We paced it out, exactly parallel in the woods, staying straight, compensating for dodged trees, with me stepping a comfortable yard every time, with her counting, silently at first, and then when we got to twelve hundred and fifty she started counting out loud, initially in a low mutter, pure routine, and then she started to speak with more clarity and excitement as the numbers grew larger and larger, only to end with a low quizzical tone as I stepped absolutely level with the last of the tumbled grey rocks and she said, ‘Fourteen hundred yards.’

TEN

THE ROCKS WERE indeed the result of an ancient fall, as far as I could tell, and they did indeed make a kind of shelf or table. Only twelve inches deep and four feet wide at its flattest. But apparently that was enough for a whole bunch of beer cans and bottles. There were shreds of metal and powdered glass everywhere. Shreds of white, too, as if he had rigged paper targets from time to time. Behind the shelf the rocks themselves were chipped and cratered all over. They were seriously blasted. Hundreds and hundreds of rounds had been fired. Maybe even thousands.