Killing Floor by Lee Child

Chapter Fourteen
BACK AT THE STATION HOUSE THERE WAS A BIG WHITE CADILLAC parked right across the entrance. Brand-new, fully loaded. Full of puffy black leather and fake wood. It looked like a Vegas whorehouse after the stern walnut and old hide in Charlie Hubble's Bentley. Took me five strides to get around its hood to the door.

Inside in the chill everybody was milling around a tall old guy with silver hair. He was in an old-fashioned suit. Bootlace tie with a silver clasp. Looked like a real asshole. Some kind of a politician. The Cadillac driver. He must have been about seventy-five years old and he was limping around, leaning on a thick cane with a huge silver knob at the top. I guessed this was Mayor Teale.

Roscoe was coming out of the big office in back. She had been pretty shaken up after being at the Morrison place. Wasn't looking too good now, but she waved and tried a smile. Gestured me over. Wanted me to go into the office with her. I took another quick glance at Mayor Teale and walked over to her.

"You OK?" I said.

"I've had better days," she said.

"You up to speed?" I asked her. "Finlay give you the spread?"

She nodded.

"Finlay told me everything," she said.

We ducked into the big rosewood office. Finlay was sitting at the desk under the old clock. It showed a quarter of four. Roscoe closed the door and I looked back and forth between the two of them.

"So who's getting it?" I said. "Who's the new chief?"

Finlay looked up at me from where he was sitting. Shook his head.

"Nobody," he said. "Mayor Teale is going to run the department himself. "

I went back to the door and cracked it open an inch. Peered out and looked at Teale across the squad room. He had Baker pinned up against the wall. Looked like he was giving him a hard time about something. I watched him for a moment.

"So what do you make of that?" I asked them.

"Everybody else in the department is clean," Roscoe said.

"Looks that way, I guess," I said. "But it proves Teale himself is on board. Teale's their replacement, so Teale's their boy. "

"How do we know he's just their boy?" she said. "Maybe he's the big boss. Maybe he's running the whole thing. "

"No," I said. "The big boss had Morrison carved up as a message. If Teale was the big boss, why would he send a message to himself? He belongs to somebody. He's been put in here to run interference. "

"That's for sure," Finlay said. "Started already. Told us Joe and Stoller are going on the back burner. We're throwing everything at the Morrison thing. Doing it ourselves, no outside help, no FBI, no nothing. He says the pride of the department is at stake. And he's already driving us up a blind alley. Says it's obvious Morrison was killed by somebody just out of prison. Somebody Morrison himself put away a long time ago, out for revenge. "

"And it's a hell of a blind alley," Roscoe said. "We've got to trawl through twenty years of old files and cross-check every name in every file against parole records from across the entire country. It could take us months. He's pulled Ste venson in off the road for it. Until this is over, he drives a desk. So do I. "

"It's worse than a blind alley," Finlay said. "It's a coded warning. Nobody in our files looks good for violent revenge. Never had that sort of crime here. We know that. And Teale knows we know that. But we can't call his bluff, right?"

"Can't you just ignore him?" I said. "Just do what needs doing?"

He leaned back in his chair. Blew a sigh at the ceiling and shook his head.

"No," he said. "We're working right under the enemy's nose. Right now, Teale's got no reason to think we know anything about any of this. And we've got to keep it that way. We've got to play dumb and act innocent, right? That's going to limit our scope. But the big problem is authorization. If I need a warrant or something, I'm going to need his signature. And I'm not going to get it, am I?"

I shrugged at him.

"I'm not planning on using warrants," I said. "Did you call Washington?"

"They're getting back to me," he said. "Just hope Teale doesn't grab the phone before I can. "

I nodded.

"What you need is somewhere else to work," I said. "What about that buddy of yours up in Atlanta FBI? The one you told me about? Could you use his office as a kind of private facility?"

Finlay thought about it. Nodded.

"Not a bad idea," he said. "I'll have to go off the record. I can't ask Teale to make a formal request, right? I'll call from home, tonight. Guy called Picard. Nice guy, you'll like him. He's from the Quarter, down in New Orleans. He did a spell in Boston about a million years ago. Great big guy, very smart, very tough. "

"Tell him we need it kept very quiet," I said. "We don't want his agents down here until we're ready. "

"What are you going to do about Teale?" Roscoe asked me. "He works for the guys who killed your brother. "

I shrugged again.

"Depends how involved he was," I said. "He wasn't the shooter. "

"He wasn't?" Roscoe said. "How do you know that?"

"Not fast enough," I said. "Limps around with a cane in his hand. Too slow to pull a gun. Too slow to get Joe, anyway. He wasn't the kicker, either. Too old, not vigorous enough. And he wasn't the gofer. That was Morrison. But if he starts messing with me, then he's in deep shit. Otherwise, to hell with him. "

"So what now?" she said.

I shrugged at her. Didn't reply.

"I think Sunday is the thing," Finlay said. "Sunday is going to solve some kind of a problem for them. Teale being put in here feels so temporary, you know? The guy's seventy-five years old. He's got no police experience. It's a temporary fix, to get them through until Sunday. "

The buzzer on the desk went off. Stevenson's voice came over the intercom asking for Roscoe. They had files to check. I opened the door for her. But she stopped. She'd just thought of something.

"What about Spivey?" she said. "Over at Warburton? He was ordered to arrange the attack on Hubble, right? So he must know who gave him the order. You should go ask him. Might lead somewhere. "

"Maybe," I said. Closed the door behind her.

"Waste of time," Finlay said to me. "You think Spivey's just going to tell you a thing like that?"

I smiled at him.

"If he knows, he'll tell me," I said to him. "A question like that, it's how you ask it, right?"

"Take care, Reacher," he said. "They see you getting close to what Hubble knew, they'll waste you like they wasted him. "

Charlie and her kids flashed into my mind and I shivered. They would figure Charlie was close to what Hubble had known. That was inevitable. Maybe even his kids as well. A cautious person would assume kids could have overheard something. It was four o'clock. The kids would be out of school. There were people out there who had loaded up with rubber overshoes, nylon bodysuits and surgical gloves. And sharp knives. And a bag of nails. And a hammer.

"Finlay, call your buddy Picard right now," I said. "We need his help. We've got to put Charlie Hubble somewhere safe. And her kids. Right now. "

Finlay nodded gravely. He saw it. He understood.

"For sure," he said. "Get your ass up to Beckman. Right now. Stay there. I'll organize Picard. You don't leave until he shows up, OK?"

He picked up the phone. Dialed an Atlanta number from memory.

ROSCOE WAS BACK AT HER DESK. MAYOR TEALE WAS HANDING her a thick wad of file folders. I stepped over to her and pulled up a spare chair. Sat down next to her.

"What time do you finish?" I said.

"About six, I guess," she said.

"Bring some handcuffs home, OK?" I said.

"You're a fool, Jack Reacher," she said.

Teale was watching so I got up and kissed her hair. Went out into the afternoon and headed for the Bentley. The sun was dropping away and the heat was gone. Shadows were lengthening up. Felt like the fall was on its way. Behind me I heard a shout. Mayor Teale had followed me out of the building. He called me back. I stayed where I was. Made him come to me. He limped over, tapping his cane, smiling. Stuck out his hand and introduced himself. Said his name was Grover Teale. He had that politician's knack of fixing you with a look and a smile like a searchlight. Like he was thrilled to bits just to be talking to me.

"Glad I caught you," he said. "Sergeant Baker has brought me up to date on the warehouse homicides. It all seems pretty clear to me. We made a clumsy mistake in apprehending you, and we're all very sorry indeed about your brother, and we'll certainly let you know just as soon as we get to any conclusions. So before you get on your way, I'd be grateful if you'd kindly accept my apology on behalf of this department. I wouldn't want you to take away a bad impression of us. May we just call it a mistake?"

"OK, Teale," I said. "But why do you assume I'm leaving?"

He came back smoothly. Not more than a tiny hesitation.

"I understood you were just passing through," he said. "We have no hotel here in Margrave and I imagined you would find no opportunity to stay. "

"I'm staying," I said. "I received a generous offer of hospitality. I understand that's what the South is famous for, right? Hospitality?"

He beamed at me and grasped his embroidered lapel.

"Oh, undoubtedly that's true, sir," he said. "The South as a whole, and Georgia in particular, is indeed famous for the warmth of its welcome. However, as you know, just at the present time, we find ourselves in a most awkward predicament. In the circumstances, a motel in Atlanta or Macon would really suit you much better. Naturally, we would keep in close touch, and we would extend you every assistance in arranging your brother's funeral, when that sad time comes. Here in Margrave, I'm afraid, we're all going to be very busy. It'll be boring for you. Officer Roscoe's going to have a lot of work to do. She shouldn't be distracted just at the moment, don't you think?"

"I won't distract her," I said evenly. "I know she's doing vital work. "

He looked at me. An expressionless gaze. Eye to eye, but he wasn't really tall enough. He'd get a crick in his scrawny old neck. And if he kept on staring at me like that, he'd get his scrawny old neck broken. I gave him a wintry smile and stepped away to the Bentley. Unlocked it and got in. Gunned the big motor and whirred the window down.

"See you later, Teale," I called as I drove away.

THE END OF THE SCHOOL DAY WAS THE BUSIEST I'D EVER seen the town. I passed two people on Main Street and saw another four in a knot near the church. Some kind of an afternoon club, maybe. Reading the Bible or bottling peaches for the winter. I drove past them and hustled the big car up the sumptuous mile of Beckman Drive. Turned in at the Hubbles' white mailbox and spun the old Bakelite steering wheel through the driveway curves.

The problem with trying to warn Charlie was I didn't know how much I wanted to tell her. Certainly I wasn't about to give her the details. Didn't even feel right to tell her Hubble was dead at all. We were stuck in some kind of a limbo. But I couldn't keep her in the dark forever. She needed to know some context. Or else she wouldn't listen to the warning.

I parked her car at her door and rang her bell. The children dashed around from somewhere as Charlie opened up and let me in. She was looking pretty tired and strained. The children looked happy enough. They hadn't picked up on their mother's worries. She chased them off and I followed her back to the kitchen. It was a big, modern room. I got her to make me some coffee. I could see she was anxious to talk, but she was having trouble getting started. I watched her fiddling with the filter machine.

"Don't you have a maid?" I asked her.

She shook her head.

"I don't want one," she said. "I like to do things myself. "

"It's a big house," I said.

"I like to keep busy, I guess," she said.

Then we were silent. Charlie switched on the coffee machine and it started with a faint hiss. I sat at a table in a window nook. It overlooked an acre of velvet lawn. She came and sat opposite me. Folded her hands in front of her.

"I heard about the Morrisons," she said at last. "Is my husband involved in all of this?"

I tried to think exactly what I could say to her. She waited for an answer. The coffee machine burbled away in the big silent kitchen.

"Yes, Charlie," I said. "I'm afraid he was. But he didn't want to be involved, OK? Some kind of blackmail was going on. "

She took it well. She must have figured it out for herself, anyway. Must have run every possible speculation through her head. This explanation was the one which fit. That was why she didn't look surprised or outraged. She just nodded. Then she relaxed. She looked like it had done her good to hear someone else say it. Now it was out in the open. It was acknowledged. It could be dealt with.

"I'm afraid that makes sense," she said.

She got up to pour the coffee. Kept talking as she went.

"That's the only way I can explain his behavior," she said. "Is he in danger?"

"Charlie, I'm afraid I have no idea where he is," I said.

She handed me a mug of coffee. Sat down again on the kitchen counter.

"Is he in danger?" she asked again.

I couldn't answer. Couldn't get any words out. She moved off the counter and came to sit opposite me again at the table in the window. She cradled her cup in front of her. She was a fine-looking woman. Blond and pretty. Perfect teeth, good bones, slim, athletic. A lot of spirit. I had seen her as a plantation type. What they call a belle. I had said to myself that a hundred and fifty years ago she would have been a slave owner. I began to change that opinion. I felt a crackle of toughness coming from her. She enjoyed being rich and idle, sure. Beauty parlors and lunch with the girls in Atlanta. The Bentley and the gold cards. The big kitchen which cost more than I ever made in a year. But if it came to it, here was a woman who might get down in the dirt and fight. Maybe a hundred and fifty years ago she would have been on a wagon train heading west. She had enough spirit. She looked hard at me across the table.

"I panicked this morning," she said. "That's not really like me at all. I must have given you a very bad impression, I'm afraid. After you left, I calmed down and thought things out. I came to the same conclusion you've just described. Hub's blundered into something and he's got all tangled up in it. So what am I going to do about it? Well, I'm going to stop panicking and start thinking. I've been a mess since Friday and I'm ashamed of it. That's not the real me at all. So I did something, and I hope you'll forgive me for it?"

"Go on," I said.

"I called Dwight Stevenson," she said. "He had mentioned he had seen a fax from the Pentagon about your service as a military policeman. I asked him to find it and read it to me. I thought it was an excellent record. "

She smiled at me. Hitched her chair in closer.

"So what I want to do is to hire you," she said. "I want to hire you in a private capacity to solve my husband's problem. Would you consider doing that for me?"

"No," I said. "I can't do that, Charlie. "

"Can't or won't?" she said.

"There would be a sort of a conflict of interest," I said. "It might mean I couldn't do a proper job for you. "

"A conflict?" she said. "In what way?"

I paused for a long moment. Tried to figure out how to explain it.

"Your husband felt bad, OK?" I said. "He got hold of some kind of an investigator, a government guy, and they were trying to fix the situation. But the government guy got killed. And I'm afraid my interest is in the government guy, more than your husband. "

She followed what I was saying and nodded.

"But why?" she asked. "You don't work for the government. "

"The government guy was my brother," I told her. "Just a crazy coincidence, I know, but I'm stuck with it. "

She went quiet. She saw where the conflict could lie.

"I'm very sorry," she said. "You're not saying Hub betrayed your brother?"

"No," I said. "That's the very last thing he would have done. He was depending on him to get him out from under. Something went wrong, is all. "

"May I ask you a question?" she said. "Why do you refer to my husband in the past tense?"

I looked straight at her.

"Because he's dead," I said. "I'm very sorry. "

Charlie hung in there. She went pale and clenched her hands until her knuckles shone waxy white. But she didn't fall apart.

"I don't think he's dead," she whispered. "I would know. I would be able to feel it. I think he's just hiding out somewhere. I want you to find him. I'll pay you whatever you want. "

I just slowly shook my head at her.

"Please," she said.

"I won't do it, Charlie," I said. "I won't take your money for that. I would be exploiting you. I can't take your money because I know he's already dead. I'm very sorry, but there it is. "

There was a long silence in the kitchen. I sat there at the table, nursing the coffee she'd made for me.

"Would you do it if I didn't pay you?" she said. "Maybe you could just look around for him while you find out about your brother?"

I thought about it. Couldn't see how I could say no to that.

"OK," I said. "I'll do that, Charlie. But like I say, don't expect miracles. I think we're looking at something very bad here. "

"I think he's alive," she said. "I would know if he wasn't. "

I started worrying about what would happen when his body was found. She was going to come face to face with reality the same way a runaway truck comes face to face with the side of a building.

"You'll need expense money," Charlie said.

I wasn't sure about taking it, but she passed me a thick envelope.

"Will that do?" she asked.

I looked in the envelope. There was a thick wad of hundred dollar bills in there. I nodded. That would do.

"And please keep the car," she said. "Use it as long as you need it. "

I nodded again. Thought about what else I needed to say and forced myself to use the present tense.

"Where does he work?" I asked her.

"Sunrise International," she said. "It's a bank. "

She reeled off an Atlanta address.

"OK, Charlie," I said. "Now let me ask you something else. It's very important. Did your husband ever use the word 'Pluribus'?"

She thought about it and shrugged.

"Pluribus?" she said. "Isn't that something to do with politics? Like on the podium when the president gives a speech? I never heard Hub talking about it. He graduated in banking studies. "

"You never heard him use that word?" I asked her again. "Not on the phone, not in his sleep or anything?"

"Never," she said.

"What about next Sunday?" I asked her. "Did he mention next Sunday? Anything about what's going to happen?"

"Next Sunday?" she repeated. "I don't think he mentioned it. Why? What's going to happen next Sunday?"

"I don't know," I said. "That's what I'm trying to find out. "

She pondered it again for a long moment, but just shook her head and shrugged, palms upward, like it meant nothing to her.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"Don't worry about it," I said. "Now you've got to do something. "

"What do I have to do?" she said.

"You've got to get out of here," I said.

Her knuckles were still white, but she was staying in control.

"I've got to run and hide?" she said. "But where to?"

"An FBI agent is coming here to pick you up," I said.

She stared at me in panic.

"FBI?" she said. She went paler still. "This is really serious, isn't it?"

"It's deadly serious," I said. "You need to get ready to leave right now. "

"OK," she said, slowly. "I can't believe this is happening. "

I WALKED OUT OF HER KITCHEN AND INTO THE GARDEN room where we had drunk iced tea the day before. Stepped through the French doors and strolled a slow circuit outside the house. Down the driveway, through the banks of greenery, out onto Beckman Drive. Leaned up on the white mailbox on the shoulder. It was silent. I could hear nothing at all except the dry rustle of the grass cooling under my feet.

Then I could hear a car coming west out of town. It slowed just before the crest of the rise and I heard the automatic box slur a change down as the speed dropped. The car rose up over the crest into view. It was a brown Buick, very plain, two guys in it. They were small dark guys, Hispanic, loud shirts. They were slowing, drifting to the left of the road, looking for the Hubble mailbox. I was leaning on the Hubble mailbox, looking at them. Their eyes met mine. The car accelerated again and swerved away. Blasted on into the empty peach country. I stepped out and watched them go. I saw a dust plume rising as they drove off Margrave's immaculate blacktop onto the dusty rural roadway. Then I sprinted back up to the house. I wanted Charlie to hurry.

She was inside, flustered, chattering away like a kid going on vacation. Making lists out loud. Some kind of a mechanism to burn off the panic she was feeling. On Friday she'd been a rich idle woman married to a banker. Now on Monday a stranger who said the banker was dead was telling her to hurry up and run for her life.

"Take the mobile phone with you," I called to her.

She didn't reply. I just heard a worried silence. Footsteps and closet doors banging. I sat in her kitchen with the rest of the coffee for most of an hour. Then I heard a car horn blow and the crunch of heavy steps on the gravel. A loud knock on the front door. I put my hand in my pocket and closed it around the ebony handle of Morrison's switchblade. Walked out into the hallway and opened up.

There was a neat blue sedan next to the Bentley and a gigantic black guy standing back from the doorstep. He was as tall as me, maybe even taller, but he must have outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds. Must have been three ten, three twenty. Next to him, I was a featherweight. He stepped forward with the easy elastic grace of an athlete.

"Reacher?" the giant said. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Picard, FBI. "

He shook hands with me. He was enormous. He had a casual competence about him which made me glad he was on my side. He looked like my type of a guy. Like he could be very useful in a tight corner. I suddenly felt a flood of encouragement. I stood aside to let him into Charlie's house.

"OK," Picard said to me. "I got all the details from Finlay. Real sorry about your brother, my friend. Real sorry. Somewhere we can talk?"

I led him through to the kitchen. He loped beside me and covered the distance in a couple of strides. Glanced around and poured himself the dregs of the stewed coffee. Then he stepped over next to me and dropped his hand on my shoulder. Felt like somebody had hit me with a bag of cement.

"Ground rules," he said. "This whole thing is off the record, right?"

I nodded. His voice matched his bulk. It was a low rumble. It was what a brown bear would sound like if it learned to talk. I couldn't tell how old the guy was. He was one of those big fit men whose peak years stretch on for decades. He nodded and moved away. Rested his giant frame against the counter.

"This is a huge problem for me," he said. "Bureau can't act without a call from the responsible official in the local jurisdiction. That would be this guy Teale, right? And from what Finlay tells me, I assume old Teale's not going to be making that call. So I could end up with my big ass in a sling for this. But I'll bend the rules for Finlay. We go back quite a ways. But you got to remember, this is all unofficial, OK?"

I nodded again. I was happy with that. Very happy. Unofficial help suited me fine. It would get the job done without hanging me up on procedure. I had five clear days before Sunday. This morning, five days had seemed more than generous. But now, with Hubble gone, I felt like I was very short of time. Much too short of time to waste any of it on procedure.

"Where are you going to put them?" I asked him.

"Safe house up in Atlanta," Picard said. "Bureau place, we've had it for years. They'll be secure there, but I'm not going to say exactly where it is, and I'm going to have to ask you not to press Mrs. Hubble about it afterward, OK? I got to watch my back on this thing. I blow a safe house, I'm in really deep shit. "

"OK, Picard," I said. "I won't cause you any problems. And I appreciate it. "

He nodded, gravely, like he was way out on a limb. Then Charlie and the kids burst in. They were burdened down with badly packed bags. Picard introduced himself. I could see that Charlie's daughter was terrified by the size of the guy.

The little boy's eyes grew round as he gazed at the FBI Special Agent's shield Picard was holding out. Then the five of us carried the bags outside and piled them in the blue sedan's trunk. I shook hands with Picard and Charlie. Then they all got in the car. Picard drove them away. I waved after them.
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