Killing Floor by Lee Child

Chapter Twenty-Three

DETAILS. EVIDENCE GATHERING. SURVEILLANCE. IT'S THE basis of everything. You've got to settle down and watch long enough and hard enough to get what you need. While Roscoe made cups of coffee for Charlie Hubble and Finlay sat in the rosewood office, I was going to have to watch the warehouse operation. Long enough and hard enough until I got a feel for exactly how they did it. It could take me a full twenty-four hours. Could be Roscoe would get back before I did.

I got in the Bentley and cruised up the fourteen miles to the cloverleaf. Slowed down as I passed the warehouses. I needed to scout out a vantage point. The northbound on-ramp dived under the southbound off-ramp. There was a kind of low overpass. Short, wide concrete pillars hoisted the road overhead. I figured the thing to do would be to hole up behind one of those pillars. I would be well hidden in the gloom and the slight elevation would give me a good view of the whole warehouse area. That was my spot.

I accelerated the Bentley up the ramp and carried on north to Atlanta. Took an hour. I was picking up a rough idea of the geography. I wanted the low-rent shopping area and I found it easily enough. Saw the sort of street I wanted. Automobile customizers, pool table wholesalers, repossessed office furniture. I parked on the street in front of a storefront mission. Opposite me were two survival shops. I picked the left-hand one and went in.

The door worked a bell. The guy at the counter looked up. He was the usual type of guy. White man, black beard, camouflage fatigues, boots. He had a huge gold hoop in one ear. Looked like some kind of a pirate. He might have been a veteran. Might just have wanted to be one. He nodded to me.

He had the stuff I needed. I picked up olive fatigue pants and a shirt. Found a camouflage jacket big enough to fit. Looked at the pockets carefully. I had to get the Desert Eagle in there. Then I found a water canteen and some decent field glasses. Humped the whole lot over to the cash desk and piled it up. Pulled out my wad of hundreds. The guy with the beard looked at me.

"I could use a sap," I said.

He looked at me and looked at my wad of hundreds. Then he ducked down and hoisted a box up. Looked heavy. I chose a fat sap about nine inches long. It was a leather tube. Taped at one end for a grip. Built around a plumber's spring. The thing they put inside pipes before they bend them. It was packed around with lead shot. An efficient weapon. I nodded. Paid for everything and left. The bell rang again as I pushed open the door.

I moved the Bentley along a hundred yards and parked up in front of the first automobile shop I saw advertising window tinting. Leaned on the horn and got out to meet the guy coming out of the door.

"Can you put tints on this for me?" I asked him.

"On this thing?" he said. "Sure I can. I can put tints on anything. "

"How long?" I said.

The guy stepped up to the car and ran his finger down the silky coachwork.

"Thing like this, you want a first-rate job," he said. "Take me a couple of days, maybe three. "

"How much?" I said.

He carried on feeling the paint and sucked air in through his teeth, like all car guys do when you ask them how much.

"Couple of hundred," he said. "That's for a first-rate job, and you don't want anything less on a thing like this. "

"I'll give you two fifty," I said. "That's for a better than first-rate job, and you loan me a car the two or three days it's going to take you to do it, OK?"

The guy sucked in some more air and then slapped lightly on the Bentley's hood.

"It's a done deal, my friend," he said.

I took the Bentley key off Charlie's ring and exchanged it for an eight-year-old Cadillac the color of an old avocado pear. It seemed to drive pretty well and it was about as anonymous as you could hope to get. The Bentley was a lovely automobile, but it was not what I needed if the surveillance went mobile. It was about as distinctive as the most distinctive thing you could ever think of.

I CLEARED THE SOUTHERN RIM OF THE CITY AND STOPPED AT a gas station. Brimmed the old Cadillac's big tank and bought candy bars and nuts and bottles of water. Then I used their toilet cubicle to get changed. I put on the military surplus gear and threw my old stuff into the towel bin. Went back out to the car. Put the Desert Eagle in the long inside pocket of my new jacket. Cocked and locked. Poured the spare bullets into the outside top pocket. Morrison's switchblade was in the left side pocket and I put the sap in the right.

I shared the nuts and the candy bars around the other pockets. Poured a bottle of water into the canteen and went to work. Took me another hour to get back to Margrave. I drove the old Cadillac right around the cloverleaf. Up the on-ramp again, heading north. Backed up about a hundred yards along the shoulder and stopped right in the no-man's-land between the off-ramp and the on-ramp. Where nobody would pass either leaving or joining the highway. Nobody would see the car except people shooting right past Margrave. And they wouldn't care.

I popped the hood and propped it open. Locked up the car and left it like that. It made it invisible. Just a broken-down old sedan on the shoulder. A sight so ordinary, you don't see it. Then I climbed over the low concrete wall at the edge of the shoulder. Scrambled down the high bank. Ran south and sprinted across the on-ramp. Carried on running for the shelter of the low overpass. I ran under the width of the highway to the other side and holed up behind a broad pillar. Over my head, the trucks coming off the highway rumbled around to the old county road. Then they ground their gears and branched right for the warehouses.

I settled back and got comfortable behind the pillar. I had a pretty good vantage point. Maybe two hundred yards distant, maybe thirty feet of elevation. The whole place was laid out below me like a diagram. The field glasses I'd bought were clear and powerful. There were actually four separate warehouses. All identical, built in a tight line, running away from me at an oblique angle. The whole area was ringed by a serious fence. Plenty of razor wire at the top. Each of the four compounds had its own inner fence. Each inner fence had its own gate. The outer fence held the main gate, fronting onto the road. The whole place was swarming with activity.

The first compound was totally innocent. The big roller door stood open. I could see local farm trucks rattling in and out. People were loading and unloading in plain view. Sturdy burlap sacks bulging with something or other. Maybe produce, maybe seed or fertilizer. Whatever farmers use. I had no idea. But there was nothing secret. Nothing hidden. All the trucks were local. Georgia plates on all of them. No out-of-state vehicles. Nothing big enough to roll south to north along the height of the nation. The first compound was clean, no doubt about that.

Same went for the second and third. Their gates stood open, their doors were up. All their activity was a cheerful swarm on their forecourts. Nothing secret. All in plain view. Different type of trucks, but all local. Couldn't see what they were hauling. Wholesale stuff for the little country stores, maybe. Possibly manufactured goods going somewhere. Some kind of oil drums in the third shed. But nothing to get excited about.

The fourth warehouse was the one I was looking for. The one at the end of the row. No doubt about it. It was a smart location. Made a lot of sense. It was screened by the chaos on the first three forecourts. But because it was the last in line, none of the local farmers or merchants would ever need to pass it by. Nobody would get a look at it. A smart location. It was definitely the one. Beyond it, maybe seventy-five yards away in a field, was the blasted tree. The one Roscoe had picked out of the photograph of Stoller and Hubble and the yellow truck. A camera on the forecourt would pick up the tree just beyond the far corner of the structure. I could see that. This was the place, no doubt about it.

The big roller door across the front was closed. The gate was closed. There were two gatemen hanging around on the forecourt. Even from two hundred yards, the field glasses picked up their alert glances and the wary tension in their walks. Some kind of a security role. I watched them for a while. They strode around, but nothing was happening. So I shifted around to watch the road. Waited for a truck bound for the fourth compound.

IT WAS A GOOD LONG WAIT. I WAS UPTIGHT ABOUT THE TIME ticking away, so I sang to myself. I went through every version of "Rambling on My Mind" that I knew. Everybody has a version. It's always listed as a traditional song. Nobody knows whose it was. Nobody knows where it came from. Probably from way back in the Delta. It's a song for people who can't stay around. Even though maybe there's a good reason to. People like me. I'd been around Margrave practically a week. Longest I'd ever stayed anywhere voluntarily. I should stay forever. With Roscoe, because she was good for me. I was beginning to imagine a future with her. It felt good.

But there were going to be problems. When Kliner's dirty money was taken out, the whole town was going to fall apart. There wouldn't be anyplace left to stay around in. And I had to wander. Like the song I was singing in my head. I had to ramble. A traditional song. A song that could have been written for me. In my heart, I believed Blind Blake had made it up. He had wandered. He had walked right by this place, when the concrete pillars were old shade trees. Sixty years ago, he had walked down the road I was watching, maybe singing the song I was singing.

Joe and I used to sing that old song. We'd sing it as an ironic comment on army family life. We'd stumble off a plane somewhere and ride to an airless empty base house. Twenty minutes after moving in, we'd start up singing that song. Like we'd been there long enough and we were ready to move on again. So I leaned back on the concrete pillar and sang it for him, as well as for me.

Took me thirty-five minutes to run through every version of that old song, once for me and once for Joe. During that time I saw maybe a half dozen trucks pull into the warehouse approach. All local guys. All little dusty Georgia trucks. Nothing with long-haul grime blasted all over it. Nothing headed for the end building. I sang softly for thirty-five minutes and picked up no information at all.

But I did get some applause. I finished the last song and heard a slow ironic hand clap coming out of the darkness behind me. I whipped around the broad concrete pillar and stared into the gloom. The clapping stopped and I heard a shuffling sound. Picked up the vague shape of a man crawling toward me. The shape firmed up. Some kind of a hobo. Long gray matted hair and layers of heavy clothing. Bright eyes burning in a seamed and dirty face. The guy stopped out of reach.

"Who the hell are you?" I asked him.

He swiped his curtain of hair aside and grinned at me.

"Who the hell are you?" he said. "Coming to my place and bawling like that?"

"This is your place?" I said. "You live under here?"

He settled on his haunches and shrugged at me.

"Temporarily," he said. "Been here a month. You got a problem with that?"

I shook my head. I had no problem with that. The guy had to live somewhere.

"Sorry to disturb you," I said. "I'll be out of here by tonight. "

His smell was drifting over to me. Wasn't pleasant. This guy smelled like he'd been on the road all his life.

"Stay as long as you like," he said. "We just decided to move on. We're vacating the premises. "

"We?" I said. "There's somebody else here?"

The guy looked at me oddly. Turned and pointed to the air beside him. There was nobody there. My eyes had adjusted to the gloom. I could see all the way back to the concrete cantilever under the elevated road. Just empty space.

"My family," he said. "We're pleased to meet you. But we got to go. Time to move on. "

He reached behind him and dragged a canvas kit bag out of the gloom. Army issue. There was a faint stencil on it. Pfc something, with a serial number and a unit designation. He pulled it up close and shuffled away.

"Wait up," I said. "Were you here last week? Thursday?"

The guy stopped and half-turned back.

"Been here a month," he said. "Didn't see anything last Thursday. "

I looked at him and his kit bag. A soldier. Soldiers don't volunteer anything. Their basic rule. So I eased off the concrete and pulled a candy bar out of my pocket. Wrapped it in a hundred dollar bill. Tossed it over to him. He caught it and put it in his coat. Nodded to me, silently.

"So what didn't you see last Thursday?" I asked him.

He shrugged.

"I didn't see anything," he said. "That's the honest truth. But my wife did. She saw plenty of things. "

"OK," I said, slowly. "Will you ask her what things she saw?"

He nodded. Turned and had a whispered conversation with the air beside him. Turned back to me.

"She saw aliens," he said. "An enemy starship, disguised like a shiny black truck. Two aliens disguised like regular earth guys in it. She saw lights in the sky. Smoke. Spaceship comes down, turns into a big car, starfleet commander comes out dressed as a cop, short fat guy. Then a white car comes off the highway, but it's really a starfighter landing, two guys in it, earth guys, pilot and copilot. They all do a dance, right there by the gate, because they come from another galaxy. She said it was exciting. She loves that stuff. Sees it everywhere she goes. "

He nodded at me. He meant it.

"I missed the whole thing," he said. Gestured to the air beside him. "The baby needed her bath. But that's what my wife saw. She loves that stuff. "

"She hear anything?" I asked him.

He asked her. Got her reply and shook his head like I was crazy.

"Space beings don't make sound," he said. "But the starfighter copilot got all shot up with stun phasers, crawled in here later. Bled to death right where you're sitting. We tried to help him, but there's really nothing you can do about stun phasers, right? The medics got him out Sunday. "

I nodded. He crawled off, dragging his kit bag. I watched him go and then slid back around the pillar. Watched the road. Picked through his wife's story. An eyewitness report. The guy wouldn't have convinced the Supreme Court, but he sure as hell convinced me. It wasn't the Supreme Court's brother who had flown down in a starfighter and done a dance at the warehouse gate.

IT WAS ANOTHER HOUR BEFORE ANYTHING SHOWED UP. I'D eaten a candy bar and sipped most of a pint of water. I was just sitting and waiting. A decent-sized panel truck rolled in, coming south. It slowed up at the warehouse approach. I saw New York commercial plates through the field glasses. Dirty white rectangles. The truck nosed along the tarmac and waited at the fourth gate. The guys in the compound swung open the gate and signaled the truck through. It stopped again and the two guys swung the gate shut behind it. Then the driver backed up to the roller door and stopped. Got out of the truck. One of the gatemen climbed into the truck and the other ducked into a side door and cranked the roller open. The truck backed into the dark and the roller came down again. The New York driver was left on the forecourt, stretching in the sun. That was it. About thirty seconds, beginning to end. Nothing on show.

I watched and waited. The truck was in there eighteen minutes. Then the roller door winched open again and the gateman drove the truck back out. As soon as it was clear, the roller came down again and the gateman jumped down from the cab. The New York guy hoisted himself back into the seat while the gateman ran ahead to swing the gates. The truck passed through and rattled out and back onto the county road. It turned north and passed by twenty yards from where I was leaning up on the concrete overpass pillar. It swung onto the on-ramp and roared up to join the northbound traffic stream.

Pretty much straightaway another truck was rumbling down the off-ramp, leaving the traffic stream coming down from the north. It was a similar truck. Same make, same size, same highway grime. It lumbered and bounced into the warehouse approach. I squinted through the field glasses. Illinois plates. It went through the same ritual. Paused at the gates. Backed up to the roller door. The driver was replaced by the gateman. The roller came up just long enough to swallow the truck into the gloom inside. Quick and efficient. About thirty seconds again, beginning to end. And secret. The long-haul drivers weren't allowed into the warehouse. They had to wait outside.

The Illinois truck was out quicker. Sixteen minutes. The driver reclaimed his place at the wheel and headed out, back to the highway. I watched him pass by, twenty yards away.

Our theory said both trucks had been loaded up with some of the stockpile and were grinding their way north. Thundering their way back to the big cities up there, ready to unload. So far, our theory looked good. I couldn't fault it.

The next hour, nothing happened. The fourth compound stayed closed up tight. I started to get bored. I started to wish the hobo hadn't left. We could have chatted awhile. Then I saw the third truck of the day come heading in. I raised the field glasses and saw California plates. Same type of truck, dirty red color, rumbling in off the highway, heading for the end compound. It went through a different routine from the first two. It went in through the gates, but there was no change of driver. The truck just reversed straight in through the roller door. This guy was obviously authorized to see inside the shed. Then a wait. I timed it at twenty-two minutes. Then the roller door winched up and the truck came back out. Drove straight back out through the gates and headed for the highway.

I took a fast decision. Time to go. I wanted to see inside one of those trucks. So I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the field glasses and the water canteen. Ran under the overpass to the northbound side. Clawed my way up the steep bank and leapt the concrete wall. Back to the old Cadillac. I slammed the hood shut and got in. Started up and rolled along the shoulder. Waited for a gap and gunned the big motor. Nudged the wheel and accelerated north.

I figured the red truck might be three or four minutes ahead. Not much more than that. I hopped past bunches of vehicles and pushed the big old car on. Then settled back to a fast cruise. I figured I was gaining all the time. After a few miles I spotted the truck. Eased off and sat well back, maybe three hundred yards behind him. Kept a half-dozen vehicles between him and me. I settled back and relaxed. We were going to L. A. , according to Roscoe's menorah theory.

We cruised slowly north. Not much more than fifty miles an hour. The Cadillac's tank was near enough full. Might get me three hundred miles, maybe three fifty. At this slow cruise, maybe more. Acceleration was the killer. Gunning the worn eight-year-old V-8 would use gas faster than coffee comes out of a pot. But a steady cruise would give me reasonable mileage. Might get me up to four hundred miles. Enough to get as far west as Memphis, maybe.

We rolled on. The dirty red truck sat up big and obvious, three hundred yards ahead. It bore left around the southern fringe of Atlanta. Setting itself to strike out west, across the country. The distribution theory was looking good. I slowed down and hung back through the interchange. Didn't want the driver to get suspicious about being followed. But I could see by the way he was handling his lane changes this was not a guy who made much use of his rearview mirrors. I closed up a little tighter.

The red truck rolled on. I stayed eight cars behind it. Time rolled by. It got late in the afternoon. It got to be early evening. I ate candy and sipped water for dinner as I drove. I couldn't work the radio. It was some kind of a fancy Japanese make. The guy at the auto shop must have transplanted it. Maybe it was busted. I wondered how he was doing with tinting the Bentley's windows. I wondered what Charlie was going to say about getting her car back with black glass. I figured maybe that was going to be the least of her worries. We rolled on.

We rolled on for almost four hundred miles. Eight hours. We drove out of Georgia, right through Alabama, into the northeast corner of Mississippi. It got pitch dark. The fall sun had dropped away up ahead. People had switched their lights on. We drove on through the dark for hours. It felt like I had been following the guy all my life. Then, approaching midnight, the red truck slowed down. A half-mile ahead, I saw it pull off into a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. Near a place called Myrtle. Maybe sixty miles short of the Tennessee state line. Maybe seventy miles shy of Memphis. I followed the truck into the lot. Parked up well away from it.

I saw the driver get out. A tall, thickset type of a guy. Thick neck and wide, powerful shoulders. Dark, in his thirties. Long arms, like an ape. I knew who he was. He was Kliner's son. A stone-cold psychopath. I watched him. He did some stretching and yawning in the dark standing by his truck. I stared at him and pictured him Thursday night, at the warehouse gate, dancing.

THE KLINER KID LOCKED UP THE TRUCK AND AMBLED OFF toward the buildings. I waited a spell and followed him. I figured he would have gone straight for the bathroom, so I hung around the newsstand in the bright neon and watched the door. I saw him come out and watched him amble into the diner area. He settled at a table and stretched again. Picked up the menu with the expansive air of a guy who was taking his time. He was there for a late dinner. I figured he'd take twenty-five minutes. Maybe a half hour.

I headed back out to the parking lot. I wanted to break into the red truck and get a look inside. But I saw there was no chance of doing it out there in the lot. No chance at all. People were walking around and a couple of police cruisers were loafing about. The whole place was lit up with bright lights. Breaking into that truck was going to have to wait.

I walked back to the buildings. Crammed myself into a phone booth and dialed the station house in Margrave. Finlay answered right away. I heard his deep Harvard tones. He'd been sitting by the phone, waiting for me to check in.

"Where are you?" he said.

"Not far from Memphis," I said. "I watched a truck load up and I'm sticking with it until I get a chance to look inside. The driver's the Kliner kid. "

"OK," he said. "I heard from Picard. Roscoe's safely installed. Fast asleep now, if she's got any sense. He said she sends her love. "

"Send mine back if you get the chance," I said. "Take care, Harvard guy. "

"Take care yourself," he said. Hung up.

I strolled back to the Cadillac. Got in and waited. It was a half hour before the Kliner kid came out again. I saw him walk back toward the red truck. He was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Looked like he'd had a good dinner. Certainly taken him long enough. He walked out of sight. A minute later the truck rattled by and lurched onto the exit road. But the kid didn't head back to the highway. He ducked a left onto a service road. He was going around to the motel. He was going to stay overnight.

He drove right up to the row of motel cabins. Parked the red truck up against the second cabin from the end. Right in the glow of a big light on a pole. He got out and locked up. Took a key from his pocket and opened up the cabin. Went in and shut the door. I saw the light go on and the blind come down. He'd had the key in his pocket. He hadn't gone into the office. He must have booked the room when he was inside for dinner. He must have paid for it and picked up the key. That's what had taken him so damn long in there.

It gave me a problem. I needed to see inside the truck. I needed the evidence. I needed to know I was in the right. And I needed to know soon. Sunday was forty-eight hours away. I had things to do before Sunday. A lot of things. I was going to have to break into the truck, right there in the glare of the light on the pole. While the psychopathic Kliner kid was ten feet away in his motel room. Not the safest thing in the world to do. I was going to have to wait a while to do it. Until the kid was sound asleep and wouldn't hear the boom and scrape as I went to work.

I waited a half hour. Couldn't wait anymore. I started the old Cadillac and moved it through the stillness. The tappets were out and the pistons were slapping. The motor was making a hell of a noise in the silence. I parked the car tight up to the red truck. Nose in, facing the kid's motel room door. I climbed out across the passenger seat. Stood still and listened. Nothing.

I took Morrison's switchblade from my jacket pocket and stepped up onto the Cadillac's front fender. Stepped onto the hood and up over the windshield. Up onto the Cadillac's roof. Stood still, up high. Listened hard. Nothing. I leaned over to the truck and hauled myself upward onto its roof.

A panel truck like that has a translucent roof. It's some kind of a fiberglass sheet. They make the roof out of it, or at least a sort of skylight set into the sheetmetal. It's there to let a dim light down into the cargo area. Helps with loading and unloading. Maybe it's lighter in weight. Maybe cheaper. Manufacturer will do anything to save a buck. The roof is the best way into a truck like that.

My upper body was flat on the fiberglass panel and my feet were scrabbling for the Cadillac's gutter. I reached out as far as I could and sprang the switchblade. Stabbed it down through the plastic panel, right in the center of the roof. Used the blade to saw a flap about ten inches deep, eighteen inches wide. I could push it down and peer in. Like looking down through a shallow slot.

The light in the motel room snapped on. The window blind threw a yellow square of light out over the Cadillac. Over the side of the red truck. Over my legs. I grunted and pushed off. Swam out onto the truck's roof. Lay flat and silent. Held my breath.

The motel room door opened. The Kliner kid came out. Stared at the Cadillac. Stooped and looked inside. Walked around and checked the truck. Checked the cab doors. Tugged the handles. The vehicle shook and rocked under me. He walked around to the back and tried the rear doors. Tugged the handles. I heard the doors rattle against their locks.

He walked a circuit of the truck. I lay there and listened to the crack of his footsteps below. He checked the Cadillac again. Then he went back inside. The room door slammed. The light snapped off. The yellow square of light died.

I waited five minutes. Just lay there up on the roof and waited. Then I hauled myself up onto my elbows. Reached for the slot in the fiberglass that I'd just cut. Forced the flap down and hooked my fingers in. Dragged myself over and peered through.

The truck was empty. Totally empty. Nothing in it at all.
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