Killing Floor by Lee Child

Chapter Thirty-Two
I SLOWED DOWN AT THE NORTH END OF MAIN STREET AND rolled gently south through the sleeping town. Nobody spoke. Hubble was lying on the rear bench, shaken up. Finlay was beside me in the front passenger seat. Just sitting there, rigid, staring out through the windshield. We were all breathing heavily. We were all in that quiet zone which follows an intense blast of danger.

The clock on the dash showed one in the morning. I wanted to hole up until four. I had a superstitious thing about four o'clock in the morning. We used to call it KGB time. Story was it was the time they chose to go knocking on doors. Four o'clock in the morning. Story was it had always worked well for them. Their victims were at a low ebb at that hour. Progress was easy. We had tried it ourselves, time to time. It had always worked well for me. So I wanted to wait until four, one last time.

I jinked the car left and right, down the service alleys behind the last block of stores. Switched the running lights off and pulled up in the dark behind the barbershop. Killed the motor. Finlay glanced around and shrugged. Going to the barber at one in the morning was no more crazy than driving a hundred-thousand-dollar Bentley into a building. No more crazy than getting locked in a cell for ten hours by a madman. After twenty years in Boston and six months in Margrave, there wasn't a whole lot left that Finlay was ever going to raise an eyebrow at.

Hubble leaned forward from the backseat. He was pretty shaken up. He'd deliberately driven into three separate crashes. The three impacts had left him battered and jarred. And drained. It had taken a lot to keep his foot jammed down on the gas, heading for one solid object after another. But he'd done it. Not everybody would have. But he was suffering for it now. I slid out of the seat and stood in the alley. Gestured Hubble out of the car. He joined me in the dark. Stood there, a bit unsteady.

"You OK?" I asked him.

He shrugged.

"I guess," he said. "I banged my knee and my neck hurts like hell. "

"Walk up and down," I said. "Don't stiffen up. "

I walked him up and down the dark alley. Ten paces up and back, a couple of times. He was pecking his stride on the left. Maybe the door had caved in and hit his left knee. He was rolling his head around, loosening the jarred muscles in his neck.

"OK?" I said.

He smiled. Changed it to a grimace as a tendon graunched.

"I'll live," he said.

Finlay got out and joined us in the alley. He was coming round. He was stretching like he was waking up. Getting excited. He smiled at me in the dark.

"Good job, Reacher," he said. "I was wondering how the hell you were going to get me out. What happened to Picard?"

I made a gun with my fingers, like a child's mime. He nodded a sort of partner's nod to me. Too reserved to go any further. I shook his hand. Seemed like the right thing to do. Then I turned and rapped softly on the service door at the back of the barbershop. It opened up straightaway. The older guy was standing there like he'd been waiting for us to knock. He held the door like some kind of an old butler. Gestured us in. We trooped single file down a passage into a storeroom. Waited next to shelves piled high with barber stuff. The gnarled old man caught up to us.

"We need your help," I said.

The old guy shrugged. Held up his mahogany palm in a wait gesture. Shuffled through to the front and came back with his partner. The younger old guy. They discussed my request in loud rasping whispers.

"Upstairs," the younger guy said.

We filed up a narrow staircase. Came out in an apartment above the shop. The two old barbers showed us through to the living room. They pulled the blinds and switched on a couple of dim lamps. Waved us to sit. The room was small and threadbare, but clean. It had a cozy feel. I figured if I had a room, I'd want it to look like that. We sat down. The younger guy sat with us and the older guy shuffled out again. Closed the door. The four of us sat there looking at each other. Then the barber leaned forward.

"You boys ain't the first to hide out with us," he said.

Finlay glanced around. Appointed himself spokesman.

"We're not?" he said.

"No sir, you're not," the barber said. "We've had lots of boys hiding out with us. And girls too, tell the truth. "

"Like who?" Finlay asked.

"You name it, we had it," the old guy said. "We've had farmworkers' union boys from the peanut farms. We've had farmworkers' union boys from the peach growers. We've had civil rights girls from the voter registration. We've had boys who didn't want their ass sent to Vietnam. You name it, we had it. "

Finlay nodded.

"And now you've got us," he said.

"Local trouble?" the barber asked.

Finlay nodded again.

"Big trouble," he said. "Big changes coming. "

"Been expecting it," the old guy said. "Been expecting it for years. "

"You have?" Finlay said.

The barber nodded and stood up. Stepped over to a large closet. Opened the door and waved us over to take a look. It was a big closet, fitted with deep shelves. The shelves were stacked with money. Bricks and bricks of cash held together with rubber bands. It filled the closet from floor to ceiling. Must have been a couple of hundred thousand dollars in there.

"Kliner Foundation's money," the old guy said. "They just keep on throwing it at us. Something wrong with it. I'm seventy-four years old. Seventy years, people are pissing all over me. Now people are throwing money all over me. Something wrong with that, right?"

He closed the door on the cash.

"We don't spend it," he said. "We don't spend a cent we don't earn. We just put it in the closet. You boys going after the Kliner Foundation?"

"Tomorrow there won't be any Kliner Foundation," I said.

The old guy just nodded. Glanced at the closet door as he passed by and shook his head. Closed the door on us and left us alone in the small cozy room.

"NOT GOING TO BE EASY," FINLAY SAID. "THREE OF US AND three of them. They hold four hostages. Two of the hostages are children. We're not even certain where they're holding them. "

"They're at the warehouse," I said. "That's for sure. Where else would they be? No manpower available to hold them anyplace else. And you heard that tape. That boomy echo? That was the warehouse, for sure. "

"What tape?" Hubble asked.

Finlay looked at him.

"They had Roscoe make a tape for Reacher," he said. "A message. To prove they were holding her. "

"Roscoe?" Hubble said. "What about Charlie?"

Finlay shook his head.

"Just Roscoe," he lied. "Nothing from Charlie. "

Hubble nodded. Smart move, Harvard guy, I thought. The image of Charlie being held down at a microphone with a sharp knife at her throat would have tipped Hubble right over the edge. Right off the plateau, back down to where panic would make him useless.

"The warehouse is where they are," I said again. "No doubt about it. "

Hubble knew the warehouse well. He'd been working up there most days for a year and a half. So we got him to go over and over it, describing the layout. We found paper and pencil and got him to draw plans. We went over and over the plans, putting in all the doors, the stairs, the distances, the details. We ended up with the sort of drawing an architect would have been proud of.

The warehouse stood in its own compound at the end of the row of four. It was very close in line with the third shed, which was a farmers' operation. There was a fence running between the two with just a path's width between it and the metal siding. The other three sides were ringed by the main fence running around the whole complex. That fence ran close to the warehouse across the back and down the far end, but there was plenty of space in front for trucks to turn.

The big roller door covered just about the whole of the front wall. There was a small staff door just around the far corner which gave on to the main floor. There was a cage just inside the staff door where the roller door winch was sited. Go in the staff door and turn left, there was an open metal staircase running up to an office. The office was cantilevered way up into the top back corner of the huge shed, hanging there about forty feet above the main floor. The office had big windows and a railed balcony looking down into the shed for supervision. In back, the office had a door leading out to an external fire escape which was another open metal staircase bolted to the outside back wall.

"OK," I said. "Clear enough, right?"

Finlay shrugged.

"I'm worried about reinforcements," he said. "Guards on the exterior. "

I shrugged back.

"There won't be reinforcements," I said. "I'm more worried about the shotguns. It's a big space. And there are two kids in there. "

Finlay nodded. Looked grim. He knew what I was saying. Shotguns spray a cone of lead over a big wide angle. Shotguns and children don't mix. We went quiet. It was nearly two in the morning. An hour and a half to wait. We would leave at three thirty. Get up there at four. My favorite attack time.

THE WAITING PERIOD. LIKE SOLDIERS IN A DUGOUT. LIKE PILOTS before a raid. It was silent. Finlay dozed. He had done this before. Probably many times. He sprawled in his chair. His left arm hung over the side. Half of the shattered handcuff dangled from his wrist. Like a silver bracelet.

Hubble sat upright. He hadn't done this before. He just fidgeted around, burning energy. Couldn't blame him. He kept looking over at me. Questions in his eyes. I just kept on shrugging back at him.

Two thirty, there was a knock on the door. Just a soft tap. The door opened a foot. The older of the two old barbers was there. He pointed a gnarled and trembling finger into the room. Aimed straight at me.

"Someone to see you, son," he said.

Finlay sat up and Hubble looked scared. I signaled them both to stay put. Stood up and pulled the big automatic out of my pocket. Clicked the safety off. The old guy flapped his hand at me and fussed.

"You don't need that, son," he said. "Don't need that at all. "

He was impatient, beckoning me out to join him. I put the gun away again. Shrugged at the other two and went with the old guy. He led me into a tiny kitchen. There was a very old woman in there, sitting on a stool. Same mahogany color as the old guy, stick thin. She looked like an old tree in winter.

"This is my sister," the old barber said. "You boys woke her up, chattering. "

Then he stepped over to her. Bent down and spoke right in her ear.

"This is the boy I told you about," he said.

She looked up and smiled at me. It was like the sun coming out. I caught a flash of the beauty she must have had, long ago. She held out her hand and I took it. Felt like thin wires in a soft dry glove. The old barber left us alone together in the kitchen. Stopped as he passed me.

"Ask her about him," he said.

The old guy shuffled out. I still had the old lady's hand in mine. I squatted down next to her. She didn't try to pull her hand away. Just left it nestled there, like a brown twig in my huge paw.

"I don't hear so good," she said. "You got to lean close. "

I spoke in her ear. She smelled like an old flower. Like a faded bloom.

"How's this?" I said.

"That's good, son," she said. "I can hear that OK. "

"I was asking your brother about Blind Blake," I said.

"I know that, son," she said. "He told me all about it. "

"He told me you knew him," I said, in her ear.

"I sure did," she said. "I knew him real well. "

"Will you tell me about him?" I asked her.

She turned her head and gazed at me sadly.

"What's to tell?" she said. "He's been gone a real long time. "

"What was he like?" I said.

She was still gazing at me. Her eyes were misting over as she trawled backward sixty, seventy years.

"He was blind," she said.

She didn't say anything more for a while. Her lips fluttered soundlessly and I could feel a strong pulse hammering in her bony wrist. She moved her head as if she was trying to hear something from far away.

"He was blind," she said again. "And he was a sweet boy. "

She was more than ninety years old. She was as old as the twentieth century. So she was remembering back to her twenties and thirties. Not to her childhood or her teens. She was remembering back to her womanhood. And she was calling Blake a sweet boy.

"I was a singer," she said. "And he played the guitar. You know that old expression, he could play the guitar just like ringing a bell? That's what I used to say about Blake. He would pick up that old instrument of his and the notes would just come tumbling out, faster than you could sing them. But each note was just a perfect little silver bell, floating off into the air. We'd sing and play all night long, then in the morning I'd lead him out into a meadow, and we'd sit under some old shade tree, and we'd sing and play some more. Just for the joy of it. Just because I could sing and he could play. "

She hummed a couple of bars of something under her breath. Her voice was about a fifth lower pitched than it ought to have been. She was so thin and fragile, you'd have expected a high, faltering soprano. But she was singing with a low, breathy contralto. I thought back with her and put the two of them in an old Georgia meadow. The heavy smell of wildflower blossom, the buzz of lazy noontime insects, the two of them, backs against a tree, singing and playing for the joy of it. Belting out the wry, defiant songs that Blake had made up and that I loved so much.

"What happened to him?" I asked her. "Do you know?"

She nodded.

"Two people on this earth know that," she whispered. "I'm one of them. "

"Will you tell me?" I said. "I sort of came down here to find out. "

"Sixty-two years," she said. "I never told a soul in sixty-two years. "

"Will you tell me?" I asked her again.

She nodded. Sadly. Tears in her misty old eyes.

"Sixty-two years," she said. "You're the first person ever asked me. "

I held my breath. Her lips fluttered and her hand scrabbled in my palm.

"He was blind," she said. "But he was sporty. You know that word? Sporty? It means kind of uppity. Uppity with a smile and a grin is sporty. Blake was sporty. Had a lot of spirit and energy. Walked fast and talked fast, always moving, always smiling his sweet fool head off. But one time, we came out of a place in town here, walking down the sidewalk, laughing. Nobody else around but for two white folks coming toward us on the sidewalk. A man and a boy. I saw them and ducked off the sidewalk, like we were supposed to. Stood in the dirt to let them pass. But poor Blake was blind. Didn't see them. Just crashed into the white boy. A white boy, maybe ten years old, maybe twelve. Blake sent him flying into the dirt. White boy cut his head on a stone, set up such a hollering like you never heard. The white boy's daddy was there with him. I knew him. He was a big important man in this town. His boy was screaming fit to burst. Screaming at his daddy to punish the nigger. So the daddy lost his temper and set about Blake with his cane. Big silver knob on the top. He beat poor Blake with that cane until his head was just split open like a burst watermelon. Killed him stone dead. Picked up the boy and turned to me. Sent me over to the horse trough to wash poor Blake's hair and blood and brains off from the end of his cane. Told me never to say a word about it, or he'd kill me too. So I just hid out and waited until somebody else found poor Blake there on the sidewalk. Then I ran out screaming and hollering with the rest of them all. Never said a word about it to another living soul, that day to this. "

Big wet tears were welling out of her eyes and rolling slowly down her thin cheeks. I reached over and smudged them dry with the back of my finger. Took her other hand in mine.

"Who was the boy?" I asked her.

"Somebody I seen around ever since," she said. "Somebody I seen sneering around just about every day since, reminding me of my poor Blake lying there with his head split open. "

"Who was he?" I said.

"It was an accident," she said. "Anybody could have seen that. Poor Blake was a blind man. Boy didn't have to set up such a hollering. He wasn't hurt so bad. He was old enough to know better. It was his fault for hollering and screaming like he did. "

"Who was the boy?" I asked her again.

She turned to me and stared into my eyes. Told me the sixty-two-year-old secret.

"Grover Teale," she said. "Grew up to be mayor, just like his old daddy. Thinks he's king of the damn world, but he's just a screaming brat who got my poor Blake killed for no reason at all except he was blind and he was black. "
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