Nothing to Lose by Lee Child


  “Wasted, in fact.”

  “Noticeably. But he was probably wiry to begin with.”

  “How long does it take for a wiry person to get wasted?”

  “I don’t know for sure. Maybe five or six days in a hospital bed or a cell, if you’re sick or on a hunger strike. Less if you’re moving about out-of-doors, keeping warm, burning energy. Maybe only two or three days.”

  Vaughan was quiet for a moment.

  “That’s a lot of wandering,” she said. “We need to know why the good folks of Despair put in two or three days sustained effort to keep him out of there.”

  Reacher shook his head. “Might be more useful to know why he was trying so hard to stay. He must have had a damn good reason.”

  20

  Vaughan finished her water and Reacher finished his coffee and asked, “Can I borrow your truck?”

  “When?”

  “Now. While you sleep.”

  Vaughan said, “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “You’ll use it to go back to Despair, you’ll get arrested, and I’ll be implicated.”

  “Suppose I don’t go back to Despair?”

  “Where else would you want to go?”

  “I want to see what lies to the west. The dead guy must have come in that way. I’m guessing he didn’t come through Hope. You would have seen him and remembered him. Likewise with the girl’s missing husband.”

  “Good point. But there’s not much west of Despair. A lot of not much, in fact.”

  “Got to be something.”

  Vaughan was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “It’s a long loop around. You have to go back practically all the way to Kansas.”

  Reacher said, “I’ll pay for the gas.”

  “Promise me you’ll stay out of Despair.”

  “Where’s the line?”

  “Five miles west of the metal plant.”

  “Deal.”

  Vaughan sighed and slid her keys across the table.

  “Go,” she said. “I’ll walk home. I don’t want you to see where I live.”

  The old Chevy’s seat didn’t go very far back. The runners were short. Reacher ended up driving with his back straight and his knees splayed, like he was at the wheel of a farm tractor. The steering was vague and the brakes were soft. But it was better than walking. Much better, in fact. Reacher was done with walking, for a day or two at least.

  His first stop was his motel in Hope. His room was at the end of the row, which put Lucy Anderson in a room closer to the office. She couldn’t be anywhere else. He hadn’t seen any other overnight accommodation in town. And she wasn’t staying with friends, because they would have been with her in the diner the night before, in her hour of need.

  The motel had its main windows all in back. The front of the row had a repeating sequence of doors and lawn chairs and head-high pebbled-glass slits that put daylight into the bathrooms. Reacher started with the room next to his own and walked down the row, looking for the white blur of underwear drying over a tub. In his experience women of Lucy Anderson’s station and generation were very particular about personal hygiene.

  The twelve rooms yielded two possibilities. One had a larger blur than the other. Not necessarily more underwear. Just bigger underwear. An older or a larger woman. Reacher knocked at the other door and stepped back and waited. A long moment later Lucy Anderson opened up and stood in the inside shadows, warily, with one hand on the handle.

  Reacher said, “Hello, Lucky.”

  “What do you want?”

  “I want to know why your husband went to Despair, and how he got there.”

  She was wearing the same sneakers, and the same kind of abbreviated socks. Above them was a long expanse of leg, smooth and toned and tanned to perfection. Maybe she played soccer for UCLA. Maybe she was a varsity star. Above the expanse of leg was a pair of cut-off denims, frayed higher on the outside of her thighs than the inside, which was to say frayed very high indeed, because the effective remaining inseam had to have been less than three-quarters of an inch.

  Above the shorts was another sweatshirt, mid-blue, with nothing written on it.

  She said, “I don’t want you looking for my husband.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because I don’t want you to find him.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s obvious.”

  “Not to me,” Reacher said.

  She said, “I’d like you to leave me alone now.”

  “You were worried about him yesterday. Today you’re not?”

  She stepped forward into the light, just a pace, and glanced left and right beyond Reacher’s shoulders. The motel’s lot was empty. Nothing there, except Vaughan’s old truck parked at Reacher’s door. Lucy Anderson’s sweatshirt was the same color as her eyes, and her eyes were full of panic.

  “Just leave us alone,” she said, and stepped back into her room and closed the door.

  Reacher sat a spell in Vaughan’s truck, with a map from her door pocket. The sun was out again and the cab was warm. In Reacher’s experience cars were always either warm or cold. Like a primitive calendar. Either it was summer or winter. Either the sun came through the glass and the metal, or it didn’t.

  The map confirmed what Vaughan had told him. He was going to have to drive a huge three-and-a-half-sided rectangle, first east almost all the way back to the Kansas line, then north to I-70, then west again, then south on the same highway spur the metal trucks used. Total distance, close to two hundred miles. Total time, close to four hours. Plus four hours and two hundred miles back, if he obeyed Vaughan’s injunction to keep her truck off Despair’s roads.

  Which he planned to.

  Probably.

  He pulled out of the lot and headed east, retracing the route he had come in on with the old guy in the Grand Marquis. The mid-morning sun was low on his right. The old truck’s battered exhaust was leaking fumes, so he kept the windows cracked. No electric winders. Just old-fashioned handles, which he preferred for the precision they permitted. He had the left window down less than an inch, and the right window half as much. At a steady sixty the wind whistled in and sounded a mellifluous high-pitched chord, underpinned by the bass growl of a bad bearing and the tenor burble of the tired old motor. The truck was a pleasant traveling companion on the state roads. On I-70 it was less pleasant. Passing semis blew it all over the place. The geometry was out and it had no stability. Reacher’s wrists ached after the first ten highway miles, from holding it steady. He stopped once for gas and once for coffee and both times he was happy to get a break.

  The spur came off I-70 west of Despair and petered out into a heavy-duty county two-lane within thirty miles. Reacher recognized it. It was the same piece of road he had observed leaving the plant at the other end. Same sturdy construction, same width, same coarse blacktop, same sand shoulders. Exactly four hours after leaving the motel he slowed and coasted and crossed the rumble strip and came to a stop with two wheels in the sand. Traffic was light, limited to trucks of all types heading in and out of the recycling plant twenty miles ahead. They were mostly flat-bed semis, but with some container trucks and box vans mixed in. Plates were mostly from Colorado and its adjacent states, but there were some from California and Washington and New Jersey and some from Canada. They blew past and their bow waves rocked the old truck on its suspension.

  Despair itself was invisible in the far distance, except for the hint of a smudge on the horizon and a thin pall of smog hanging motionless in the air. Five miles closer but still fifteen miles away was the group of low gray buildings Reacher had seen before, now on his right, a tiny indistinct blur. A gas station, maybe. Or a motel. Or both. Maybe a full-blown truck stop, with a restaurant. Maybe it was the kind of place he could get a high-calorie meal.

  Maybe it was the kind of place Lucy Anderson’s husband and the unidentified dead guy might have gotten a high-calorie meal, on their way into Despair. In the case of the unidentified dead guy at least
, maybe his last meal ever.

  Maybe someone would remember them.

  Maybe the place was outside Despair’s city limit.

  Maybe it wasn’t.

  Reacher checked his mirror and put the truck in gear and bumped his right-hand wheels back onto the road and headed for the horizon. Twelve minutes later he stopped again, just short of a pole that held a small green sign that said: Entering Despair, Pop. 2691. A hundred yards the wrong side of the line was the group of low buildings.

  They weren’t gray. That had been a trick of light and haze and distance.

  They were olive green.

  Not a gas station.

  Not a motel.

  No kind of a truck stop.

  21

  There were six low green buildings. They were identical metal prefabrications clustered together according to exact specifications and precise regulations. They were separated by roadways of uniform width graded from raw dirt and edged with white-painted boulders of small and consistent size. They were ringed by a razor-wire fence, tall, straight, and true. The fence continued west to enclose a parking lot. The lot was filled with six up-armored Humvees. Each one had a machine-gun mount on top. Next to the parking lot there was a slender radio mast protected by a fence all its own.

  Not a motel.

  Not a truck stop.

  A military facility.

  Specifically, an army facility. More specifically, a Military Police facility. More specifically still, a temporary advanced encampment for a combat MP unit. An FOB, a forward operating base. Reacher recognized the format and the equipment mix. Confirmation was right there on a board at the gate. The gate was a white counterbalanced pole with a guard shack next to it. The board was on stilts next to the shack and was painted glossy army green and had a formal unit ID stenciled on it in white.

  Not a National Guard unit.

  Not reservists.

  A regular army unit, and a pretty good one, too. At least it always had been, back in Reacher’s day, and there was no reason to believe it had gotten sloppy in the intervening years. No reason at all.

  How sloppy it hadn’t gotten was proved almost immediately.

  The guard shack was a metal affair with tall wide windows on all four sides. Four guys in it. Two stayed where they were, and would forever, no matter what. The other two came out. They were dressed in desert BDUs and boots and armored vests and helmets and they were carrying M16 rifles. They ducked under the boom and formed up side by side and sloped arms and stepped out to the roadway. They executed a perfect left turn and jogged toward Reacher’s truck, exactly in step, at exactly seven miles an hour, like they had been trained to. When they were thirty yards away they separated to split the target they were presenting. One guy headed for the sand and came up on Reacher’s right and stood off ten yards distant and swapped his rifle into the ready position. The other guy stayed on the blacktop and looped around and checked the truck’s load bed and then came back and stood off six feet from Reacher’s door and called out in a loud clear voice.

  He said, “Sir, please lower your window.”

  And keep your hands where I can see them, Reacher thought. For your own safety. He wound the window all the way down and glanced left.

  “Sir, please keep your hands where I can see them,” the guy said. “For your own safety.”

  Reacher put his hands high on the wheel and kept on staring left. The guy he was looking at was a specialist, young but with some years in, with pronounced squint lines either side of his eyes. He was wearing glasses with thin black frames. The name tape on the right side of his vest said Morgan. In the distance a truck’s air horn sounded and the soldier stepped closer to the curb and a semi blasted past from behind in a howl of sound and wind and grit. There was a long whine of stressed tires and Reacher’s truck rocked on its springs and then silence came down again. The soldier stepped back to where he had been before and took up the same stance, wary but challenging, in control but cautious, his M16 held barrel-down but ready.

  “At ease, Corporal,” Reacher said. “Nothing to see here.”

  The guy called Morgan said, “Sir, that’s a determination I’ll need to make for myself.”

  Reacher glanced ahead. Morgan’s partner was still as a statue, the stock of his M16 tucked tight into his shoulder. He was a private first class. He was sighting with his right eye, aiming low at Reacher’s front right-hand tire.

  Morgan asked, “Sir, why are you stopped here?”

  Reacher said, “Do I need a reason?”

  “Sir, you appear to me to be surveilling a restricted military installation.”

  “Well, you’re wrong. I’m not.”

  “Sir, why are you stopped?”

  “Stop calling me sir, will you?”

  “Sir?”

  Reacher smiled to himself. An MP with Morgan’s years in had probably read a whole foot-thick stack of orders titled Members of the Public, Domestic, Required Forms of Address, endlessly revised, revisited, and updated.

  “Maybe I’m lost,” Reacher said.

  “You’re not local?”

  “No.”

  “Your vehicle has Colorado plates.”

  “Colorado is a big state,” Reacher said. “More than a hundred thousand square miles, soldier, the eighth largest in the Union. By land area, that is. Only the twenty-second largest by population. Maybe I come from a remote and distant corner.”

  Morgan went blank for a second. Then he asked, “Sir, where are you headed?”

  The question gave Reacher a problem. The spur off I-70 had been small and hard to find. No way could a driver headed for Colorado Springs or Denver or Boulder have taken it by mistake. To claim a navigation error would raise suspicion. To raise suspicion would lead to a radio check against Vaughan’s plates, which would drag her into something she was better left out of.

  So Reacher said, “I’m headed for Hope.”

  Morgan took his left hand off his rifle and pointed straight ahead.

  “That way, sir,” he said. “You’re on track. Twenty-two miles to downtown Hope.”

  Reacher nodded. Morgan was pointing south but hadn’t taken his eyes off Reacher’s hands. He was a good soldier. Experienced. Well turned out. His BDUs were old but in good order. His boots were worn and scratched but well cared for and immaculately brushed. The top of his eyeglass frame ran exactly parallel with the lip of his helmet. Reacher liked soldiers in eyeglasses. Eyeglasses added a vulnerable human detail that balanced the alien appearance of the weapons and the armor.

  The face of the modern army.

  Morgan stepped in close to Reacher’s fender again and another truck blew by. This one was a New Jersey semi loaded with a closed forty-foot shipping container. Like a giant brick, doing sixty miles an hour. Noise, wind, a long tail of swirling dust. Morgan’s BDU pants flattened against his legs and skittering miniature tornadoes of dust danced all around his feet. But he didn’t blink behind his glasses.

  He asked, “Sir, does this vehicle belong to you?”

  Reacher said, “I’m not sure you’re entitled to information like that.”

  “In the vicinity of a restricted military installation I would say I’m entitled to pretty much any information I want.”

  Reacher didn’t answer that.

  Morgan said, “Do you have registration and insurance?”

  “Glove box,” Reacher said, which was a pretty safe guess. Vaughan was a cop. Most cops kept their paperwork straight. Too embarrassing, if they didn’t.

  Morgan asked, “Sir, may I see those documents?”

  Reacher said, “No.”

  “Sir, now it seems to me that you’re approaching a restricted military installation in a stolen load-bearing vehicle.”

  “You already checked the back. It’s empty.”

  Morgan said nothing.

  “Relax, Corporal,” Reacher said. “This is Colorado, not Iraq. I’m not looking to blow anything up.”

 
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