Nothing to Lose by Lee Child


  Reacher nodded again and stepped back outside to the pool of sulfur light. The door sucked shut behind him, on a spring closer. To assume makes an ass out of you and me. Ass, u, me. The classroom jerks at Rucker had added: You absolutely have to verify. Reacher walked back across the concrete and waited for the gate to grind open a yard and stepped through and climbed into Vaughan’s truck.

  He had verified.

  Absolutely.

  36

  Reacher drove a mile and stopped at Halfway’s all-night coffee shop and ate a cheeseburger and drank three mugs of coffee. The burger was rare and damp and the coffee was about as good as the Hope diner’s. The mug was a little worse, but acceptable. He read a ragged copy of the previous morning’s newspaper all the way through and then jammed himself into the corner of his booth and dozed upright for an hour. He left the place at five in the morning, when the first of the breakfast customers came in and disturbed him with bright chatter and the smell of recent showers. He filled Vaughan’s truck at the all-night gas station and then drove back out of town, heading east on the same rough road he had come in on, the mountains far behind him and the dawn waiting to happen up ahead.

  He kept the speedometer needle fixed on forty and passed the MP post again fifty-two minutes later. The place was still quiet. Two guys were in the guard shack, one facing north and one facing south. Their nightlight was still burning. He figured reveille would be at six-thirty and chow at seven. The night watch would eat dinner and the day watch would eat breakfast all in the same hour. Same food, probably. Combat FOBs were light on amenities. He waved and kept on going at a steady forty miles an hour, which put him next to the metal plant at exactly six o’clock in the morning.

  The start of the workday.

  The arena lights were already on and the place was lit up bright and blue, like day. The parking lot was filling up fast. Headlights were streaming west out of town, dipping, turning, raking the rough ground, stopping, clicking off. Reacher parked neatly between a sagging Chrysler sedan and a battered Ford pick-up. He slid out and locked up and put the keys in his pocket and joined a converging crowd of men shuffling their way toward the personnel gate. An uneasy feeling. Same sensation as entering a baseball stadium wearing the colors of the visiting team. Stranger in the house. All around him guys glanced at him curiously and gave him a little more space than they were giving each other. But nothing was said. There was no overt hostility. Just wariness and covert inspection, as the crowd shuffled along through the predawn twilight, a yard at a time.

  The personnel gate was a double section of the metal wall, folded back on hinges complex enough to accommodate the quilted curves of the wall’s construction. The dirt path through it was beaten dusty by a million footsteps. Close to the gate there was no jostling. No impatience. Men lined up neatly like automatons, not fast, not slow, but resigned. They all needed to clock in, but clearly none of them wanted to.

  The line shuffled slowly forward, a yard, two, three.

  The guy in front of Reacher stepped through the gate.

  Reacher stepped through the gate.

  Immediately inside there were more metal walls, head-high, like cattle chutes, dividing the crowd left and right. The right-hand chute led to a holding pen where Reacher guessed the part-time workers would wait for the call. It was already a quarter full with men standing quiet and patient. The guys going left didn’t look at them.

  Reacher went left.

  The left-hand chute dog-legged immediately and narrowed down to four feet in width. It carried the line of shuffling men past an old-fashioned punch-clock centered in a giant slotted array of time cards. Each man pulled his card and offered it up to the machine and waited for the dull thump of the stamp and then put the card back again. The rhythm was slow and relentless. The whisk of stiff paper against metal, the thump of the stamp, the click as the card was bottomed back in its slot. The clock was showing six-fourteen, which was exactly right according to the time in Reacher’s head.

  Reacher walked straight past the machine. The chute turned again and he followed the guy in front for thirty feet and then stepped out into the northeast corner of the arena. The arena was vast. Just staggeringly huge. The line of lights on the far wall ran close to a mile into the distance and dimmed and shrank and blended into a tiny vanishing point in the southwest corner. The far wall itself was at least a half-mile away. The total enclosed area must have been three hundred acres. Three hundred football fields.

  Unbelievable.

  Reacher stepped aside to let the line of men get past him. Here and there in the vastness small swarms of guys were already busy. Trucks and cranes were moving. They threw harsh shadows in the stadium lights. Some of the cranes were bigger than anything Reacher had seen in a dockyard. Some of the trucks were as big as earth-moving machines. There were gigantic crushers set on enormous concrete plinths. The crushers had bright oily hydraulic rams thicker than redwood trunks. There were crucibles as big as sailboats and retorts as big as houses. There were piles of wrecked cars ten stories high. The ground was soaked with oil and rainbow puddles of diesel and littered with curled metal swarf and where it was dry it glittered with shiny dust. Steam and smoke and fumes and sharp chemical smells were drifting everywhere. There was roaring and hammering rolling outward in waves and beating against the metal perimeter and bouncing straight back in again. Bright flames danced behind open furnace doors.

  Like a vision of hell.

  Some guys seemed to be heading for preassigned jobs and others were milling in groups as if waiting for direction. Reacher skirted around behind them and followed the north wall, tiny and insignificant in the chaos. Way ahead of him the vehicle gate was opening. Five semi trailers were parked in a line, waiting to move out. On the road they would look huge and lumbering. Inside the plant they looked like toys. The two security Tahoes were parked side by side, tiny white dots in the vastness. Next to them was a stack of forty-foot shipping containers. They were piled five high. Each one looked tiny.

  South of the vehicle gate was a long line of prefabricated metal offices. They were jacked up on short legs to make them level. They had lights on inside. At the left-hand end of the line two offices were painted white and had red crosses on their doors. The first-aid station. Next to it a white vehicle was parked. The ambulance. Next to the ambulance was a long line of fuel and chemical tanks. Beyond them a sinister platoon of men in thick aprons and black welding masks used cutting torches on a pile of twisted scrap. Blue flames threw hideous shadows. Reacher hugged the north wall and kept on moving. Men looked at him and looked away, unsure. A quarter of the way along the wall his path was blocked by a giant pyramid of old oil drums. They were painted faded red and stacked ten high, stepped like a staircase. Reacher paused and glanced around and levered himself up to the base of the tier. Glanced around again and climbed halfway up the stack and then turned and stood precariously and held on tight and used the elevation to get an overview of the whole place.

  He hadn’t seen the whole place.

  Not yet.

  There was more.

  Much more.

  What had looked like the south boundary was in fact an interior partition. Same height as the perimeter walls, same material, same color, same construction, with the sheer face and the horizontal cylinder. Same purpose, as an impregnable barrier. But it was only an internal division, with a closed gate. Beyond it the outer perimeter enclosed at least another hundred acres. Another hundred football fields. The gate was wide enough for large trucks. There were deep ruts in the ground leading to it. Beyond it there were heavy cranes and high stacks of shipping containers piled in chevron shapes. The containers looked dumped, as if casually, but they were placed and combined carefully enough to block a direct view of ground-level activity from any particular direction.

  The internal gate had some kind of a control point in front of it. Reacher could make out two tiny figures stumping around in small circles, bored, their hands in their pockets.
He watched them for a minute and then lifted his gaze again beyond the partition. Cranes, and screens. Some smoke, some distant sparks. Some kind of activity. Other than that, nothing to see. Plenty to hear, but none of it was useful. It was impossible to determine which noises were coming from where. He waited another minute and watched the plant’s internal traffic. Plenty of things were moving, but nothing was heading for the internal gate. It was going to stay closed. He turned east and looked at the sky. Dawn was coming.

  He turned back and got his balance and climbed down the oil drum staircase. Stepped off to the rough ground and a voice behind him said, “Who the hell are you?”

  37

  Reacher turned slowly and saw two men. One was big and the other was a giant. The big guy was carrying a two-way radio and the giant was carrying a two-headed wrench as long as a baseball bat and probably heavier than ten of them. The guy was easily six-six and three hundred and fifty pounds. He looked like he wouldn’t need a wrench to take a wrecked car apart.

  The guy with the radio asked again, “Who the hell are you?”

  “EPA inspector,” Reacher said.

  No reply.

  “Just kidding,” Reacher said.

  “You better be.”

  “I am.”

  “So who are you?”

  Reacher said, “You first. Who are you?”

  “I’m the plant foreman. Now, who are you?”

  Reacher pulled the pewter star from his pocket and said, “I’m with the PD. The new deputy. I’m familiarizing myself with the community.”

  “We didn’t hear about any new deputies.”

  “It was sudden.”

  The guy raised his radio to his face and clicked a button and spoke low and fast. Names, codes, commands. Reacher didn’t understand them, and didn’t expect to. Every organization had its own jargon. But he recognized the tone and he guessed the general drift. He glanced west and saw the Tahoes backing up and turning and getting set to head over. He glanced south and saw groups of men stopping work, standing straight, preparing to move.

  The foreman said, “Let’s go visit the security office.”

  Reacher stood still.

  The foreman said, “A new deputy should want to visit the security office. Meet useful folks. Establish liaison. If that’s what you really are.”

  Reacher didn’t move. He glanced west again and saw the Tahoes halfway through their half-mile of approach. He glanced south again and saw knots of men walking his way. The crew in the aprons and the welders’ masks was among them. Ten guys, clumping along awkwardly in heavy spark-proof boots. Plenty of others were coming in from other directions. Altogether maybe two hundred men were converging. Five minutes into the future there was going to be a big crowd by the oil drums. The giant with the wrench took a step forward. Reacher stood his ground and looked straight at him, and then checked west again, and south. The Tahoes were already close and slowing. The workers were forming up shoulder to shoulder. They were close enough that Reacher could see tools in their hands. Hammers, pry bars, cutting torches, foot-long cold chisels.

  The foreman said, “You can’t fight them all.”

  Reacher nodded. The giant on his own would be hard, but maybe feasible, if he missed with the first swing of the wrench. Then four-on-one or even six-on-one might be survivable. But not two-hundred-on-one. No way. Not two hundred and fifty pounds against twenty tons of muscle. He had two captured switchblades in his pocket, but they would be of limited use against maybe a couple of tons of improvised weaponry.

  Not good.

  Reacher said, “So let’s go. I can give you five minutes.”

  The foreman said, “You’ll give us whatever we want.” He waved to the nearer Tahoe and it turned in close. Reacher heard oily stones and curly fragments of metal crushing under its tires. The giant opened its rear door and used his wrench to make a sweeping Get in gesture. Reacher climbed up into the back seat. The vehicle had a plain utilitarian interior. Plastic and cloth. No wood or leather, no bells or whistles. The giant climbed in after him and crowded him against the far door panel. The foreman climbed in the front next to the driver and slammed his door and the vehicle took off again and turned and headed for the line of office buildings south of the vehicle gate. It drove through the middle of the approaching crowd, slowly, and Reacher saw faces staring in at him through the windows, gray skin smeared with grease, bad teeth, white eyes wide with fascination.

  The security office was at the north end of the array, closest to the vehicle gate. The Tahoe stopped directly outside of it next to a tangled pile of webbing straps, presumably once used to tie down junk on flat-bed trailers. Reacher spilled out of the car ahead of the giant and found himself at the bottom of a short set of wooden steps that led up to the office door. He pushed through the door and found himself inside a plain metal prefabricated box that had probably been designed for use on construction sites. There were five small windows fitted with thick plastic glass and covered from the outside with heavy steel mesh. Other than that it looked a lot like the ready room he had seen at the Halfway county morgue. Desk, paper, bulletin boards, armchairs, all of it showing the signs of casual abuse a place gets when its users are not its owners.

  The foreman pointed Reacher toward a chair and then left again. The giant dragged a chair of his own out of position and turned it around and dumped himself down in it so that he was blocking the door. He laid the wrench on the floor. The floor was warped plywood and the wrench made an iron clatter as it dropped. Reacher sat in a chair in a corner. Wooden arms, tweed seat and back. It was reasonably comfortable.

  “Got coffee?” he asked.

  The giant paused a second and said, “No.” A short word and a negative answer, but at least it was a response. In Reacher’s experience the hardest part of any adversarial conversation was the beginning. An early answer was a good sign. Answering became a habit.

  He asked, “What’s your job?”

  The giant said, “I help out where I’m needed.” His voice was like a normal guy’s, but muffled by having to come out of such a huge chest cavity.

  “What happens here?” Reacher asked.

  “Metal gets recycled.”

  “What happens in the secret section?”

  “What secret section?”

  “To the south. Behind the partition.”

  “That’s just a junkyard. For stuff that’s too far gone to use. Nothing secret about it.”

  “So why is it locked and guarded?”

  “To stop people getting lazy. Someone gets tired of working, dumps good stuff in there, we lose money.”

  “You part of management?”

  “I’m a supervisor.”

  “You want to supervise my way out of here?”

  “You can’t leave.”

  Reacher glanced out the window. The sun was over the horizon. In five minutes it would be over the east wall. I could leave, he thought. The vehicle gate was open and trucks were moving out. Time it right, get past the big guy, run for the gate, hop aboard a flat-bed, game over. With the wrench on the floor the big guy was less of a problem than he had been before. He was unarmed, and down in a low chair. He was heavy, and gravity was gravity. And big guys were slow. And Reacher had knives.

  “I played pro football,” the big guy said.

  “But not very well,” Reacher said.

  The big guy said nothing.

  “Or you’d be doing color commentary on Fox, or living in a mansion in Miami, not slaving away here.”

  The big guy said nothing.

  “I bet you’re just as bad at this job.”

  The big guy said nothing.

  I could leave, Reacher thought again.

  But I won’t.

  I’ll wait and see what happens.

  He waited twenty more minutes before anything happened. The giant sat still and quiet by the door and Reacher whiled the time away in the corner. He wasn’t unhappy. He could kill time better than anyone. The morning sun rose h
igher and came streaming in through the plastic window. The rays cast a clouded beam over the desk. All the colors of the rainbow were in it.

  Then the door opened and the giant sat up straight and scooted his chair out of the way and the foreman walked in again. He still had his two-way radio in his hand. Behind him in the bright rectangle of daylight Reacher could see the plant working. Trucks were moving, cranes were moving, swarms of men were beavering away, sparks were showering, loud noises were being made. The foreman stopped halfway between the door and Reacher’s chair and said, “Mr. Thurman wants to see you.”

  Seven o’clock, Reacher thought. Vaughan was ending her watch. She was heading to the diner in Hope, looking for breakfast, looking for her truck, maybe looking for him. Or maybe not.

  He said, “I can give Mr. Thurman five minutes.”

  “You’ll give Mr. Thurman however long he wants.”

  “He might own you, but he doesn’t own me.”

  “Get up,” the foreman said. “Follow me.”

  38

  The trailer next door was an identical metal box, but better appointed inside. There was carpet, the armchairs were leather, and the desk was mahogany. There were pictures on the walls, all of them dime-store prints of Jesus. In all of them Jesus had blue eyes and wore
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