Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

  “She won’t tell us anything.”

  “We can try. We’ll find her in the diner. Meet me there, later.”

  “Later than what?”

  “We both need to sleep.”

  Reacher said, “May I ask you a personal question?”

  “Go ahead.”

  “Is your husband in prison?”

  Vaughan paused a beat, and then smiled, a little surprised, a little sad.

  “No,” she said. “He isn’t.”


  Reacher walked back to the motel, alone. Lucy Anderson’s door was open. A maid’s cart was parked outside. The bed was stripped and all the towels were on the floor. The closet was empty. I think she left town, the waitress had said, in the diner. Reacher watched for a moment and then he moved on. Good luck, Lucky, he thought, whatever the hell you’re doing and wherever the hell you’re going. He unlocked his own door and took a long hot shower and climbed into bed. He was asleep within a minute. The coffee didn’t fight him at all.

  He woke up in the middle of the afternoon with the MPs on his mind. The forward operating base. Its location. Its equipment mix. The place came at him like an analysis problem from the classrooms at Fort Rucker.

  What was it for?

  Why was it there?

  The old County Route 37 wandered east to west through Hope, through Despair, through Halfway, and presumably onward. First he saw it laid out like a ribbon, like a line on a map, and then he pictured it in his head like a rotating three-dimensional diagram, like something on a computer screen, all green webs of origins and layers. Way back in its history it had been a wagon trail. Beaten earth, crushed rock, ruts and weeds. Then it had been minimally upgraded, when Model Ts had rolled out of Dearborn and flooded the country. Then Hope Township had upgraded ten miles of it again, for the sake of civic pride. They had done a conscientious job. Maybe foundation reinforcement had been involved. Certainly there had been grading and leveling. Maybe a little straightening. Possibly a little widening. Thick blacktop had been poured and rolled.

  Despair Township had done none of that. Thurman and his father and his grandfather or whoever had owned the town before had ignored the road. Maybe they had grudgingly dumped tar and pebbles on it every decade or so, but fundamentally it was still the same road it had been back when Henry Ford ruled the world. It was narrow, weak, lumpy, and meandering.

  Unfit for heavy traffic.

  Except west of the metal plant. There, a thirty-five-mile stretch had been co-opted and rebuilt. Probably from the ground up. Reacher pictured a yard-deep excavation, drainage, a rock foundation, a thick concrete roadbed, rebar, a four-inch asphalt layer rolled smooth and true by heavy equipment. The shoulders were straight and the camber was good. Then after thirty-five miles the new road had been driven through virgin territory to meet the Interstate, and the old Route 37 had wound onward as before, once again in its native state, narrow, weak, and lumpy.

  Weak, strong, weak.

  There was no military presence east of Despair or west of the fork, across the weak parts of the road.

  The MP base straddled the strong part.

  The truck route.

  Close to Despair, but not too close.

  Not sealing the town like a trap, but guarding one direction only and leaving the other wide open.

  The base was equipped with six up-armored Humvees, each one an eight-ton rhinoceros, each one reasonably fast and reasonably maneuverable, each one topped with a belt-fed 7.62-caliber M60 machine gun on a free-swinging mount.

  Why all that?

  Reacher lay in bed and closed his eyes and heard barking voices from the Rucker classrooms: This is what you know. What’s your conclusion?

  His conclusion was that nobody was worried about espionage.

  He got out of bed at four o’clock and took another long hot shower. He knew he was out of step with the Western world in terms of how often he changed his clothes, but he tried to compensate by keeping his body scrupulously clean. The motel soap was white and came in a small thin paper-wrapped morsel, and he used the whole bar. The shampoo was a thick green liquid in a small plastic bottle. He used half of it. It smelled faintly of apples. He rinsed and stood under the water for a moment more and then shut it off and heard someone knocking at his door. He wrapped a towel around his waist and padded across the room and opened up.


  She was in uniform. Her HPD cruiser was parked neatly behind her. She was staring in at him, openly curious. Not an unusual reaction. Look at yourself. What do you see? He was a spectacular meso-morph, built of nothing except large quantities of bone and sinew and muscle. But with his shirt off most people saw only his scars. He had a dozen minor nicks and cuts, plus a dimpled .38 bullet hole in the left center of his chest, and a wicked spider web of white lacerations low down on the right side of his abdomen, all criss-crossed and puckered by seventy clumsy stitches done quick and dirty in a mobile army surgical hospital. Souvenirs, in the first instance of childhood mayhem, in the second of a psychopath with a small revolver, and in the third, shrapnel from a bomb blast. Survivable, because childhood mayhem was always survivable, and because the .38 that hit him had been packed with a weak load, and because the shrapnel had been someone else’s bone, not white-hot metal. He had been a lucky man, and his luck was written all over his body.

  Ugly, but fascinating.

  Vaughan’s gaze traveled upward to his face.

  “Bad news,” she said. “I went to the library.”

  “You get bad news at libraries?”

  “I looked at some books and used their computer.”


  “Trichloroethylene is called TCE for short. It’s a metal degreaser.”

  “I know that.”

  “It’s very dangerous. It causes cancer. Breast cancer, prostate cancer, all kinds of cancers. Plus heart disease, problems with the nervous system, strokes, liver disease, kidney disease, even diabetes. The EPA says a concentration of five parts per billion is acceptable. Some places have been measured twenty or thirty times worse than that.”

  “Like where?”

  “There was a case in Tennessee.”

  “That’s a long way from here.”

  “This is serious, Reacher.”

  “People worry too much.”

  “This isn’t a joke.”

  He nodded.

  “I know,” he said. “And Thurman uses five thousand gallons at a time.”

  “And we drink the groundwater.”

  “You drink bottled water.”

  “Lots of people use tap.”

  “The plant is twenty miles away. There’s a lot of sand. A lot of natural filtration.”

  “It’s still a concern.”

  Reacher nodded. “Tell me about it. I had two cups of coffee right there. One in the restaurant and one at the judge’s house.”

  “You feel OK?”

  “Fine. And people seem OK here.”

  “So far.”

  She went quiet.

  He said, “What else?”

  “Maria is missing. I can’t find her anywhere. The new girl.”


  Vaughan hung around in the open doorway and Reacher grabbed his clothes and dressed in the bathroom. He called out, “Where did you look?”

  “All over,” Vaughan called back. “She’s not here in the motel, she’s not in the diner, she’s not in the library, she’s not out shopping, and there isn’t anywhere else to go.”

  “Did you speak to the motel clerk?”

  “Not yet.”

  “Then that’s where we’ll go first. She knows everything.” He came out of the bathroom, buttoning his shirt. The shirt was almost due for the trash, and the buttonholes were still difficult. He ran his fingers through his hair and checked his pockets.

  “Let’s go,” he said.

  The clerk was in the motel office, sitting on a high stool behind the counter, doing something with a ledger and a calculator. But
she had no useful information. Maria had left her room before seven o’clock that morning, dressed as before, on foot, carrying only her purse.

  “She ate breakfast before seven,” Reacher said. “The waitress in the diner told me.”

  The clerk said she hadn’t come back. That was all she knew. Vaughan asked her to open Maria’s room. The clerk handed over her passkey immediately. No hesitation, no fuss about warrants or legalities or due process. Small towns, Reacher thought. Police work was easy. About as easy as it had been in the army.

  Maria’s room was identical to Reacher’s, with only very slightly more stuff in it. A spare pair of jeans hung in the closet. They were neatly folded over the bar of a hanger. Above them on the shelf were one spare pair of cotton underpants, one bra, and one clean cotton T-shirt, all folded together in a low pile. On the floor of the closet was an empty suitcase. It was a small, sad, battered item. Blue in color, made from fiberboard, with a crushed lid, as if it had been stored for years with something heavy on top of it.

  On the shelf next to the bathroom sink was a vinyl wash bag, white, with improbable pink daisies on it. It was empty, but it had clearly been overstuffed during transit. Its contents were laid out next to it, in a long line. Soaps, shampoos, lotions and ointments and unguents of every possible kind.

  No personal items. They would have been in her purse.

  “Day trip,” Vaughan said. “She’s expecting to return.”

  “Obviously,” Reacher said. “She paid for three nights.”

  “She went to Despair. To look for Ramirez.”

  “That would be my guess.”

  “But how? Did she walk?”

  Reacher shook his head. “I would have seen her. It’s seventeen miles. Six hours, for her. If she left at seven she wouldn’t have arrived before one in the afternoon. I was on the road between eight-thirty and nine. I didn’t pass her along the way.”

  “There’s no bus or anything. There’s never any traffic.”

  “Maybe there was,” Reacher said. “I came in with an old guy in a car. He was visiting family, and then he was moving on to Denver. He’d head straight west. No reason to loop around. And if he was dumb enough to give me a ride, he’d have given Maria a ride for sure.”

  “If he happened to leave this morning.”

  “Let’s find out.”

  They returned the passkey and got into Vaughan’s cruiser. She fired it up and they headed west to the hardware store. The sidewalk was piled high with an elaborate display. Ladders, buckets, barrows, gasoline-driven machines of various types. The owner was inside, wearing a brown coat. He confirmed that he had been building the display early that morning. He thought hard and memory dawned in his eyes and he confirmed that he had seen a small dark girl in a blue warm-up jacket. She had been standing on the far sidewalk, right at the edge of town, half-turned, looking east but clearly aiming to head west, gazing at the empty traffic lane with a mixture of optimism and hopelessness. A classic hitchhiker’s pose. Then later the store owner had seen a large bottle-green car heading west, a little before eight o’clock. He described the car as looking basically similar to Vaughan’s cruiser, but without all the police equipment.

  “A Grand Marquis,” Reacher said. “Same platform. Same car. Same guy.”

  The store owner had not seen the car stop or the girl get in. But the inference was clear. Vaughan and Reacher drove the five miles to the town line. No real reason. They saw nothing. Just the smooth blacktop behind and the ragged gritty ribbon ahead.

  “Is she in danger?” Vaughan asked.

  “I don’t know,” Reacher said. “But she’s probably not having the best day of her life.”

  “How will she get back?”

  “I suspect she decided to worry about that later.”

  “We can’t go there in this car.”

  “So what else have you got?”

  “Just the truck.”

  “Got sunglasses? It’s breezy, without the windshield.”

  “Too late. I already had it towed. It’s being fixed.”

  “And then you went to the library? Don’t you ever sleep?”

  “Not so much anymore.”

  “Since when? Since what?”

  “I don’t want to talk about it.”

  “Your husband?”

  “I said I don’t want to talk about it.”

  Reacher said, “We need to find Maria.”

  “I know.”

  “We could walk.”

  “It’s twelve miles.”

  “And twelve miles back.”

  “Can’t do it. I’m on duty in two hours.”

  Reacher said, “She’s domiciled in Hope. At least temporarily. Now she’s missing. The HPD should be entitled to head over there in a car and make inquiries.”

  “She’s from San Diego.”

  “Only technically.”

  “Technicalities matter, Reacher.”

  “She took up residency.”

  “With one change of underwear?”

  “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”

  “Despair could ask us for reciprocity.”

  “They already grabbed it. Their deputies came by last night.”

  “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

  “Says who?”

  “Are you bullying me?”

  “You’re the one with the gun.”

  Vaughan started to say something, then shook her head and sighed and said, “Shit.” Then she jammed her foot on the gas and the Crown Vic shot forward. The tires had traction on Hope’s blacktop but lost it on Despair’s loose gravel. The rear wheels spun and howled and the car stumbled for a second and then accelerated west in a cloud of blue smoke.

  They drove eleven miles into the setting sun with nothing to show for it except eyestrain. The twelfth mile was different. Way ahead in the glare Reacher saw the familiar distant sights, all in sharp silhouette and shortened perspective. Vague smudges, on the horizon. The vacant lot, on the left. The abandoned motor court, low and forlorn. The gas station, on the right. Farther on, the dry goods store in the first brick building.

  Plus something else.

  From a mile away it looked like a shadow. Like a lone cloud was blocking the sun and casting a random shape on the ground. He craned his neck and looked up at the sky. Nothing there. The sky was clear. Just the gray-blue of approaching evening.

  Vaughan drove on.

  Three-quarters of a mile out the shape grew width, and depth, and height. The sun blazed behind it and winked around its edges. It looked like a low wide pile of something dark. Like a gigantic truck had strewn earth or asphalt right across the road, shoulder to shoulder, and beyond.

  The pile looked to be fifty feet wide, maybe twenty deep, maybe six high.

  From a half-mile out, it looked to be moving.

  From a quarter-mile out, it was identifiable.

  It was a crowd of people.

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