Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

  Vaughan slowed, instinctively. The crowd was two or three hundred strong. Men, women, and children. They were formed up in a rough triangle, facing east. Maybe six people at the front. Behind the six, twenty more. Behind the twenty, sixty more. Behind the sixty, a vast milling pool of people. The whole width of the road was blocked. The shoulders were blocked. The rearguard spilled thirty feet out into the scrub on both sides.

  Vaughan stopped, fifty yards out.

  The crowd compressed. People pushed inward from the sides. They made a human wedge. A solid mass. Two or three hundred people. They held together, but they didn’t link arms.

  They didn’t link arms because they had weapons in their hands.

  Baseball bats, pool cues, ax handles, broom handles, split firewood, carpenters’ hammers. Two or three hundred people, pressed tight together, and moving. Moving as one. They were rocking in place from foot to foot and jabbing their weapons up and down in the air. Nothing wild. Their movements were small and rhythmic and controlled.

  They were chanting.

  At first Reacher heard only a primitive guttural shout, repeated over and over. Then he dropped his window an inch and heard the words Out! Out! Out! He hit the switch again and the glass thumped back up.

  Vaughan was pale.

  “Unbelievable,” she said.

  “Is this some weird Colorado tradition?” Reacher asked.

  “I never saw it before.”

  “So Judge Gardner went and did it. He deputized the whole population.”

  “They don’t look drafted. They look like true believers. What are we going to do?”

  Out! Out! Out!

  Reacher watched for a moment and said, “Drive on and see what happens.”

  “Are you serious?”

  “Try it.”

  Vaughan took her foot off the brake and the car crept forward.

  The crowd surged forward to meet it, short steps, crouched, weapons moving.

  Vaughan stopped again, forty yards out.

  Out! Out! Out!

  Reacher said, “Use your siren. Scare them.”

  “Scare them ? They’re doing a pretty good job scaring me.”

  The crowd had quit rocking from side to side. Now people were rocking back and forth instead, one foot to the other, jabbing their clubs and sticks forward, whipping them back, jabbing them forward again. They were dressed in work shirts and faded sundresses and jean jackets, but collectively in terms of their actions they looked entirely primitive. Like a weird Stone Age tribe, threatened and defensive.

  “Siren,” Reacher said.

  Vaughan lit it up. It was a modern synthesized unit, shatteringly loud in the emptiness, sequencing randomly from a basic whoop-whoop-whoop to a manic pock-pock-pock to a hysterical digital cackling.

  It had no effect.

  No effect at all.

  The crowd didn’t flinch, didn’t move, didn’t miss a beat.

  Reacher said, “Can you get around them?”

  Vaughan shook her head. “This car is no good on the scrub. We’d bog down and they’d be all over us.”

  “So fake them out. Drift left, then sneak past on the right real fast.”

  “You think?”

  “Try it.”

  She took her foot off the brake again and crept forward. She turned the wheel and headed for the wrong side of the road and the crowd in front of her tracked the move, slow and infinitely fluid. Two or three hundred people, moving as one, like a pool of gray mercury, changing shape like an ameba. Like a disciplined herd. Vaughan reached the left shoulder.

  “Can’t do it,” she said. “There’s too many of them.”

  She stopped again, ten feet from the front rank.

  She killed the siren.

  The chanting grew louder.

  Out! Out! Out!

  Then the note dropped lower and the rhythm changed down. As one, the people started banging their clubs and sticks on the ground and shouting only every other beat.





  They were close enough now to see clearly. Their faces jerked forward with every shouted word, gray and pink and contorted with hate and rage and fear and anger. Reacher didn’t like crowds. He enjoyed solitude and was a mild agoraphobic, which didn’t mean he was afraid of wide-open spaces. That was a common misconception. He liked wide-open spaces. Instead he was mildly unsettled by the agora, which was an ancient Greek word for a crowded public marketplace. Random crowds were bad enough. He had seen footage of stampedes and stadium disasters. Organized crowds were worse. He had seen footage of riots and revolutions. A crowd two hundred strong was the largest animal on the face of the earth. The heaviest, the hardest to control, the hardest to stop. The hardest to kill. Big targets, but after-action reports always showed that crowds took much less than one casualty per round fired.

  Crowds had nine lives.

  “What now?” Vaughan asked.

  “I don’t know,” he said. He especially didn’t care for angry organized crowds. He had been in Somalia and Bosnia and the Middle East, and he had seen what angry crowds could do. He had seen the herd instinct at work, the anonymity, the removal of inhibition, the implied permissions of collective action. He had seen that an angry crowd was the most dangerous animal on the face of the earth.





  He said, quietly, “Put the shifter in Reverse.”

  Vaughan moved the lever. The car settled back on its haunches, like prey ready to flee.

  He said, “Back up a little.”

  Vaughan backed up and steered and got straight on the center line and stopped again, thirty yards out. Ninety feet. The distance from home plate to first base.

  “What now?” she asked.

  The crowd had tracked the move. It had changed shape again, back to what it had been at the beginning. A dense triangle, with a blunt vanguard of six men, and a wide base that petered out thirty feet into the scrub on both sides of the thoroughfare.





  Reacher stared ahead through the windshield. He dropped his window again. He felt a change coming. He sensed it. He wanted to be a split second ahead of it.

  Vaughan asked, “What do we do?”

  Reacher said, “I’d feel better in a Humvee.”

  “We’re not in a Humvee.”

  “I’m just saying.”

  “What do we do in a Crown Vic?”

  Reacher didn’t have time to answer. The change came. The chanting stopped. There was silence for a second. Then the six men at the front of the crowd raised their weapons high, with clamped fists and straight arms.

  They screamed a command.

  And charged.

  They bolted forward, weapons high, screaming. The crowd streamed after them. Two or three hundred people, full speed, yelling, falling, stumbling, stampeding, eyes wide, mouths open, faces contorted, weapons up, free arms pumping. They filled the windshield, a writhing mob, a frantic screaming mass of humanity coming straight at them.

  They got within five feet. Then Vaughan stamped on the gas. The car shot backward, the engine screaming, the low gear whining loud, the rear tires howling and making smoke. She got up to thirty miles an hour going backward and then she flung the car into an emergency one-eighty and smashed the shifter into Drive. Then she stamped on the gas. She accelerated east and didn’t stop for miles, top speed, engine roaring, her foot jammed down. Reacher had been wrong in his earlier assessment. Way too cautious. A Crown Vic with the Police Interceptor pack was a very fast car. Good for a hundred and twenty, easily.


  They got airborne over the peak of the rise that put the distant Rockies close again and then Vaughan lifted off the gas and took most of the next mile to coast to a stop. She craned her neck and spent a long minute staring out the back window. They were still deep in Des
pair’s territory. But all was quiet behind them. She slumped in her seat and dropped both hands to her lap.

  “We need the State Police,” she said. “We’ve got mob rule back there and a missing woman. And whatever exactly Ramirez was to those people, we can’t assume they’re going to treat his girlfriend kindly.”

  “We can’t assume anything,” Reacher said. “We don’t know for sure she’s there. We don’t even know for sure that the dead guy was Ramirez.”

  “You got serious doubts?”

  “The state cops will. It’s a fairy tale, so far.”

  “So what do we do?”

  “We verify.”


  “We call Denver.”

  “What’s in Denver?”

  “The green car,” Reacher said. “And the guy who was driving it. Three hundred miles, six hours’ drive time, call it seven with a stop for lunch. If he left around eight this morning, he’ll be there by now. We’ll call him up, ask him if he gave Maria a ride, and if so, where exactly he let her out.”

  “You know his name?”




  “Great plan.”

  “He was visiting three grandchildren in Hope. You need to get back to town and check with families that have three kids. Ask them if Grandpa just came by in his green Mercury. One of them will say yes. Then you’ll get a number for his next stop. It’ll be a brother or a sister in Denver, with four more kids for the old guy to visit.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  “I’m going back to Despair.”

  He got out of the car at five-thirty-five, a little more than eight miles west of Hope, a little more than eight miles east of Despair. Right in the heart of no-man’s-land. He watched Vaughan drive away and then he turned and started walking. He stayed on the road itself, for speed. He ran calculations in his head. This is what you know. Twenty-six hundred inhabitants, possibly a quarter of them too old or too young to be useful. Which left more than eighteen hundred people, with maximum availability after six o’clock in the evening, when the plant closed for the day. Newly deputized, newly marshaled, unsure of themselves, inexperienced. Daytime visibility had enabled deployment in large masses. In the dark, they would have to spread out, like a human perimeter. But they would want to stick fairly close together, for morale and effectiveness and mutual support. Therefore no outliers, and no sentinels. Children would be held close in family groups. Each element of the perimeter would want visual contact with the next. Which meant that groups or individuals wouldn’t want to be more than maybe ten feet apart. Some people would have flashlights. Some would have dogs. All in all, worst case, they could assemble a human chain eighteen thousand feet long, which was six thousand yards, which was the circumference of a circle a fraction more than a mile in diameter.

  A circle a mile in diameter would barely enclose the town. It couldn’t enclose the town and the plant together. And it would bunch up on the road in and the road out, especially the road in, from Hope. Cover would be thin elsewhere. Probably very thin. Possibly guys with trucks would be out in the scrub. Possibly the security Tahoes from the plant would be on the prowl. Teenage boys would be unpredictable. Excited by the adventure, and hungry for glory. But easily bored. In fact all of them would get bored. And tired, and low. Efficiency would peak during the first hour, would wane over the next two or three, would be poor before midnight, and would be nonexistent in the small hours of the night.

  What’s your conclusion?

  Not a huge problem, Reacher thought. The sun was down behind the distant mountains. There was a soft orange glow on the horizon. He walked on toward it.

  At seven o’clock he pictured Vaughan starting her night watch, in Hope. At seven-fifteen he was a mile from where the crowd had gathered before, in Despair. It was getting dark. He couldn’t see anybody in the distance, and therefore nobody could see him in the distance. He struck off the road into the scrub, south and west, at an angle, hustling, unwilling to slow down. The town ahead was dark and quiet. Very quiet. By seven-thirty he was six hundred yards out in the sand and he realized he hadn’t heard the plane take off. No aero engine, no light in the sky.

  Why not?

  He paused in the stillness and put together a couple of possible scenarios. Then he moved on, holding a wide radius, quiet and stealthy and invisible in the darkness.

  By eight o’clock he was making his first approach. He was expected out of the east, therefore he was coming in from the southwest. Not a guarantee of safety, but better than a poke in the eye. Competent individuals would be distributed all around, but not equally. He had already outflanked most of the people he needed to worry about. He had seen one truck, a battered pick-up with four lights on a bar on its roof. It had been bouncing slowly along, over rough ground, heading away from him.

  He moved up through the scrub and paused behind a rock. He was fifty yards from the back of a long line of workers’ housing. Low one-story dwellings, well separated laterally, because desert land was cheap and septic systems didn’t work with too much density. The gaps between the houses were three times as wide as the houses themselves. The sky had a minimal gray glow, moon behind cloud. There were guards in the gaps between the houses. Left to right he could make out an individual, a small group, another individual, and another. They all had sticks or clubs or bats. Together they made a chain that went: armed guard, house, armed guard, house, armed guard, house, armed guard.

  They thought the houses themselves were defensive elements.

  They were wrong.

  He could hear dogs barking here and there in the distance, excited and unsettled by the unfamiliar evening activity. Not a problem. Dogs that barked too much were no more use than dogs that didn’t bark at all. The guy second from the right between the houses had a flashlight. He was clicking it on at predictable intervals, sweeping an arc of ground in front of him, and then clicking it off again to save the battery.

  Reacher moved left.

  He lined himself up behind a house that was entirely dark. He dropped to the ground and low-crawled straight for it. The army record for a fifty-yard low crawl was about twenty seconds. At the other extreme, snipers could spend all day crawling fifty yards into position. On this occasion Reacher budgeted five minutes. Fast enough to get the job done, slow enough to get it done safely. Generally the human brain noticed speed and discontinuity. A tortoise heading inward worried nobody. A cheetah bounding in got everyone’s attention. He kept at it, slow and steady, knees and elbows, head down. No pauses. No stop-start. He made it through ten yards. Then twenty. And thirty. And forty.

  After forty-five yards he knew he was no longer visible from the spaces between the houses. The angle was wrong. But he stayed low all the way, until he crawled right into the back stoop. He stood up and listened for reaction, either outside the house or inside.


  The stoop was a simple wooden assembly three steps high. He went up, slowly, feet apart, shuffling, putting his weight where the treads were bolted to the side rails. If a stair squeaked, ninety-nine times in a hundred it squeaked in the center, where it was weakest. He put his hand on the door handle and lifted. If a door squeaked, ninety-nine times in a hundred it was because it had dropped on its hinges. Upward pressure helped.

  He eased the door up and in and stepped through the opening and turned and closed it again. He was in a dark and silent kitchen. A worn linoleum floor, the smell of fried food. Counters and cabinets, ghostly in the gloom. A sink, and a faucet with a bad washer. It released a fat drip every twenty-three seconds. The drip spattered against a ceramic surface. He pictured the perfect teardrop exploding into a coronet shape, flinging tinier droplets outward in a perfect circle.

  He moved through the kitchen to the hallway door. Smelled dirty carpet and worn furniture from a living room on his right. He moved through the hallway to the front of the house. The front door was a plain
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