Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

  glanced at Reacher.

  She said, “Will you come with me to visit my husband?”


  Vaughan turned left into the hills and then left again and headed south, following a sign for Pueblo. Years before, Reacher had traveled the same road. Fort Carson lay between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, south of one and north of the other, bulked a little ways west of the main drag.

  “You OK with this?” Vaughan asked him.

  “I’m fine with it.”


  “It’s an odd request,” he said.

  She didn’t answer.

  “And it’s an odd word,” he said. “You could have said, come and meet my husband. Or see him. But you said visit. And who gets visitors? You already told me he isn’t in jail. Or in the hospital. So where is he? In a rooming house, working away from home? Permanently on duty somewhere? Locked in his sister’s attic?”

  “I didn’t say he wasn’t in the hospital,” Vaughan said. “I said he didn’t have cancer from smoking.”

  She forked right, away from an I-25 on-ramp, and used a state four-lane that seemed way too wide for the traffic it was getting. She drove a mile between green hills and turned left through a grove of pines on a worn gray road that had no center line. There was no wire and no painted sign, but Reacher was sure the land on both sides was owned by the army. He knew there were thousands of spare acres beyond the northern tip of Fort Carson, requisitioned decades ago at the height of Hot or Cold War fever, and never really used for much. And what he was seeing out the window looked exactly like Department of Defense property. It looked the same everywhere. Nature, made uniform. A little sullen, a little halfhearted, somewhat beaten down, neither raw nor developed.

  Vaughan slowed after another mile and made a right into a half-hidden driveway. She passed between two squat brick pillars. The bricks were smooth tan items and the mortar was yellow. Standard army issue, back in the middle fifties. The pillars had hinges but no gates. Twenty yards farther on was a modern billboard on thin metal legs. The billboard had some kind of a corporate logo and the words Olympic TBI Center on it. Twenty yards later another billboard said: Authorized Personnel Only. Twenty yards after that the driveway’s shoulders had been mowed, but not recently. The mown section ran on straight for a hundred yards and led to a carriage circle in front of a group of low brick buildings. Army buildings, long ago deemed surplus to requirements and sold off. Reacher recognized the architecture. Brick and tile, green metal window casements, green tubular handrails, radiused corners built back when chamfered edges had looked like the future. In the center of the carriage circle was a round patch of weedy dirt, where once a CO would have been proud of a rose garden. The change of ownership was confirmed by a repeat of the first billboard, next to the main entrance hall: the corporate logo, plus Olympic TBI Center again.

  A section of lawn on the right had been hacked out and replaced by gravel. There were five cars on it, all of them with local plates, none of them new or clean. Vaughan parked the Crown Vic on the end of the line and shut it down, first the shifter, then the brake, then the key, a slow and deliberate sequence. She sat back in her seat and dropped her hands to her lap.

  “Ready?” she asked.

  “For what?” he said.

  She didn’t answer. Just opened her door and swiveled on the sticky mouse-fur seat and climbed out. Reacher did the same on his side. They walked together to the entrance. Three steps up, through the doors, onto the kind of mottled green tile floor Reacher had walked a thousand times before. The place was recognizably mid-fifties U.S. Army. It felt abandoned and run-down and there were new mandated smoke detectors sloppily wired through exposed plastic conduits, but otherwise it couldn’t have changed much. There was an oak hutch on the right, where once a busy sergeant would have sat. Now it was occupied by a mess of what looked like medical case notes and a civilian in a gray sweatshirt. He was a thin sullen man of about forty. He had unwashed black hair worn a little too long. He said, “Hello, Mrs. Vaughan.” Nothing more. No warmth in his voice. No enthusiasm.

  Vaughan nodded but didn’t look at the guy or reply. She just walked to the back of the hall and turned into a large room that in the old days might have served any one of a number of different purposes. It might have been a waiting room, or a reception lounge, or an officers’ club. Now it was different. It was dirty and badly maintained. Stained walls, dull floor, dust all over it. Cobwebs on the ceiling. It smelled faintly of antiseptic and urine. It had big red waist-high panic buttons wired through more plastic conduit. It was completely empty, except for two men strapped into wheelchairs. Both men were young, both were entirely slack and still, both had open mouths, both had empty gazes focused a thousand miles in front of them.

  Both had shaved heads, and misshapen skulls, and wicked scars.

  Reacher stood still.

  Looked at the panic buttons.

  Thought back to the medical files.

  He was in a clinic.

  He looked at the guys in the wheelchairs.

  He was in a residential home.

  He looked at the dust and the dirt.

  He was in a dumping ground.

  He thought back to the initials on the billboard.


  Traumatic Brain Injury.

  Vaughan had moved on, into a corridor. He caught up with her, halfway along its length.

  “Your husband had an accident?” he said.

  “Not exactly,” she said.

  “Then what?”

  “Figure it out.”

  Reacher stopped again.

  Both men were young.

  An old army building, mothballed and then reused.

  “War wounds,” he said. “Your husband is military. He went to Iraq.”

  Vaughan nodded as she walked.

  “National Guard,” she said. “His second tour. They extended his deployment. Didn’t armor his Humvee. He was blown up by an IED in Ramadi.”

  She turned into another corridor. It was dirty. Dust balls had collected against the baseboards. Some were peppered with mouse droppings. The lightbulbs were dim, to save money on electricity. Some were out and had not been changed, to save money on labor.

  Reacher asked, “Is this a VA facility?”

  Vaughan shook her head.

  “Private contractor,” she said. “Political connections. A sweetheart deal. Free real estate and big appropriations.”

  She stopped at a dull green door. No doubt fifty years earlier it had been painted by a private soldier, in a color and in a manner specified by the Pentagon, with materials drawn from a quartermaster’s stores. Then the private soldier’s workmanship had been inspected by an NCO, and the NCO’s approval had been validated by an officer’s. Since then the door had received no further attention. It had dulled and faded and gotten battered and scratched. Now it had a wax pencil scrawl on it: D. R. Vaughan, and a string of digits that might have been his service number, or his case number.

  “Ready?” Vaughan asked.

  “When you are,” Reacher said.

  “I’m never ready,” she said.

  She turned the handle and opened the door.


  David Robert Vaughan’s room was a twelve-foot cube, painted dark green below a narrow cream waist-high band, and light green above. It was warm. It had a small sooty window. It had a green metal cabinet and a green metal footlocker. The footlocker was open and held a single pair of clean pajamas. The cabinet was stacked with file folders and oversized brown envelopes. The envelopes were old and torn and frayed and held X-ray films.

  The room had a bed. It was a narrow hospital cot with locked wheels and a hand-wound tilting mechanism that raised the head at an angle. It was set to a forty-five-degree slope. In it, under a tented sheet, leaning back in repose like he was relaxing, was a guy Reacher took to be David Robert Vaughan himself. He was a compact, narrow-shouldered man. The tented sheet made it hard to estimate his size. Maybe five-
ten, maybe a hundred and eighty pounds. His skin was pink. He had blond stubble on his chin and his cheeks. He had a straight nose and blue eyes. His eyes were wide open.

  Part of his skull was missing.

  A saucer-sized piece of bone wasn’t there. It left a wide hole above his forehead. Like he had been wearing a small cap at a jaunty angle, and someone had cut all around the edge of it with a saw.

  His brain was protruding.

  It swelled out like an inflated balloon, dark and purple and corrugated. It looked dry and angry. It was draped with a thin manmade membrane that stuck to the shaved skin around the hole. Like Saran Wrap.

  Vaughan said, “Hello, David.”

  There was no response from the guy in the bed. Four IV lines snaked down toward him and disappeared under the tented sheet. They were fed from four clear plastic bags hung high on chromium stands next to the bed. A colostomy line and a urinary catheter led away to bottles mounted on a low cart parked under the bed. A breathing tube was taped to his cheek. It curved neatly into his mouth. It was connected to a small respirator that hissed and blew with a slow, regular rhythm. There was a clock on the wall above the respirator. Original army issue, from way back. White Bakelite rim, white face, black hands, a firm, quiet, mechanical tick once a second.

  Vaughan said, “David, I brought a friend to see you.”

  No response. And there never would be, Reacher guessed. The guy in the bed was completely inert. Not asleep, not awake. Not anything.

  Vaughan bent and kissed her husband on the forehead.

  Then she stepped over to the cabinet and tugged an X-ray envelope out of the pile. It was marked Vaughan, D. R. in faded ink. It was creased and furred. It had been handled many times. She pulled the film out of the envelope and held it up against the light from the window. It was a composite image that showed her husband’s head from four different directions. Front, right side, back, left side. White skull, blurred gray brain matter, a matrix of bright pinpoints scattered all through it.

  “Iraq’s signature injury,” Vaughan said. “Blast damage to the human brain. Severe physical trauma. Compression, decompression, twisting, shearing, tearing, impact with the wall of the skull, penetration by shrapnel. David got it all. His skull was shattered, and they cut the worst of it away. That was supposed to be a good thing. It relieves the pressure. They give them a plastic plate later, when the swelling goes down. But David’s swelling never went down.”

  She put the film back in the envelope, and shuffled the envelope back into the pile. She pulled another one out. It was a chest film. White ribs, gray organs, a blinding shape that was clearly someone else’s wristwatch, and small bright pinpoints that looked like drops of liquid.

  “That’s why I don’t wear my wedding band,” Vaughan said. “He wanted to take it with him, on a chain around his neck. The heat melted it and the blast drove it into his lungs.”

  She put the film back in the stack.

  “He wore it for good luck,” she said.

  She butted the paperwork into a neat pile and moved to the foot of the bed. Reacher asked, “What was he?”

  “Infantry, assigned to the First Armored Division.”

  “And this was IED versus Humvee?”

  She nodded. “An improvised explosive device against a tin can. He might as well have been on foot in his bathrobe. I don’t know why they call them improvised. They seem pretty damn professional to me.”

  “When was this?”

  “Almost two years ago.”

  The respirator hissed on.

  Reacher asked, “What was his day job?”

  “He was a mechanic. For farm equipment, mostly.”

  The clock ticked, relentlessly.

  Reacher asked, “What’s the prognosis?”

  Vaughan said, “At first it was reasonable, in theory. They thought he would be confused and uncoordinated, you know, and perhaps a little unstable and aggressive, and certainly lacking all his basic life and motor skills.”

  “So you moved house,” Reacher said. “You were thinking about a wheelchair. You bought a one-story and took the door off the living room. You put three chairs in the kitchen, not four. To leave a space.”

  She nodded. “I wanted to be ready. But he never woke up. The swelling never went away.”

  “Why not?”

  “Make a fist.”

  “A what?”

  “Make a fist and hold it up.”

  Reacher made a fist and held it up.

  Vaughan said, “OK, your forearm is your spinal cord and your fist is a bump on the end called your brain stem. Some places in the animal kingdom, that’s as good as it gets. But humans grew brains. Imagine I scooped out a pumpkin and fitted it over your fist. That’s your brain. Imagine the pumpkin goo was kind of bonded with your skin. This is how it was explained to me. I could hit the pumpkin or you could shake it a little and you’d be OK. But imagine suddenly twisting your wrist, very violently. What’s going to happen?”

  “The bond is going to shear,” Reacher said. “The pumpkin goo is going to unstick from my skin.”

  Vaughan nodded again. “That’s what happened to David’s head. A shearing injury. The very worst kind. His brain stem is OK but the rest of his brain doesn’t even know it’s there. It doesn’t know there’s a problem.”

  “Will the bond re-form?”

  “Never. That just doesn’t happen. Brains have spare capacity, but neuron cells can’t regenerate. This is all he will ever be. He’s like a brain-damaged lizard. He’s got the IQ of a goldfish. He can’t move and he can’t see and he can’t hear and he can’t think.”

  Reacher said nothing.

  Vaughan said, “Battlefield medicine is very good now. He was stable and in Germany within thirteen hours. In Korea or Vietnam he would have died at the scene, no question.”

  She moved to the head of the bed and laid her hand on her husband’s cheek, very gently, very tenderly. Said, “We think his spinal cord is severed too, as far as we can tell. But that doesn’t really matter now, does it?”

  The respirator hissed and the clock ticked and the IV lines made tiny liquid sounds and Vaughan stood quietly and then she said, “You don’t shave very often, do you?”

  “Sometimes,” Reacher said.

  “But you know how?”

  “I learned at my daddy’s knee.”

  “Will you shave David?”

  “Don’t the orderlies do that?”

  “They should, but they don’t. And I like him to look decent. It seems like the least I can do.” She took a supermarket carrier bag out of the green metal cabinet. It held men’s toiletries. Shaving gel, a half-used pack of disposable razors, soap, a washcloth. Reacher found a bathroom across the hall and stepped back and forth with the wet cloth, soaping the guy’s face, rinsing it, wetting it again. He smoothed blue gel over the guy’s chin and cheeks and lathered it with his fingertips and then set about using the razor. It was difficult. A completely instinctive sequence of actions when applied to himself became awkward on a third party. Especially on a third party who had a breathing tube in his mouth and a large part of his skull missing.

  While he worked with the razor, Vaughan cleaned the room. She had a second supermarket bag in the cabinet that held cloths and sprays and a dustpan and brush. She stretched high and bent low and went through the whole twelve-foot cube very thoroughly. Her husband stared on at a point miles beyond the ceiling and the respirator hissed and blew. Reacher finished up and Vaughan stopped a minute later and stood back and looked.

  “Good work,” she said.

  “You too. Although you shouldn’t have to do that yourself.”

  “I know.”

  They repacked the supermarket bags and put them away in the cabinet. Reacher asked, “How often do you come?”

  “Not very often,” Vaughan said. “It’s a Zen thing, really. If I visit and he doesn’t know I’ve visited, have I really visited at all? It’s self-indulgent to come here just to make myself fe
el like a good wife. So I prefer to visit him in my memory. He’s much more real there.”

  “How long were you married?”

  “We’re still married.”

  “I’m sorry. How long?”

  “Twelve years. Eight together, then he spent two in Iraq, and the last two have been like this.”

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