Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

  Then they weren’t. The screen showed the beam turning through a complete circle, flat and level, like a lighthouse. Its heat burned the screen dead white as it passed. Its light lit up the night mist like fog.

  Vaughan asked, “Did they see us?”

  Reacher watched the screen. Thought about the reflectors in the Crown Vic’s headlights. Polished metal, like cats’ eyes. He said, “Whoever they are, they’re not moving. I don’t think they have enough candlepower.”

  “What do we do?”

  “We wait.”

  They waited two minutes, then three, then five. The idling engine whispered. The flashlight beam snapped off. The image on the laptop screen collapsed back to two narrow vertical specks, distant, green, barely moving. There was nothing to see through the rear window. Just empty darkness.

  Vaughan said, “We can’t stay here.”

  Reacher said, “We have to.”

  The green specks moved, from the center of the screen to the left-hand edge. Slow, blurred, a ghost trail of luminescence following behind them. Then they disappeared, into a cross-street. The screen stabilized. Geography, and architecture.

  “Foot patrol,” Reacher said. “Heading downtown. Maybe worried about fires.”

  “Fires?” Vaughan said.

  “Their police station burned down last night.”

  “Did you have something to do with that?”

  “Everything,” Reacher said.

  “You’re a maniac.”

  “Their problem. They’re messing with the wrong guy. We should get going.”


  “Let’s get past them while their backs are turned.”

  Vaughan feathered the gas and the car rolled forward. One block. Two. The screen held steady. Geography, and architecture. Nothing more. The tires were quiet on the battered surface.

  “Faster,” Reacher said.

  Vaughan sped up. Twenty miles an hour. Thirty. At forty the car set up a generalized whoosh from the engine and the exhaust and the tires and the air. It seemed painfully loud. But it generated no reaction. Reacher stared left and right into the downtown streets and saw nothing at all. Just black voids. Vaughan gripped the wheel and held her breath and stared at the laptop screen and ten seconds later they were through the town and in open country on the other side.

  Four minutes after that, they were approaching the metal plant.


  The thermal image showed the sky above the plant to be lurid with heat. It was coming off the dormant furnaces and crucibles in waves as big as solar flares. The metal wall was warm. It showed up as a continuous horizontal band of green. It was much brighter at the southern end. Much hotter around the secret compound. It glowed like crazy on the laptop screen.

  “Some junkyard,” Reacher said.

  “They’ve been working hard in there,” Vaughan said. “Unfortunately.”

  The acres of parking seemed to be all empty. The personnel gate seemed to be closed. Reacher didn’t look at it directly. He was getting better information below the visible spectrum, down in the infrared.

  Vaughan said, “No sentries?”

  Reacher said, “They trust the wall. As they should. It’s a great wall.”

  They drove on, slow and dark and silent, past the lot, past the north end of the plant, onto the truck route. Fifty yards later, they stopped. The Tahoes’ beaten tracks showed up on the screen, almost imperceptibly lighter than the surrounding scrub. Compacted dirt, no microscopic air holes, therefore no ventilation, therefore slightly slower to cool at the end of the day. Reacher pointed and Vaughan turned the wheel and bumped down off the blacktop. She stared at the screen and got lined up with the ruts. The car bucked and bounced across the uneven ground. She followed the giant figure 8. The camera’s dumb eye showed nothing ahead except gray-green desert. Then it picked up the fieldstone wall. The residential compound. The stones had trapped some daytime heat. The wall showed up as a low speckled band, like a snake, fifty yards to the right, low and fluid and infinitely long.

  Vaughan circled the compound in the Tahoes’ tracks, almost all the way around, to a point Reacher judged to be directly behind the airplane barn. They parked and shut down and Reacher switched the interior light to the off position and they opened their doors and climbed out. It was pitch dark. The air felt fresh and cold. The clock in his head showed one-thirty in the morning.


  They walked fifty yards to the fieldstone wall. They climbed it easily and dropped down on the other side. The back of the airplane barn was directly ahead of them, huge, looming, darker than the sky. They headed straight for it, past cypress trees and over stony ground. The barn was standing dark and empty. The plane was out. Reacher listened hard. Heard nothing. He signaled and Vaughan came up alongside him.

  “Step one,” he whispered. “We just verified that when they work by day, the plane flies by night.”

  Vaughan asked, “What’s step two?”

  “We verify whether they’re bringing stuff in, or taking stuff out, or both.”

  “By watching?”

  “You bet.”

  “How long have we got?”

  “About half an hour.”

  They stepped into the barn. It was vast and pitch dark. It smelled of oil and gasoline and wood treated with creosote. The floor was beaten dirt. Most of the space was completely empty, ready to receive the returning plane. They felt their way around the walls. Vaughan risked a peek with the flashlight. She clamped its head in her palm and reduced its light to a dull red glow. There were shelves on the walls, loaded with gas cans and quarts of oil and small components boxed up in cardboard. Oil filters, maybe, and air filters. Service items. In the center of the back wall was a horizontal drum wrapped with thin steel cable. The drum was set in a complex floor-mounted bracket and had an electric motor bolted to its axle. A winch. To its right the walls were lined with more shelves. There were spare tires. More components. The whole place felt halfway between tidy and chaotic. It was a workspace, nothing more. There were no obvious hiding places. And there were arc lights faintly visible, high above them in the rafters. If they were turned on, the space would be as bright as day.

  Vaughan turned off the flashlight.

  “No good,” she said.

  Reacher nodded in the dark. Led the way back out of the barn, to the taxiway, which was a broad strip of dirt beaten and graded the same as the runway. Either side of it were patches of cultivated garden a hundred yards square, spiky silver bushes and tall slender trees set in gravel. Xeriscaping, near enough to the barn for a reasonable view, far enough away that light spill would fall short. Reacher pointed and whispered, “We’ll take one each. Hunker down and don’t move until I call you. The runway lights will come on behind you, but don’t worry about them. They’re set to shine flat, north and south.”

  She nodded and he went left and she went right. She was invisible in the gloom after three paces. He crawled his way to the garden’s center and lay down on his front with bushes either side of him and a tree towering over him. Ahead at an angle he had a good oblique view into the barn. He guessed Vaughan would have a complementary view from the other direction. Together they had the whole thing covered. He pressed himself into the ground and waited.

  He heard the plane at five after two in the morning. The single engine, distant, lonely, far away, feathering and blipping. He pictured the landing light as he had seen it before, hanging in the sky, hopping a little, heading down. The sound grew closer but quieter, as Thurman found his glide path and backed off the power. The runway lights came on. They were brighter than Reacher had expected. He felt suddenly vulnerable. He could see his own shadow ahead of him, tangled up with the shadows of the leaves all around him. He craned his neck and looked for Vaughan. Couldn’t see her. The engine noise grew louder. Then the hangar lights came on. They were very bright. They threw a hard edge of shadow from the barn’s roof that came within six feet of him. He looked ahead and saw the gian
t from the metal plant standing in the barn, his hand on a light switch, a huge shadow thrown out beyond him, almost close enough for Reacher to touch. Nine hundred yards away to his right the plane’s engine blipped and sputtered and he heard a rush of air and felt a tiny thump through the ground as the wheels touched down. The engine noise dropped to a rough idle as the plane coasted and then it ramped back up to a roar as the plane taxied. Reacher heard it coming in behind him, unbearably loud. The ground shook and trembled. The plane came in between the two garden areas and the noise thundered and the propeller wash blasted dust off the ground. It slowed and darted right on its unstable wheelbase and the engine revved hard and it turned a tight circle and came to rest in front of its barn, facing outward. It rocked and shuddered for a second and then the engine shut down and the exhaust popped twice and the propeller jerked to a stop.

  Silence came back, like a blanket.

  The runway lights died.

  Reacher watched.

  The plane’s right-hand door opened and Thurman eased himself out onto the wing step. Big, bulky, stiff, awkward. He was still in his wool suit. He climbed down and stood for a second and then walked away toward the house.

  He was carrying nothing.

  No bag, no valise, no briefcase, no kind of a package.


  He stepped beyond the light spill and disappeared. The giant from the metal plant hauled the steel cable out of the barn and hooked it to an eye below the tail plane. He walked back to the winch and hit a button and the electric motor whined and the plane was pulled slowly backward into the barn. It stopped in its parked position and the giant unhooked the cable and rewound the winch all the way. Then he squeezed around the wing tip and killed the lights and walked away into the darkness.

  Carrying nothing.

  He had opened no compartments or cubbies, he had checked no holds or nacelles, and he had retrieved nothing from the cabin.

  Reacher waited twenty long minutes, for safety’s sake. He had never blundered into trouble through impatience, and he never planned to. When he was sure all was quiet he crawled out from the planted area and crossed the taxiway and called softly to Vaughan. He couldn’t see her. She was well concealed. She came up from the darkness at his feet and hugged him briefly. They walked to the darkened barn and ducked under the Piper’s wing and regrouped next to the fuselage.

  Vaughan said, “So now we know. They’re taking stuff out, not in.”

  Reacher said, “But what, and to where? What kind of range does this thing have?”

  “With full tanks? Around seven or eight hundred miles. The state cops had a plane like this, once. It’s a question of how fast you fly and how hard you climb.”

  “What would be normal?”

  “A little over half-power might get you eight hundred miles at a hundred and twenty-five knots.”

  “He’s gone seven hours every night. Give him an hour on the ground, call it six hours in the air, three there, three back, that’s a radius of three hundred and seventy-five miles. That’s a circle nearly four hundred thousand square miles in area.”

  “That’s a lot of real estate.”

  “Can we tell anything from the vector he comes in on?”

  Vaughan shook her head. “He has to line up with the runway and land into the wind.”

  “There’s no big tank of gas here. Therefore he refuels at the other end. Therefore he goes where you can buy gas at ten or eleven at night.”

  “Which is a lot of places,” Vaughan said. “Municipal airfields, flying clubs.”

  Reacher nodded. Pictured a map in his head and thought: Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, part of Oklahoma, part of Texas, New Mexico, the northeast corner of Arizona, Utah. Always assuming Thurman didn’t just fly an hour each way and spend five at dinner somewhere close by in Colorado itself. He said, “We’re going to have to ask him.”

  “Think he’ll tell us?”


  They ducked back under the wing and retraced their steps behind the barn to the wall. A minute later they were back in the car, following the ghostly green image of the Tahoes’ ruts counterclockwise, all the way around the metal plant to the place where Reacher had decided to break in.


  The white metal wall was blazing hot in the south and cooler in the north. Vaughan followed it around and stopped halfway along its northern stretch. Then she pulled a tight left and bounced out of the ruts and nosed slowly head-on toward the wall and stopped with her front bumper almost touching it. The front half of the hood was directly below the wall’s horizontal cylinder. The base of the windshield was about five feet down and two feet out from the cylinder’s maximum bulge.

  Reacher got out and dragged the stepladder off the rear bench. He laid it on the ground and unfolded it and adjusted it into an upside-down L-shape. Then he estimated by eye and relaxed the angle a little beyond ninety degrees and locked all the joints. He lifted it high. He jammed the feet in the gutter at the base of the Crown Vic’s windshield, where the hood’s lip overlapped the wipers. He let it fall forward, gently. It hit the wall with a soft metallic noise, aluminum on painted steel. The long leg of the L came to rest almost vertical. The short leg lay on top of the cylinder, almost horizontal.

  “Back up about a foot,” he whispered.

  Vaughan moved the car and the base of the ladder pulled outward to a kinder angle and the top fell forward by a corresponding degree and ended up perfectly flat.

  “I love hardware stores,” Reacher said.

  Vaughan said, “I thought this kind of wall was supposed to be impregnable.”

  “We’re not over it yet.”

  “But we’re close.”

  “Normally they come with guard towers and searchlights, to make sure people don’t bring cars and ladders.”

  Vaughan shut the engine down and jammed the parking brake on tight. The laptop screen turned itself off and they were forced back to the visible spectrum, which didn’t contain anything very visible. Just darkness. Vaughan carried the flashlight and Reacher took the wrecking bar from the trunk. He levered himself up onto the hood and crouched under the swell of the cylinder. He stepped forward to the base of the windshield and turned again and started to climb the ladder. He carried the wrecking bar in his left hand and gripped the upper rungs with his right. The aluminum squirmed against the steel and set up a weird harmonic in the hollows of the wall. He slowed down to quiet the noise and made it to the angle and leaned forward and crawled along the short horizontal leg of the L on his hands and knees. He shuffled off sideways and lay like a starfish on the cylinder’s top surface. Six feet in diameter, almost nineteen feet in circumference, effectively flat enough to be feasible, but still curved enough to be dangerous. And the white paint was slick and shiny. He raised his head cautiously and looked around.

  He was six feet from where he wanted to be.

  The pyramid of old oil drums was barely visible in the dark, two yards to the west. Its top tier was about eight feet south and eighteen inches down from the top of the wall. He swam forward and grabbed the ladder again. It shifted sideways toward him. No resistance. He called down, “Get on the bottom rung.”

  The ladder straightened under Vaughan’s weight. He hauled himself toward it and clambered over it and turned around and lay down again on the other side. Now he was exactly where he wanted to be. He called, “Come on up.”

  He saw the ladder flex and sway and bounce a little and the strange harmonic keening started up again. Then Vaughan’s head came into view. She paused and got her bearings and made it over the angle and climbed off and lay down in the place he had just vacated, uneasy and spread-eagled. He handed her the wrecking bar and hauled the ladder up sideways, awkwardly, crossing and uncrossing his hands until he had the thing approximately balanced on top of the curve. He glanced right, into the arena, and tugged the ladder a little closer to him and then fed it down on the other side of the wall until the short leg of the L came
to rest on an oil drum two tiers down from the top. The long leg came to rest at a gentle slope, like a bridge.

  “I love hardware stores,” he said again.

  “I love solid ground,” Vaughan said.

  He took the wrecking bar back from her and stretched forward and got both hands on the ladder rails. He jerked downward, hard, to make sure it was seated tight. Then he supported all his weight with his arms, like he was chinning a bar, and let his legs slide off the cylinder. He kicked and struggled until he got his feet on the ladder. Then he climbed down, backward, his ass in the air where the slope was gentle, in a more normal position after the angle. He stepped off onto the oil drum and glanced around. Nothing to see. He held his end of the ladder steady and called up to Vaughan, “Your turn.”

  She came down the same way he had, backward, butt high like a monkey, then more or less vertically after the turn, ending up standing on the drum between his outstretched arms, which were still on the ladder. He left them there for a minute and then he moved and said, “Now it’s easy. Like stairs.”

  They clambered down the pyramid. The empty drums boomed softly. They stepped off onto the sticky dirt and crunched out into the open.

  “This way,” Reacher said.

  They covered the quarter-mile to the vehicle gate in less than five minutes. The white Tahoes were parked close together near one end of it and there was a line of five flat-bed semis near the other. No tractor units attached. Just the trailers, jacked up at their fronts on their skinny parking legs. Four were facing outward, toward the gate. They were loaded with steel bars. Product, ready to go. The fifth was facing
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