Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

  plenty of women, back in the MPs.

  He asked, “Why did Despair run me out?”

  The woman called Vaughan turned out the dome light. Now she was front-lit by red instrument lights from the dash and the pink and purple glow from the GPS screen and white scatter from the headlight beams on the road.

  “Look at yourself,” she said.

  “What about me?”

  “What do you see?”

  “Just a guy.”

  “A blue-collar guy in work clothes, fit, strong, healthy, and hungry.”


  “How far did you get?”

  “I saw the gas station and the restaurant. And the town court.”

  “Then you didn’t see the full picture,” Vaughan said. She drove slow, about thirty miles an hour, as if she had plenty more to say. She had one hand on the wheel, with her elbow propped on the door. Her other hand lay easy in her lap. Five miles at thirty miles an hour was going to take ten minutes. Reacher wondered what she had to tell him, that less than ten minutes wouldn’t cover.

  He said, “I’m more green-collar than blue.”


  “I was in the army. Military cop.”


  “Ten years ago.”

  “You working now?”


  “Well, then.”

  “Well what?”

  “You were a threat.”


  “West of downtown Despair is the biggest metal recycling plant in Colorado.”

  “I saw the smog.”

  “There’s nothing else in Despair’s economy. The metal plant is the whole ballgame.”

  “A company town,” Reacher said.

  Vaughan nodded at the wheel. “The guy who owns the plant owns every brick of every building. Half the population works for him full time. The other half works for him part time. The full-time people are happy enough. The part-time people are insecure. They don’t like competition from outsiders. They don’t like people showing up, looking for casual labor, willing to work for less.”

  “I wasn’t willing to work at all.”

  “You tell them that?”

  “They didn’t ask.”

  “They wouldn’t have believed you anyway. Standing around every morning waiting for a nod from the foreman does things to people. It’s kind of feudal. The whole place is feudal. The money the owner pays out in wages comes right back at him, in rents. Mortgages too. He owns the bank. No relief on Sundays, either. There’s one church and he’s the lay preacher. You want to work, you have to show up in a pew from time to time.”

  “Is that fair?”

  “He likes to dominate. He’ll use anything.”

  “So why don’t people move on?”

  “Some have. Those who haven’t never will.”

  “Doesn’t this guy want people coming in to work for less?”

  “He likes the people he owns, not strangers.”

  “So why were those guys worried?”

  “People always worry. Company towns are weird.”

  “And the town judge toes their line?”

  “It’s an elected position. And the vagrancy ordinance is for real. Most towns have one. We do, for sure, in Hope. No way around it, if someone complains.”

  “But nobody complained in Hope. I stayed there last night.”

  “We’re not a company town.”

  Vaughan slowed. Hope’s first built-up block was ahead in the distance. Reacher recognized it. A mom-and-pop hardware store. That morning an old guy had been putting stepladders and wheelbarrows out on the sidewalk, building a display. Now the store was all closed up and dark.

  He asked, “How big is the Hope PD?”

  Vaughan said, “Me and two others and a watch commander.”

  “You got sworn deputies?”

  “Four of them. We don’t use them often. Traffic control, maybe, if we’ve got construction going on. Why?”

  “Are they armed?”

  “No. In Colorado, deputies are civilian peace officers. Why?”

  “How many deputies does the Despair PD have?”

  “Four, I think.”

  “I met them.”


  “Theoretically, what would the Hope PD do if someone showed up and got in a dispute with one of your deputies and busted his jaw?”

  “We’d throw that someone’s sorry ass in jail, real quick.”


  “You know why. Zero tolerance for assaults on peace officers, plus an obligation to look after our own, plus pride and self-respect.”

  “Suppose there was a self-defense issue?”

  “Civilian versus a peace officer, we’d need some kind of amazing reasonable doubt. You’d have felt the same in the MPs.”

  “That’s for damn sure.”

  “So why did you ask?”

  Reacher didn’t answer directly. Instead he said, “I’m not a Stoic, really. Zeno preached the passive acceptance of fate. I’m not like that. I’m not very passive. I take challenges personally.”


  “I don’t like to be told where I can go and where I can’t.”


  “It annoys me.”

  Vaughan slowed some more and pulled in at the curb. Put the transmission in Park and turned in her seat.

  “My advice?” she said. “Get over it and move on. Despair isn’t worth it.”

  Reacher said nothing.

  “Go get a meal and a room for the night,” Vaughan said. “I’m sure you’re hungry.”

  Reacher nodded.

  “Thanks for the ride,” he said. “And it was a pleasure to meet you.”

  He opened the door and slid out to the sidewalk. Hope’s version of Main Street was called First Street. He knew there was a diner a block away on Second Street. He had eaten breakfast there. He set out walking toward it and heard Vaughan’s Crown Vic move away behind him. He heard the civilized purr of its motor and the soft hiss of its tires on the asphalt. Then he turned a corner and didn’t hear it anymore.

  An hour later he was still in the diner. He had eaten soup, steak, fries, beans, apple pie, and ice cream. Now he was drinking coffee. It was a better brew than at the restaurant in Despair. And it had been served in a mug that was cylindrical in shape. Still too thick at the rim, but much closer to the ideal.

  He was thinking about Despair, and he was wondering why getting him out of town had been more important than keeping him there and busting him for the assault on the deputy.


  The diner in Hope had a bottomless cup policy for its coffee and Reacher abused it mercilessly. He drank most of a Bunn flask all on his own. His waitress became fascinated by the spectacle. She didn’t need to be asked for refills. She came back every time he was ready, sometimes before he was ready, as if she was willing him to break some kind of a world record for consumption. He left her a double tip, just in case the owner fined her for her generosity.

  It was full dark when he left the diner. Nine o’clock in the evening. He figured it would stay dark for another ten hours. Sunrise was probably around seven, in that latitude at that time of year. He walked three blocks to where he had seen a small grocery. In a city it would have been called a bodega and in the suburbs it would have been franchised, but in Hope it was still what it had probably always been, a cramped and dusty family-run enterprise selling the things people needed when they needed them.

  Reacher needed water and protein and energy. He bought three one-liter bottles of Poland Spring and six chocolate chip PowerBars and a roll of black thirteen-gallon garbage bags. The clerk at the register packed them all carefully into a paper sack and Reacher took his change and carried the sack four blocks to the same motel he had used the night before. He got the same room, at the end of the row. He went inside and put the sack on the nightstand and lay down on the bed. He planned on a short rest. Until midnight. He didn’t want to walk
seventeen miles twice on the same day.

  Reacher got off the bed at midnight and checked the window. No more moon. There was thick cloud and patches of distant starlight. He packed his purchases into one of the black garbage bags and slung it over his shoulder. Then he left the motel and headed up to First Street in the darkness and turned west. There was no traffic. No pedestrians. Few lit windows. It was the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. The sidewalk ended twenty feet west of the hardware store. He stepped off the curb onto the asphalt and kept on going. Route-march speed, four miles an hour. Not difficult on the smooth flat surface. He built up a rhythm to the point where he felt he could keep on walking forever and never stop.

  But he did stop. He stopped five miles later, a hundred yards short of the line between Hope and Despair, because he sensed a shape ahead of him in the blackness. A hole in the darkness. A car, parked on the shoulder. Mostly black, some hints of white.

  A police cruiser.


  The name settled in his mind and at the exact same time the car’s lights flicked on. High beams. Very bright. He was pinned. His shadow shot out behind him, infinitely long. He shielded his eyes, left-handed, because his bag was in his right. He stood still. The lights stayed on. He stepped off the road and looped out over the crusted sand to the north. The lights died back and the spot on the windshield pillar tracked him. It wouldn’t leave him. So he changed direction and headed straight for it.

  Vaughan turned the light off and buzzed her window down as he approached. She was parked facing east, with two wheels on the sand and the rear bumper of the car exactly level with the expansion joint in the road. Inside her own jurisdiction, but only just. She said, “I thought I might see you here.”

  Reacher looked at her and said nothing.

  She asked, “What are you doing?”

  “Taking a stroll.”

  “That all?”

  “No law against it.”

  “Not here,” Vaughan said. “But there is if you take three more steps.”

  “Not your law.”

  “You’re a stubborn man.”

  Reacher nodded. “I wanted to see Despair and I’m going to.”

  “It isn’t that great of a place.”

  “I like to make my own mind up about things like that.”

  “They’re serious, you know. Either you’ll spend thirty days in jail or they’ll shoot you.”

  “If they find me.”

  “They’ll find you. I found you.”

  “I wasn’t hiding from you.”

  “Did you hurt a deputy over there?”

  “Why do you ask?”

  “I was thinking about the question you asked me.”

  “I don’t know for sure what he was.”

  “I don’t like the idea of deputies getting hurt.”

  “You wouldn’t have liked the deputy. If that’s what he was.”

  “They’ll be looking for you.”

  “How big is their department?”

  “Smaller than ours. Two cars, two guys, I think.”

  “They won’t find me.”

  “Why are you going back?”

  “Because they told me not to.”

  “Is it worth it?”

  “What would you do?”

  Vaughan said, “I’m an estrogen-based life-form, not testosterone. And I’m all grown up now. I’d suck it up and move on. Or stay in Hope. It’s a nice place.”

  “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Reacher said.

  “You won’t. Either I’ll be picking you up right here a month from now or I’ll be reading about you in the newspaper. Beaten and shot while resisting arrest.”

  “Tomorrow,” Reacher said. “I’ll buy you a late dinner.”

  He moved on, one pace, two, three, and then he stepped over the line.


  He got off the road immediately. The Hope PD had predicted that he would rise to the challenge. It was an easy guess that the Despair PD would make the same assessment. And he didn’t want to blunder into a parked Despair cruiser. That event would have an altogether different conclusion than a pleasant chat with the pretty Officer Vaughan.

  He looped fifty yards into the scrub north of the road. Near enough to retain a sense of direction, far enough to stay out of a driver’s peripheral vision. The night was cold. The ground was uneven. No chance of getting close to four miles an hour. No chance at all. He had no flashlight. A light would hurt him more than help him. It would be visible for a mile. It would be worse than climbing up on a rock and yelling Here I am.

  A slow mile later the clock in his head told him it was quarter to two in the morning. He heard an aero engine again, far away to the west, blipping and feathering. A single-engine plane, coming in to land. A Cessna, or a Beech, or a Piper. Maybe the same one he had heard take off, hours before. He listened to it until he imagined it had touched down and taxied. Then he started walking again.

  Four hours later he was about level with the center of downtown, three hundred yards out in the scrub. He knew he must have left a healthy trail of footprints, but he didn’t particularly care. He doubted that the Despair PD maintained a kennel full of bloodhounds or ran aerial surveillance from a helicopter. As long as he stayed off the roads and the sidewalks he was as good as invisible.

  He sensed the bulk of another boat-sized table rock and hunkered down behind it. The night was still cold. He unwrapped his stuff and drank water and ate a PowerBar. Then he repacked his bag and stood up behind the rock and turned to study the town. He leaned against the rock with his elbows out and his forearms flat on its top surface and his chin resting on his stacked fists. At first he saw nothing. Just darkness and stillness and the hidden glow from occasional lit windows. Farther in the distance he saw more lights and sensed more activity. The residential areas, he guessed. He figured people were getting up for work.

  Ten minutes later he saw headlight beams coming north. Two, three sets. Their light funneled through the cross-streets and bounced and dipped and threw long shadows straight toward him. He stayed where he was, just watching. The beams paused at Main Street and then swept west. More came after them. Soon every cross-street was lit up bright by long processions of vehicles. It was like the day was dawning in the south. There were sedans and pick-up trucks and old-model SUVs. They all drove north to Main Street and paused and jostled and swung west, toward where Vaughan had said the recycling plant was.

  A company town.

  Six o’clock in the morning.

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