Nothing to Lose by Lee Child


  guys in the guard shack. They were dressed in rain capes. Their orange nightlight was on. It made a thousand dull jewels from the raindrops on the windows.

  Vaughan asked, “Will Thurman fly in this weather?”

  Reacher said, “He doesn’t need to. They weren’t working today.”

  They drove on. Up ahead they saw a horizontal sliver of blue light. The plant, lit up. Much smaller than before. Like it had moved ten miles south, toward the horizon. But as they got closer they saw that it hadn’t moved. The glow was smaller because only the farthest quarter was illuminated. The secret compound.

  Vaughan said, “Well, they’re working now.”

  “Good,” Reacher said. “Maybe they left the gates open.”

  They hadn’t. The personnel gate and the main vehicle gate were both closed. The bulk of the plant was dark. Nearly a mile beyond it the secret compound was bright and distant and tempting.

  Vaughan said, “Are you sure about this?”

  Reacher said, “Absolutely.”

  “OK, where?”

  “Same place as before.”

  The Tahoes’ beaten ruts were soft and full of water. The little Chevy spun its wheels and fishtailed and clawed its way forward. Vaughan found the right place. Reacher said, “Back it in.” The wheels spun and the truck bumped up out of the ruts and Vaughan stopped it with its tailgate well under the curve of the metal cylinder, which put its rear window about where the base of the Crown Vic’s windshield had been.

  “Good luck,” she said. “And be careful.”

  “Don’t worry,” Reacher said. “My biggest risk will be pneumonia.”

  He got out into the rain and was soaked to the skin even before he got his stuff out of the load bed. He knelt in the mud beside the truck and adjusted the ladder to the relaxed L-shape that had worked before. He put the flashlight in one pocket and hooked the crook of the wrecking bar in the other. Then he lifted the ladder vertically into the back of the pick-up and jammed its feet into the right angle between the load bed floor and the back wall of the cab. He let it fall forward and the short leg of the L came down flat on top of the cylinder, aluminum against steel, a strange harmonic clonk that sounded twice, once immediately and then once again whole seconds later, as if the impact had raced all around the miles of hollow wall and come back stronger.

  Reacher climbed into the load bed. Rain lashed the metal and bounced up to his knees. It drummed on the steel cylinder above his head and sheeted down off the bulge of its maximum curvature like a thin waterfall. Reacher stepped sideways and up and started climbing. Rain hammered his back. Gravity pulled the wrecking bar vertical and it hit every tread on the ladder. Steel against aluminum against steel. The harmonics came back, a weird metallic keening modulated by the thrash of the rain. He made it over the angle of the L and stopped. The cylinder was covered in shiny paint and the paint was slick with running water. Maneuvering had been hard before. Now it was going to be very difficult.

  He fumbled the flashlight out of his pocket and switched it on. He held it between his teeth and watched the water and picked the spot where half of it was sluicing one way and half the other. The geometric dead-center of the cylinder. The continental divide. He lined up with it and eased off the ladder and sat down. An uneasy feeling. Wet cotton on wet paint. Insecure. No friction. Water was dripping off him and threatening to float him away like an aquaplaning tire.

  He sat still for a long moment. He needed to twist from the waist and lift the ladder and reverse it. But he couldn’t move. The slightest turn would unstick him. Newton’s Law of Motion. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If he twisted his upper body to the left, the torque would spin his lower body to the right, and he would slide right off the cylinder. An effective design, derived from prison research.

  Fourteen feet to the ground. He could survive a controlled fall, if he didn’t land on a tangle of jagged scrap. But without the ladder on the inside it wasn’t clear how he would ever get out again.

  Perhaps the gates had simpler switches on the inside. No combination locks.

  Perhaps he could improvise a ladder out of scrap metal. Perhaps he could learn to weld, and build one.

  Or perhaps not.

  He thought: I’ll worry about all that later.

  He sat for a moment more in the rain and then nudged himself forward and rolled over onto his stomach as he slid and his palms squealed against the wet metal and the wrecking bar thumped and banged and then ninety degrees past top dead-center he was free-falling through empty air, one split second, and two, and three.

  He hit the ground a whole lot later than he thought he would. But there was no scrap metal under him and his knees were bent and he went down in a heap and rolled one way and the wrecking bar went the other. The flashlight spun away. The breath was knocked out of him. But that was all. He sat up and a fast mental inventory revealed no physical damage, beyond mud and grease and oil all over his clothes, from the sticky earth.

  He got to his feet and wiped his hands on his pants. Found the flashlight. It was a yard away, still burning bright. He carried it in one hand and the wrecking bar in the other and stood for a moment behind the pyramid of old oil drums. Then he stepped out and set off walking, south and west. Dark shapes loomed up at him. Cranes, gantries, crushers, crucibles, piles of metal. Beyond them the distant inner compound was still lit up.

  The lights made a T shape.

  A very shallow T. The crossbar was a blazing blue line half a mile long. Above it light spill haloed in the wet air. Below it the T shape’s vertical stroke was very short. Maybe fourteen feet tall. That was all. Maybe thirty feet wide. A very squat foundation for such a long horizontal line.

  But it was there.

  The inner gate was open.

  An invitation. A trap, almost certainly. Like moths to a flame. Reacher looked at it for a long moment and then slogged onward. The flashlight beam showed rainbow puddles everywhere. Oil and grease, floating. Rain was washing down through the sand and capillary action was pulling waste back to the surface. Walking was difficult. Within ten paces Reacher’s shoes were carrying pounds of sticky mud. He was getting taller with every step. Every time the flashlight showed him a pile of old I-beams or a tangle of old rebar he stopped and scraped his soles. He was wetter than if he had fallen into a swimming pool. His hair was plastered to his head and water was running into his eyes.

  Ahead he could see the white security Tahoes, blurred and ghostly in the darkness. They were parked side by side to the left of the main vehicle gate. Three hundred yards away. He headed straight for them. The trip took him seven minutes. Half-speed, because of the soft ground. When he got there, he turned right and checked the vehicle gate. No luck. On the inside it had the same gray box as on the outside. The same keypad. The same three-million-plus combinations. He turned away from it and tracked along the wall and walked past the security office, and Thurman’s office, and the operations office. He stopped outside Purchasing. Scraped his shoes and climbed the steps and used his fingernails to pull the screws out of the padlock hasp. The door sagged open. He went inside.

  He headed straight for the row of file cabinets. Aimed toward the right-hand end. Opened the T drawer. Pulled the Thomas file. The telecoms company. The cell phone supplier. Clipped to the back of the original purchase order was a thick wad of paper. The contracts, the details, the anytime minutes, the taxes, the fees, the rebates, the makes, the models. And the numbers. He tore off the sheet with the numbers and folded it into his pants pocket. Then he headed back out to the rain.

  Close to one mile and forty minutes later he was approaching the inner gate.

  69

  The inner gate was still open. The inner compound was still blazing with light. Up close, the light was painfully bright. It spilled out in a solid bar the width of the opening and spread and widened like a lighthouse beam that reached a hundred yards.

  Reacher hugged the wall and approached from the right. He stopped
in the last foot of shadow and listened hard. Heard nothing over the pelting rain. He waited one slow minute and then stepped into the light. His shadow moved behind him, fifty feet long.

  No reaction.

  He walked in, fast and casual. No alternative. He was as lit up and vulnerable as a stripper on a stage. The ground under his feet was rutted with deep grooves. He was up to his ankles in water. Ahead on the left was the first artful pile of shipping containers. They were stacked in an open V, point outward. To their right and thirty feet farther away was a second V. He aimed for the gap between them. Stepped through, and found himself alone in an arena within an arena within an arena.

  Altogether there were eight stacks of shipping containers arranged in a giant circle. They hid an area of maybe thirty acres. The thirty acres held cranes and gantries and crushers, and parked backhoes and bulldozers, and carts and dollies and trailers loaded with smaller pieces of equipment. Coils of baling wire, cutting torches, gas bottles, air hammers, high pressure spray hoses, hand tools. All grimy and battered and well used. Here and there leather welders’ aprons and dark goggles were dumped in piles.

  Apart from the industrial infrastructure, there were two items of interest.

  The first, on the right, was a mountain of wrecked main battle tanks.

  The mountain was maybe thirty feet high and fifty across at the base. It looked like an elephants’ graveyard, from a grotesque prehistoric nightmare. Bent gun barrels reared up, like giant tusks or ribs. Turret assemblies were dumped and stacked haphazardly, characteristically low and wide and flat, peeled open like cans. Humped engine covers were stacked on their ends, like plates in a rack, some of them torn and shattered. Side skirts were everywhere, some of them ripped like foil. Parts of stripped hulls were tangled in the wreckage. Some of them had been taken apart by Thurman’s men. Most of them had been taken apart much farther away, by different people using different methods. That was clear. There were traces of desert camouflage paint in some places. But not many. Most of the metal was scorched dull black. It looked cold in the blue light and it glistened in the rain, but Reacher felt he could see smoke still rising off it, and hear men still screaming under it.

  He turned away. Looked left.

  The second item of interest was a hundred yards east.

  It was an eighteen-wheel semi truck.

  A big rig. Ready to roll. A tractor, a trailer, a blue forty-foot China Lines container on the trailer. The tractor was a huge square Peterbilt. Old, but well maintained. The trailer was a skeletal flat-bed. The container looked like every container Reacher had ever seen. He walked toward it, a hundred yards, two minutes through mud and water. He circled the rig. The Peterbilt tractor was impressive. A fine paint job, an air filter the size of an oil drum, bunk beds behind the front seats, twin chrome smokestacks, a forest of antennas, a dozen mirrors the size of dinner plates. The container looked mundane and shabby in comparison. Dull paint, faded lettering, a few dings and dents. It was clamped tight to the trailer. It had a double door, secured with the same four foot-long levers and the same four long bolts that he had seen before. The levers were all in the closed position.

  There were no padlocks.

  No plastic tell-tale tags.

  Reacher put the wrecking bar in one hand and pulled himself up with the other and got a precarious slippery foothold on the container’s bottom ledge. Got his free hand on the nearest lever and pushed it up.

  It wouldn’t move.

  It was welded to its bracket. An inch-long worm of metal had been melted into the gap. The three other levers were the same. And the doors had been welded to each other and to their frames. A neat patient sequence of spot welds had been applied, six inches apart, their bright newness hidden by flicks of dirty blue paint. Reacher juggled the wrecking bar and jammed the flat of the tongue into the space between two welds and pushed hard.

  No result. Impossible. Like trying to lift a car with a nail file.

  He climbed down, and looked again at the trailer clamps. They were turned tight. And welded.

  He dropped the wrecking bar and walked away. He covered the whole of the hidden area, and the whole of the no-man’s-land that lay beyond the stacks of piled containers, and the whole length of the perimeter track inside the wall. A long walk. It took him more than an hour. He came back to the inner circle the other way. From the side opposite the inner gates. They were two hundred yards away.

  And they were closing.

  70

  The gates were motorized. Driven by electricity. That was Reacher’s first absurd conclusion. They were moving slowly, but smoothly. A consistent speed. Too smooth and too consistent for manual operation. Relentless, at about a foot a second. They were already at a right angle to the wall. Each gate was fifteen feet wide. Five yards. The total remaining arc of travel for each of them was therefore about eight yards.

  Twenty-four seconds.

  They were two hundred yards away. No problem for a college sprinter on a track. Debatable for a college sprinter in six inches of mud. Completely impossible for Reacher. But still he started forward involuntarily, and then slowed as the arithmetic reality hit him.

  He stopped altogether when he saw four figures walk in through the closing gap.

  He recognized them immediately, by their size and shape and posture and movement. On the right was Thurman. On the left was the giant with the wrench. In the middle was the plant foreman. He was pushing Vaughan in front of him. The three men were walking easily. They were dressed in yellow slickers and sou’wester hats and rubber boots. Vaughan had no protection against the weather. She was soaked to the skin. Her hair was plastered against her head. She was stumbling, as if every few paces she was getting a shove in the back.

  They all kept on coming.

  Reacher started walking again.

  The gates closed, with a metallic clang that sounded twice, first in real time and then again as an echo. The echo died, and Reacher heard a solenoid open and a bolt shoot home, a loud precise sound like a single shot from a distant rifle.

  The four figures kept on coming.

  Reacher kept on walking.

  They met in the center of the hidden space. Thurman and his men stopped. They stood still five feet short of an imaginary line that ran between the pile of wrecked tanks and the eighteen-wheeler. Reacher stopped five feet on the other side. Vaughan kept on going. She picked her way through the mud and made it to Reacher’s side and turned around. Put a hand on his arm.

  Two against three.

  Thurman called, “What are you doing here?”

  Reacher could hear the rain beating against the slickers. Three guys, three sets of shoulders, three hats, stiff plastic material.

  He said, “I’m looking around.”

  “At what?”

  “At what you’ve got here.”

  Thurman said, “I’m losing patience.”

  Reacher said, “What’s in the truck?”

  “What kind of incredible arrogance makes you think you’re entitled to an answer to that question?”

  “No kind of arrogance,” Reacher said. “Just the law of the jungle. You answer, I leave. You don’t, I don’t.”

  Thurman said, “My tolerance for you is nearly exhausted.”

  “What’s in the truck?”

  Thurman breathed in, breathed out. Glanced to his right, at his foreman, and then beyond the foreman at the giant with the wrench. He looked at Vaughan, and then back at Reacher. Reacher said, “What’s in the truck?”

  Thurman said, “There are gifts in the truck.”

  “What kind?”

  “Clothes, blankets, medical supplies, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs, dried and powdered foodstuffs, purified water, antibiotics, vitamins, sheets of construction-grade plywood. Things like that.”

  “Where from?”

  “They were bought with tithes from the people of Despair.”

  “Why?”

  “Because Jesus said, it is more blessed to give than t
o receive.”

  “Who are the gifts for?”

  “Afghanistan. For refugees and displaced persons and those living in poverty.”

  “Why is the container welded shut?”

  “Because it has a long and perilous journey ahead of it, through many countries and many tribal areas where warlords routinely steal. And padlocks on shipping containers can be broken. As you well know.”

  “Why put it all together here? In secret?”

  “Because Jesus said, when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret. We follow scripture here, Mr. Reacher. As should you.”

  “Why turn out the whole town in defense of a truckful of gifts?”

  “Because we believe that charity should know neither race nor creed. We give to Muslims. And not everyone in America is happy with that policy. Some feel that we should give only to fellow Christians. An element of militancy has entered the debate. Although in fact it was the prophet Muhammad himself who said a man’s first charity should be to his own family. Not Jesus. Jesus said whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. He said love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven.”

  Reacher said, “Where are the cars from Iran?”

  “The what?”

  “The cars from Iran.”

  Thurman said, “Melted down and shipped out.”

  “Where is the TNT?”

  “The what?”

 
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