Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

  He spread his fingers. Clamped them loosely. Rubbed his fingertips and the ball of his thumb left and right. Squeezed.

  A leg. He had his hand on a human leg. The size and heft of a thigh was unmistakable. He could feel a hamstring under his fingers and a long quadriceps muscle under his thumb. The cloth was thin and soft. Probably cotton twill, worn and washed many times. Old chinos, maybe.

  He moved his hand to the left and found the back of a knee. He pushed his thumb around and underneath and found the kneecap. It was jammed down in the sand. He skipped his hand three feet to the right and slid it up a back to a shoulder blade. Walked his fingers to a neck, and a nape, and an ear.

  No pulse.

  Cold flesh. No warmer than the nighttime air.

  Below the ear was a collar. Knit, rolled, faintly abrasive. A polo shirt, maybe. He shuffled closer on his knees and opened his eyes so wide the muscles in his face hurt.

  Too dark to see.

  Five senses. Too dark to see, nothing to hear. He wasn’t about to try tasting anything. That left smell, and touch. Reacher had smelled more than his fair share of deceased organisms. This one wasn’t particularly offensive. Unwashed clothes, stale sweat, ripe hair, dry sun-baked skin, the faintest trace of methane from early decomposition. No voided bowel or bladder.

  No blood.

  No perfume, no cologne.

  No real information.

  So, touch. He used both hands and started with the hair. It was not long, not short, and tousled. Maybe an inch and a half or two inches. Wiry, with a tendency to wave. Caucasian. Impossible to say what color. Under it was a small, neat skull.

  Man or woman?

  He ran his thumbnail the length of the spine. No bra strap under the shirt, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. He poked and probed the back of the ribcage like a blind man reading Braille. Light skeleton, pronounced backbone, light and stringy musculature. Narrow shoulders. Either a thin boy, slightly wasted, or a fit woman. The kind who runs marathons or rides her bike for a hundred miles at a time.

  So, which?

  Only one way to find out.

  He found folds of cloth at the hip and the shoulder and rolled the body on its side. It was reasonably heavy. The way his hands were spaced told him it was maybe five-eight in height, and the weight was probably close to one-forty, which made it probable it was male. A woman marathon runner would have been much lighter, maybe a hundred and five. He kept hold of the bunches of cloth and eased the body past the vertical and let it flop on its back. Then he spread his fingers and started again at the head.

  A man, for sure.

  The forehead was ridged and bony and the chin and the upper lip were rough with maybe four days of stubble. The cheeks and the throat were smoother.

  A young man, not much more than a boy.

  The cheekbones were pronounced. The eyes were hard and dry, like marbles. The facial skin was firm and shrunken. It was slightly gritty with grains of sand, but not much had stuck. The skin was too dry. The mouth was dry, inside and out. The tendons in the neck were obvious. They stood out like cords. No fat anywhere. Barely any flesh at all.

  Starved and dehydrated, Reacher thought.

  The polo shirt had two buttons, both of them undone. No pocket, but it had a small embroidered design on the left chest. Under it there was a thin pectoral muscle and hard ribs. The pants were loose at the waist. No belt. The shoes were some kind of athletic sneakers, hook-and-loop closures, thick waffle soles.

  Reacher wiped his hands on his own pants and then started again from the feet upward, looking for a wound. He went at it like a conscientious airport screener starting a patient full-body search. He did the front and rolled the body again and did the back.

  He found nothing.

  No gashes, no gunshot wounds, no dried blood, no swellings, no contusions, no broken bones.

  The hands were small and fairly delicate, but a little calloused. The nails were ragged. No rings on the fingers. No pinkie ring, no class ring, no wedding band.

  He checked the pants pockets, two front, two rear.

  He found nothing.

  No wallet, no coins, no keys, no phone. Nothing at all.

  He sat back on his heels and stared up at the sky, willing a cloud to move and let some moonlight through. But nothing happened. The night stayed dark. He had been walking east, had fallen, had turned around. Therefore he was now facing west. He pushed back off his knees and stood up. Made a quarter-turn to his right. Now he was facing north. He started walking, slowly, with small steps, concentrating hard on staying straight. He bent and swept his hands flat on the scrub and found four stones the size of baseballs. Straightened again and walked on, five yards, ten, fifteen, twenty.

  He found the road. The packed scrub gave way to the tarred pebbles. He used his toe to locate the edge. He bent and butted three of his stones together and stacked the fourth on top, like a miniature mountain cairn. Then he turned a careful one-eighty and walked back, counting his paces. Five yards, ten, fifteen, twenty. He stopped and squatted and felt ahead of him.


  He shuffled forward with his arms out straight, patting downward, searching, until his right palm came down on the corpse’s shoulder. He glanced up at the sky. Still solid.

  Nothing more to be done.

  He stood up again and turned left and blundered on through the dark, east toward Hope.


  The closer he got to the Hope town line, the more he let himself drift left toward the road. Hope wasn’t a big place, and he didn’t want to miss it in the dark. Didn’t want to walk on forever, all the way back to Kansas. The clock in his head said that it was midnight. He had made good progress, close to three miles an hour, despite falling four more times and detouring every thirty minutes to confirm he wasn’t drastically off course.

  Despair’s cheap road crunched loudly under his feet but the hard level surface allowed him to speed up. He hit a good rhythm and covered what was left of the last mile in less than fifteen minutes. It was still very cold. Still pitch dark. But he sensed the new blacktop ahead. He felt it coming. Then he felt the surface change under his feet. His left foot pushed off rough stones and his right foot landed on velvet-smooth asphalt.

  He was back over the line.

  He stood still for a second. Held his arms wide and looked up at the black sky. Then bright headlights hit him head-on and he was trapped in their beams. A spotlight clicked on and played over him, head to foot and back again.

  A cop car.

  Then the beams died as suddenly as they had appeared and a dome light came on inside the car and showed a small figure at the wheel. Tan shirt, fair hair. Half a smile.


  She was parked head-on, with her push bars twenty yards inside her own jurisdiction, just waiting in the dark. Reacher walked toward her, moving left, skirting her hood and her fender. He stepped to the passenger door and put his hand on the handle. Opened it up and crammed himself into the space inside. The interior was full of soft radio chatter and the smell of perfume.

  He asked, “So are you free for a late dinner?”

  She said, “I don’t eat with jerks.”

  “I’m back, like I said I would be.”

  “Did you have fun?”

  “Not really.”

  “I’m working the graveyard shift. I don’t get off until seven.”

  “Breakfast, then. Drinking coffee with jerks is not the same as eating with them.”

  “I don’t drink coffee for breakfast. I need to sleep in the daytime.”

  “Tea, then.”

  “Tea has caffeine, too.”

  “Milk shake?”

  “Maybe.” She was resting easy in the seat, one elbow on the door and the other hand in her lap.

  “How did you see me coming?” Reacher asked. “I didn’t see you.”

  “I eat a lot of carrots,” Vaughan said. “And our video has night-vision enhancement.” She leaned forward and tapped a
black box mounted high on the dash. “Traffic camera and a hard disc recorder.” She moved her hand again and hit a key on the computer. The screen changed to a ghostly green wide-angle image of the scene ahead. The road was lighter than the scrub. It had retained more of the daytime heat than its surroundings. Or less. Reacher wasn’t sure.

  “I saw you half a mile away,” Vaughan said. “A little green speck.” She tapped another key and spooled back through the time code and Reacher saw himself, a luminous sliver in the dark, getting bigger, coming closer.

  “Very fancy,” he said.

  “Homeland Security money. Got to spend it on something.”

  “How long have you been out here?”

  “An hour.”

  “Thanks for waiting.”

  Vaughan started the motor and backed up a little and then turned across the width of the road, in a wide arc that took the front wheels off the blacktop and through the sand on the shoulder. She got straightened up and accelerated.

  “Hungry?” she asked.

  “Not really,” Reacher said.

  “You should eat anyway.”


  “The diner will still be open. It stays open all night.”

  “In Hope? Why?”

  “This is America. It’s a service economy.”

  “Whatever, I might go take a nap instead. I walked a long way.”

  “Go eat in the diner first.”


  “Because I think you should. Nutrition is important.”

  “What are you, my mother?”

  “Someone was asking about you.”


  “Some girl.”

  “I don’t know any girls.”

  “She wasn’t asking about you personally,” Vaughan said. “She was asking if anyone had been thrown out of Despair more recently than her.”

  “She was thrown out?”

  “Four days ago.”

  “They throw women out, too?”

  “Vagrancy isn’t a gender-specific offense.”

  “Who is she?”

  “Just some kid. I told her about you. No names, but I said you might be eating in the diner tonight. I was assuming you would get out OK. I try to live on the sunny side of the street. So I think she might come looking for you.”

  “What does she want?”

  “She wouldn’t tell me,” Vaughan said. “But my impression was her boyfriend is missing.”


  Reacher got out of Vaughan’s cruiser on First Street and walked straight down to Second. The diner was all lit up inside and three booths were occupied. A guy on his own, a young woman on her own, two guys together. Maybe some Hope residents commuted for work. Not to Despair, obviously, but maybe to other towns. Maybe to other states, like Kansas or Nebraska. And those were big distances. Maybe they all got back too late to face KP at home. Or maybe they were shift workers, just starting out, with long trips ahead of them.

  The sidewalks close to the diner were deserted. No girls hanging around. No girls watching who was going in and coming out. No girls leaning on walls. No girls hiding in the shadows. Reacher pulled the door and went in and headed for a booth in the far corner where he could sit with his back protected and see the whole room at once. Pure habit. He never sat any other way. A waitress came over and gave him a napkin and silverware and a glass of ice water. Not the same waitress he had met before, during his caffeine marathon. This one was young, and not particularly tired, even though it was very late. She could have been a college student. Maybe the diner stayed open all night to give people jobs, as well as meals. Maybe the owner felt some kind of a civic responsibility. Hope seemed to be that kind of a town.

  The menu was in a chromium clip at the end of the table. It was a laminated card with pictures of the food on it. The waitress came back and Reacher pointed to a grilled cheese sandwich and said, “And coffee.” The waitress wrote it down and walked away and Reacher settled back and watched the street through the windows. He figured that the girl who was looking for him might pass by once every fifteen or twenty minutes. It was what he would have done. Longer intervals might make her miss his visit. Most diner customers were in and out pretty fast. He was sure there was a trade association somewhere with the exact data. His personal average was certainly less than half an hour. Shorter if he was in a hurry, longer if it was raining. The longest stay he could recall might be upward of two hours. The shortest in recent memory was the day before, in Despair. One fast cup of coffee, supervised by hostile glares.

  But nobody passed by on the sidewalk. Nobody glanced in through the windows. The waitress came over with his sandwich and a mug of coffee. The coffee was fresh and the sandwich was OK. The cheese was sticky in his mouth and less flavorful than a Wisconsin product would have been, but it was palatable. And Reacher was no kind of a gourmet. He rated food quality as either adequate or not adequate, and the adequate category was always by far the larger of the two. So he ate and drank and enjoyed it all well enough.

  After fifteen minutes he gave up on the girl. He figured she wasn’t coming. Then he changed his mind. He quit staring out at the sidewalk and started looking at the other customers inside the diner and realized she was already in there, waiting for him.

  The young woman, sitting three booths away.

  Stupid, Reacher, he thought.

  He had figured that if their relative positions had been reversed he would have walked by every fifteen or twenty minutes and checked through the windows. But in reality, he wouldn’t have done that. He would have come in out of the cold and sat down and waited for his mark to come to him.

  Like she had.

  Pure common sense.

  She was maybe nineteen or twenty years old, dirty blonde hair with streaks, wearing a short denim skirt and a white sweatshirt with a word on it that might have been the name of a college football team. Her features didn’t add up all the way to beauty, but she had the kind of irresistible glowing good health that he had seen before in American girls of her station and generation. Her skin was perfect. It was honey-colored with the remnant of a great summer tan. Her teeth were white and regular. Her eyes were vivid blue. Her legs were long, and neither lean nor heavy. Shapely, Reacher thought. An old-fashioned word, but the right one. She was wearing sneakers with tiny white socks that ended below her ankles. She had a bag. It was beside her on the bench. Not a purse, not a suitcase. A messenger bag, gray nylon, with a broad flap.

  She was the one he was waiting for. He knew that because as he watched her in his peripheral vision he could see her watching him in hers. She was sizing him up and deciding whether to approach.

  Deciding against, apparently.

  She had had a full fifteen minutes to make her decision. But she hadn’t gotten up and walked over. Not because of good manners. Not because she hadn’t wanted to disturb him while he was eating. He suspected her concept of etiquette didn’t quite stretch that far, and even if it did, then a missing boyfriend would have overwhelmed it. She just didn’t want to get involved with him. That was all. Reacher didn’t blame her. Look at yourself, Vaughan had said. What do you see? He had no illusions about what the girl three booths away was seeing. No illusions about his appearance or his appeal, in the eyes of someone like her. It was late at night, she was looking at an old guy twice her age, huge, untidy, disheveled, somewhat dirty, and surrounded by an electric stay-away aura he had spent years cultivating, like a sign on the rear end of a fire truck: Stay Back 200 Feet.

  So she was going to sit tight and wait him out. That was clear. He was disappointed. Primarily because of the questions surrounding the dead boy in the dark, but also because in a small corner of his mind he would have liked to be the kind of guy that pretty girls could walk up to. Not that he would have taken it anywhere. She was wholesome and he was twice her age. And her boyfriend was dead, which made her some kind of a widow.

  She was still watching him. He had moved his gaze so that he could see her
reflection in the window next to her. She was looking up, looking down, kneading her fingers, glancing suddenly in his direction as new thoughts came to her, and then glancing away again as she resolved them. As she found reasons to stay well away from him. He gave it five more minutes and then fished in his pocket for cash. He didn’t need a check.
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