One Shot by Lee Child

Chapter 3

  Reacher moved and propped his back against the window reveal and turned sideways so that he could see the plaza. And so that he couldn't see his audience.

  "Is this a privileged conversation?" he asked.

  "Yes," Helen Rodin said. "It is. It's a client conference. It's automatically protected. Nothing we say here can be repeated. "

  "Is it ethical for you to hear bad news, legally?"

  There was a long silence.

  "Are you going to give evidence for the prosecution?" Helen Rodin asked.

  "I don't think I'll have to, under the circumstances. But I will if necessary. "

  "Then we would hear the bad news anyway. We would take a deposition from you before the trial. To guarantee no more surprises. "

  More silence.

  "James Barr was a sniper," Reacher said. "Not the best the army ever had, and not the worst. Just a good, competent rifleman. Average in almost every way. "

  Then he paused and turned his head and looked down to his left. At the cheap new building with the recruitment office in it. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps.

  "Four types of people join the military," he said. "First, for people like me, it's a family trade. Second, there are patriots, eager to serve their country. Third, there are people who just need a job. And fourth, there are people who want to kill other people. The military is the only place where it's legal to do that. James Barr was the fourth type. Deep down he thought it would be fun to kill. "

  Rosemary Barr looked away. Nobody spoke.

  "But he never got the chance," Reacher said. "I was a very thorough investigator when I was an MP, and I learned all about him. I studied him. He trained for five years. I went through his logbooks. Some weeks he fired two thousand rounds. All of them at paper targets or silhouettes. I counted a career total of nearly a quarter-million rounds fired, and not one of them at the enemy. He didn't go to Panama in 1989. We had a very big army back then, and we required only a very small force, so most guys missed out. It burned him up. Then Desert Shield happened in 1990. He went to Saudi. But he wasn't in Desert Storm in 1991. They made it a mostly armored campaign. James Barr sat it out in Saudi, cleaning sand out of his rifle, firing two thousand training rounds a week. Then after Desert Storm was over, they sent him to Kuwait City for the cleanup. "

  "What happened there?" Rosemary Barr asked.

  "He snapped," Reacher said. "That's what happened there. The Soviets had collapsed. Iraq was back in its box. He looked ahead and saw that war was over. He had trained nearly six years and had never fired his gun in anger and was never going to. A lot of his training had been about visualization. About seeing himself putting the reticle on the medulla oblongata, where the spinal cord broadens at the base of the brain. About breathing slow and squeezing the trigger. About the split-second pause while the bullet flies. About seeing the puff of pink mist from the back of the head. He had visualized all of that. Many times. But he had never seen it. Not once. He had never seen the pink mist. And he really wanted to. "

  Silence in the room.

  "So he went out one day, alone," Reacher said. "In Kuwait City. He set up and waited. Then he shot and killed four people coming out of an apartment building. "

  Helen Rodin was staring at him.

  "He fired from a parking garage," Reacher said. "Second level. It was directly opposite the apartment building's door. The victims were American noncoms, as it happened. They had weekend passes, and they were in street clothes. "

  Rosemary Barr was shaking her head.

  "This can't be true," she said. "It just can't be. He wouldn't do it. And if he did, he'd have gone to prison. But he got an honorable discharge instead. Right after the Gulf. And a campaign medal. So it can't have happened. It can't possibly be true. "

  "That's exactly why I'm here," Reacher said. "There was a serious problem. Remember the sequence of events. We had four dead guys, and we worked from there. In the end I followed the trail all the way to your brother. But it was a very tough trail. We took all kinds of wrong turns. And along one of them we found stuff out about the four dead guys. Stuff we really didn't want to know. Because they had been doing things they shouldn't have been doing. "

  "What things?" Helen Rodin asked.

  "Kuwait City was a hell of a place. Full of rich Arabs. Even the poor ones had Rolexes and Rolls-Royces and marble bathrooms with solid gold faucets. A lot of them had fled temporarily, for the duration. But they had left all their stuff behind. And some of them had left their families behind. Their wives and daughters. "

  "And?"

  "Our four dead noncoms had been doing the conquering army thing, just like the Iraqis before them. That's how they saw it, I guess. We saw it as rape and armed robbery. As it happened they had left quite a trail that day, inside that building. And other buildings, on other days. We found enough loot in their footlockers to start another branch of Tiffany's. Watches, diamonds, all kinds of portable stuff. And underwear. We figured they used the underwear to keep count of the wives and daughters. "

  "So what happened?"

  "It got political, inevitably. It went up the chain of command. The Gulf was supposed to be a big shiny success for us. It was supposed to be a hundred percent wonderful and a hundred percent squeaky clean. And the Kuwaitis were our allies, and so on and so forth. So ultimately we were told to cover for the four guys. We were told to bury the story. Which we did. Which also meant letting James Barr walk. Because whispers had gotten out and we knew his lawyer would have used them. We were afraid of blackmail. If we took Barr to trial, his lawyer would have countered with a justifiable homicide claim. He would have said Barr had been standing up for the honor of the army, in a rough-and-ready sort of a way. All the beans would have spilled in the process. We were told not to risk that. So our hands were tied. It was a stalemate. "

  "Maybe it was justifiable homicide," Rosemary Barr said. "Maybe James really did know all along. "

  "Ma'am, he didn't know. I'm very sorry, but he didn't. He was never near any of those guys before. Didn't know them from Adam. Didn't say anything to me about them when I caught up to him. He hadn't been in KC long. Not long enough to know anything. He was just killing people. For fun. He confessed to that, to me personally, before any of the other stuff ever came to light. "

  Silence in the room.

  "So we hushed it up and mustered him out," Reacher said. "We said his four guys had been killed by Palestinians, which was plausible in Kuwait City in 1991. I was mildly pissed about the whole thing. It wasn't the worst situation I had ever seen, but it wasn't the nicest, either. James Barr got away with murder, by sheer luck. So I went to see him before he left and I told him to justify his great good fortune by never stepping out of line again, not ever, the whole rest of his life. I told him if he ever did, I would come find him and make him sorry. "

  Silence in the room. It lasted minutes.

  "So here I am," Reacher said.

  "This must be classified information," Helen Rodin said. "I mean, surely it can't ever be used. There would be a huge scandal. "

  Reacher nodded. "It's highly classified. It's sealed inside the Pentagon. That's why I asked if this conversation was privileged. "

  "You'd get in big trouble if you talked about it. "

  "I've been in big trouble before. I came here to find out if I needed to get in big trouble again. As it happens, I don't think I do. I think your father can put James Barr away without my help. But my help is always available if he needs it. "

  Then Helen understood.

  "You're here to pressure me," she said. "Aren't you? You're telling me if I try too hard, you'll cut me off at the knees. "

  "I'm here to keep my promise," Reacher said. "To James Barr. "

  He closed the door and left them there, three silent and disappointed people in a room. Then he rode down in the elevator. Ann Yanni got in again on two. He wondered for a moment if she spent all day rid
ing the elevators, hoping to be recognized. Hoping to be asked for an autograph. He ignored her. Got out with her in the lobby and just headed for the door.

  He stood for a moment in the plaza. Deciding. James Barr's medical condition was the complicating factor. He didn't want to stick around until the guy woke up. If that happened at all, it might take weeks. And Reacher was not a guy who liked to stick around. He liked to be on the move. Two days in one place was about his limit. But he was stuck for alternatives. He couldn't hint at anything to Alex Rodin. Couldn't give him a call-me-if-you-need-me number. For one thing, he didn't have a phone. For another, a guy as squared away and cautious as Alex Rodin was would worry away at the hint until something began to unravel. He would make the link to the Pentagon easily enough. Reacher had even asked did she get my name from the Pentagon? That had been a careless mistake. So Alex Rodin would put two and two together, eventually. He would figure, There's something extra here, and I can find out what it is from the Pentagon. The Pentagon would stonewall him, of course. But Rodin wouldn't like being stonewalled. He would go to the media. Ann Yanni, probably. She would be ready for another network story. And at bottom Rodin would be insecure enough about losing the case that he would simply have to know. He wouldn't give up on it.

  And Reacher didn't want the story out there. Not unless it was absolutely necessary. Gulf War vets had it hard enough, with the chemical stuff and the uranium poisoning. All they had going for them was the conflict's spotless just-war reputation. They didn't need defaming by association with people like Barr and his victims. People would say, Hey, they were all doing it. And they weren't all doing it, in Reacher's experience. That had been a good army. So he didn't want the story out there unless it was absolutely necessary, and he wanted to judge that for himself.

  So, no hints to Alex Rodin. No call-me contingencies.

  So. . . what, exactly?

  He decided to stick around for twenty-four hours. Maybe there would be a clearer prognosis on Barr's condition after that. Maybe somehow he could check with Emerson and get a better feel for the evidence. Then maybe he could feel OK about leaving things with Alex Rodin's office, on a kind of forensic autopilot. If there were problems down the road maybe he would read about them in a newspaper somewhere, far in the future, on a beach or in a bar, and then he could come all the way back again.

  So, twenty-four hours in a small heartland city.

  He decided to go see if there was a river.

  There was a river. It was a broad, slow body of water that moved west to east through an area south of downtown. Some tributary that fed the mighty Ohio, he guessed. Its north bank was straightened and strengthened with massive stone blocks along a three-hundred-yard stretch. The blocks might have weighed fifty tons each. They were immaculately chiseled and expertly fitted. They made a quayside. A wharf. They had tall fat iron mushrooms set into them, to tie off ropes. Stone paving slabs made the wharf thirty feet deep. All along its length were tall wooden sheds, open on the river side, open on the street side. The street was made of cobbles. A hundred years ago there would have been huge river barges tied up and unloading. There would have been swarms of men at work. There would have been horses and carts clattering on the cobbles. But now there was nothing. Just absolute stillness, and the slow drift of the water. Scabs of rust on the iron mushrooms, clumps of weeds between the stones.

  Some of the sheds still had faded names on them. McGinty Dry Goods. Allentown Seed Company. Parker Supply. Reacher strolled the three hundred yards and looked at all of them. They were still standing, strong and square. Ripe for renovation, he guessed. A city that put an ornamental pool with a fountain in a public plaza would spruce up the waterfront. It was inevitable. There was construction all over town. It would move south. They would give someone tax breaks to open a riverside cafe. Maybe a bar. Maybe with live music, Thursday through Saturday. Maybe with a little museum laying out the history of the river trade.

  He turned to walk back and came face-to-face with Helen Rodin.

  "You're not such a hard man to find," she said.

  "Evidently," he said.

  "Tourists always come to the docks. "

  She was carrying a lawyer-size briefcase.

  "Can I buy you lunch?" she said.

  She walked him back north to the edge of the new gentrification. In the space of a single dug-up block the city changed from old and worn to new and repainted. Stores changed from dusty mom-and-pop places with displays of vacuum cleaner bags and washing machine hoses to new establishments showing off spotlit hundred-dollar dresses. And shoes, and four-dollar lattes, and things made of titanium. They walked past a few such places and then Helen Rodin led him into an eatery. It was the kind of place he had seen before. It was the kind of place he usually avoided. White walls, some exposed brick, engine-turned aluminum tables and chairs, weird salad combinations. Random ingredients thrown together and called inventive.

  She led him to a table in the far back corner. An energetic kid came by with menus. Helen Rodin ordered something with oranges and walnuts and Gorgonzola cheese. With a cup of herbal tea. Reacher gave up on reading his menu and ordered the same thing, but with coffee, regular, black.

  "This is my favorite place in town," Helen said.

  He nodded. He believed her. She looked right at home. The long straight hair, the black clothes. The youthful glow. He was older and came from a different time and a different place.

  "I need you to explain something," she said.

  She bent down and opened her briefcase. Came out with the old tape player. Placed it carefully on the table. Pressed Play. Reacher heard James Barr's first lawyer say: Denying it is not an option. Then he heard Barr say: Get Jack Reacher for me.

  "You already played that for me," he said.

  "But why would he say it?" Helen asked.

  "That's what you want me to explain?"

  She nodded.

  "I can't," he said.

  "Logically you're the last person he should have asked for. "

  "I agree. "

  "Could he have been in any doubt about how you felt? Fourteen years ago?"

  "I don't think so. I made myself pretty clear. "

  "Then why would he ask for you now?"

  Reacher didn't answer. The food came, and they started eating. Oranges, walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese, all kinds of leaves and lettuces, and a raspberry vinaigrette. It wasn't too bad. And the coffee was OK.

  "Play me the whole tape," he said.

  She put her fork down and pressed the Rewind key. Kept her hand there, one fingertip on each key, like a pianist. She had long fingers. No rings. Polished nails, neatly trimmed. She pressed Play and picked up her fork again. Reacher heard no sound for a moment until the blank leader cleared the tape head. Then he heard a prison acoustic. Echoes, distant metallic clattering. A man breathing. Then he heard a door open and the thump of another man sitting down. No scraping of chair legs on concrete. A prison chair, bolted to the floor. The lawyer started talking. He was old and bored. He didn't want to be there. He knew Barr was guilty. He made banal small talk for a while. Grew frustrated with Barr's silence. Then he said, full of exasperation: I can't help you if you won't help yourself. There was a long, long pause, and then Barr's voice came through, agitated, close to the microphone: They got the wrong guy. He said it again. Then the lawyer started up again, not believing him, saying the evidence was all there, looking for a reason behind an indisputable fact. Then Barr asked for Reacher, twice, and the lawyer asked if Reacher was a doctor, twice. Then Barr got up and walked away. There was the sound of hammering on a locked door, and then nothing more.

  Helen Rodin pressed the Stop key.

  "So why?" she asked. "Why say he didn't do it and then call for a guy who knows for sure he did it before?"

  Reacher just shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. But he saw in Helen's eyes that she had an answer.

  "You know some
thing," she said. "Maybe you don't know you know it. But there's got to be something there. Something he thinks can help him. "

  "Does it matter? He's in a coma. He might never wake up. "

  "It matters a lot. He could get better treatment. "

  "I don't know anything. "

  "Are you sure? Was there a psychiatric evaluation made back then?"

  "It never got that far. "

  "Did he claim insanity?"

  "No, he claimed a perfect score. Four for four. "

  "Did you think he was nuts?"

  "That's a big word. Was it nuts to shoot four people for fun? Of course it was. Was he nuts, legally? I'm sure he wasn't. "

  "You must know something, Reacher," Helen said. "It must be way down in there. You've got to dredge it up. "

  He kept quiet for a moment.

  "Have you actually seen the evidence?" he asked.

  "I've seen a summary. "

  "How bad is it?"

  "It's terrible. There's no question he did it. This is about mitigation, nothing more. And his state of mind. I can't let them execute an insane person. "

  "So wait until he wakes up. Run some tests. "

  "They won't count. He could wake up like a fruitcake and the prosecution will say that was caused by the blows to the head in the jailhouse fight. They'll say he was perfectly sane at the time of the crime. "

  "Is your dad a fair man?"

  "He lives to win. "

  "Like father, like daughter?"

  She paused.

  "Somewhat," she said.

  Reacher finished up his salad. Chased the last walnut around with his fork and then gave up and used his fingers instead.

  "What's on your mind?" Helen asked.

  "Just a minor detail," he said. "Fourteen years ago it was a very tough case with barely adequate forensics. And he confessed. This time the forensics seem to be a total slam dunk. But he's denying it. "

  "What does that mean?"

  "I don't know. "

  "So think about what you do know," Helen said. "Please. You must know something. You have to ask yourself, why did he come up with your name? There has to be a reason. "

  Reacher said nothing. The kid who had served them came back and took their plates away. Reacher pointed at his coffee cup and the kid made another trip and refilled it. Reacher cradled it in his hands and smelled the steam.

  "May I ask you a personal question?" Helen Rodin said to him.

  "Depends how personal," Reacher said.

  "Why were you so untraceable? Normally guys like Franklin can find anybody. "

  "Maybe he's not as good as you think. "

  "He's probably better than I think. "

  "Not everyone is traceable. "

  "I agree. But you don't look like you belong in that category. "

  "I was in the machine," Reacher said. "My whole life. Then the machine coughed and spat me out. So I thought, OK, if I'm out, I'm out. All the way out. I was a little angry and it was probably an immature reaction. But I got used to it. "

  "Like a game?"

  "Like an addiction," Reacher said. "I'm addicted to being out. "

  The kid brought the check. Helen Rodin paid. Then she put her tape player back in her briefcase and she and Reacher left together. They walked north, past the construction at the bottom of First Street. She was heading to her office and he was going to look for a hotel.

  A man called Grigor Linsky watched them walk. He was slumped low in a car parked at the curb. He knew where to wait. He knew where she ate when she had company.

 
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