The Hard Way by Lee Child


  Pargeter. He'll know. Dave Kemp knows everything, on account of the post office. Nosy bugger."

  "Is there a pub there? Why would someone from there drink here?"

  "This is the only pub for miles, lad. Why else do you think it's so crowded?" Reacher didn't answer that.

  "They're offcomers at Grange Farm," the first farmer said, finally completing his earlier thought. "That family. Recent. From London, I reckon. Don't know them. Organic, they are. Don't hold with chemicals."

  And that information seemed to conclude what the farmers felt they owed in exchange for a pint of beer because they fell to talking among themselves about the advantages and disadvantages of organic farming. It felt like a well-worn argument. According to what Reacher overheard there was absolutely nothing in its favor except for the inexplicable willingness of townsfolk to pay over the odds for the resulting produce.

  "You were right," Pauling said. "Taylor's at the farm."

  "But will he stay there now?" Reacher said.

  "I don't see why not. Your big dumb generous American act was pretty convincing. You weren't threatening. Maybe he thought we're just tourists looking at where our dads were based. They get them all the time here. That guy said so."

  Reacher said nothing.

  Pauling said, "I parked right next to him, didn't I? That farmer said he was in a Land Rover and there was only one Land Rover in the lot."

  Reacher said, "I wish he hadn't been in here."

  "This is probably one of the reasons he chose to come back. English beer."

  "You like it?"

  "No, but I believe Englishmen do."

  Their sandwiches were surprisingly good. Fresh crusty home-made bread, butter, rare roast beef, creamy horseradish sauce, farmhouse cheese on the side, with thin potato chips as a garnish. They ate them and finished their beers. Then they headed upstairs to their room. It was better than their suite in Bayswater. More spacious, partly due to the fact that the bed was a full, not a queen. Four feet six, not five feet. Not really a hardship, Reacher thought. Not under the circumstances. He set the alarm in his head for six in the morning. First light. Taylor will stay or Taylor will run, and either way we'll watch him do it.

  CHAPTER

  61

  THE VIEW OUT the window at six the next morning was one of infinite misty flatness. The land was level and gray-green all the way to the far horizon, interrupted only by straight ditches and occasional stands of trees. The trees had long thin supple trunks and round compact crowns to withstand the winds. Reacher could see them bending and tossing in the distance.

  Outside it was very cold and their car was all misted over with dew. Reacher cleared the windows with the sleeve of his jacket. They climbed inside without saying much. Pauling backed out of the parking space and crunched into first gear and took off through the lot. Braked briefly and then joined the road, due east toward the morning sky. Five miles to Bishops Pargeter. Five miles to Grange Farm.

  They found the farm before they found the village. It filled the upper left-hand square of the quadrant formed by the crossroad. They saw it first from the southwest. It was bounded by ditches, not fences. They

  were dug straight and crisp and deep. Then came flat fields, neatly plowed, dusted pale green with late crops recently planted. Then closer to the center were small stands of trees, almost decorative, like they

  had been artfully planted for effect. Then a large gray stone house. Larger than Reacher had imagined. Not a castle, not a stately home, but more impressive than a mere farmhouse had any right to be. Then in the distance to the north and the east of the house were five outbuildings. Barns, long, low, and tidy. Three of them made a three-sided square around some kind of a yard. Two stood alone.

  The road they were driving on was flanked by the ditch that formed the farm's southern boundary. With every yard they drove their perspective rotated and changed, like the farm was an exhibit on a turntable, on display. It was a big handsome establishment. The driveway crossed the boundary ditch on a small flat bridge and then ran north into the distance, beaten earth, neatly cambered. The house itself was end-on to the road, a half-mile in. The front door faced west and the back door faced east. The Land Rover was parked between the back of the house and one of the standalone barns, tiny in the distance, cold, inert, misted over.

  "He's still there," Reacher said.

  "Unless he has a car of his own."

  "If he had a car of his own he would have used it last night."

  Pauling slowed to a walk. There was no sign of activity around the house. None at all. There was thin smoke from a chimney, blown horizontal by the wind. A banked fire for a water heater, maybe. No lights in the windows.

  Pauling said, "I thought farmers got up early."

  "I guess livestock farmers do," Reacher said. "To milk the cows or whatever. But this place is all crops. Between plowing and harvesting I don't see what they have to do. I guess they just sit back and let the stuff grow."

  "They need to spray it, don't they? They should be out on tractors."

  "Not organic people. They don't hold with chemicals. A little irrigation, maybe."

  "This is England. It rains all the time."

  "It hasn't rained since we got here."

  "Eighteen hours," Pauling said. "A new record. It rained all the time I was at Scotland Yard."

  She coasted to a halt and put the stick in neutral and buzzed her window down. Reacher did the same thing and cold damp air blew through the car. Outside was all silence and stillness. Just the hiss of wind in distant trees and the faint suggestion of morning shadows in the mist.

  Pauling said, "I guess all the world looked like this once."

  "These were the north folk," Reacher said. "Norfolk and Suffolk, the north folk and the south folk. Two ancient Celtic kingdoms, I think."

  Then the silence was shattered by a shotgun. A distant blast that rolled over the fields like an explosion. Enormously loud in the quiet. Reacher and Pauling both ducked instinctively. Then they scanned the horizon, looking for smoke. Looking for incoming fire.

  Pauling said, "Taylor?"

  Reacher said, "I don't see him."

  "Who else would it be?"

  "He was too far away to be effective."

  "Hunters?"

  "Turn the motor off," Reacher said. He listened hard. Heard nothing more. No movement, no reload.

  "I think it was a bird scarer," he said. "They just planted a winter crop. They don't want the crows to eat the seeds. I think they have machines that fire blanks all day at random."

  "I hope that's all it was."

  "We'll come back," Reacher said. "Let's go find Dave Kemp in the shop."

  Pauling fired the engine up and took off again and Reacher twisted in his seat and watched the eastern half of the farm go by. It looked exactly the same as the western half. But in reverse. Trees near the house, then wide flat fields, then a ditch on the boundary. Then came the northern leg of the Bishops Pargeter crossroad. Then the hamlet itself, which was little more than an ancient stone church standing alone in the upper right-hand quadrant and a fifty-yard string of buildings along the shoulder of the road opposite. Most of the buildings seemed to be residential cottages but one of them was a long low

  multi-purpose store. It was a newspaper shop, and a grocery, and a post office. Because it sold newspapers and breakfast requisites it was already open.

  "The direct approach?" Pauling asked.

  "A variant," Reacher said.

  She parked opposite the store where the shoulder was graveled near the entrance to the churchyard. They got out of the car into a stiff wind that blew strong and steady out of the east. Reacher said, "Guys I knew who served here swore it blew all the way from Siberia without anything getting in its way." The village store felt warm and snug by comparison. There was some kind of a gas heater going that put warm moisture into the air. There was a shuttered post office window and a central section that sold food and a newspaper counter at t
he far end. There was an old guy behind the counter. He was wearing a cardigan sweater and a muffler. He was sorting newspapers, and his fingers were gray with ink.

  "Are you Dave Kemp?" Reacher asked.

  "That's my name," the old guy said.

  "We were told you're the man to ask."

  "About what?"

  "We're here on a mission," Reacher said.

  "You're certainly here early."

  "First come first served," Reacher said, because the London guy had, and therefore it might sound authentic.

  "What do you want?"

  "We're here to buy farms."

  "You're Americans, aren't you?"

  "We represent a large agricultural corporation in the United States, yes. We're looking to make investments. And we can offer very generous finders' fees."

  The direct approach. A variant.

  "How much?" Kemp asked.

  "It's usually a percentage.'

  "What farms?" Kemp asked.

  "You tell us. Generally we look for tidy well-run places that might have issues with ownership stability."

  "What the hell does that mean?"

  "It means we want good places that were recently bought up by amateurs. But we want them quick, before they're ruined."

  "Grange Farm," Kemp said. "They're bloody amateurs. They've gone organic."

  "We heard that name."

  "It should be top of your list. It's exactly what you said. They've bitten off more than they can chew there. And that's when they're both at home. Which they aren't always. Just now the chap was left alone there for a few days. It's far too much for one man to run. Especially a bloody amateur. And they've got too many trees. You can't make money growing trees."

  "Grange Farm sounds like a good prospect," Reacher said. "But we heard that someone else is snooping around there, too. He's been seen, recently. On the property. A rival, maybe."

  "Really?" Kemp said, excited, conflict in the offing. Then his face fell, deflated. "No, I know who you mean. That's not a bloody rival. That's the woman's brother. He's moved in with them."

  "Are you sure about that? Because it makes a difference to us, how many people we have to relocate." Kemp nodded. "The chap came in here and introduced himself. Said he was back from somewhere or other and his wandering days were over. He was posting a packet to America. Airmail. We don't get much

  of that here. We had quite a nice chat."

  "So you're sure he's going to be a long-term resident? Because it makes a difference."

  "That's what he said."

  Pauling asked, "What did he post to America?"

  "He didn't tell me what it was. It was going to a hotel in New York. Addressed to a room, not a person, which I thought was strange."

  Reacher asked, "Did you guess what it was?"

  Dave Kemp, the farmer in the bar had said. Nosy bugger.

  "It felt like a thin book," Kemp said. "Not many pages. A rubber band around it. Maybe he had borrowed it. Not that I squeezed it or anything."

  "Didn't he fill out a customs declaration?"

  "We put it down as printed papers. Don't need a form for that."

  "Thanks, Mr. Kemp," Reacher said. "You've been very helpful."

  "What about the fee?"

  "If we buy the farm, you'll get it," Reacher said.

  If we buy the farm, he thought. Unfortunate turn of phrase. He felt suddenly cold.

  Dave Kemp had no take-out coffee so they bought Coke and candy bars and stopped to eat them on the side of the road a mile west, where they could watch the front of the farmhouse. The place was still quiet. No lights, the same thin trickle of smoke catching the wind and dispersing sideways.

  Reacher said, "Why did you ask about the airmail to the States?"

  "An old habit," Pauling said. "Ask about everything, especially when you're not sure about what's important and what isn't. And it was kind of weird. Taylor just got out, and the first thing he does is mail something back? What could it have been?"

  "Maybe something for his partner," Reacher said. "Maybe he's still in the city."

  "We should have gotten the address. But we did pretty well, overall. You were very plausible. It fit very well with last night. All that false bonhomie in the bar? Assuming Kemp spreads the word, Taylor's going to put you down as a conman looking to make a fast buck buying farms for fifty cents on the dollar."

  "I can lie with the best of them," Reacher said. "Sadly."

  Then he shut up fast because he caught a glimpse of movement a half-mile away. The farmhouse door was opening. There was morning mist and the sun was on the other side of the house and the distance was at the outer limit of visibility but he made out four figures emerging into the light. Two big, one slightly smaller, one very small. Probably two men, a woman, and a little child. Possibly a girl.

  "They're up," he said.

  Pauling said, "I see them, but only just. Four people. The bird scarer probably woke them. Louder than a rooster. It's the Jackson family and Taylor, right? Mommy, Daddy, Melody, and her loving uncle."

  "Must be."

  They all had things on their shoulders. Long straight poles. Comfortable for the adults, way too big for the girl.

  "What are they doing?" Pauling asked.

  "Those are hoes," Reacher said. "They're going out to the fields."

  "To dig weeds?"

  "Organic farming. They can't use herbicides."

  The tiny figures grouped together and moved north, away from the road. They dwindled to nothingness, just faint remote blurs in the mist that were more ghostly illusion than reality.

  "He's staying," Pauling said. "Isn't he? He must be staying. You don't go out to hoe weeds for your sister if you're thinking about running."

  Reacher nodded. "We've seen enough. The job is done. Let's get back to London and wait for Lane."

  CHAPTER

  62

  THEY HIT COMMUTER traffic on the road to London. Lots of it. It seemed like for hundreds of miles England was one of two things: either London or a dormitory serving London. The city was like a gigantic sprawling magnet sucking inward. According to Reacher's atlas the M-l 1 was just one of twenty or so radial arteries that fed the capital. He guessed they were all just as busy, all full of tiny flowing corpuscles that would get spat back out at the end of the day. The daily grind. He had never worked nine to five, never commuted. At times he felt profoundly grateful for that fact. This was one of them.

  The stick shift was hard work in the congestion. Two hours into the ride they pulled off and got gas and he changed places with Pauling, even though he wasn't on the paperwork and wasn't insured to drive. It seemed like a minor transgression compared to what they were contemplating for later. He had driven in Britain before, years earlier, in a large British sedan owned by the U.S. Army. But now the roads were busier. Much busier. It seemed to him like the whole island was packed to capacity. Until he thought back to Norfolk. That county was empty. The island is unevenly packed, he thought. That was the real problem. Either full or empty. No middle ground. Which was unusual for Brits, in his experience. Normally Brits fudged and muddled like champions. The middle ground was where they lived.

  They came to the M-25 beltway and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Decided to hit it for a quarter-circle counterclock-wise and then head down to the West End on an easier route. But the M-25 itself was pretty much a parking lot.

 
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