She paused a beat, and said, “Nobody.”
Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy. It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house. Which made sense anyway. The harvest was still a month away, and a disturbance in a field would show up from the air. And they would use the air, for a guy like Keever. They would use search planes, and helicopters, and maybe even drones.
They started at midnight, which they thought was safe enough. They were in the middle of ten thousand acres of nothingness, and the only man-made structure their side of any horizon was the railroad track to the east, but midnight was five hours after the evening train and seven hours before the morning train. Therefore, no prying eyes. Their backhoe had four spotlights on a bar above the cab, the same way kids pimped their pick-up trucks, and together the four beams made a wide pool of halogen brightness. Therefore, visibility was not a problem either. They started the hole in the hog pen, which was a permanent disturbance all by itself. Each hog weighed two hundred pounds, and each hog had four feet. The dirt was always chewed up. Nothing to see from the air, not even with a thermal camera. The picture would white out instantly, from the steaming animals themselves, and their steaming piles and pools of waste.
Hogs were rooting animals, so they made sure the hole was deep. Which was not a problem either. Their backhoe’s arm was long, and it bit rhythmically, in fluent articulated seven-foot scoops, the hydraulic rams glinting in the electric light, the engine straining and roaring and pausing, the cab falling and rising, as each bucket-load was dumped aside. When the hole was done they backed the machine up and turned it around and used the front bucket to push Keever into his grave, scraping him, rolling him, covering his body with dirt, until finally it fell over the lip and thumped down into the electric shadows.
Only one thing went wrong, and it happened right then.
The evening train came through five hours late. The next morning they heard on the AM station that a broken locomotive had caused a jam a hundred miles south. But they didn’t know that at the time. All they heard was the mournful whistle at the distant crossing, and then all they could do was turn and stare, at the long lit cars rumbling past in the middle distance, one after the other, like a vision in a dream, seemingly forever. But eventually the train was gone, and the rails sang for a minute more, and then the tail light was swallowed by the midnight darkness, and they turned back to their task.
Twenty miles north the train slowed, and slowed, and then eased to a hissing stop, and the doors sucked open, and Jack Reacher stepped down to a concrete ramp in front of a grain elevator as big as an apartment house. To his left were four more elevators, all of them bigger than the first, and to his right was an enormous metal shed the size of an airplane hangar. There were vapor lights on poles, set at regular intervals, and they cut cones of yellow in the darkness. There was mist in the nighttime air, like a note on a calendar. The end of summer was coming. Fall was on its way.
Reacher stood still and behind him the train moved away without him, straining, grinding, settling to a slow rat-a-tat rhythm, and then accelerating, its building slipstream pulling at his clothes. He was the only passenger who had gotten out. Which was not surprising. The place was no kind of a commuter hub. It was all agricultural. What token passenger facilities it had were wedged between the last elevator and the huge shed, and were limited to a compact building which seemed to have both a ticket window and benches for waiting. It was built in a traditional railroad style, and it looked like a child’s toy, temporarily set down between two shiny oil drums.
But on a sign board running its whole length was written the reason Reacher was there: Mother’s Rest. Which he had seen on a map, and which he thought was a great name for a railroad stop. He figured the line must cross an ancient wagon train trail, right there, where something had happened long ago. Maybe a young pregnant woman went into labor. The jostling could not have helped. Maybe the wagon train stopped for a couple of weeks. Or a month. Maybe someone remembered the place years later. A descendant, perhaps. A family legend. Maybe there was a one-room museum.
Or perhaps there was a sadder interpretation. Maybe they had buried a woman there. Too old to make it. In which case there would be a commemorative stone.
Either way Reacher figured he might as well find out. He had no place to go, and all the time in the world to get there, so detours cost him nothing. Which is why he got out of the train. To a sense of disappointment, initially. His expectations had been way off base. He had pictured a couple of dusty houses, and a lonely one-horse corral. And the one-room museum, maybe run part-time and volunteer by an old guy from one of the houses. Or the headstone, maybe marble, behind a square wrought-iron fence.
He had not expected the immense agricultural infrastructure. He should have, he supposed. Grain, meet the railroad. It had to be loaded somewhere. Billions of bushels and millions of tons each year. He stepped left and looked through a gap between structures. The view was dark, but he could sense a rough semicircle of habitation. Houses, obviously, for the depot workers. He could see lights, which he hoped were a motel, or a diner, or both.
He walked to the exit, skirting the pools of vapor light purely out of habit, but he saw that the last lamp was unavoidable, because it was set directly above the exit gate. So he saved himself a further perimeter diversion by walking through the next-to-last pool of light too.
At which point a woman stepped out of the shadows.
She came toward him with a distinctive burst of energy, two fast paces, eager, like she was pleased to see him. Her body language was all about relief.
Then it wasn’t. Then it was all about disappointment. She stopped dead, and she said, “Oh.”
She was Asian. But not petite. Five-nine, maybe, or even five-ten. And built to match. Not a bone in sight. No kind of a willowy waif. She was about forty, Reacher guessed, with black hair worn long, with jeans and a T-shirt under a short cotton coat. She had lace-up shoes on her feet.
He said, “Good evening, ma’am.”
She was looking past his shoulder.
He said, “I’m the only passenger.”
She looked him in the eye.
He said, “No one else got out of the train. So I guess your friend isn’t coming.”
“My friend?” she said. A neutral kind of accent. Regular American. The kind he heard everywhere.
He said, “Why else would a person be here, except to meet the train? No point in coming otherwise. I guess normally there would be nothing to see at midnight.”
She didn’t answer.
He said, “Don’t tell me you’ve been waiting here since seven o’clock.”
“I didn’t know the train was late,” she said. “There’s no cell signal here. And no one from the railroad, to tell you anything. And I guess the Pony Express is out sick today.”
“He wasn’t in my car. Or the next two, either.”
“You don’t know what he looks like.”
“He’s a big guy,” Reacher said. “That’s why you jumped out when you saw me. You thought I was him. For a second, anyway. And there were no big guys in my car. Or the next two.”
“When is the next train?”
“Seven in the morning.”
She said, “Who are you and why have you come here?”
“I’m just a guy passing through.”
“The train passed through. Not you. You got out.”
“You know anything about this place?”
“Not a thing.”
“Have you seen a museum or a gravestone?”
“Why are you here?”
Reacher said, “Is there a motel in town?”
“I’m staying there.”
“How is it?”
“It’s a motel.”
“Works for me,” Reacher said. “Does it have vacancies?”
“I’d be amazed if it didn’t.”
“OK, you can show me the way. Don’t wait here all night. I’ll be up by first light. I’ll knock on your door as I leave. Hopefully your friend will be here in the morning.”
The woman said nothing. She just glanced at the silent rails one more time, and then turned around and led the way through the exit gate.
The motel was bigger than Reacher expected. It was a two-story horseshoe, a total of thirty rooms, with plenty of parking. But not many slots were occupied. The place was more than half empty. It was plainly built of stuccoed blocks, painted beige, with iron stairs and railings, painted brown. Nothing special. But it looked clean and well kept. All the light bulbs worked. Not the worst place Reacher had ever seen.
The office was the first door on the left, on the ground floor. There was a clerk behind the desk. He was a short old guy with a big belly and what looked like a glass eye. He gave the woman the key for room 214, and she walked out without another word. Reacher asked him for a rate, and the guy said, “Sixty bucks.”
Reacher said, “A week?”
“I’ve been around.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ve been in plenty of motels.”
“I don’t see anything here worth sixty bucks. Twenty, maybe.”
“Can’t do twenty. Those rooms are expensive.”
“I’m happy with downstairs.”
“Don’t you need to be near her?”
“Your lady friend.”
“No,” Reacher said. “I don’t need to be near her.”
“Forty dollars downstairs.”
“Twenty. You’re more than half empty. Practically out of business. Better to make twenty bucks than nothing at all.”
“Deal,” Reacher said. He took his roll of cash out his pocket and separated a ten, and two fives, and five singles. He laid them on the counter and the one-eyed guy swapped them for a key on a wooden fob marked 106, taken from a drawer, with a triumphant flourish.
“In the back corner,” the guy said. “Near the stairs.”
Which were metal, and which would make a clanging noise when people went up and down. Not the best room in the place. Petty revenge. But Reacher didn’t care. He figured his would be the last head to hit the pillow that night. He didn’t foresee any other late arrivals. He expected to be undisturbed, all the way through the silent plains night.
He said, “Thank you,” and walked out, carrying his key.
The one-eyed guy waited thirty seconds, and then dialed his desk phone, and when it was answered he said, “She met a guy off the train. It was late. She waited five hours for it. She brought the guy here and he took a room.”
There was the plastic crackle of a question, and the one-eyed clerk said, “Another big guy. A mean son of a bitch. He busted my balls on the room rate. I gave him 106, in the far back corner.”
Another crackling question, and another answer: “Not from here. I’m in the office.”
Another crackle, but this time a different tone and a different cadence. An instruction, not a question.
The one-eyed guy said, “OK.”
And he put the phone down and struggled to his feet, and stepped out of the office, and took the lawn chair from outside 102, which was empty, and dragged it to a spot on the blacktop where he could see his own door and 106’s equally. Can you see his room from there? had been the question, and Move your ass somewhere you can watch him all night had been the instruction, and the one-eyed guy always obeyed instructions, if sometimes a little reluctantly, as at that point, as he adjusted his angle and dumped his bulk down on the uncomfortable plastic. Outside, in the nighttime air. Not his preferred way of doing things.
From inside his room Reacher heard the lawn chair scrape across the blacktop, but he paid no attention. Just a random nighttime sound, nothing dangerous, not a shotgun jacking a round, not the hiss of a blade on a sheath, nothing for his lizard brain to worry about. And the only non-lizard possibilities were a lace-up footstep on the sidewalk outside, and a knock on the door, because the woman from the railroad seemed like a person with a lot of questions, and also some kind of expectation they should be answered. Who are you and why have you come here?
But it was a scrape, not a footstep or a knock, so Reacher paid no attention. He folded his pants and laid them flat under the mattress, and then he showered away the grime of the day, and climbed under the bedcovers. He set the alarm in his head for six o’clock in the morning, stretched once, yawned once, and fell asleep.
The dawn came up entirely gold, with no hint of pink or purple. The sky was a rinsed blue, like an old shirt washed a thousand times. Reacher showered again and dressed, and stepped out to the new day. He saw the lawn chair, empty, oddly placed in the traffic lane, but he thought nothing of it. He went up the metal stairs as quietly as he could, reducing the likely clang to a duller pulsing boom, by placing his feet very carefully. He found 214 and knocked on its door, firmly but discreetly, like he imagined a bellboy would, in a fine hotel. Your wake-up call, ma’am. She had about forty minutes. Ten to get going, ten to shower, ten to stroll up to the railroad again. She would be there well ahead of the morning train.
Reacher crept back down the stairs and headed out to the street, which was wide enough at that point to qualify as a plaza. For farm trucks, he guessed, slow and clumsy, turning and maneuvering, lining up ahead of the weighbridges and the receiving offices and the grain elevators themselves. There were train tracks embedded in the blacktop. It was a whole big operation. Some kind of a hub facility, presumably, serving the locality, which in that part of America could have meant a two-hundred-mile radius. Which explained the large motel. Farmers would come in from far and wide, and spend the night before or after a train ride to some distant city. Maybe they would all come at once, at certain times of the year. When futures were for sale, maybe, in faraway Chicago. Hence the thirty bedrooms.
The wide street or the plaza or whatever it was ran basically south to north, with the railroad track and the shiny infrastructure defining the eastern limit, on the right, and what amounted to a kind of Main Street defining the western limit, on the left. The motel was there, and a diner, and a general store. Behind those establishments the town spread out in a loose westward semicircle. Low density. Sprawl, country style. A thousand people, maybe less.
Reacher headed north on the wide street, looking for the wagon train trail. He figured it would come in across his path, from east to west, which had been the whole point of wagon trains. Go west, young man. Exciting times. He saw a crossing fifty yards ahead, after the last of the elevators. A road, perpendicular, exactly east to west. On the right it was bright with the morning sun, and on the left it was long with shadows.
The crossing had no barriers. Just red lights. Reacher stood on the tracks and gazed back south, the way he had come. There were no other crossings for at least a mile, which was about as far as he could see, in the pale light. There were no other crossings for at least a mile to the north, either. Which meant that if Mother’s Rest laid claim to its own east-west thoroughfare, he was standing on it.
It was reasonably wide, and slightly humped, built up with dirt taken from shallow ditches dug either side. It was covered with thick blacktop, grayed with age, split here and there by weather, and random like frozen lava on the edges. It was dead straight, from one horizon to the other.
sibility. Wagon trains went dead straight when they could. Why wouldn’t they? No one put in extra miles just for the fun of it. The lead driver would steer by a distant landmark, and the others would follow, and a year later some new party would find the ruts, and a year after that someone would make a mark on a map. And a hundred years later some state highway department would come by with trucks full of asphalt.
There was nothing to see in the east. No one-room museum, no marble headstone. Just the road, between infinite fields of nearly-ripe wheat. But in the other direction, west of the tracks, the road ran through the town, more or less dead center, built up on both sides for about six low-rise blocks. The corner lot on the right had expanded northward about a hundred yards. Like a football field. It was a farm equipment dealership. Weird tractors and huge machines, all brand-new and shiny. On the left was a veterinary supply business, in a small building that must have started out as an ordinary residential dwelling.
Reacher made the turn and walked on the old trail, due west through the town, the morning sun faintly warm on his back.
In the motel office the one-eyed clerk dialed the phone, and when it was answered he said, “She went back to the railroad again. Now she’s meeting the morning train too. How many guys are these people sending?”
He was answered by a long plastic crackle, not a question, but not an instruction either. Softer in tone. Encouragement, maybe. Or reassurance. The one-eyed guy said, “OK, sure,” and hung up.