ELDRIDGE TYLER WAS DRIVING A LONG STRAIGHT TWO-LANE ROAD in Nebraska when his cell phone rang. It was very late in the afternoon. He was taking his granddaughter home after buying her shoes. His truck was a crew-cab Silverado the colour of a day-old newspaper, and the kid was flat on her back on the small rear seat. She was not asleep. She was lying there wide awake with her legs held up. She was staring fascinated at the huge white sneakers wobbling around in the air two feet above her face. She was making strange sounds with her mouth. She was eight years old. Tyler figured she was a late developer.
Tyler's phone was basic enough to be nothing fancy, but complex enough to have different ringtones against different numbers. Most played the manufacturer's default tune, but four were set to sound a low urgent note halfway between a fire truck siren and a submarine's dive klaxon. And that sound was what Tyler heard, in the late afternoon, on the long straight two-lane road in Nebraska, ten miles south of the outlet store and twenty miles north of home. So he fumbled the phone up from the console and hit the button and raised it to his ear and said, 'Yes?'
A voice said, 'We might need you. '
Tyler said, 'Me?'
'Well, you and your rifle. Like before. '
Tyler said, 'Might?'
'At this stage it's only a precaution. '
'What's going on?'
'There's a guy sniffing around. '
'Hard to say. '
'How much does he know?'
'Some of it. Not all of it yet. '
'Who is he?'
'Nobody. A stranger. Just a guy. But he got involved. We think he was in the service. We think he was a military cop. Maybe he didn't lose the cop habit. '
'How long ago was he in the service?'
'Ancient history. '
'None at all, that we can see. He won't be missed. He's a drifter. Like a hobo. He blew in like a tumbleweed. Now he needs to blow out again. '
'He's a big guy,' the voice said. 'Six-five at least, probably two-fifty. Last seen wearing a big old brown parka and a wool cap. He moves funny, like he's stiff. Like he's hurting. '
'OK,' Tyler said. 'So where and when?'
'We want you to watch the barn,' the voice said. 'All day tomorrow. We can't let him see the barn. Not now. If we don't get him tonight, he's going to figure it out eventually. He's going to head over there and take a look. '
'He's going to walk right into it, just like that?'
'He thinks there are four of us. He doesn't know there are five. '
'That's good. '
'Shoot him if you see him. '
'I will. '
'Don't miss. '
'Do I ever?' Tyler said. He clicked off the call and dumped the phone back on the console and drove on, the little girl's new shoes waving in his mirror, dead winter fields ahead, dead winter fields behind, darkness to his left, the setting sun to his right.
The barn had been built long ago, when moderate size and wooden construction had been appropriate for Nebraska agriculture. Its function had since been supplanted by huge metal sheds built in distant locations chosen solely on the basis of logistical studies. But the old place had endured, warping slowly, rotting slowly, leaning and weathering. All around it was an apron of ancient blacktop that had been heaved by winter frosts and cracked by summer sun and laced with wiry weeds. The main door was a slider built of great baulks of timber banded together with iron, hung off an iron rail by iron wheels, but the gradual tilt of the building had jammed it solid in its tracks. The only way in was the judas hole, which was a small conventional door inset in the slider, a little left of its centre, a little smaller than man-sized.
Eldridge Tyler was staring at that small door through the scope on his rifle. He had been in position an hour early, well before dawn, a precaution he considered prudent. He was a patient man. And thorough. And meticulous. He had driven his truck off the road and followed winding tractor ruts through the dark, and he had parked in an ancient three-sided shelter designed long ago to keep spring rain off burlap fertilizer sacks. The ground was frozen hard and he had raised no dust and left no sign. He had shut down the big V-8 and stepped back to the shelter's entrance and tied a tripwire across it, made of thin electric cable insulated with black plastic, set shin-high to a tall man.
Then he had walked back to his truck, and he had climbed into the load bed, and he had stepped on the roof of the cab, and he had passed his rifle and a canvas tote bag up on to a half-loft built like a shelf under the shelter's peaked roof. He had levered himself up after them, and crawled forward, and eased a loose louvre out of the ventilation hole in the loft's gable wall, which would give him a clear view of the barn exactly a hundred and twenty yards north, just as soon as there was light in the sky. No luck involved. He had scouted the location many years before, the first time his four friends had called on him for help, and he had prepared well, driving in the nails for the tripwire, pacing out the distance to the barn, and loosening the louvre. Now he had once again gotten comfortable up on the half-loft, and he had kept as warm as he could, and he had waited for the sun to come up, which it had eventually, pale and wan.
His rifle was the Grand Alaskan model built in America by the Arnold Arms Company. It was chambered for the. 338 Magnum and fitted with a 26-inch barrel and had a stock carved from exhibition-grade English walnut. It was a seven-thousand-dollar item, good against most anything on four legs, better than good against anything on two. The scope was by Leica, a nine-hundred-dollar Ultravid with a standard crosshairs engraving on the reticle. Tyler had it zoomed through about two-thirds of its magnification so that at a hundred and twenty yards it showed a circular slice of life about ten feet high and ten feet across. The pale morning sun was low in the east, and its soft grey light was coming in almost horizontal across the dormant land. Later it would rise a little and swing south, and then it would fall away into the west, all of which was good, because it meant even a target wearing a brown coat would stand out well against the brown of the faded timber baulks, all day long.
Tyler worked on the assumption that most people were right-handed, and therefore his target would stand a little left of centre so that his right hand when extended would meet the handle in the middle of the judas hole's narrow panel. He further figured that a man who was stiff and hurting would stand in close, to limit his required range of movement to what was most comfortable. The door itself was less than six feet high, but because it was inset in the larger slider its lower edge was about nine inches above the grade. A man six feet five inches tall had the centre of his skull about seventy-three inches off the ground, which in terms of the vertical axis put the optimum aiming point about six inches below the top of the judas hole. And a man who weighed 250 pounds would be broad in the shoulders, which at the moment of trying to open the door would put the centre of his skull maybe a foot and a half left of his right hand, which in terms of the horizontal axis would put the aiming point about six inches beyond the left edge of the door.
Six inches down, six inches left. Tyler reached back and pulled two plastic packages of long-grain rice from his canvas tote bag. Brand new from the grocery store, five pounds each. He stacked them under the rifle's forestock and tamped the fine walnut down into them. He snuggled behind the butt and put his eye back to the scope and laid the crosshairs on the top left corner of the door. He eased them down, and eased them left. He laid his finger gently against the trigger. He breathed in, and breathed out. Below him his truck ticked and cooled and the living smells of gasoline and cold exhaust drifted up and mixed with the dead smells of dust and old wood. Outside, the sun continued
to climb and the light grew a little stronger. The air was damp and heavy, cold and dense, the kind of air that keeps a baseball inside the park, the kind of air that cradles a bullet and holds it straight and true.
Tyler waited. He knew he might have to wait all day, and he was prepared to. He was a patient man. He used the dead time visualizing the sequence of possible events. He imagined the big man in the brown coat stepping into the scope's field of view, stopping, standing still, turning his back, putting his hand on the handle.
A hundred and twenty yards.
A single high velocity round.
The end of the road.
JACK REACHER WAS THE BIG MAN IN THE BROWN COAT, AND FOR HIM that particular road had started four miles away, in the middle of an evening, with a ringing telephone in a motel lounge at a crossroads, where a driver who had given him a ride had let him out before turning in a direction Reacher didn't want to go. The land all around was dark and flat and dead and empty. The motel was the only living thing in sight. It looked like it had been built forty or fifty years earlier in a burst of commercial enthusiasm. Perhaps great possibilities had been anticipated for that location. But clearly the great possibilities had never materialized, or perhaps they had been illusions to begin with. One of the four crossroads lots held the abandoned shell of a gas station. Another had a poured foundation, perhaps for a large store or even a small mall, with nothing ever built on it. One was completely empty.
But the motel had endured. It was an adventurous design. It looked like the drawings Reacher had seen as a kid in boys' comic books, of space colonies set up on the moon or on Mars. The main building was perfectly round, with a domed roof. Beyond it each cabin was a circular domed structure of its own, trailing away from the mothership in a lazy curl, getting smaller as they went to exaggerate the perspective. Family rooms near the office, individual accommodations down the line. All the siding was painted silver, and there were vertical aluminium accents spaced to frame the windows and the doors. Concealed neon lighting in the eaves of the circular roofs cast a ghostly blue glow. The paths all around were made of grey gravel boxed in with timbers that were also painted silver. The pole the motel sign was set on was disguised with painted plywood to look like a space rocket resting on a tripod of slim fins. The motel's name was the Apollo Inn, and it was written in letters that looked like the numbers on the bottom of a bank cheque.
Inside, the main building was mostly an open space, except for a slice boxed off for a back office and what Reacher guessed were two restrooms. There was a curved reception counter and a hundred feet opposite there was a curved bar. The place was basically a lounge, with a pie-shaped parquet dance floor and huddles of red velvet chairs set around cocktail tables equipped with lamps with tasselled shades. The interior of the domed roof was a concave cyclorama washed by red neon. There was plenty more indirect lighting everywhere else, all of it red or pink. There was tinkly piano music playing softly over hidden loudspeakers. The whole place was bizarre, like a 1960s vision of Las Vegas transplanted to outer space.
And the whole place was deserted, apart from one guy at the bar and one guy behind it. Reacher waited at the reception counter and the guy behind the bar hustled over and seemed genuinely surprised when Reacher asked him for a room, as if such requests were rare. But he stepped to it smartly enough and coughed up a key in exchange for thirty dollars in cash. He was more than middle-aged, maybe fifty-five or sixty, not tall, not lean, with a full head of hair dyed a lively russet colour that Reacher was more used to seeing on Frenchwomen of a certain age. He put Reacher's thirty bucks in a drawer and made a fussy notation in a book. Probably the heir of the lunatics who had built the place. Probably worked nowhere else his whole life, probably making ends meet by pulling quintuple duty as manager, desk clerk, barman, handyman and maid. He closed the book and put it in a different drawer and set off back towards the bar.
'Got coffee over there?' Reacher asked him.
The guy turned and said, 'Sure,' with a smile and a measure of satisfaction in his voice, as if an ancient decision to set a Bunn flask going every night had been finally vindicated. Reacher followed him through the neon wash and propped himself on a stool three spaces away from the other customer. The other customer was a man of about forty. He was wearing a thick tweed sports coat with leather patches at the elbows. He had those elbows on the bar, and his hands were curled protectively around a rocks glass full of ice and amber liquid. He was staring down at it with an unfocused gaze. Probably not his first glass of the evening. Maybe not even his third or his fourth. His skin was damp. He looked pretty far gone.
The guy with the dyed hair poured coffee into a china mug decorated with the NASA logo and slid it across the bar with great pride and ceremony. Maybe a priceless antique.
'Cream?' he asked. 'Sugar?'
'Neither,' Reacher said.
'Aiming to turn east as soon as I can. '
'How far east?'
'All the way east,' Reacher said. 'Virginia. '
The guy with the hair nodded sagely. 'Then you'll need to go south first. Until you hit the Interstate. '
'That's the plan,' Reacher said.
'Where did you start out today?'
'North of here,' Reacher said.
'Hitching rides. '
The guy with the hair said nothing more, because there was nothing more to say. Bartenders like to stay cheerful, and there was no cheerful direction for the conversation to go. Hitching a ride on a back road in the dead of winter in the forty-first least densely populated state of America's fifty was not going to be easy, and the guy was too polite to say so. Reacher picked up the mug and tried to hold it steady. A test. The result was not good. Every tendon and ligament and muscle from his fingertips to his ribcage burned and quivered and the microscopic motion in his hand set up small concentric ripples in the coffee. He concentrated hard and brought the mug to his lips, aiming for smoothness, achieving lurching, erratic movement. The drunk guy watched him for a moment and then looked away. The coffee was hot and a little stewed, but it had caffeine in it, which was really all it needed. The drunk guy took a sip from his glass and put it back on its coaster and stared at it miserably. His lips were parted slightly and bubbles of moisture were forming in their corners. He sipped again. Reacher sipped again, slower. Nobody spoke. The drunk guy finished up and got a refill. Jim Beam. Bourbon, at least a triple. Reacher's arm started to feel a little better. Coffee, good for what ails you.
Then the phone rang.
Actually, two phones rang. One number, two instruments, one over on the reception desk, the other on a shelf behind the bar. Quintuple duty. The guy with the hair couldn't be everywhere at once. He picked up and said, 'This is the Apollo Inn,' just as proudly and brightly and enthusiastically as if it was the establishment's first-ever call on opening night. Then he listened for a spell and pressed the mouthpiece to his chest and said, 'Doctor, it's for you. '
Automatically Reacher glanced backward, looking for a doctor. No one there. Beside him the drunk guy said, 'Who is it?'
The bartender said, 'It's Mrs Duncan. '
The drunk guy said, 'What's her problem?'
'Her nose is bleeding. Won't stop. '
The drunk guy said, 'Tell her you haven't seen me. '
The guy with the hair relayed the lie and put the phone down. The drunk guy slumped and his face dropped almost level with the rim of his glass.
'You're a doctor?' Reacher asked him.
'What do you care?'
'Is Mrs Duncan your patient?'
'And you're blowing her off?'
'What are you, the ethics board? It's a nosebleed. '
'That won't stop. Could be serious. '
'She's thirty-three years old and healthy. No history of hypertension or blood disorders. She's not a drug user. No
reason to get alarmed. ' The guy picked up his glass. A gulp, a swallow, a gulp, a swallow.
Reacher asked, 'Is she married?'
'What, marriage causes nosebleeds now?'
'Sometimes,' Reacher said. 'I was a military cop. Sometimes we would get called off-post, or to the married quarters. Women who get hit a lot take a lot of aspirin, because of the pain. But aspirin thins the blood, so the next time they get hit, they don't stop bleeding. '
The drunk guy said nothing.
The barman looked away.
Reacher said, 'What? This happens a lot?'
The drunk guy said, 'It's a nosebleed. '
Reacher said, 'You're afraid of getting in the middle of a domestic dispute?'
No one spoke.
'There could be other injuries,' Reacher said. 'Maybe less visible. She's your patient. '
No one spoke.
Reacher said, 'Bleeding from the nose is the same as bleeding from anyplace else. If it doesn't stop, she's going to pass out. Like a knife wound. You wouldn't leave her sitting there with a knife wound, would you?'
No one spoke.
'Whatever,' Reacher said. 'Not my business. And you'd be no good anyway. You're not even fit to drive out there, wherever she is. But you should call someone. '
The drunk guy said, 'There isn't anyone. There's an emergency room sixty miles away. But they're not going to send an ambulance sixty miles for a nosebleed. '
Reacher took another sip of coffee. The drunk guy left his glass alone. He said, 'Sure, I would have a problem driving. But I'd be OK when I got there. I'm a good doctor. '
'Then I'd hate to see a bad one,' Reacher said.
'I know what's wrong with you, for instance. Physically, I mean. Mentally, I can't comment. '
'Don't push it, pal. '
Reacher said nothing.
'It's a nosebleed,' the doctor said again.
'How would you treat it?' Reacher asked.
'A little local anaesthetic. Pack the nasal cavities with gauze. The pressure would stop the bleeding, aspirin or no aspirin. '
Reacher nodded. He'd seen it done that way before, in the army. He said, 'So let's go, doctor. I'll drive. '
THE DOCTOR WAS UNSTEADY ON HIS FEET. HE DID THE USUAL drunk-guy thing of walking across a flat floor and making it look like he was walking up a hill. But he got out to the lot OK and then the cold air hit him and he got some temporary focus. Enough to find his car keys, anyway. He patted one pocket after another and eventually came out with a big bunch on a worn leather fob that had Duncan Transportation printed on it in flaking gold.
'Same Duncan?' Reacher asked.
The guy said, 'There's only one Duncan family in this county. '
'You treat all of them?'
'Only the daughter-in-law. The son goes to Denver. The father and the uncles treat themselves with roots and berries, for all I know. '
The car was a Subaru wagon. It was the only vehicle in the lot. It was reasonably new and reasonably clean. Reacher found the remote on the fob and clicked it open. The doctor made a big show of heading for the driver's door and then ruefully changing direction. Reacher got in and racked the seat back and started the engine and found the lights.
'Head south,' the doctor said.
'Try not to breathe on me,' he said. 'Or the patient. '
He put his hands on the wheel the same way a person might manoeuvre two baseball gloves on the end of two long sticks. When they got there he clamped his fingers and held on tight, to relieve the pressure on his shoulders. He eased out of the lot and turned south. It was full dark. Nothing to see, but he knew the land was flat and infinite all around.
'What grows here?' he asked, just to keep the doctor awake.
'Corn, of course,' the guy said. 'Corn and more corn. Lots and lots of corn. More corn than a sane man ever wants to see. '
'From Idaho originally. '
'Better than corn. '
'So what brought you to Nebraska?'
'My wife,' the guy said. 'Born and raised right here. '
They were quiet for a moment, and then Reacher asked, 'What's wrong with me?'
The doctor said, 'What?'
'You claimed you knew what's wrong with me. Physically, at least. So let's hear it. '
'What is this, an audition?'
'Don't pretend you don't need one. '
'Go to hell. I'm functioning. '
'Prove it. '
'I know what you did,' the guy said. 'I don't know how. '
'What did I do?'
'You strained everything from your flexor digiti minimi brevis to your quadratus lumborum, both sides of your body, just about symmetrically. '
'Try English, not Latin. '
'You damaged every muscle, tendon and ligament associated with moving your arms, all the way from your little fingers to the anchor on your twelfth rib. You've got pain and discomfort and your fine motor control is screwed up because every system is barking. '
'You'll heal. '
'A few days. Maybe a week. You could try aspirin. '
Reacher drove on. He cracked his window an inch, to suck out the bourbon fumes. They passed a small cluster of three large homes, set close together a hundred yards off the two-lane road at the end of a long shared driveway. They were all hemmed in together by a post-and-rail fence. They were old places, once fine, still sturdy, now maybe a little neglected. The doctor turned his head and took a long hard look at them, and then he faced front again.
'How did you do it?' he asked.
'Do what?' Reacher said.
'How did you hurt your arms?'
'You're the doctor,' Reacher said. 'You tell me. '
'I've seen the same kind of symptoms twice before. I volunteered in Florida after one of the hurricanes. A few years ago. I'm not such a bad guy. '
'People who get caught outside in a hundred-mile-an-hour wind either get bowled along the street, or they catch on to a cyclone fence and try to haul themselves to safety. Like dragging their own bodyweight against the resistance of a gale. Unbelievable stress. That's how the injuries happen. But yours aren't more than a couple of days old, judging by the way you look. And you said you came in from the north. No hurricanes north of here. And it's the wrong season for hurricanes, anyway. I bet there wasn't a hurricane anywhere in the world this week. Not a single one. So I don't know how you hurt yourself. But I wish you well for a speedy recovery. I really do. '
Reacher said nothing.
The doctor said, 'Left at the next crossroads. '
* * *
They got to the Duncan house five minutes later. It had exterior lighting, including a pair of spots angled up at a white mailbox, one from each side. The mailbox had Duncan written on it. The house itself looked like a restored farmhouse. It was modest in terms of size but immaculate in terms of condition. There was a front lawn of hibernating grass with an antique horse buggy parked on it. Tall spoked wheels, long empty shafts. There was a long straight driveway leading to an outbuilding big enough to have been a working barn back when work was done around the place. Now it was a garage. It had three sets of doors. One set was standing open, as if someone had left in a hurry.
Reacher stopped the car level with a path that led to the front door.
'Show time, doctor,' he said. 'If she's still here. '
'She will be,' the guy said.
'So let's go. '
They got out of the car.