Echo Burning Chapter 17

When the storm moved north the driver knew his partners weren't coming back. It was a sensation so strong it took on the weight of absolute fact. It was like the rain had left a void behind that would never be filled. He turned in his chair and stared at the motel room door. Sat like that for minutes. Then he stood up and walked over and opened it. Looked out into the parking lot, focusing left, focusing right. The blacktop was streaming with water. The air smelled sharp and clean.

He stepped outside and walked ten paces in the dark. There was a running gutter somewhere and the gurgle of street drains and loud dripping from the trees. But nothing else. Nothing else at all. Nobody was coming. Nobody was ever going to come again. He knew it. He turned around. Wet grit slid under his shoes. He walked back. Stepped inside the room and closed the door gently behind him. Looked over at the bed. Looked at the sleeping child in it.

* * *

’’You drive,’’ he called. ’’North, O.K.?’’

He pushed her toward the driver's door and ran around the hood. She pulled her seat forward and he racked his backward. Unfolded the maps on his knees. To his left the Red House was burning fiercely. All the windows were bright with flame. Both floors now. The maid ran out of the kitchen door, wrapped in a bathrobe. The light of the fire caught her face. There was no expression on it.

’’O.K., let's go,’’ he said.

She slammed the selector into Drive and gunned the motor. The transfer case was still locked in four-wheel drive and all four tires spun and scattered wet stones and the car took off. She slewed past Walker's Lincoln. Made the right under the gate without pausing. Accelerated hard. He turned his head and saw the first flames appear at the eaves of the roof. They licked outward and paused and ran horizontally, searching for sustenance. Steam was pouring off the soaked shingles and mixing with smoke. Rusty and Bobby and the maid were watching it drift, hypnotized. He glanced away and didn't look back again. Just stared ahead and then riffed through the maps on his knees and found the large-scale sheet showing Pecos County in its entirety. Then he reached up and clicked the dome light on.

’’Faster,’’ he said. ’’I've got a real bad feeling about this.’’

* * *

The four hours were long gone, but he waited anyway. He felt a certain reluctance. How could he not? He wasn't a monster. He would do what he had to do, for sure, but he wasn't going to enjoy it, exactly.

He walked over and opened the door again and hung the Do Not Disturb tag on the outside handle. Closed the door and locked it from the inside. He appreciated the locks motels put on their doors. A big lever to turn on the inside, a satisfying heavy click, smooth and oily, no corresponding catch on the outside. It helped. Absolute undisturbed security was a useful thing. He slipped the chain on and started into the room.

* * *

Alice drove as fast as she dared. The Jeep wasn't a great road vehicle. It rolled too much and rocked violently from side to side. The steering was vague. It required constant correction. It was a problem. But Reacher ignored it and just held the map high, where it caught the light from the roof console. He stared hard at it and checked the scale and held his finger and thumb apart like a little compass and traced a circle.

’’You done any tourist stuff around here?’’ he asked.

She nodded at the wheel. ’’Some, I guess. I went to the McDonald Observatory. It was great.’’

He checked the map. The McDonald Observatory was southwest of Pecos, high up in the Davis Mountains.

’’That's eighty miles,’’ he said. ’’Too far.’’

’’For what?’’

’’For them to have been today. I think they'll have been a half hour from Pecos by road, max. Twenty-five miles, thirty tops.’’

’’Why?’’

’’To be close to Walker. He might have planned on smuggling Carmen out, if necessary. Or maybe bringing Ellie in to see her. Whatever it took to convince her that the threat was real. So I think they'll have holed up somewhere nearby.’’

’’And near a tourist attraction?’’

’’Definitely,’’ he said. ’’That's key.’’

’’Can this work?’’ she asked. ’’Finding the right place in your head?’’

’’It's worked for me before.’’

’’How many times? As a percentage?’’

He ignored the question. Went back to the map. She gripped the wheel and drove. Dropped her eyes to the speedometer.

’’Oh GW,’’ she whispered.

He didn't look up. ’’What?’’

’’We're out of gas. It's right on empty. The warning light is on.’’

He was quiet for a second.

’’Keep going,’’ he said. ’’We'll be O.K.’’

She kept her foot hard down.

’’How? You think the gauge is broken?’’

He looked up. Glanced ahead.

’’Just keep going,’’ he said.

’’We're going to run out,’’ she said.

’’Don't worry,’’ he said.

She drove on. The car rocked hard. The headlights bounced ahead of them. The tires whined on the streaming blacktop. She glanced down again.

’’It's right on empty, Reacher,’’ she said. ’’Below empty.’’

’’Don't worry,’’ he said again.

’’Why not?’’

’’You'll see.’’

He kept his eyes on the windshield. She drove on, as fast as the Jeep would go. The engine was growling loud. A gruff old straight-six, drinking gasoline at the rate of a pint every minute.

’’Use two-wheel drive,’’ he said. ’’More economical.’’

She wrestled with the drivetrain lever and wrenched it forward. The front end of the car went quiet. The steering stopped fighting her. She drove on. Another half mile. Then a mile. She glanced down at the dash again.

’’We're running on fumes,’’ she said.

’’Don't worry,’’ he said for the third time.

Another mile. The engine stumbled and coughed once and ran ragged for a second and then picked up again. Air in the fuel line, he thought, or sludge dredged up from the bottom of the tank.

’’Reacher, we're out of gas, ’’Alice said.

’’Don't worry about it.’’

’’Why not?’’

Another mile.

’’That's why not,’’ he said suddenly.

The right edge of the headlight beam washed over the ragged gravel shoulder and lit up a steel-blue Ford Crown Victoria. It had four VHP antennas on the back and no wheel covers. It was just sitting there, inert and abandoned, facing north.

’’We'll use that,’’ he said. ’’It'll have most of a tank. They were well organized.’’

She braked hard and pulled in behind it. ’’This is theirs? Why is it here?’’

’’Walker left it here.’’

’’How did you know?’’

’’It's pretty obvious. They came down from Pecos in two cars, this and the Lincoln. They dumped the Lincoln here and used the Ford the rest of the way. Then Walker ran away from the mesa, put the pick-up back in the barn, drove the Ford back up here, retrieved his Lincoln and came back down in it for our benefit. To make us think it was his first visit, if we happened to be still alive and looking.’’

’’What about the keys?’’

’’They'll be in it. Walker wasn't in the right frame of mind to worry about Hertz losing a rental car.’’

Alice jumped out and checked. Gave a thumbs-up. The keys were in it. Reacher followed her with the maps. They left the Greers'Jeep with the doors standing open and the motor idling through the last of its gas. They got into the Crown Vic and he racked his seat back and she pulled hers forward. She fired it up and they were on the road again within thirty seconds, already doing sixty miles an hour.

’’It's three quarters full,’’ she said. ’’And it drives much better.’’

He nodded. It felt low and fast and smooth. Exactly like a big sedan should.

’’I'm sitting where Al Eugene sat,’’ he said.

She glanced at him. He smiled.

’’Go faster,’’ he said. ’’Nobody will stop you. We look just like a squad car.’’

She accelerated to seventy-five, then eighty. He found the dome light and clicked it on and returned to the maps.

’’O.K., where were we?’’ he said.

’’The McDonald Observatory,’’ she said. ’’You didn't like it.’’

He nodded. ’’It was too far out.’’

He tilted the map to catch the light. Stared hard at it. Concentrate, Reacher. Make it work. If you can.

’’What's at Balmorhea State Recreation Area?’’ he asked. It was still southwest of Pecos, but only thirty miles out. The right sort of distance.

’’It's a desert oasis,’’ she said. ’’Like a huge lake, very clear. You can swim and scuba dive there.’’

But not the right sort of place.

’’I don't think so,’’ he said.

He checked northeast, up to thirty miles out.

’’What about Monahans Sandhills?’’

’’Four thousand acres of sand dunes. Looks like the Sahara.’’

’’That's it? And people go there?’’

’’It's very impressive.’’

He went quiet and checked the map all over again.

’’What about Fort Stockton?’’ he asked.

’’It's just a town,’’ she said. ’’No different than Pecos, really.’’ Then she glanced across at him. ’’But Old Fort Stockton is worth seeing, I guess.’’

He looked at the map. Old Fort Stockton was marked as a historic ruin, north of the town itself. Nearer Pecos. He measured the distance. Maybe forty-five miles.

Possible.

’’What is it exactly?’’ he asked.

’’Heritage site,’’ she said. ’’An old military fort. The Buffalo Soldiers were there. Confederates had torn the place down. The Buffaloes rebuilt it. Eighteen sixty-seven, I think.’’

He checked again. The ruins were southeast of Pecos, accessible from Route 285, which looked like a decent road. Probably a fast road. Probably a typical road. He closed his eyes. Alice raced on. The Crown Vic was very quiet. It was warm and comfortable. He wanted to go to sleep. He was very tired. Wet spray from the tires hissed against the underside.

’’I like the Old Fort Stockton area,’’ he said.

’’You think they were there?’’

He was quiet again, another whole mile.

’’Not there, ’’he said. ’’But nearby. Think about it, from their point of view.’’

’’I can't,’’ she said. ’’I'm not like them.’’

’’So pretend,’’ he said. ’’What were they?’’

’’I don't know.’’

’’They were professionals. Quiet and unobtrusive. Like chameleons. Instinctively good at camouflage. Good at not being noticed. Put yourself in their shoes, Alice.’’

’’I can't,’’ she said again.

’’Think like them. Imagine. Get into it. Who are they? I saw them and thought they were a sales team. Rusty Greer thought they were social workers. Apparently Al Eugene thought they were FBI agents. So think like them. Be them. Your strength is you look very normal and very ordinary. You're white, and you look very middle-class, and you've got this Crown Victoria, which when it's not all tricked up with radio antennas looks like an ordinary family sedan. The FBI con helped, but basically you looked harmless enough that Al Eugene felt safe to stop for you, but also somehow commanding enough that he also had to. Wanted to. So you're ordinary, but you're respectable and plausible. And businesslike.’’

’’O.K.’’

’’But now you've got a kid with you. So what are you now?’’

’’What?’’

’’Now you're a normal, ordinary, respectable, plausible middle-class family.’’

’’But there were three of them.’’

He was quiet a beat. Kept his eyes closed.

’’One of the men was an uncle,’’ he said. ’’You're a middle-class family, on vacation together in your sedan. But you're not a loud Disneyland type of family. You're not in shorts and brightly colored T-shirts. You look quiet, maybe a little earnest. Maybe a little nerdy. Or maybe a little studious. Maybe you look like a school principal's family. Or an accountant's. You're obviously from out of state, so you're traveling. Where to? Ask yourself the same question they must have asked themselves. Where will you blend in? Where's the safest place around here? Where would an earnest, studious, middle-class family go, with their six-and-a-half-year-old daughter? Where's a proper, enlightening, educational kind of a place to take her? Even though she's way too young and doesn't care? Even though people laugh behind your back at how politically correct and cloyingly diligent you are?’’

’’Old Fort Stockton,’’ Alice said.

’’Exactly. You show the kid the glorious history of the African-American soldiers, even though you'd have a heart attack if she grew up and wanted to date one. But you're driving a Ford, not a BMW or a Cadillac. You're sensible. Which means not rich, basically. Careful about your expenditure. You resent overpaying for something. Motels, just as much as cars. So you drive in from the north and you stay at a place far enough out to be reasonable. Not the dumps in the middle of nowhere. But on the first distant fringes of the Fort Stockton tourist area. Where the value is good.’’

He opened his eyes.

’’That's where you would stay, Alice,’’ he said.

’’It is?’’

He nodded. ’’A place where they get plenty of earnest, striving, not-rich middle-class families on vacation. The sort of place that gets recommended in boring AAA magazines. A place where you fit right in. A place with lots of people exactly like you. A place where you won't stand out in anybody's memory for a second. And a place where you're only thirty, thirty-five minutes from Pecos by a fast road.’’

Alice shrugged and nodded all at the same time.

’’Good theory, I guess,’’ she said. ’’Good logic. Question is, were they following the same logic?’’

’’I hope so,’’ Reacher said. ’’Because we don't have time for a big search. I don't think we have much time for anything. I'm getting a bad feeling. I think she's in real danger now.’’

Alice said nothing.

’’Maybe the others were supposed to call in regularly,’’ he said. ’’Maybe this third guy is about to panic.’’

’’So it's a hell of a gamble.’’

He said nothing.

’’Do the math,’’ she said. ’’A forty-five-mile radius gives you a circle over six thousand square miles in area. And you want to pick one tiny pinpoint out of it?’’ He was quiet again, another mile.

Roll the dice, Reacher.

’’I think they were pretty smart and careful,’’ he said. ’’And their priorities were pretty obvious. They were looking at the same maps we are. So I think that's how they'd have done it.’’

’’But are you sure?’’

He shrugged.

’’Can't ever be sure,’’ he said. ’’But that's how I'd have done it. That's the trick, Alice. Think like them. Never fails.’’

’’Never?’’

He shrugged. ’’Sometimes.’’

The sleeping crossroads hamlet was dead ahead. The school, the gas station, the diner. Pecos straight on, Old Fort Stockton to the right.

’’Well?’’ she asked.

He said nothing.

’’Well?’’ she asked again.

He stared through the windshield.

’’Decision?’’ she said.

He said nothing. She braked hard and skidded a yard on the soaked road and came to a complete halt right on the melted stop line.

’’Well?’’

Roll the damn dice, Reacher.

’’Make the turn,’’ he said.

* * *

The driver decided to take a shower first. An excusable delay. He had time. The room was locked. The child was fast asleep. He stripped off his clothes and folded them neatly and placed them on his chair. Stepped into the bathroom. Pulled the shower curtain and set the water running.

Then he unwrapped a new bar of soap. He liked motel soaps. He liked the crisp paper packets, and the smell when you opened them. It bloomed out at you, clean and strong. He sniffed the shampoo. It was in a tiny plastic bottle. It smelled of strawberries. He read the label. Conditioning Shampoo, it said. He leaned in and placed the soap in the porcelain receptacle and balanced the shampoo on the rim of the tub. Pushed the curtain aside with his forearm and stepped into the torrent.

* * *

The road northeast out of Echo was narrow and winding and clung to a hilly ridge that followed the course of the Coyanosa Draw. Now the big Ford was no longer ideal. It felt oversized and soft and ungainly. The blacktop was running with water flowing right to left across its surface. Heavy rills were pushing mud and grit over it in fan-shaped patterns. Alice was struggling to maintain forty miles an hour. She wasn't talking. Just hauling the wallowing sedan around an endless series of bends and looking pale under her tan. Like she was cold.

’’You O.K.?’’ he asked.

’’Are you?’’ she asked back.

’’Why wouldn't I be?’’

’’You just killed two people. Then saw a third die and a house burn down.’’

He glanced away. Civilians.

’’Water under the bridge,’’ he said. ’’No use dwelling on it now.’’

’’That's a hell of an answer.’’

’’Why?’’

’’Doesn't stuff like that affect you at all?’’

’’I'm sorry I didn't get to ask them any questions.’’

’’Is that all you're sorry for?’’

He was quiet for a second.

’’Tell me about that house you're renting,’’ he said.

’’What's that got to do with anything?’’

’’My guess is it's a short-term kind of a place, people in and out all the time, not very well maintained. My guess is it was kind of dirty when you moved in.’’

’’So?’’

’’Am I right?’’

She nodded at the wheel. ’’I spent the first week cleaning.’’

’’Grease on the stove, sticky floors?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Bugs in the closets?’’ She nodded again. ’’Roaches in the kitchen?’’

’’A colony,’’ she said. ’’Big ones.’’

’’And you got rid of them?’’

’’Of course I did.’’

’’How?’’

’’Poison.’’

’’So tell me how you felt about that.’’

She glanced sideways. ’’You comparing those people to cockroaches?’’

He shook his head. ’’Not really. I like cockroaches better. They're just little packets of DNA scuttling around, doing what they have to do. Walker and his buddies didn't have to do what they did. They had a choice. They could have been upstanding human beings. But they chose not to be. Then they chose to mess with me, which was the final straw, and they got what they got. So I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. I'm not even going to give it another thought. And if you do, I think you're wrong.’’

She was quiet for another twisting mile.

’’You're a hard man, Reacher,’’ she said.

He was quiet in turn.

’’I think I'm a realistic man,’’ he said. ’’And a decent enough guy, all told.’’

’’You may find normal people don't agree.’’

He nodded.

’’A lot of you don't,’’ he said.

* * *

He stood in the warm water long enough to soak all over, and then he started on his hair. He lathered the shampoo into a rich halo and worked on his scalp with his fingertips. Then he rinsed his hands and soaped his face, his neck, behind his ears. He closed his eyes and let the water sluice down over his body. Used more shampoo on his chest where the hair was thick. Attended to his underarms and his back and his legs.

Then he washed his hands and his forearms very thoroughly and carefully, like he was a surgeon preparing for a procedure.

* * *

’’How far now?’’ Alice asked.

Reacher calculated from the map.

’’Twenty-five miles,’’ he said. ’’We cross I-10 and head north on 285 toward Pecos.’’

’’But the ruins are on the other road. The one up to Monahans.’’

’’Trust me, Alice. They stayed on 285. They wanted access.’’

She said nothing.

’’We need a plan,’’ Reacher said.

’’For taking this guy?’’ she said. ’’I wouldn't have a clue.’’

’’No, for later. For getting Carmen back.’’

’’You're awfully confident.’’

’’No point going in expecting to lose.’’

She braked hard for a corner and the front end washed wide. Then the road straightened for a hundred yards and she accelerated like she was grateful for it.

’’Habeas corpus,’’ she said. ’’We'll go to a federal judge and enter an emergency motion. Tell the whole story.’’

’’Will that work?’’

’’It's exactly what habeas corpus is for. It's been working for eight hundred years. No reason it won't work this time.’’

’’O.K.,’’ he said.

’’One thing, though.’’

’’What?’’

’’We'll need testimony. So you'll have to keep this one alive. If that's not too much to ask.’’

* * *

He finished washing and just stood there in the warm stream of water. He let it flow over his body. He had a new thought in his head. He would need money. The others weren't coming back. The killing crew was history. He knew that. He was unemployed again. And he was unhappy about that. He wasn't a leader. He wasn't good at going out and creating things for himself. Teamwork had suited him just fine. Now he was back on his own. He had some money stashed under his mattress at home, but it wasn't a whole lot. He'd need more, and he'd need it pretty damn soon.

He turned around in the stall and tilted his head back and let the water wash his hair flat against his scalp. So maybe he should take the kid with him back to L.A. Sell her there. He knew people. People who facilitated adoptions, or facilitated other stuff he wouldn't want to inquire too closely about. She was what? Six and a half? And white? Worth a lot of money to somebody, especially with all that fair hair. Blue eyes would have added an extra couple of grand, but whatever, she was a cute little package as she was. She might fetch a decent price, from people he knew.

But how to get her there? The Crown Vic was gone, but he could rent another car. Not like he hadn't done that plenty of times before. He could call Pecos or Fort Stockton and get one brought down, first thing in the morning. He had no end of phony paperwork. But that would mean some delivery driver would see his face. And the kid's. No, he could hide her in the woman's empty room and bring the rental guy into his. But it was still a risk.

Or, he could steal a car. Not like he hadn't done that before, either, long ago, in his youth. He could steal one right out of the motel parking lot. He eased the shower curtain aside and leaned out for a second and checked his watch, which was resting on the vanity. Four-thirty in the morning. They could be on the road by five. Two hours minimum before some citizen came out of his room and found his car gone. They would be a hundred miles away by then. And he had spare plates. The California issue from the original LAX rental, and the Texas issue that had come off the Crown Vic.

He got back under the shower and straightened the curtain again. His decision was made. If there was a white sedan out there, he would take it. Sedans were the most common shape in the Southwest, and white was the most common color, because of the sun. And he could keep the kid in the trunk. No problem. A Corolla would be best, maybe a couple of years old. Very generic. Easily confused with a Geo Prizm or a dozen other cheap imports. Even traffic cops had a hard time recognizing Corollas. He could drive it all the way home. He could sell it too, as well as the kid, make a little more money. He nodded to himself. Smiled and raised his arms to rinse again.

* * *

Ten miles south and west of Fort Stockton itself, the road curved to the right and switchbacked over the top of the ridge, then fell away down the far slope and ran parallel to the Big Canyon Draw for a spell. Then it leveled out and speared straight for the I-10 interchange which was represented on the map like a spider, with eight roads all coming together in one place. The northwest leg was Route 285 to Pecos, which showed up on paper as a ninety-degree left turn. Then there were maybe twenty miles of it between the Fort Stockton city limit and a highway bridge that recrossed the Coyanosa Draw.

’’That's the target area,’’ Reacher said. ’’Somewhere in those twenty miles. We'll drive north to the bridge and turn around and come back south. See it like they saw it.’’

Alice nodded silently and accelerated down the slope. The tires pattered on the rough surface and the big soft car pitched and rolled.

* * *

She woke up because of the noise of the shower. It drummed against the tiles on the other side of the wall and sounded a little like rain coming down on the roof again. She pulled the sheet over her head and then pulled it back down. Watched the window. There was no lightning anymore. She listened hard. She couldn't hear any more thunder. Then she recognized the sound for what it was. The shower was running. In the bathroom. It was louder than hers at home, but quieter than her mom's.

The man was in the shower.

She pushed the sheet down to her waist. Struggled upright and sat there. There were no lights on in the room, but the drapes weren't drawn and a yellow glow was coming in from outside. It was wet out there. She could see raindrops on the window and reflections.

The room was empty.

Of course it is, silly, she said to herself. The man is in the shower.

She pushed the sheet down to her ankles. Her clothes were folded on the table by the window. She crept out of the bed and tiptoed over and stretched out her hand and took her underpants from the pile. Stepped into them. Pulled her T-shirt over her head. Threaded her arms through the sleeves. Then she took her shorts and checked they were the right way around and put them on. Pulled the waistband up over her shirt and sat down cross-legged on the floor to buckle her shoes.

The shower was still running.

She stood up and crept past the bathroom door, very quietly, because she was worried about her shoes making noise. She kept on the rug where she could. Stayed away from the linoleum. She stood still and listened.

The shower was still running.

She crept down the little hallway, past the closet, all the way to the door. It was dark back there. She stood still and looked at the door. She could see a handle, and a lever thing, and a chain thing. She thought hard. The handle was a handle, and the lever was probably a lock. She didn't know what the chain thing was for. There was a narrow slot with a wider hole at one end. She imagined the door opening. It would get a little ways and then the chain would stop it.

The shower was still running.

She had to get the chain thing off. It might slide along. Maybe that was what the narrow slot was for. She studied it. It was very high. She stretched up and couldn't really reach it. She stretched up taller and got the flat of her fingertips on it. She could slide it that way. She slid it all the way sideways until the end fell into the hole. But she couldn't pull it out.

The shower was still running.

She put her other hand flat on the door and flipped her toes over until she was right up on the points of her shoes. Stretched until her back started to hurt and picked at the chain with her fingertips. It wouldn't come out. It was hooked in. She came down off her toes and listened.

The shower was still running.

She went back on her toes and kicked and pushed against them until her legs hurt and reached up with both hands. The end of the chain was a little circle. She waggled it. It moved up a little. She let it down again. Pushed it up and picked at it at the same time and it came out. It rattled down and swung and hit the door frame with a noise that sounded very loud. She held her breath and listened.

The shower was still running.

She came down off her toes and tried the lock lever. She put her thumb on one side and her finger on the other and turned it. It wouldn't move at all. She tried it the other way. It moved a little bit. It was very stiff. She closed her mouth in case she was breathing too loud and used both hands and tried harder. It moved some more, like metal rubbing on metal. She strained at it. It hurt her hands. It moved some more. Then it suddenly clicked back all the way.

A big click.

She stood still and listened.

The shower was still running.

She tried the handle. It moved easily. She looked at the door. It was very high and it looked very thick and heavy. It had a thing at the top that would close it automatically behind her. It was made from metal. She had seen those things before. They made a lot of noise. The diner opposite her school had one.

The shower had stopped.

She froze. Stood still, blank with panic. The door will make a noise. He'll hear it. He'll come out. He'll chase me. She whirled around and faced the room.

* * *

The I-10 interchange was a huge concrete construction laid down like a healing scar on the landscape. It was as big as a stadium and beyond it dull orange streetlights in Fort Stockton lit up the thinning clouds. Fort Stockton still had electricity. Better power lines. Alice kept her foot hard down and screamed three quarters of the way around the interchange and launched northwest on 285. She passed the city limit doing ninety. There was a sign: PECOS 48 MILES. Reacher leaned forward, moving his head rapidly side to side, scanning both shoulders of the road at once. Low buildings flashed past. Some of them were motels.

’’This could be entirely the wrong place,’’ Alice said.

’’We'll know soon enough,’’ he replied.

* * *

He turned the water off and rattled the curtain back and stepped out of the tub. Wrapped a towel around his waist and used another to dry his face. Looked at himself in the misty mirror and combed his hair with his fingers. Strapped his watch to his wrist. Dropped both towels on the bathroom floor and took two fresh ones off the little chrome rack. Wrapped one around his waist and draped the other over his shoulder like a toga.

He stepped out of the bathroom. Light spilled out with him. It fell across the room in a broad yellow bar. He stopped dead. Stared at the empty bed.

* * *

Inside three minutes they had passed three motels and Reacher thought all three of them were wrong. It was about guessing and feeling now, about living in a zone where he was blanking out everything except the tiny murmurs from his subconscious mind. Overt analysis would ruin it. He could make a lengthy case for or against any particular place. He could talk himself into paralysis. So he was listening to nothing at all except the quiet whispers from the back of his brain. And they were saying: not that one. No. No.

* * *

He took a dazed involuntary step toward the bed, like seeing it from a different angle might put her back in it. But nothing changed. There was just the rumpled sheet, half pushed down, half pushed aside. The pillow, at an angle, dented with the shape of her head. He turned and checked the window. It was closed tight and locked from the inside. Then he ran to the door. Short desperate steps, dodging furniture all the way. The chain was off. The lock was clicked back.

What?

He eased the handle down. Opened the door. The Do Not Disturb tag was lying on the concrete walk, a foot from the doorway.

She'd gotten out.

He fixed the door so it wouldn't lock behind him and ran out into the night, barefoot, wearing just his towels, one around his waist and the other like a toga. He ran ten paces into the parking lot and stood still. He was panting. Shock, fear, sudden exertion. It was warm again. There was a heavy vegetable stink in the air, wet earth and flowers and leaves. Trees were dripping. He spun a complete circle. Where the hell did she go? Where? A kid that age, she'd have just run for it. As fast as she could. Probably toward the road. He took a single step after her and then whirled around. Back toward the door. He'd need his clothes. Couldn't chase her in a couple of towels.

* * *

The low clumps of buildings petered out three or four miles before they were due to hit the bridge. They just stopped being there. There was just desert. He stared through the windshield into the empty distance and thought of every road he had ever seen and asked himself: are there going to be more buildings up ahead? Or nothing now until we hit the outskirts of Pecos thirty miles away?

’’Turn around,’’ he said.

’’Now?’’

’’We've seen all we're going to see.’’

She hit the brakes and pulled a violent turn, shoulder to shoulder across the road. Fishtailed a little on the wet gravel and straightened and headed back south.

’’Slower now,’’ he said. ’’Now we're them. We're looking at this with their eyes.’’

* * *

Ellie was lying completely still on the high shelf in the closet. She was good at hiding. Everybody said so. She was good at climbing, too, so she liked to hide high up. Like in the horse barn. Her favorite place was high up on top of the straw bales. The closet shelf wasn't as comfortable. It was narrow and there were old dust bunnies up there. A wire coat hanger and a plastic bag with a word on it too long to read. But she could lie down flat and hide. It was a good place, she thought. Difficult to get up to. She had climbed on the smaller shelves at the side. They were like a ladder. Very high. But it was dusty. She might sneeze. She knew she mustn't. Was she high enough? He wasn't a very tall man. She held her breath.

* * *

Alice kept the Speed steady at sixty. The first motel they came back to was on the left side of the road. It had a low tended hedge running a hundred yards to screen the parking lot. There was a center office and two one-story wings of six rooms each. The office was dark. There was a soda machine next to it, glowing red. Five cars in the lot.

’’No,’’ Reacher said. ’’We don't stop at the first place we see. We'd more likely go for the second place.’’

The second place was four hundred yards south.

And it was a possibility.

It was built at right angles to the road. The office was face-on to the highway but the cabins ran away into the distance behind it, which made the lot U-shaped. And concealed. There were planted trees all around it, wet and dripping from the rain.

Possible.

Alice slowed the car to a crawl.

’’Drive through,’’ he said.

She swung into the lot and nosed down the row. It was eight cabins long. Three cars were parked. She swung around the far end and up the other side. Eight more cabins. Another three cars. She paused alongside the office door.

’’Well?’’ she asked.

He shook his head.

’’No,’’ he said.

’’Why not?’’

’’Occupancy ratio is wrong. Sixteen cabins, six cars. I'd need to see eight cars, at least.’’

’’Why?’’

’’They didn't want a place that's practically empty. Too likely to be remembered. They were looking for somewhere around two thirds full, which would be ten or eleven cars for sixteen cabins. They've got two rooms but right now no car at all, so that would be eight or nine cars for sixteen cabins. That's the ratio we need. Two thirds minus two. Approximately.’’

She glanced across at him and shrugged. Eased back to the road and continued south.

* * *

He got a couple of paces toward the door and stopped dead. There was a yellow light off to one side of the lot, casting a low glow over the soaked blacktop. It showed him his footsteps. They were a line of curious fluid imprints blotted into the dampness. He could see his heels and his toes and his arches. Mostly toes, because he'd been running. The prints were filmy and wet. They weren't about to dry up and disappear anytime soon. But he couldn't see her footprints.

There was just one set of tracks, and they were his. No doubt about it. She hadn't come out. Not unless she could levitate herself and fly. Which was impossible. He smiled.

She was hiding in the room.

He ran the final eight steps and ducked back inside. Closed the door gently and fastened the chain and clicked the lock.

’’Come on out,’’ he called softly.

There was no response, but he hadn't really expected one.

’’I'm coming to get you,’’ he called.

He started by the window, where there was an upholstered chair across the corner of the room with a space behind it large enough for a kid to hide. But she wasn't there. He got on his knees and bent down and looked under the beds. Not there, either.

’’Hey, kid,’’ he called. ’’Enough already.’’

There was a shared bedside cabinet with a little door. She wasn't in there. He straightened up and adjusted his towels. She wasn't in the bathroom, he knew that. So where was she? He looked around the room. The closet. Of course. He smiled to himself and danced over.

’’Here I come, honey,’’ he called.

He slid the doors and checked the floor. There was a folded valise rack and nothing else. There was a set of vertical shelves on the right, nothing in them. A high shelf above, running the whole width of the space. He stretched tall and checked it out. Nothing there. Just dust bunnies and an old wire coat hanger and a plastic bag from a grocery called Subrahamian's in Cleveland.

He turned around, temporarily defeated.

* * *

The third motel had a painted sign. No neon. Just a board hung from a gallows with chains. It was carefully lettered in a script so fancy Reacher wasn't sure what it said. SOMETHING CANYON, maybe, with old-fashioned spelling, canon, like Spanish. The letters were shadowed in gold.

’’I like this,’’ he said. ’’Very tasteful.’’

’’Go in?’’ Alice asked.

’’You bet.’’

There was a little entrance road through twenty yards of garden. The plantings were sad and scorched by the heat, but they were an attempt at something.

’’I like this,’’ he said again.

It was the same shape as the last place. An office first, with a U-shaped parking lot snaking around two back-to-back rows of cabins set at ninety degrees to the road. Alice drove the complete circle. Ten cabins to a row, twenty in total, twelve cars parked neatly next to twelve random doors. Two Chevrolets, three Hondas, two Toyotas, two Buicks, an old Saab, an old Audi, and a five-year-old Ford Explorer.

’’Two thirds minus two,’’ Reacher said.

’’Is this the place?’’ Alice asked.

He said nothing. She stopped next to the office.

’’Well?’’

He said nothing. Just opened the door and slid out. The heat was coming back. It was full of the smell of soaked earth. He could hear drains running and gutters dripping. The office was dark and full of shadows. The door was locked. There was a neat brass button for the night bell. He leaned his thumb on it and peered in through the window.

There was no soda machine. Just a neat counter and a large rack full of flyers. He couldn't make out what they referred to. Too dark. He kept his thumb on the bell. A light came on in a doorway in back of the office and a man stepped out. He was running his hand through his hair. Reacher took the Echo County deputy's star out of his pocket and clicked it flat against the glass. The man turned the office light on and walked to the door and undid the lock. Reacher stepped inside and walked past him. The flyers in the rack covered all the tourist attractions within a hundred miles. Old Fort Stockton featured prominently. There was something about a meteor crater at Odessa. All worthy stuff. Nothing about rodeos or gun shows or real estate. He waved to Alice. Gestured her in after him.

’’This is the place,’’ he said.

’’Is it?’’

He nodded. ’’Looks right to me.’’

’’You cops?’’ the office guy asked, looking out at the car.

’’I need to see your register,’’ Reacher said. ’’For tonight's guests.’’

* * *

It was impossible. Totally impossible. She wasn't outside, she wasn't inside. He ran his eyes over the room again. The beds, the furniture, the closet. Nothing doing. She wasn't in the bathroom, because he had been in the bathroom.

Unless...

Unless she had been under the bed or in the closet and then had ducked into the bathroom while he was outside. He stepped over and opened the bathroom door. Smiled at himself in the mirror. The mist had cleared off it. He pulled back the shower curtain in one dramatic sweeping move.

’’There you are,’’ he said.

She was pressed up into the corner of the tub, standing straight, wearing a T-shirt and shorts and shoes. The back of her right hand was jammed in her mouth. Her eyes were wide open. They were dark and huge.

’’I changed my mind,’’ he said. ’’I was going to take you with me.’’

She said nothing. Just watched him. He reached out to her. She shrank back. Took the hand away from her mouth.

’’It's not been four hours,’’ she said.

’’Yes, it has,’’ he said. ’’Way more than four.’’

She put her knuckles back in her mouth. He reached out again. She shrank away. What had her mommy told her to do? If you're worried about something, just scream and scream. She took a deep breath and tried. But no sound would come out. Her throat was too dry.

* * *

’’The register,’’ Reacher said again.

The office guy hesitated like there were procedures involved. Reacher checked his watch and pulled the Heckler &Koch from his pocket, all in one simple movement.

’’Right now,’’ he said. ’’We don't have time to mess around.’’

The guy's eyes went wide and he ducked around the counter and reversed a big leather ledger. Pushed it toward the near edge. Reacher and Alice crowded together to look at it.

’’What names?’’ she asked.

’’No idea,’’ he said. ’’Just look at the cars.’’

There were five columns to a page. Date, name, home address, vehicle make, date of departure. There were twenty lines, for twenty cabins. Sixteen were occupied. Seven of them had arrows originating on the previous page, indicating guests who were staying a second or subsequent night. Nine cabins held new arrivals. Eleven cabins had a vehicle make entered directly against them. Four cabins were marked in two pairs of two, each sharing a vehicle.

’’Families,’’ the night clerk said. ’’Or large parties.’’

’’Did you check them in?’’ Reacher asked.

The guy shook his head.

’’I'm the night man,’’ he said. ’’I'm not here until midnight.’’

Reacher stared at the page. Went very still. Looked away.

’’What?’’ Alice said.

’’This isn't the right place. This is the wrong place. I blew it.’’

’’Why?’’

’’Look at the cars,’’ he said.

He ran the gun muzzle down the fourth column. Three Chevrolets, three Hondas, two Toyotas, two Buicks, one Saab, one Audi. And one Ford.

’’Should be two Fords,’’ he said. ’’Their Crown Vic and the Explorer that's already parked out there.’’

’’Shit,’’ she said.

He nodded. Shit. He went completely blank. If this wasn't the right place, he had absolutely no idea what was. He had staked everything on it. He had no plan B. He glanced at the register. Ford. Pictured the old Explorer sitting out there, square and dull. Then he glanced back at the register again.

The handwriting was all the same.

’’Who fills this out?’’ he asked.

’’The owner,’’ the clerk said. ’’She does everything the old-fashioned way.’’

He closed his eyes. Retraced in his mind Alice's slow circle around the lot. Thought back to all the old-fashioned motels he'd used in his life.

’’O.K.,’’ he said. ’’The guest tells her the name and the address, she writes it down. Then maybe she just glances out of the window and writes down the vehicle make for herself. Maybe if the guests are talking or busy getting their money out.’’

’’Maybe. I'm the night man. I'm never here for that.’’

’’She's not really into automobiles, is she?’’

’’I wouldn't know. Why?’’

’’Because there are three Chevrolets in the book and only two in the lot. I think she put the Explorer down as a Chevy. It's an old model. Kind of angular. Maybe she confused it with an old-model Blazer or something.’’

He touched the gun muzzle to the word Ford.

’’That's the Crown Vic,’’ he said. ’’That's them.’’

’’You think?’’ Alice said.

’’I know. I can feel it.’’

They had taken two rooms, not adjacent, but in the same wing. Rooms five and eight.

’’O.K.,’’ he said again. ’’I'm going to take a look.’’

He pointed to the night guy. ’’You stay here and keep quiet.’’

Then he pointed to Alice. ’’You call the state police and start doing your thing with the federal judge, O.K.?’’

’’You need a key?’’ the night clerk asked.

’’No,’’ Reacher said. ’’I don't need a key.’’ Then he walked out into the damp warmth of the night.

* * *

The right-hand TOW of cabins started with number one. There was a concrete walkway leading past each door. He moved quickly and quietly along it and his shoes left damp prints all the way. There was nothing to see except doors. They came at regular intervals. No windows. The windows would be at the back. These were standard-issue motel rooms, like he had seen a million times before, no doubt about it. Standard layout, with a door, a short hallway, closet on one side and bathroom on the other, the hallway opening out into a room occupying the full width of the unit, two beds, two chairs, a table, a credenza, air conditioner under the window, pastel pictures on the wall.

Cabin number five had a Do Not Disturb tag lying on the concrete a foot from the doorway. He stepped over it. If you've got a stolen kid, you keep her in the room farthest from the office. No-brainer. He walked on and stopped outside number eight. Put his ear to the crack of the door and listened. Heard nothing. He walked silently on, past number nine, past ten, to the end of the row. Walked around the bend of the U. The two cabin blocks were parallel, facing each other across a thirty-foot-wide rectangle of garden. It was desert horticulture, with low spiky plants growing out of raked gravel and crushed stone. There were small yellow lanterns here and there. Large rocks and boulders, carefully placed, a Japanese effect.

The crushed stone was noisy under his feet. He had to walk slow. He passed by ten's window, then nine's, then crouched low and eased against the wall. Crawled forward and positioned himself directly under eight's window sill. The air conditioner was running loud. He couldn't hear anything over it. He raised his head, slowly and carefully. Looked into the room.

Nothing doing. The room was completely empty. It was completely undisturbed. It might never have been occupied. It was just sitting there, still and sterile, cleaned and readied, the way motel rooms are. He felt a flash of panic. Maybe they made multiple bookings all over the place. Two or three similar places, to give themselves a choice. Thirty or forty bucks a night, why not? He stood up straight. Stopped worrying about the noise from the gravel. Ran past seven and six, straight to five's window. Put himself right in front of it and looked in.

And saw a small dark man wearing two white towels dragging Ellie out of the bathroom. Bright light was spilling out behind him. He had both her wrists caught in one hand above her head. She was kicking and bucking violently in his grip. Reacher stared in for maybe a quarter of a second, long enough to sense the layout of the room and see a black 9-mm handgun with a silencer lying on the credenza. Then he took a breath and one long fluid step away and bent down and picked up a rock from the garden. It was bigger than a basketball and could have weighed a hundred pounds. He heaved it straight through the window. The screen disintegrated and glass shattered and he followed it headfirst into the room with the window frame caught around his shoulders like a wreath of victory.

The small dark man froze in shock for a split second and then let Ellie go and turned and scrabbled desperately toward the credenza. Reacher batted away the splintered frame and got there first and caught him by the throat with his right hand and jammed him back against the wall and followed up with a colossal left to the gut and let him fall and kicked him once in the head, very hard. Saw his eyes roll up into his skull. Then he breathed in and out like a train and gasped and shuffled his feet and flexed his hands and fought the temptation to kick him to death.

Then he turned to Ellie.

’’You O.K.?’’ he asked.

She nodded. Paused in the sudden silence.

’’He's a bad man,’’ she said. ’’I think he was going to shoot me.’’

He paused in turn. Fought to control his breathing.

’’He can't do that now,’’ he said.

’’There was thunder and lightning.’’

’’I heard it too. I was outside. Got all wet.’’

She nodded. ’’It rained a whole lot.’’

’’You O.K.?’’ he asked for the second time.

She just thought about it and nodded. She was very composed. Very serious. No tears, no screaming. The room went absolutely quiet. The action had lasted all of three seconds, beginning to end. It was like it hadn't happened at all. But the rock from the garden was lying there in the middle of the floor, nested in shards of broken glass. He picked it up and carried it to the shattered window and tipped it through. It crunched on the gravel and rolled away.

’’You O.K.?’’ he asked for the third time.

Ellie nodded. He picked up the phone and dialed zero. The night guy answered. Reacher told him to send Alice down to room five. Then he walked over and unlatched the chain and unlocked the door. Left it propped open. It set up a breeze, all the way through the room to the broken window. The outside air was damp. And warm. Warmer than the inside air.

’’You O.K.?’’ he asked for the fourth time.

’’Yes,’’ Ellie said. ’’I'm O.K.’’

Alice stepped inside a minute later. Ellie looked at her, curiously.

’’This is Alice,’’ Reacher said. ’’She's helping your mom.’’

’’Where is my mom?’’

’’She'll be with you soon,’’ Alice said.

Then she turned and looked down at the small dark guy. He was inert on the floor, pressed up against the wall, arms and legs tangled.

’’Is he alive?’’ she whispered.

Reacher nodded. ’’Concussed, is all. I think. I hope.’’

’’State police is responding,’’ she whispered. ’’And I called my boss at home. Got him out of bed. He's setting up a chambers meeting with a judge, first thing. But he says we'll need a straightforward confession from this guy if we want to avoid a big delay.’’

Reacher nodded. ’’We'll get one.’’

He bent down and twisted one of the small dark man's towels tight around his neck like a noose and used it to drag him across the floor and into the bathroom.

Twenty minutes later he came out again and found two state cops standing in the room. A sergeant and a trooper, both Hispanic, both composed and immaculate in their tan uniforms. He could hear their car idling outside the door. He nodded to them and walked over and picked up the driver's clothes from the chair. Tossed them back into the bathroom.

’’So?’’ the sergeant said.

’’He's ready to talk,’’ Reacher said. ’’He's offering a full and voluntary confession. But he wants you to understand he was just the driver.’’

’’He wasn't a shooter?’’

Reacher shook his head. ’’But he saw everything.’’

’’What about the kidnap?’’

’’He wasn't there. He was guarding her afterward, is all. And there's a lot of other stuff, too, going back a number of years.’’

’’Situation like this, he talks, he's going away for a long time.’’

’’He knows that. He accepts it. He's happy about it. He's looking for redemption.’’

The cops just glanced at each other and went into the bathroom. Reacher heard people shuffling and moving around and handcuffs clicking.

’’I have to get back,’’ Alice said. ’’I have to prepare the writ. Lot of work involved, with habeas corpus.’’

’’Take the Crown Vic,’’ Reacher said. ’’I'll wait here with Ellie.’’

The cops brought the driver out of the bathroom. He was dressed and his hands were cuffed behind him and each cop had hold of an elbow. He was bent over and white with pain and already talking fast. The cops hustled him straight out to their cruiser and the room door swung shut behind them. There was the muffled sound of car doors slamming and the growl of an engine.

’’What did you do to him?’’ Alice whispered.

Reacher shrugged. ’’I'm a hard man. Like you said.’’

He asked her to send the night clerk down with a master key and she walked away toward the office. He turned to Ellie.

’’You O.K.?’’ he said.

’’You don't need to keep asking me,’’ she replied.

’’Tired?’’

’’Yes,’’ she said.

’’Your mom will come soon,’’ he said. ’’We'll wait for her right here. But let's change rooms, shall we? This one's got a broken window.’’

She giggled. ’’You broke it. With that rock.’’

He heard the Crown Vic start up in the distance. Heard its tires on the road.

’’Let's try room eight,’’ he said. ’’It's nice and clean. Nobody's been in it. It can be ours.’’

She took his hand and they walked out together and along the concrete walkway to number eight, a dozen steps for him, three dozen for her, damp filmy tracks left in the wet behind both of them. The clerk met them with a pass key and Ellie got straight into the bed nearest the window. Reacher lay down on the other and watched her until she was sound asleep. Then he wrapped his arm under his head and tried to doze.

* * *

Less than two hours later the new day dawned bright and hot and the air stirred and the metal roof clicked and cracked and the timbers under it creaked and moved. Reacher opened his eyes after a short uneasy rest and swung his legs to the floor. Crept quietly to the door and opened it up and stepped outside. The eastern horizon was far off to his right beyond the motel office. It was flaring with pure white light. There were rags of old cloud in the sky. They were burning off as he watched. No storm today. People had talked about it for a week, but it wasn't going to happen. Last night's hour of rain was all it was ever going to be. A complete misfire.

He crept back into the room and lay down again. Ellie was still asleep. She had kicked the sheet down and her shirt had ridden up and he could see the plump band of pink skin at her waist. Her legs were bent, like she had been running in her dreams. But her arms were thrown up above her head, which some army psychiatrist had once told him was a sign of security. A kid sleeps like that, he had said, deep down it feels safe. Safe? She was some kid. That was for damn sure. Most adults he knew would be wrecks after an experience like hers. For weeks. Or longer. But she wasn't. Maybe she was too young to fully comprehend. Or maybe she was just a tough kid. One or the other. He didn't know. He had no experience. He closed his eyes again.

He opened them for the second time thirty minutes later because Ellie was standing right next to him, shaking his shoulder.

’’I'm hungry,’’ she said.

’’Me too,’’ he said back. ’’What would you like?’’

’’Ice cream,’’ she said.

’’For breakfast?’’

She nodded.

’’O.K.,’’ he said. ’’But eggs first. Maybe bacon. You're a kid. You need good nutrition.’’

He fumbled the phone book out of the bedside drawer and found a diner listed that was maybe a mile nearer Fort Stockton. He called them and bribed them with the promise of a twenty-dollar tip to drive breakfast out to the motel. He sent Ellie into the bathroom to get washed up. By the time she came out, the food had arrived. Scrambled eggs, smoked bacon, toast, jelly, cola for her, coffee for him. And a huge plastic dish of ice cream with chocolate sauce.

Breakfast changes everything. He ate the food and drank the coffee and felt some energy coming back. Saw the same effect in Ellie. They propped the room door wide open while they ate to smell the morning air. Then they dragged chairs out to the concrete walk and set them side by side and sat down to wait.

They waited more than four hours. He stretched out and idled the time away like he was accustomed to doing. She waited like it was a serious task to be approached with her usual earnest concentration. He called the diner again halfway through and they ate a second breakfast, identical menu to the first. They went in and out to the bathroom. Talked a little. Tried to identify the trees, listened to the buzz of the insects, looked for clouds in the sky. But mostly they kept their gaze ahead and half-right, where the road came in from the north. The ground was dry again, like it had never rained at all. The dust was back. It plumed off the blacktop and hung in the heat. It was a quiet road, maybe one vehicle every couple of minutes. Occasionally a small knot of traffic, stalled behind a slow-moving farm truck.

A few minutes after eleven o'clock Reacher was standing a couple of paces into the lot and he saw the Crown Vic coming south in the distance. It crept slowly out of the haze. He saw the fake antennas wobbling and flexing behind it. Dust trailing in the air.

’’Hey kid,’’ he called. ’’Check this out.’’

She stood next to him and shaded her eyes with her hand. The big car slowed and turned in and drove up right next to them. Alice was in the driver's seat. Carmen was next to her. She looked pale and washed out but she was smiling and her eyes were wide with joy. She had the door open before the car stopped moving and she came out and skipped around the hood and Ellie ran to her and jumped into her arms. They staggered around together in the sunlight. There was shrieking and crying and laughter all at the same time. He watched for a moment and then backed away and squatted next to the car. He didn't want to intrude. He guessed times like these were best kept private. Alice saw what he was thinking and buzzed her window down and put her hand on his shoulder.

’’Everything squared away?’’ he asked her.

’’For us,’’ she said. ’’Cops have got a lot of paperwork ahead. All in all they're looking at more than fifty homicides in seven separate states. Including what happened here twelve years ago and Eugene and Sloop and Walker himself. They're going to arrest Rusty for shooting Walker. But she'll get off easy, I should think, in the circumstances.’’

’’Anything about me?’’

’’They were asking about last night. Lots of questions. I said I did it all.’’

’’Why?’’

She smiled. ’’Because I'm a lawyer. I called it self-defense and they bought it without hesitating. It was my car out there, and my gun. No-brainer. They'd have given you a much harder time.’’

’’So we're all home free?’’

’’Especially Carmen.’’

He looked up. Carmen had Ellie on her hip, with her face buried in her neck like the sweet fragrance of her was necessary to sustain life itself. She was walking aimless random circles with her. Then she raised her head and squinted against the sun and smiled with such abandoned joy that Reacher found himself smiling along with her.

’’She got plans?’’ he asked.

’’Moving up to Pecos,’’ Alice said. ’’We'll sort through Sloop's affairs. There's probably some cash somewhere. She's talking about moving into a place like mine. Maybe working part-time. Maybe even looking at law school.’’

’’You tell her about the Red House?’’

’’She laughed with happiness. I told her it was probably burned down to a cinder, and she just laughed and laughed. I felt good for her.’’

Now Ellie was leading her by the hand around the parking lot, checking out the trees she had inspected previously, talking a mile a minute. They looked perfect together. Ellie was hopping with energy and Carmen looked serene and radiant and very beautiful. Reacher stood up and leaned against the car.

’’You want lunch?’’

’’Here?’’

’’I've got a thing going with a diner. They've probably got vegetables.’’

’’Tuna salad will do it for me.’’

He went inside and used the phone. Ordered three sandwiches and promised yet another twenty bucks for the tip. Came out and found Ellie and Carmen looking for him.

’’I'm going to a new school soon,’’ Ellie said. ’’Just like you did.’’

’’You'll do great,’’ he said. ’’You're smart as a whip.’’

Then Carmen let go of her daughter's hand and stepped near him, a little shy and silent and awkward for a second. Then she smiled wide and put her arms around his chest and hugged him hard.

’’Thanks,’’ was all she said.

He hugged her back. ’’I'm sorry it took so long.’’

’’Did my clue help?’’

’’Clue?’’ he said.

’’I left a clue for you.’’

’’Where?’’

’’In the confession.’’

He said nothing. She unwound herself from his embrace and took his arm and led him to where Ellie wouldn't hear her.

’’He made me say I was a whore.’’

He nodded.

’’But I pretended to be nervous and I got the words wrong. I said 'street stroller.'’’

He nodded again. ’’I remember.’’

’’But it's really streetwalker, isn't it? To be correct? That was the clue. You were supposed to think to yourself, it's not stroller, it's walker. Get it? It's Walker. Meaning it's Hack Walker doing all of this.’’

He went very quiet.

’’I missed that,’’ he said.

’’So how did you know?’’

’’I guess I took the long way around.’’

She just smiled again. Laced her arm into his and walked him back to the car, where Ellie was laughing with Alice.

’’You going to be O.K.?’’ he asked her.

She nodded. ’’But I feel very guilty. People died.’’

He shrugged. ’’Like Clay Allison said.’’

’’Thanks,’’ she said again.

’’No hay de que, senora.’’

’’Senorita, ’’she said.

Carmen and Ellie and Alice drifted inside to get washed up for lunch. He watched the door close behind them and just walked away. It seemed like the natural thing to do. He didn't want anybody to try to keep him there. He jogged to the road and turned south. Walked a whole hot mile before he got a ride from a farm truck driven by a toothless old man who didn't talk much. He got out at the I-10 interchange and waited on the west ramp for ninety minutes in the sun until an eighteen-wheeler slowed and stopped next to him. He walked around the massive hood and looked up at the window. The window came down. He could hear music over the loud shudder of the diesel. It sounded like Buddy Holly. The driver leaned out. He was a guy of about fifty, fleshy, wearing a Dodgers T-shirt and about four days'growth of beard.

’’Los Angeles?’’ he called.

’’Anywhere,’’ Reacher called back.


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