One Shot Chapter 17

In the end, it came down to waiting. Wait, and good things come to you. And bad things. Reacher crept back to the second floor. The last door on the left was still closed. He ducked into the kitchen. Linsky was on the floor, on his back in a pool of blood. Reacher relit the flame under the kettle. Then he stepped out to the hallway. Walked quietly to the front of the house and leaned on the wall beyond the last door on the left.

And waited.

The kettle boiled after five minutes. The whistle started low and quiet, and then the note and the volume rose to full blast. Within ten seconds the second floor of the house was full of an insane shrieking. Ten seconds after that, the door on Reacher's right opened. A small man stepped out. Reacher let him take a pace forward and then spun him around and jammed the Smith 60 hard in the base of his throat.

And stared.

The Zec. He was a wide, ancient, twisted, stooped, battered old man. A wraith. Barely human. He was covered in livid scars and patches of discolored skin. His face was lined and drooping and seething with rage and hatred and cruelty. He was unarmed. His ruined hands didn't seem capable of holding a weapon. Reacher forced him down the hallway. Into the kitchen, backward. To the stove. The noise from the kettle was unbearable. Reacher used his left hand and killed the flame. Then he hauled the Zec back toward the living room. The kettle's whistle died away, like an air raid siren winding down. The house went quiet again.

’’It's over,’’ Reacher said. ’’You lost.’’

’’It's never over,’’ the Zec replied. Hoarse voice, low, guttural.

’’Guess again,’’ Reacher said. He kept the Smith hard against the Zec's throat. Too low and too close for him to see it. He eased the hammer back. Slowly, carefully. Deliberately. Loudly. Click-click-click-crunch. An unmistakable sound.

’’I'm eighty years old,’’ the Zec said.

’’I don't care if you're a hundred,’’ Reacher said. ’’You're still going down.’’

’’Idiot,’’ the Zec said back. ’’I meant I've survived things worse than you. Since long before you were born.’’

’’Nobody's worse than me.’’

’’Don't flatter yourself. You're nothing.’’

’’You think?’’ Reacher said. ’’You were alive this morning and you won't be tomorrow. After eighty years. That makes me something, don't you think?’’

No answer.

’’It's over,’’ Reacher said. ’’Believe me. Long and winding road, OK, I understand all of that, but this is the end of it. Had to happen sometime.’’

No response.

’’You know when my birthday is?’’ Reacher asked.

’’Obviously not.’’

’’It's in October. You know what day?’’

’’Of course not.’’

’’You're going to find out the hard way. I'm counting in my head. When I reach my birthday, I'm going to pull the trigger.’’

He started counting in his head. First, second. He watched the Zec's eyes. Fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth. No response. Tenth, eleventh, twelfth.

’’What do you want?’’ the Zec said.

Negotiation time.

’’I want to talk,’’ Reacher said.

’’Talk?’’

’’The twelfth,’’ Reacher said. ’’That's how long you lasted. Then you gave it up. You know why? Because you want to survive. It's the deepest instinct you've got. Obviously. Otherwise how would you have gotten as old as you are? It's probably a deeper instinct than I could ever understand. A reflex, a habit, roll the dice, stay alive, make the next move, take the next chance. It's in your DNA. It's what you are.’’

’’So?’’

’’So now we've got ourselves a competition. What you are, against what I am.’’

’’And what are you?’’

’’I'm the guy who just threw Chenko out a third-floor window. After crushing Vladimir to death with my bare hands. Because I didn't like what they did to innocent people. So now you've got to pit your strong desire to survive against my strong desire to shoot you in the head and piss in the bullet hole.’’

No response.

’’One shot,’’ Reacher said. ’’In the head. Lights out. That's your choice. Another day, another roll of the dice. Or not. As the case may be.’’

He saw calculation in the Zec's eyes. Assessment, evaluation, speculation.

’’I could throw you down the stairs,’’ he said. ’’You could crawl over and take a look at Vladimir. I cut his throat afterward. Just for fun. That's who I am. So don't think I don't mean what I say. I'll do it and I'll sleep like a baby the rest of my life.’’

’’What do you want?’’ the Zec asked again.

’’Help with a problem.’’

’’What problem?’’

’’There's an innocent man I need to get out of the prison ward. So I need you to tell the truth to a detective called Emerson. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I need you to finger Chenko for the shooting, and Vladimir for the girl, and whoever it was for Ted Archer. And whatever else you've done. The whole nine yards. Including how you and Linsky set it all up.’’

A flicker in the Zec's eyes. ’’Pointless. I'd get the death penalty.’’

’’Yes, you would,’’ Reacher said. ’’That's for damn sure. But you'd still be alive tomorrow. And the next day, and the next. The appeals process lasts forever here. Ten years, sometimes. You might get lucky. There might be a mistrial, there might be a jailbreak, you might get a pardon, there might be a revolution, or an earthquake.’’

’’Unlikely.’’

’’Very,’’ Reacher said. ’’But isn't that who you are? A guy who will take the tiniest slim fragment of a chance to live another minute, as opposed to no chance at all?’’

No response.

’’You already answered me once,’’ Reacher said. ’’When you quit the birthday game on the twelfth of October. That was pretty fast. There are thirty-one days in October. Law of averages said you'd be OK until the fifteenth or the sixteenth. A gambler would have waited for the twentieth. But you didn't get past the twelfth. Not because you're a coward. Nobody could accuse you of that. But because you're a survivor. That's who you are. Now what I want is some practical confirmation.’’

No response.

’’Thirteenth,’’ Reacher said. ’’Fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth.’’

’’OK,’’ the Zec said. ’’You win. I'll talk to the detective.’’

Reacher pinned him against the hallway wall with the Smith. Took out his phone. ’’Gunny?’’

’’Here.’’

’’Come on in, all of you. I'll open the door. And, Franklin? Wake those guys up, like we talked about before.’’

The phone went dead. Franklin had killed the comms net to make his calls.

Reacher tied the Zec's wrists and ankles with wire torn from table lamps and left him on the living room floor. Then he went downstairs. Glanced into the surveillance room. Vladimir was on his back in a lake of blood. His eyes were open. So was his throat. Reacher could see bone. Sokolov was slumped facedown on the table. His blood was all over the place. Some of it must have seeped into the wiring, because the South monitor had shorted out. The other three pictures were still there, green and ghostly. On the West monitor four figures were visible on the driveway. Yellow haloes, red cores. Close together, moving fast. Reacher turned the lights off and closed up the room. Walked on down the hallway and opened the front door.

Yanni came in first. Then Cash. Then Rosemary. Then Helen. She was barefoot and carrying her shoes in her hand. She was covered in mud. She stopped in the doorway and hugged Reacher hard. Held him for a long moment and then moved on.

’’What's that smell?’’ Yanni asked.

’’Blood,’’ Cash said. ’’And other organic fluids of various kinds.’’

’’Are they all dead?’’

’’All but one,’’ Reacher said.

He led the way upstairs. Stopped Rosemary outside the living room.

’’The Zec is in there,’’ he said. ’’You OK about seeing him?’’

She nodded.

’’I want to see him,’’ she said. ’’I want to ask him a question.’’

She stepped into the living room. The Zec was on the floor, where Reacher had left him. Rosemary stood over him, quiet, dignified, not gloating. Just curious.

’’Why?’’ she said. ’’I mean, to an extent I understand what you thought you had to do. From your warped perspective. But why didn't you just use Chenko from the highway? Why did you have to bring my brother down?’’

The Zec didn't answer. He just stared into space, seeing something, but probably not Rosemary Barr.

’’Psychology,’’ Reacher said.

’’His?’’

’’Ours. The public's.’’

’’How?’’

’’There had to be a story,’’ Reacher said. ’’No, there was a story, and he had to control what the story was about. If he gave up a shooter, then the story would be about the shooter. No shooter, the story would have been about the victims. And if the story had been about the victims, too many questions would have been asked.’’

’’So he sacrificed James.’’

’’That's what he does. There's a long list.’’

’’Why?’’

’’One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.’’

’’Joseph Stalin,’’ Yanni said.

Reacher kicked the Zec aside and pulled the sofa away from the window about four feet. Grabbed the Zec's collar and hauled him up and dumped him on one end. Got him sitting up straight against the arm.

’’Our star witness,’’ he said.

He told Cash to perch on the windowsill behind the sofa. Told Yanni to go find three dining chairs. Pushed armchairs against the side walls. Yanni came back three separate times dragging chairs behind her. Reacher put them in a line facing the sofa. He ended up with a square arrangement, sofa, dining chairs, armchairs off to the sides.

His clothes were nearly dry. Just a little dampness where the seams were thick. He ran his fingers through his hair. Patted it down. Checked his watch. Nearly four in the morning. Least resistance. A biorhythm thing.

’’Now we wait,’’ he said.

They waited less than thirty minutes. Then they heard cars on the road far away in the distance. Tires on the blacktop, engine noise, exhaust pipes. The sounds grew louder. The cars slowed. They crunched onto the limestone driveway. There were four of them. Reacher went downstairs and opened the door. Saw Franklin's black Suburban. Saw Emerson sliding out of a gray Crown Vic. Saw a compact woman with short dark hair getting out of a blue Ford Taurus. Donna Bianca, he assumed. He saw Alex Rodin climbing out of a silver BMW. Rodin locked it with his remote. He was the only one who did.

Reacher stood aside and let them gather in the hallway. Then he led them upstairs. He put Alex Rodin and Donna Bianca and Emerson in the dining chairs, left to right. He put Franklin in an armchair next to Yanni. Rosemary Barr and Helen Rodin were in armchairs on the other side of the room. Helen was looking at her father. He was looking at her. Cash was on the windowsill. Reacher stepped away and leaned up in the doorway.

’’Start talking,’’ Reacher said.

The Zec stayed silent.

’’I can send these guys away again,’’ Reacher said. ’’Just as easily as I brought them here. Then I'll start counting again. At the seventeenth.’’

The Zec sighed. Started talking. Slowly at first, and then faster. He told a long story. So much length and so much complexity that it got confusing. He spilled details of earlier unconnected crimes. Then he got to the bidding process for the city contracts. He named the official he had suborned. It wasn't just about money. There had been girls too, supplied in small groups in a Caribbean villa. Some of them very young. He talked about Ted Archer's fury, his two-year search, his close approach to the truth. He described the ambush, one Monday morning. Jeb Oliver had been used. The red Dodge Ram had been his payoff. Then the Zec paused, decided, moved on. He described the fast decision to get rid of Oline Archer two months later, when she became dangerous. He described Chenko's subterfuge, the hasty but thorough planning, how they lured James Barr out of the way with a promise of a date with Sandy Dupree. He described the end of Jeb Oliver's usefulness. He told them where to find his body. He told them about Vladimir killing Sandy in an effort to stop Reacher in his tracks. Altogether he talked for thirty-two minutes, hands tied behind him, then he stopped suddenly and Reacher saw calculation in his eyes. He was already thinking about the next move. The next roll of the dice. A mistrial. A jailbreak. A ten-year appeals process.

The room went quiet.

Donna Bianca said, ’’Unbelievable.’’

Reacher said, ’’Keep talking.’’

The Zec just looked at him.

’’Something you left out,’’ Reacher said. ’’You need to tell us about your inside man. That's what we're all waiting for.’’

The Zec switched his gaze. He looked at Emerson. Then at Donna Bianca. Then at Alex Rodin. Right to left, along the line. Then he glanced back at Reacher.

’’You're a survivor,’’ Reacher said. ’’But you're not an idiot. There won't be a mistrial. There won't be a jailbreak. You're eighty years old and you won't survive a ten-year appeals process. You know all that. But still you agreed to talk. Why?’’

The Zec said nothing.

’’Because you knew sooner or later you'd be talking to a friend. Someone you own. Someone you bought and paid for. Am I right?’’

The Zec didn't move.

’’Someone right here, right now, in fact,’’ Reacher said.

The Zec said nothing.

’’One thing always bothered me,’’ Reacher said. ’’From the start. At first I didn't know if I was right or if I was letting my ego get in the way. I went back and forth with it. Finally I decided I was right. The thing is, when I was in the service I was a hell of a good investigator. I was maybe the best they ever had. I would have put myself up against anyone. And you know what?’’

’’What?’’ Helen Rodin asked.

’’I would never have thought of emptying that parking meter. Not in a million years. It would never have occurred to me to do that. So I was facing a question. Was Emerson a better investigator than me? Or did he know that quarter was there?’’

Nobody spoke.

’’Emerson is not better than I was,’’ Reacher said. ’’That's just not possible. That's what I decided.’’ Then he turned to the Zec. ’’The coin was one clue too many. You see that now? It was unnatural. Was it Chenko's idea?’’

The Zec nodded.

’’You should have overruled him,’’ Reacher said. He turned to Emerson. ’’Or you should have left it there. It wasn't like you needed it to make the case.’’

’’This is bullshit,’’ Emerson said.

Reacher shook his head. ’’A lot of things clicked into place after that. I read the 911 transcripts and the squad car call log. Right at the start you were awful quick to make up your mind. You had a bunch of incoherent panic calls but within twenty seconds you were on the radio telling your guys that this was a lone nutcase with an automatic rifle. There was no basis for that conclusion. Six shots fired, ragged sequence, it could have been six kids with a handgun each, firing once. But you knew it wasn't.’’

’’Bullshit,’’ Emerson said again.

Reacher shook his head again. ’’Final proof was when I was negotiating with your boss here. I said he'd have to tell the truth to a detective called Emerson. I could have said the cops generically, or Alex Rodin the DA. But I didn't. I said your name specifically, and a little light came on in his eyes. He sparred around for a minute more, for form's sake, but basically he agreed real fast because he figured he'd be OK as long as you were in charge.’’

Silence. Then Cash said, ’’But Oline Archer went to Alex Rodin here. He buried it. That's what you found out.’’

Reacher shook his head again. ’’We found out that Oline went to the DA's office. I went there myself, first thing after I got to town. And you know what? Alex here has got himself a couple of real dragon ladies working the door. They know he doesn't like walk-ins. Dollars to doughnuts they sent Oline on her way. That's a matter for the police, they'll have told her. Her co-worker said she was gone most of the afternoon. My guess is the dragon ladies sent her trekking all across town to the station house, where she sat down with Emerson here.’’

Silence in the room.

The Zec struggled on the sofa. ’’Emerson, do something, for Christ's sake.’’

’’Nothing he can do,’’ Reacher said. ’’I'm not dumb. I think ahead. I'm sure he's got a Glock under his arm, but he's got me behind him with a.38 and a knife, and he's got Cash facing him with a sniper rifle hidden behind the sofa, and what can he do anyway? I guess he could try to kill us all and say there was some kind of a big massacre here, but how would that help him with NBC?’’

Emerson stared at him.

’’NBC?’’ Cash repeated.

’’I saw Yanni fiddling with her phone earlier. I'm assuming she's transmitting all of this back to the studios.’’

Yanni pulled out her Nokia.

’’Open channel,’’ she said. ’’Digital audio recording on three separate hard discs, plus two analog tapes as backup. They've all been running since well before we got in the Humvee.’’

Cash stared at her. ’’That's why you asked me that dumb question about the night scope. That's why you were talking to yourself like a sports announcer.’’

’’She's a journalist,’’ Reacher said. ’’She's going to win an Emmy.’’

He stepped forward and leaned over the back of Emerson's chair and slid his hand under his coat. Came back out with a Glock nine. Handed it to Bianca.

’’You've got arrests to make,’’ he said.

Then the Zec smiled, and Chenko walked into the room.

Chenko was covered in mud and his right arm was broken, or his shoulder, or his collarbone, or maybe all three. His wrist was jammed into his shirt like a sling. But there was nothing wrong with his left arm. Nothing at all. Reacher turned around to face him and saw the sawn-off rock-steady in his left hand. He thought, irrelevantly: Where did he get that from? His car? Were the cars parked to the east?

Chenko glanced at Bianca.

’’Put the gun down, lady,’’ he said.

Bianca laid Emerson's Glock on the floor. No sound as it touched the carpet.

’’Thank you,’’ Chenko said.

Nobody spoke.

’’I guess I was out for a little while,’’ Chenko said. ’’But I got to tell you, I feel a whole hell of a lot better now.’’

’’We survive,’’ the Zec said from across the room. ’’That's what we do.’’

Reacher didn't look back at the old man. He looked at Chenko's gun instead. It had been a Benelli Nova Pump. The stock had been cut off behind the pistol grip. The barrel had been hacked off ahead of the slide. Twelve-gauge. Four-shot magazine. A handsome weapon, butchered.

’’Emerson,’’ the Zec called. ’’Come over here and untie me.’’

Reacher heard Emerson stand up. He didn't look back at him. Just took a tiny pace forward and sideways, closer to Chenko. He was a foot taller and twice as wide.

’’I need a knife here,’’ Emerson said.

’’The soldier's got a knife,’’ Chenko said. ’’I'm damn sure of that, based on what I saw happened to my buddies downstairs.’’

Reacher moved a little closer to him. A big guy and a little guy directly face-to-face, separated by about three feet, most of which was occupied by the Benelli. Reacher's waist was level with Chenko's chest.

’’Knife,’’ Emerson said.

’’Come and get it,’’ Reacher said.

’’Slide it across the floor.’’

’’No.’’

’’I'll shoot,’’ Chenko said. ’’Twelve-gauge, in the gut.’’

Reacher thought: And then what? A pump-action shotgun ain't much use to a one-armed man.

’’So shoot,’’ he said.

He felt eyes on him. He knew everyone was looking at him. Staring at him. Silence buzzed in his ears. He was suddenly aware of the smells in the room. Dust in the carpet, worn furniture, fear, tension, damp night air blowing in from the open door downstairs and the busted window upstairs and carrying with it the odor of rich earth and fertilizer and budding new growth.

’’Go ahead,’’ he said. ’’Shoot.’’

Chenko did nothing. Just stood there. Reacher stood there directly in front of him. He knew exactly how the room was laid out. He had arranged it. He pictured it in his mind. Chenko was in the doorway facing the window. Everyone else was facing the other way. Reacher himself right in front of Chenko, face-to-face, close enough to touch. Cash directly behind him all the way in back, behind the sofa, on the windowsill, staring forward. Then the Zec on the sofa, looking the same way. Then Emerson in the middle of the floor, near the Zec, standing up, indecisive, watching. Then Yanni and Franklin and Helen and Rosemary Barr in the armchairs against the side walls, heads turned. Then Donna Bianca and Alex Rodin on their dining chairs, twisted around at the waist, eyes wide.

Reacher knew where everyone was, and he knew what they were looking at.

’’Shoot,’’ he said. ’’Aim at my belt. That'll work. Go ahead.’’

Chenko did nothing. Just stared up at him. Reacher was so close and so big he was all Chenko could see. It was just the two of them, like they were alone in the room.

’’I'll help you out,’’ Reacher said. ’’I'll count to three. Then you pull the trigger.’’

Chenko just stood there.

’’You understand?’’ Reacher said.

No reply.

’’One,’’ Reacher said.

No reaction.

’’Two,’’ Reacher said.

Then he stepped out of the way. Just took a long fast sideways shuffle to his right. Cash fired from behind the sofa at the spot where Reacher's belt had been a split second before, and Chenko's chest blew apart.

Then Cash put his rifle back on the floor just as silently as he had picked it up.

Two night-shift squad cars came and took the Zec and Emerson away. Then four ambulances arrived for the casualties. Bianca asked Reacher what exactly had happened to the first three. Reacher told her he had absolutely no idea. None at all. He speculated that it might have been some kind of an internal dispute. A falling-out among thieves, maybe? Bianca didn't push it. Rosemary Barr borrowed Franklin's cell phone and used it to call area hospitals, looking for a safe berth for her brother. Helen and Alex Rodin sat close together, talking. Gunny Cash sat in a chair and dozed. An old soldier's habit. Sleep when you can. Yanni stepped up close to Reacher and said, ’’Rough men stand ready in the night.’’ Reacher found himself very aware of the live phone. He just smiled and said, ’’I'm usually in bed by twelve o'clock.’’

’’Me too,’’ Yanni said. ’’Alone. You remember my address?’’

Reacher smiled again, and nodded. Then he went downstairs and stepped out to the front porch and walked a little ways south across the dirt until he could see past the bulk of the house to the eastern sky. Dawn was coming. Black shaded to purple right on the horizon. He turned and watched the last ambulance loading up. Vladimir's final ride, judging by the size of the shape under the sheet on the gurney. Reacher emptied his pockets and left Emerson's torn business card, and Helen Rodin's cocktail napkin, and the motor court's big brass key, and the Smith 60, and Gunny Cash's Navy SEAL SRK, all in a neat little pile beside the front door. Then he asked the paramedics if he could ride with them to town. He figured he could walk east from the hospital and be at the bus depot before the sun was fully up. He could be in Indianapolis before lunch. Then he could buy a pair of shoes and be just about anywhere before the sun went down again.


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