The Affair Chapter Twenty Nine

I picked up the car key and put it in my pocket. I spread my left leg wide and braced my foot and got comfortable on the tilted bench. I said, ’’Captain, you lied to your men about dating Sheriff Deveraux, am I right?’’

Riley's father said, ’’What possible basis do you have for interrogating us?’’

’’Forty-nine minutes,’’ I said. ’’Then the train gets here.’’

’’Are you mad?’’

’’A little grumpy, that's all.’’

He said, ’’Son, don't say a word to this man.’’

I said, ’’Captain, answer my question.’’

Riley said, ’’Yes, I lied about Deveraux.’’

’’Why?’’

’’Command strategy,’’ he said. ’’My men like to look up to me.’’

I said, ’’Senator, why were Alpha Company and Bravo Company moved from Benning to Kelham?’’

The old guy huffed and puffed for a minute, trying to convince himself to hold fast, but in the end he said, ’’It was politically convenient. Mississippi always has its hand out. Or in someone else's pocket.’’

’’Not because of Audrey Shaw? Not because you thought your boy deserved a little gift to celebrate his new command?’’

’’That's ridiculous.’’

’’But it happened.’’

’’Purely a coincidence.’’

’’Bullshit.’’

’’OK, it was a side benefit. I thought it might be fun. But nothing more. Decisions of that magnitude are not based on trivialities.’’

I said, ’’Captain, tell me about Rosemary McClatchy.’’

Riley said, ’’We dated, we broke up.’’

’’Was she pregnant?’’

’’If she was, she never said anything to me about it.’’

’’Did she want to get married?’’

’’Come on, major, you know any one of them would marry any one of us.’’

’’What was she like?’’

’’Insecure,’’ he said. ’’She drove me nuts.’’

’’How did you feel when she was killed?’’

’’Bad,’’ he said. ’’It was a bad thing to happen.’’

’’Now tell me about Shawna Lindsay.’’

But at that point the senator decided they had taken all the shit they were going to take from me. He twisted around to dress me down, and then he remembered he was not supposed to move, and so he bounced back again like a stupid old mare against a new electric fence. He stared forward and breathed hard. His son didn't move. So they were taking a little shit from me, at least. Mainly the part nine millimeters wide. Thirty-five hundredths of an inch, in real money. A little smaller than a .38, a lot bigger than a .25. That's how much shit they were taking.

The old man took another breath.

He said, ’’That matter has been resolved, I believe. The Lindsay girl. And the other one.’’

I said, ’’Captain, tell me about the dead women in Kosovo.’’

His father said, ’’There are no dead women in Kosovo.’’

I said, ’’Seriously? What, they live forever?’’

’’Obviously they don't live forever.’’

’’Do they all die in their sleep?’’

’’They were Kosovan women and it happened in Kosovo. It's a local matter. Just like this is a local matter, right here, right now. A local person has been identified. The army is not under a cloud. That's what we were celebrating tonight. You should have been there. Success is something to be happy about. I wish more people understood that.’’

I said, ’’Captain, how old are you?’’

Riley said, ’’I'm twenty-eight.’’

I said, ’’Senator, how would you feel if your son was still a captain at thirty-three?’’

The old guy said, ’’I would be very unhappy.’’

’’Why?’’

’’It would represent failure. No one stays five years at the same rank. You'd have to be an idiot.’’

I said, ’’That was their first mistake.’’

’’What?’’

’’You heard me.’’

’’What do you mean, their? Who are they?’’

’’Do you have a grandfather?’’

’’Way back.’’

’’So did I. He was my granddad. But of course he was also lots of other kids'granddad too. There were about ten of us, I think. Four separate families. It always came as a surprise to me, even though I knew.’’

’’What the hell are you talking about?’’

’’It's the same thing with Senate Liaison. There's us, and there's the brass in Washington, and there's you. Like a grandfather. Except you're the Marine Corps'grandfather too. And they have their own Senate Liaison. They're probably a lot better than ours. They're probably willing to do whatever it takes. So you turned to them for help. But they made a number of mistakes.’’

’’I read the report. There were no mistakes.’’

’’Five years in the same rank? Deveraux is not the kind of person who spends five years in the same rank. Like you said, you'd have to be an idiot. And Deveraux is not an idiot. My guess is she was a CWO3 five years ago. My guess is she got two promotions since then. But your Marine Corps boys went ahead and wrote CWO5 on a file that was supposed to be five years old. They used an old picture but they didn't back off her terminal rank. Which was a mistake. They were in too much of a rush.’’

’’What rush?’’

’’Janice Chapman was white. Finally you had one people were going to take seriously. And she was linked to you. There was no time to waste.’’

’’What are you talking about?’’

’’This whole thing was about too much rush. You worked like crazy, and teased us about access to give yourself more time. But finally you got it done just after lunch on Sunday. The file was complete. The word came through while the chopper was in the air. So it went back empty. But then you waited until Tuesday before you released it for public scrutiny. I had a rather egotistical explanation for that. I thought it was because I was here on Sunday but not on Tuesday. But that wasn't the reason. You needed two days to make it look old. That was the reason. You had to scrape it up and scuff it around.’’

’’Are you saying that file was a forgery?’’

’’I know, you're shocked. Maybe you've known for nine months, or six, or maybe just a week or so, but we all know now.’’

’’Know what?’’ Reed Riley said.

I turned toward him. He was staring forward too, but he knew I was talking to him. I said, ’’Maybe Rosemary McClatchy was insecure because her beauty was all she had, so maybe she got jealous, and maybe that's where you got the idea for the vengeful woman. And she was pregnant anyway, and you'd already checked out the local sheriff, because that's what an ambitious company commander does, and it was easier for you than most, because of your connections, so you knew about her father and the empty house, and you're a sick bastard, so you took poor pregnant Rosemary McClatchy there and you butchered her.’’

No response.

’’And you liked it,’’ I said.

No response.

’’So you did it again. And you got better at it. No more dumping them in the ditch by the railroad track. You were ready for something more adventurous. Maybe something more appropriate. Maybe Shawna Lindsay also had delusions of marriage, and maybe she was talking about living in a little house together, so you dumped her on a construction site. You could drive through that neighborhood anytime you liked. You always had. The big dog, out on the prowl, in his old blue car. Part of the scenery.’’

He said, ’’I broke up with Shawna weeks before she died. How do you explain that?’’

’’You ask them back, they come running, right?’’

No answer.

I said, ’’And you put Janice Chapman behind a bar for the same reason. She was a party girl. And maybe you set yourself a little extra challenge that night. Third time lucky. Variety is the spice of life. Maybe you told the guys you were hitting the head, and you snuck out and did it in the same time you need to take a leak. Six minutes and forty seconds would be my guess. Which is not plausible. Not for Deveraux. That's where the alternative theory starts to falter. Did nobody think about how she's built? She couldn't lift a full-grown woman off a deer trestle. She couldn't carry a corpse to a car.’’

Senator Riley said, ’’The file is genuine.’’

I said, ’’It started out with its feet on the ground. Someone thought up a neat little story. The jealous woman, the broken arm. The missing four hundred dollars. It was quite subtle. Conclusions would be drawn by the reader. But then someone chickened out. They didn't want subtle anymore. They wanted a flashing red light. So you retyped the whole thing to include a car. Then you got on the phone and told your son to go put his own car on the train track.’’

’’That's crazy.’’

’’There was no other reason behind the stuff with the car. The car was senseless. It served no other purpose. Other than to nail the lid shut on Deveraux as soon as anyone opened that file.’’

’’That file is genuine.’’

’’They went too far with the dead people. James Dyer, maybe. We could buy that. He was a senior officer. Health maybe not the best. But Paul Evers? Too convenient. As if you were scared of people asking questions. Dead people can't answer. Which brings us to Alice Bouton. Is she going to be dead too? Or is she going to be still alive? In which case, what would she tell us if we asked her about her broken arm?’’

’’The file is completely genuine, Reacher.’’

’’Can you read, senator? If so, read this for me.’’ I slid the folded diner check from my pocket and tossed it in his lap.

He said, ’’I'm not allowed to move.’’

I said, ’’You can pick it up.’’

He picked it up. It shook in his hand. He looked at the back. He looked at the front. He turned it right way up. He took a breath. He asked, ’’Have you read it? Do you know what it says?’’

I said, ’’No, I haven't looked at it. I don't need to know. Either way I've got enough to nail you.’’

He hesitated.

I said, ’’But don't fake anything. I'll read it right after you, just to check.’’

He took a breath.

He read out, ’’Per United States Marine Corps Personnel Command.’’

He stopped.

He said, ’’I need to know this is not classified material.’’

’’Does it matter?’’

’’You're not cleared for classified material. Neither is my son.’’

’’It's not classified material,’’ I said. ’’Keep reading.’’

He said, ’’Per United States Marine Corps Personnel Command there was no Marine named Alice Bouton.’’

I smiled.

’’They invented her,’’ I said. ’’She didn't exist. Very sloppy work. It makes me wonder if I was wrong. Maybe you watered down the subtlety in two separate stages. And maybe the car came first. Maybe it was Alice Bouton you wrote in at the last minute. Without enough time to steal a real identity.’’

The old guy said, ’’The army had to be protected. You must understand that.’’

’’The army's loss is the Marine Corps'gain. And you're their granddaddy too. So professionally you didn't give a damn. It was your son you were protecting.’’

’’It could have been anyone in his unit. We'd do this for anyone at all.’’

’’Bullshit,’’ I said. ’’This was a fantastic amount of corruption. This was exceptional. This was unprecedented. This was about the two of you, and no one else.’’

No answer.

I said, ’’By the way, it's me who's protecting the army.’’

I didn't want to shoot them, obviously. Not that there would be much left for the pathologist to examine, but a cautious man takes no unnecessary risks. So I dropped the gun on the seat beside me and came forward with my right hand open, and I got it flat on the back of the senator's head, and I heaved it forward and bounced it off the dashboard rail. Pretty hard. The human arm can pitch a baseball at a hundred miles an hour, so it might get close to thirty with a human head. And the seat belt people tell us that an untethered impact at thirty miles an hour can kill you. Not that I needed the senator dead. I just needed him out of action for a minute and a half.

I moved my right hand over and got it under Reed Riley's chin. His hands came down off his head to tear at my wrist and I replaced them with my own left hand, open, jamming down hard on the top of his head. Push and pull, up and down, left hand and right hand, like a vise. I was crushing his head. Then I slid my right hand up over his chiseled chin until the heel of my hand lodged there and I clamped my palm over his mouth. His skin was like fine sandpaper. He had shaved early that morning, and now it was close to midnight. I slid my left hand over his brow until its heel caught on the ridge below his hairline. I stretched down and clamped his nose between my finger and thumb.

And then it was all about human nature.

He thought he was suffocating. First he tried to bite my palm, but he couldn't get his mouth open. I was clamping too hard. Jaw muscles are strong, but only when they're closing. Opening was never an evolutionary priority. I waited him out. He clawed at my hands. I waited him out. He scrabbled in his seat and drummed his heels. I waited him out. He arched his back. I waited him out. He stretched his head up toward me.

I changed my grip and twisted hard and broke his neck.

It was a move I had learned from Leon Garber. Maybe he had seen it somewhere. Maybe he had done it somewhere. He was capable of it. The suffocation part makes it easy. They always stretch their heads up. Some kind of a bad instinct. They put their necks on the line all by themselves. Garber said it never fails, and it never has for me.

And it succeeded again a minute later, with the senator. He was weaker, but his face was slick with blood from where I had broken his nose on the dashboard rail, so the effort expended was very much the same.

88

I got out of the car at eleven twenty-eight exactly. The train was thirty-two miles south of us. Maybe just crossing under Route 78 east of Tupelo. I closed my door but left all the windows open. I tossed the key into Reed Riley's lap. I turned away.

And sensed a figure wide on my left.

And another, wide on my right.

Good moves by someone. I had the Beretta, and I could hit one or the other of them, but not both of them. Too much lateral travel between rounds.

I waited.

Then the figure on my right spoke.

She said, ’’Reacher?’’

I said, ’’Deveraux?’’

The figure on my left said, ’’And Munro.’’

I said, ’’What the hell are you two doing here?’’

They converged on me, and I tried to push them away from the car. I said, ’’Why are you here?’’

Deveraux said, ’’Did you really think I was going to let him keep me in the diner?’’

’’I wish he had,’’ I said. ’’I didn't want either of you to hear anything about this.’’

’’You made Riley open the windows. You wanted us to hear.’’

’’No, I wanted fresh air. I didn't know you were there.’’

’’Why shouldn't we hear?’’

’’I didn't want you to know what they were saying about you. And I wanted Munro to go back to Germany with a clear conscience.’’

Munro said, ’’My conscience is always clear.’’

’’But it's easier to play dumb if you really don't know the answer.’’

’’I never had a problem playing dumb. Some folks think I am.’’

Deveraux said, ’’I'm glad I heard what they were saying about me.’’

Eleven thirty-one. The train was twenty-nine miles south of us. We walked away, on the ties, between the rails, leaving the flat green staff car and its passengers behind us. We walked past the old water tower and made it to the crossing. We turned west. Forty yards away Deveraux's cruiser was parked on the shoulder. Munro wouldn't get in. He said he would walk on down to Brannan's bar, where he had left a car he had borrowed. He said he needed to get back to Kelham as soon as possible, to square things away with the captured mortarmen, and then to hit the sack ahead of his early start the next morning. We shook hands quite formally, and I thanked him most sincerely for his help, and then he moved away and within ten paces he was lost to sight in the dark.

Deveraux drove me back to Main Street and parked outside the hotel. Eleven thirty-six in the evening. The train was twenty-four miles away.

I said, ’’I checked out of my room.’’

She said, ’’I still have mine.’’

’’I need to make a phone call first.’’

We used the office behind the reception counter. I put a dollar bill on the desk and dialed Garber's office. Maybe the tap was still in place, and maybe it wasn't. It made no difference to me. I got a lieutenant on the line. He said he was the senior person on duty. He said in fact he was the only person on duty. Night crew. I asked him if he had paper and pencil handy. He said yes to both. I told him to stand by to take dictation. I told him to mark the finished product urgent and to leave it front and center on Garber's desk, for immediate attention first thing in the morning.

’’Ready?’’ I asked him.

He said he was.

I said, ’’A tragedy occurred late last night in sleepy Carter Crossing, Mississippi, when a car carrying United States Senator Carlton Riley was struck by a passing train. The car was being driven by the senator's son, U.S. Army Captain Reed Riley, who was based at nearby Fort Kelham, Mississippi. Senator Riley, of Missouri, was chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, and Captain Riley, described by the army as a rising star, was in command of an infantry unit regularly deployed on missions of great sensitivity. Both men died instantly in the accident. Carter County Sheriff Elizabeth Deveraux confirmed that local drivers regularly attempt to beat the train across the road junction, in order to avoid a long and inconvenient delay, and it is believed that Captain Riley, recently posted to the area and adventurous in spirit, simply mistimed his approach to the crossing.’’

I paused.

’’Got that,’’ the lieutenant said, in my ear.

’’Second paragraph,’’ I said. ’’The senator and his son were returning to Fort Kelham after helping the nearby town celebrate Sheriff Deveraux's successful resolution of a local homicide investigation. The killing spree had lasted nine months and the five victims included three local women in their twenties, a local teenage boy, and a journalist from nearby Oxford, Mississippi. The male perpetrator, responsible for all five deaths, is described as a militia member and a white supremacist from neighboring Tennessee, and was shot to death earlier in the week, in a wooded area close to Fort Kelham, by local police, while resisting arrest.’’

’’Got that,’’ the lieutenant said again.

’’Start typing,’’ I said, and hung up.

Eleven forty-two in the evening. The train was eighteen miles away.

Room seventeen was as plain as room twenty-one had been. Deveraux had made no attempt to personalize it. She had two battered suitcases propped open for clothes storage, and a spare uniform was hanging off the curtain rail, and there was a book on the night table. And that was it.

We sat side by side on her bed, a little shell shocked, and she said, ’’You did everything you could. Justice is done all around, and the army doesn't suffer. You're a good soldier.’’

I said, ’’I'm sure they'll find something to complain about.’’

’’But I'm disappointed with the Marine Corps. They shouldn't have cooperated. They stabbed me in the back.’’

’’Not really,’’ I said. ’’They tried their best. They were under tremendous pressure. They pretended to play ball, but they put in a bunch of coded messages. Two dead people and an invented one? That thing with your rank? Those mistakes had to be deliberate. They made it so the file wouldn't stand up. Not for long. Same with Garber. He was ranting and raving about you, but really he was acting a part. He was acting out what the reaction was supposed to be. He was challenging me to think.’’

’’Did you believe the file, when you first saw it?’’

’’Honest answer?’’

’’That's what I expect from you.’’

’’I didn't instantly reject it. It took me a few hours.’’

’’That's slow for you.’’

’’Very,’’ I said.

’’You asked me all kinds of weird questions.’’

’’I know,’’ I said. ’’I'm sorry.’’

Silence.

The train was fifteen miles away.

She said, ’’Don't be sorry. I might have believed it myself.’’

Which was kind of her. She leaned over and kissed me. I went and washed the last dry traces of Carlton Riley's blood off my hands, and then we made love for the sixth time, and it worked out perfectly. The room began to shake right on cue, and the glass on her bathroom shelf began to tinkle, and her floor quivered, and her room door creaked, and our abandoned shoes hopped and moved, and her bed shook and bounced and walked tiny fractions. And at the very end of it I was sure I heard a sound like a cymbal crash, vanishingly brief and faint and distant, like an instant metallic explosion, like molecules reduced to atoms, and then the midnight train was gone.

Afterward we showered together, and then I dressed and got ready to head home, to face the music. Deveraux smiled bravely and asked me to drop by anytime I was in the area, and I smiled bravely and said I would. I left the hotel and walked up to the silent diner and climbed into the borrowed Buick and drove east, past Fort Kelham's impressive gate, and then onward into Alabama, and then north, no traffic, nighttime hours all the way, and I was back on post before dawn.

I hid out and slept four hours and emerged to find that my hasty dictation to Garber's night crew had been adopted by the army more or less word for word as the official version of events. Tones everywhere were hushed and reverent. There was talk of a posthumous Distinguished Service Medal for Reed Riley, to recognize his time in an unspecified foreign country, and his father was to have a memorial service in a grand D.C. church the following week, to recognize who knew what.

I got neither medal nor memorial. I got thirty minutes with Leon Garber. He told me right away the news was not good. The fat staff officer from Kelham's PR squad had done the damage. His call to Benning had bounced around, mostly upward, at a very bad time, and it had been followed by a written report, and as a result of both I was on the involuntary separation list. Garber said under the circumstances it would be the work of a moment to get me taken off again. No doubt about that. I could extract a price for my silence. He would broker the deal, gladly.

Then he went quiet.

I said, ’’What?’’

He said, ’’But your life wouldn't be worth living. You'd never get promoted again. You'd be terminal at major if you lived to be a hundred. You'd be deployed to a storage depot in New Jersey. You can get off the separation list, but you'll never get off the shit list. That's how the army works. You know that.’’

’’I covered the army's ass.’’

’’And the army will be reminded of that every time it sees you.’’

’’I have a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.’’

’’But what have you done for me lately?’’

Garber's clerk gave me a sheet of paper explaining the procedure. I could do it in person at the Pentagon, or I could do it by mail. So I got back in the Buick and headed for D.C. I had to return the car to Neagley anyway. I got there a half hour before the banks closed, and I picked one at random and moved my account. They offered me my choice of a toaster oven or a CD player. I took neither one, but I asked for their phone number and I registered a password.

Then I headed over to the Pentagon. I chose the main concourse entrance, and I got halfway to the door, and then I stopped. The crowd carried on around me, oblivious. I didn't want to go in. I borrowed a pen from an impatient passerby and I signed my form and I dropped it in a mailbox. Then I walked through the graveyard and out the main gate to the tangle of roads between it and the river.

I was thirty-six years old, a citizen of a country I had barely seen, and there were places to go, and there were things to do. There were cities, and there was countryside. There were mountains, and there were valleys. There were rivers. There were museums, and music, and motels, and clubs, and diners, and bars, and buses. There were battlefields and birthplaces, and legends, and roads. There was company if I wanted it, and there was solitude if I didn't.

I picked a road at random, and I put one foot on the curb and one in the traffic lane, and I stuck out my thumb.


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