Tripwire Chapter 18

HE KNEW HE was dying because faces were coming toward him and all of them were faces he recognized. They came in a long stream, unending, ones and twos together, and there were no strangers among them. He had heard it would be like this. Your life was supposed to flash before your eyes. Everybody said so. And now it was happening. So he was dying.

He guessed when the faces stopped, that was it. He wondered who the last one would be. There were a number of candidates. He wondered who chose the order. Whose decision was it? He felt mildly irritated he wasn't allowed to specify. And what would happen next? When the last face was gone, what then?

But something was going seriously wrong. A face loomed up who he didn't know. It was then he realized the Army was in charge of the parade. It had to be. Only the Army could accidentally include someone he had never seen before. A complete stranger, in the wrong place at the wrong time. He supposed it was fitting. He had lived most of his life under the control of the Army. He supposed it was pretty natural they would take charge of organizing this final part. And one mistake was tolerable. Normal, even acceptable, for the Army.

But this guy was touching him. Hitting him. Hurting him. He suddenly realized the parade had finished before this guy. This guy wasn't in the parade at all. He came after it. Maybe this guy was there to finish him off. Yes, that was it. Had to be that way. This guy was here to make sure he died on schedule. The parade was over, and the Army couldn't let him survive it. Why should they go to all the trouble of putting it on and then have him survive it? That would be no good. No good at all. That would be a serious lapse in procedure. He tried to recall who had come before this guy. The second-to-last person, who was really the last person. He didn't remember. He hadn't paid attention. He slipped away and died without remembering who had been the last face in his parade.

HE WAS DEAD, but he was still thinking. Was that OK? Was this the afterlife? That would be a hell of a thing. He had lived nearly thirty-nine years assuming there was no afterlife. Some people had agreed with him, others had argued with him. But he'd always been adamant about it. Now he was right there in it. Somebody was going to come sneering up to him and say told you so. He would, if the boot was on the other foot. He wouldn't let somebody get away with being absolutely wrong about something, not without a little friendly ribbing at least.

He saw Jodie Garber. She was going to tell him. No, that wasn't possible. She wasn't dead. Only a dead person could yell at you in the afterlife, surely. A live person couldn't do it. That was pretty obvious. A live person wasn't in the afterlife. And Jodie Garber was a live person. He'd made certain of it. That had been the whole damn point. And anyway, he was pretty sure he had never discussed the afterlife with Jodie Garber. Or had he? Maybe many years ago, when she was still a kid? But it was Jodie Garber. And she was going to speak to him. She sat down in front of him and pushed her hair behind her ears. Long blond hair, small ears.

’’Hi, Reacher,’’ she said.

It was her voice. No doubt about it. No mistake. So maybe she was dead. Maybe it had been an automobile accident. That would be a hell of an irony. Maybe she was hit by a speeding truck on lower Broadway, on her way home from the World Trade Center.

’’Hey, Jodie,’’ he said.

She smiled. There was communication. So she was dead. Only a dead person could hear another dead person speak, surely. But he had to know.

’’Where are we?’’ he asked.

’’St. Vincent's,’’ she said.

Saint Peter he had heard of. He was the guy at the gates. He had seen pictures. Well, not really pictures, but cartoons, at least. He was an old guy in a robe, with a beard. He stood at a lectern and asked questions about why you should be let in. But he didn't remember Saint Peter asking him any questions. Maybe that came later. Maybe you had to go out again, and then try to get back in.

But who was Saint Vincent? Maybe he was the guy who ran the place you stayed while you were waiting for Saint Peter's questions. Like the boot camp part. Maybe old Vincent ran the Fort Dix equivalent. Well, that would be no problem. He'd murdered boot camp. Easiest time he'd ever done. He could do it again. But he was annoyed about it. He'd finished up a major, for God's sake. He'd been a star. He had medals. Why the hell should he do boot camp all over again?

And why was Jodie here? She was supposed to be alive. He realized his left hand was clenching. He was intensely irritated. He'd saved her life, because he loved her. So why was she dead now? What the hell was going on? He tried to struggle upright. Something was tying him down. What the hell? He was going to get some answers or he was going to knock some heads together.

’’Take it easy,’’ Jodie said to him.

’’I want to see Saint Vincent,’’ he said. ’’And I want to see him right now. Tell him to get his sorry ass in this room inside five minutes or I'm going to be seriously pissed off.’’

She looked at him and nodded.

’’OK,’’ she said.

Then she looked away and stood up. She disappeared from his sight and he lay back down. This wasn't any kind of a boot camp. It was too quiet, and the pillows were soft.

LOOKING BACK, IT should have been a shock. But it wasn't. The room just swam into focus and he saw the decor and the shiny equipment and he thought hospital. He changed from being dead to being alive with the same little mental shrug a busy man gives when he realizes he's wrong about what day it is.

The room was bright with sun. He moved his head and saw he had a window. Jodie was sitting in a chair next to it, reading. He kept his breathing low and watched her. Her hair was washed and shiny. It fell past her shoulders, and she was twirling a strand between her finger and thumb. She was wearing a yellow sleeveless dress. Her shoulders were brown with summer. He could see the little knobs of bone on top. Her arms were long and lean. Her legs were crossed. She was wearing tan penny loafers that matched the dress. Her ankles glowed brown in the sun.

’’Hey, Jodie,’’ he said.

She turned her head and looked at him. Searched his face for something and when she found it she smiled.

’’Hey yourself,’’ she said. She dropped the book and stood up. Walked three paces and bent and kissed him gently on the lips.

’’St. Vincent's,’’ he said. ’’You told me, but I was confused.’’

She nodded.

’’You were full of morphine,’’ she said. ’’They were pumping it in like crazy. Your bloodstream would have kept all the addicts in New York happy.’’

He nodded. Glanced at the sun in the window. It looked like afternoon.

’’What day is it?’’

’’It's July. You've been out three weeks.’’

’’Christ, I ought to feel hungry.’’

She moved around the foot of the bed and came up on his left. Laid her hand on his forearm. It was turned palm-up and there were tubes running into the veins of his elbow.

’’They've been feeding you,’’ she said. ’’I made sure you got what you like. You know, lots of glucose and saline.’’

He nodded.

’’Can't beat saline,’’ he said.

She went quiet.

’’What?’’ he asked.

’’Do you remember?’’

He nodded again.

’’Everything,’’ he said.

She swallowed.

’’I don't know what to say,’’ she whispered. ’’You took a bullet for me.’’

’’My fault,’’ he said. ’’I was too slow, is all. I was supposed to trick him and get him first. But apparently I survived it. So don't say anything. I mean it. Don't ever mention it.’’

’’But I have to say thank you,’’ she whispered.

’’Maybe I should say thank you,’’ he said. ’’Feels good to know somebody worth taking a bullet for.’’

She nodded, but not because she was agreeing. It was just random physical motion designed to keep her from crying.

’’So how am I?’’ he asked.

She paused for a long moment.

’’I'll get the doctor,’’ she said quietly. ’’He can tell you better than me.’’

She went out and a guy in a white coat came in. Reacher smiled. It was the guy the Army had sent to finish him off at the end of his parade. He was a small, wide, hairy man who could have found work wrestling.

’’You know anything about computers?’’ he asked.

Reacher shrugged and started worrying this was a coded lead-in to bad news about a brain injury, impairment, loss of memory, loss of function.

’’Computers?’’ he said. ’’Not really.’’

’’OK, try this,’’ the doctor said. ’’Imagine a big Cray supercomputer humming away. We feed it everything we know about human physiology and everything we know about gunshot wounds and then we ask it to design us a male person best equipped to survive a thirty-eight in the chest. Suppose it hums away for a week. What does it come up with?’’

Reacher shrugged again. ’’I don't know.’’

’’A picture of you, my friend,’’ the doctor said. ’’That's what. The damn bullet didn't even make it into your chest. Your pectoral muscle is so thick and so dense it stopped it dead. Like a three-inch kevlar vest. It popped out the other side of the muscle wall and smashed a rib, but it went no farther.’’

’’So why was I out three weeks?’’ Reacher asked immediately. ’’Not for a muscle wound or a broken rib, that's for damn sure. Is my head OK?’’

The doctor did a weird thing. He clapped his hands and punched the air. Then he stepped closer, beaming all over his face.

’’I was worried about it,’’ he said. ’’Real worried about it. Bad wound. I would have figured it for a nail gun, until they told me it was shotgun debris from manufactured furniture. It penetrated your skull and was about an eighth inch into your brain. Frontal lobe, my friend, bad place to have a nail. If I had to have a nail in my skull, the frontal lobe would definitely not be my first choice. But if I had to see a nail in anybody else's frontal lobe I'd pick yours, I guess, because you've got a skull thicker than Neanderthal man's. Anybody normal, that nail would have been all the way in, and that would have been thank you and good night.’’

’’So am I OK?’’ Reacher asked again.

’’You just saved us ten thousand dollars in tests,’’ the doctor said happily. ’’I told you the news about the chest, and what did you do? Analytically? You compared it with your own internal database, realized it wasn't a very serious wound, realized it couldn't have needed three weeks of coma, remembered your other injury, put two and two together and asked the question you asked. Immediately. No hesitation. Fast, logical thinking, assembly of pertinent information, rapid conclusion, lucid questioning of the source of a possible answer. Nothing wrong with your head, my friend. Take that as a professional opinion.’’

Reacher nodded slowly. ’’So when can I get out of here?’’

The doctor took the medical chart off the foot of the bed. There was a mass of paper clipped to a metal board. He riffed it through. ’’Well, your health is excellent in general, but we better watch you a while. Couple more days, maybe.’’

’’Nuts to that,’’ Reacher said. ’’I'm leaving tonight.’’

The doctor nodded. ’’Well, see how you feel in an hour.’’

He stepped close and stretched up to a valve on the bottom of one of the IV bags. Clicked it a notch and tapped a tube with his finger. Watched carefully and nodded and walked back out of the room. He passed Jodie in the doorway. She was walking in with a guy in a seersucker jacket. He was about fifty, pale, short gray hair. Reacher watched him and thought a buck gets ten this is the Pentagon guy.

’’Reacher, this is General Mead,’’ Jodie said.

’’Department of the Army,’’ Reacher said.

The guy in the jacket looked at him, surprised. ’’Have we met?’’

Reacher shook his head. ’’No, but I knew one of you would be sniffing around, soon as I was up and running.’’

Mead smiled. ’’We've been practically camped out here. To put it bluntly, we'd like you to keep quiet about the Carl Allen situation.’’

’’Not a chance,’’ Reacher said.

Mead smiled again and waited. He was enough of an Army bureaucrat to know the steps. Leon used to say something for nothing, that's a foreign language.

’’The Hobies,’’ Reacher said. ’’Fly them down to D.C. first class, put them up in a five-star hotel, show them their boy's name on the Wall and make sure there's a shitload of brass in full-dress uniform saluting like crazy the whole time they're doing it. Then I'll keep quiet.’’

Mead nodded.

’’It'll be done,’’ he said. He got up unbidden and went back outside. Jodie sat down on the foot of the bed.

’’Tell me about the police,’’ Reacher said. ’’Have I got questions to answer?’’

She shook her head.

’’Allen was a cop killer,’’ she said. ’’You stick around NYPD territory and you'll never get another ticket in your life. It was self-defense, everybody's cool.’’

’’What about my gun? It was stolen.’’

’’No, it was Allen's gun. You wrestled it away from him. Roomful of witnesses saw you do it.’’

He nodded slowly. Saw the spray of blood and brains all over again as he shot him. A pretty good shot, he thought. Dark room, stress, a nail in his head, a.38 slug in his chest, bull's-eye. Pretty damn close to the perfect shot. Then he saw the hook again, up at Jodie's face, hard steel against the honey of her skin.

’’You OK?’’ he asked her.

’’I'm fine,’’ she said.

’’You sure? No bad dreams?’’

’’No bad dreams. I'm a big girl now.’’

He nodded again. Recalled their first night together. A big girl. Seemed like a million years ago.

’’But are you OK?’’ she asked him back.

’’The doctor thinks so. He called me Neanderthal man.’’

’’No, seriously.’’

’’How do I look?’’

’’I'll show you,’’ she said.

She ducked away to the bathroom and came back with the mirror from the wall. It was a round thing, framed in plastic. She propped it on his legs and he steadied it with his right hand and looked. He still had a fearsome tan. Blue eyes. White teeth. His head had been shaved. The hair had grown back an eighth of an inch. On the left of his face was a peppering of scars. The nail hole in his forehead was lost among the debris of a long and violent life. He could make it out because it was redder and newer than the rest, but it was no bigger than the mark a half-inch away where his brother, Joe, had caught him with a shard of glass in some long-forgotten childhood dispute over nothing, in the same exact year Hobie's Huey went down. He tilted the mirror and saw broad strapping over his chest, snowy white against the tan. He figured he had lost maybe thirty pounds. Back to 220, his normal weight. He handed the mirror back to Jodie and tried to sit up. He was suddenly dizzy.

’’I want to get out of here,’’ he said.

’’You sure?’’ she asked.

He nodded. He was sure, but he felt very sleepy. He put his head back on the pillow, just temporarily. He was warm and the pillow was soft. His head weighed a ton and his neck muscles were powerless to move it. The room was darkening. He swiveled his eyes upward and saw the IV bags hanging in the far distance above him. He saw the valve the doctor had adjusted. He had clicked it. He remembered the plastic sound. There was writing on the IV bag. The writing was upside down. He focused on it. Concentrated hard. The writing was green. It read Morphine.

’’Shit,’’ he whispered, and the room spun away into total darkness.

WHEN HE OPENED his eyes again, the sun had moved backward. It was earlier in the day. Morning, not afternoon. Jodie was sitting in her chair by the window, reading. The same book. She was a half-inch farther through it. Her dress was blue, not yellow.

’’It's tomorrow,’’ he said.

She closed the book and stood up. Stepped over and bent and kissed his lips. He kissed her back and clamped his teeth and pulled the IV needles out of his arm and dropped them over the side of the bed. They started a steady drip onto the floor. He hauled himself upright against the pillows and smoothed a hand over his bristly scalp.

’’How do you feel?’’ she asked.

He sat still in the bed and concentrated on a slow survey up his body, starting with his toes and ending with the top of his head.

’’Fine,’’ he said.

’’There are people here to see you,’’ she said. ’’They heard you'd come around.’’

He nodded and stretched. He could feel the chest wound. It was on the left. There was weakness there. He reached up with his left hand to the IV stand. It was a vertical stainless steel bar with a spiral curl at the top where the bags slipped on. He put his hand over the curl and squeezed hard. He felt bruising in his elbow where the needles had been and sensitivity in his chest where the bullet had been, but the steel spiral still flattened from round to oval. He smiled.

’’OK, send them in,’’ he said.

He knew who they were before they got inside. He could tell by the sound. The wheels on the oxygen cart squeaked. The old lady stood aside and let her husband enter first. She was wearing a brand-new dress. He was in the same old blue serge suit. He wheeled the cart past her and paused. He kept hold of the handle with his left hand and drew his right up into a trembling salute. He held it for a long moment and Reacher replied with the same. He threw his best parade-ground move and held it steady, meaning every second of it. Then he snapped it down and the old guy wheeled the cart slowly toward him with his wife fussing behind.

They were changed people. Still old, still feeble, but serene. Knowing your son is dead is better than not knowing, he guessed. He tracked back to Newman's windowless lab in Hawaii and recalled Allen's casket with Victor Hobie's skeleton in it. Victor Hobie's old bones. He remembered them pretty well. They were distinctive. The smooth arch of the brow, the high round cranium. The even white teeth. The long, clean limbs. It was a noble skeleton.

’’He was a hero, you know.’’

The old man nodded.

’’He did his duty.’’

’’Much more than that,’’ Reacher replied. ’’I read his record. I talked with General DeWitt. He was a brave flyer who did more than his duty. He saved a lot of lives with his courage. If he'd lived, he'd have three stars now. He'd be General Victor Truman Hobie, with a big command somewhere, or a big job in the Pentagon.’’

It was what they needed to hear, but it was still true. The old woman put her thin pale hand over her husband's and they sat in silence, eyes moist and focused eleven thousand miles away. They were telling themselves stories of what might have been. The past stretched away straight and uncomplicated and now it was neatly amputated by a noble combat death, leaving only honest dreams ahead of it. They were recounting those dreams for the first time, because now they were legitimate. Those dreams were fortifying them just like the oxygen hissing in and out of the bottle in time with the old man's ragged breathing.

’’I can die happy now,’’ he said.

Reacher shook his head.

’’Not yet you can't,’’ he said. ’’You have to go see the Wall. His name will be there. I want you to bring me a photograph of it.’’

The old man nodded and his wife smiled a watery smile.

’’Miss Garber told us you might be living over in Garrison,’’ she said. ’’You might be our neighbor.’’

Reacher nodded.

’’It's possible,’’ he said.

’’Miss Garber is a fine young woman.’’

’’Yes, ma'am, she is.’’

’’Stop your nonsense,’’ the old man said to her. Then they told him they couldn't stay, because their neighbor had driven them down and had to get back. Reacher watched them all the way out to the corridor. Soon as they were gone, Jodie came back in, smiling.

’’The doctor says you can leave.’’

’’So can you drive me? Did you get a new car yet?’’

She shook her head. ’’Just a rental. No time for shopping. Hertz brought me a Mercury. It's got satellite navigation.’’

He stretched his arms above his head and flexed his shoulders. They felt OK. Surprisingly good. His ribs were fine. No pain.

’’I need clothes,’’ he said. ’’I guess those old ones got ruined.’’

She nodded. ’’Nurses sliced them off with scissors.’’

’’You were here for that?’’

’’I've been here all the time,’’ she said. ’’I'm living in a room down the hall.’’

’’What about work?’’

’’Leave of absence,’’ she said. ’’I told them, agree or I quit.’’

She ducked down to a laminate cupboard and came out with a stack of clothes. New jeans, new shirt, new jacket, new socks and shorts, all folded and piled together, his old shoes squared on top, Army-style.

’’They're nothing special,’’ she said. ’’I didn't want to take too much time out. I wanted to be with you when you woke up.’’

’’You sat around here for three weeks?’’

’’Felt like three years,’’ she said. ’’You were all scrunched up. Comatose. You looked awful. In a real bad way.’’

’’This satellite thing,’’ he said. ’’Does it have Garrison on it?’’

’’You going up there?’’

He shrugged.

’’I guess. I need to take it easy, right? Country air might do me good.’’

Then he looked away from her.

’’Maybe you could stay with me awhile, you know, help me recover.’’

He threw back the sheet and slid his feet to the floor. Stood up, slow and unsteady, and started to dress, while she held his elbow to keep him from falling.

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