Worth Dying For Chapter Twenty Seven

SIXTY-TWO

THE DOCTOR AND HIS WIFE WERE WAITING IN DOROTHY COE'S truck, back on the two-lane road. Reacher and Dorothy parked ahead of them and they all got out and stood together. The Duncan compound was reduced to three vertical chimneys and a wide horizontal spread of ashy grey timbers that were still burning steadily, but no longer fiercely. Smoke was coming up and gathering into a wide column that seemed to rise for ever. It was the only thing moving. The sun was as high as it was going to get, and the rest of the sky was blue.

Reacher said, 'You've got a lot of work to do. Get everyone on it. Get backhoes and bucket loaders and dig some big holes. Really big holes. Then gather the trash and bury it deep. But save some space for later. Their van will arrive at some point, and the driver is just as guilty as the rest of them.'

The doctor said, 'We have to kill him?'

'You can bury him alive, for all I care.'

'You're leaving now?'

Reacher nodded.

'I'm going to Virginia,'he said.

'Can't you stay a day or two?'

'You all are in charge now, not me.'

'What about the football players at my house?'

'Turn them loose and tell them to get out of town. They'll be happy to. There's nothing left for them here.'

The doctor said, 'But they might tell someone. Or someone might have seen the smoke. From far away. The cops might come.'

Reacher said, 'If they do, blame everything on me. Give them my name. By the time they figure out where I am, I'll be somewhere else.'

Dorothy Coe drove Reacher the first part of the way. They climbed back in the Yukon together and checked the gas gauge. There was enough for maybe sixty miles. They agreed she would take him thirty miles south, and then she would drive the same thirty miles back, and then after that filling the tank would be John's own problem.

They drove the first ten miles in silence. Then they passed the abandoned roadhouse and the two-lane speared onward and empty ahead of them and Dorothy asked, 'What's in Virginia?'

'A woman,'Reacher said.

'Your girlfriend?'

'Someone I talked to on the phone, that's all. I wanted to meet her in person. Although now I'm not so sure. Not yet, anyway. Not looking like this.'

'What's the matter with the way you look?'

'My nose,'Reacher said. He touched the tape, and smoothed it down, two-handed. He said, 'It's going to be a couple of weeks before it's presentable.'

'What's her name, this woman in Virginia?'

'Susan.'

'Well, I think you should go. I think if Susan objects to the way you look, then she isn't worth meeting.'

They stopped at a featureless point on the road that had to be almost exactly halfway between the Apollo Inn and the Cell Block bar. Reacher opened his door and Dorothy Coe asked him, 'Will you be OK here?'

He nodded.

He said, 'I'll be OK wherever I am. Will you be OK back there?'

'No,'she said. 'But I'll be better than I was.'

She sat there behind the wheel, a solid, capable woman, about sixty years old, blunt and square, worn down by work, worn down by hardship, fading slowly to grey, but better than she had been before. Reacher said nothing, and climbed out to the shoulder, and closed his door. She looked at him once, through the window, and then she looked away and turned across the width of the road and drove back north. Reacher pulled his hat down over his ears and jammed his hands in his pockets against the cold, and got set to wait for a ride.

He waited a long, long time. For the first hour nothing came by at all. Then a vehicle appeared on the horizon, and a whole minute later it was close enough to make out some detail. It was a small import, probably Japanese, a Honda or a Toyota, old, with blue paint faded by the weather. A sixth-hand purchase. Reacher stood up and stuck out his thumb. The car slowed, which didn't necessarily mean much. Pure reflex. A driver's eyes swivel right, and his foot lifts off the gas, automatically. In this case the driver was a woman, young, probably a college student. She had long fair hair. Her car was piled high inside with all kinds of stuff.

She looked for less than a second and then accelerated and drove by at sixty, trailing cold air and whirling grit and tyre whine. Reacher watched her go. A good decision, probably. Lone women shouldn't stop in the middle of nowhere for giant unkempt strangers with duct tape on their faces.

He sat down again on the shoulder. He was tired. He had woken up in Vincent's motel room early the previous morning, when Dorothy Coe came in to service it, and he hadn't slept since. He pulled his hood up over his hat and lay down on the dirt. He crossed his ankles and crossed his arms over his chest and went to sleep.

* * *

It was going dark when he woke. The sun was gone in the west and the pale remains of a winter sunset were all that was lighting the sky. He sat up, and then he stood. No traffic. But he was a patient man. He was good at waiting.

He waited ten more minutes, and saw another vehicle on the horizon. It had its lights on against the gloaming. He flipped his hood down to reduce his apparent bulk and stood easy, one foot on the dirt, one on the blacktop, and he stuck his thumb out. The approaching vehicle was bigger than a car. He could tell by the way the headlights were spaced. It was tall and relatively narrow. It had a big windshield. It was a panel van.

It was a grey panel van.

It was the same kind of grey panel van as the two grey panel vans he had seen at the Duncan depot.

It slowed a hundred yards away, the automatic reflex, but then it kept on slowing, and it came to a stop right next to him. The driver leaned way over and opened the passenger door and a light came on inside.

The driver was Eleanor Duncan.

She was wearing black jeans and an insulated parka. The parka was covered in zips and pockets and it gleamed and glittered in the light. Its threads had been nowhere near any living thing, either plant or animal.

She said, 'Hello.'

Reacher didn't answer. He was looking at the truck, inside and out. It was travel-stained. It had salt and dirt on it, all streaked and dried and dusty. It had been on a long journey.

He said, 'This was the shipment, right? This is the truck they used.'

Eleanor Duncan nodded.

He asked, 'Who was in it?'

Eleanor Duncan said, 'Six young women and ten young girls. From Thailand.'

'Were they OK?'

'They were fine. Not surprisingly. It seems that a lot of trouble had been taken to make sure they arrived in marketable condition.'

'What did you do with them?'

'Nothing.'

'Then where are they?'

'They're still in the back of this truck.'

'What?'

'We didn't know what to do. They were lured here under false pretences, obviously. They were separated from their families. We decided we have to get them home again.'

'How are you going to do that?'

'I'm driving them to Denver.'

'What's in Denver?'

'There are Thai restaurants.'

'That's your solution? Thai restaurants?'

'It isn't nearly as dumb as it sounds. Think about it, Reacher. We can't go to the police. These women are illegal. They'll be detained for months, in a government jail. That would be awful for them. We thought at least they should be with people who speak their own language. Like a supportive community. And restaurant workers are connected, aren't they? Some of them were smuggled in themselves. We thought perhaps they could use the same organizations, but in reverse, to get out again.'

'Whose idea was this?'

'Everybody's. We discussed it all day, and then we voted.'

'Terrific.'

'You got a better idea?'

Reacher said nothing. He just looked at the blank grey side of the van, and its salt stains, all dried in long feathered aerodynamic patterns. He put his palm on the cold metal.

Eleanor Duncan asked, 'You want to meet them?'

Reacher said, 'No.'

'You saved them.'

Reacher said, 'Luck and happenstance saved them. Therefore I don't want to meet them. I don't want to see their faces, because then I'll get to thinking about what would have happened to them if luck and happenstance hadn't come along.'

There was a long pause. The van idled, the breeze blew, the sky darkened, the air grew colder.

Then Eleanor Duncan said, 'You want a ride to the highway at least?'

Reacher nodded and climbed in.

They didn't talk for twenty miles. Then they rumbled past the Cell Block bar and Reacher said, 'You knew, didn't you?'

Eleanor Duncan said, 'No.'Then she said, 'Yes.'Then she said, 'I thought I knew the exact opposite. I really did. I thought I knew it for absolute sure. I knew it so intensely that eventually I realized I was just trying to convince myself.'

'You knew where Seth came from.'

'I told you I didn't. Just before you stole his car.'

'And I didn't believe you. Up to that point you had answered fourteen consecutive questions with no hesitation at all. Then I asked you about Seth, and you stalled. You offered us a drink. You were evasive. You were buying time to think.'

'Do you know where Seth came from?'

'I figured it out eventually.'

She said, 'So tell me your version.'

Reacher said, 'The Duncans liked little girls. They always had. It was their lifelong hobby. People like that form communities. Back in the days before the internet they did it by mail and clandestine face to face meetings. Photo swaps, and things like that. Maybe conventions. Maybe guest participation. There were alliances between interest groups. My guess is a group that liked little boys was feeling some heat. They went to ground. They fostered the evidence with their pals. It was supposed to be temporary, until the heat went away, but no one came back for Seth. The guy was probably beaten to death in jail. Or by the cops, in a back room. So the Duncans were stuck. But they were OK with it. Maybe they thought it was kind of cute, to get a son without the involvement of a real grown woman. So they kept him. Jacob adopted him.'

Eleanor Duncan nodded. 'Seth told me he had been rescued. Back when we still talked. He said Jacob had rescued him out of an abusive situation. Like an act of altruism and charity. And principle. I believed him. Then over the years I sensed the Duncans were doing something bad, but what turned out to be the truth was always the last thing on my mental list. Always, I promise you. Because I felt they were so opposed to that kind of thing. I felt that rescuing Seth had proved it. I was blind for a long time. I thought they were shipping something else, like drugs or guns, or bombs, even.'

'What changed?'

'Things I heard. Just snippets. It became clear to me they were shipping people. Even then I thought it was just regular illegals. Like restaurant workers and so on.'

'Until?'

'Until nothing. I never knew for sure, until today. I promise you that. But I was getting more and more suspicious. There was too much money. And too much excitement. They were practically drooling. Even then I didn't believe it. Especially with Seth. I thought he would find that kind of thing totally repulsive, because he had suffered it himself. I didn't want to think it could cut the other way. But I guess it did. I suppose ultimately it was all he knew. And all he ever enjoyed.'

Reacher said, 'I'm no psychologist either.'

'I'm so ashamed,'Eleanor said. 'I'm not going back. They think I am, but I'm not. I can't face them. I can't be there ever again.'

'So what are you going to do?'

'I'm going to give this truck to whoever helps the people in it. Like a donation. Like a bribe. Then I'm going somewhere else. California, maybe.'

'How?'

'I'm going to hitchhike, like you. Then I'm going to start over.'

'Take care on the road. It can be dangerous.'

'I know. But I don't care. I feel like I deserve whatever I get.'

'Don't be too hard on yourself. At least you called the cops.'

She said, 'But they never came.'

Reacher didn't answer.

She said, 'How do you know I called the cops?'

'Because they came,'Reacher said. 'In a manner of speaking. That's the one thing no one ever asked me. No one put two and two together. Everyone knew I was hitchhiking, but no one ever wondered why I had been let out at a crossroads that didn't lead anywhere. Why would a driver stop there? Either he wouldn't have gotten there at all, or he would have carried on south for another sixty miles at least.'

'So who was he?'

'He was a cop,'Reacher said. 'State Police, in an unmarked car. He didn't say so, but it was pretty obvious. Nice enough guy. He picked me up way to the north. Almost in South Dakota. He told me he would have to drop me off in the middle of nowhere, because all he was doing was heading down and back. We didn't talk about reasons, and I didn't know he meant he was going back immediately. But that's what he did. He pulled over, he let me out, and then two seconds later he turned around and took off again, right back the way we had come.'

'Why would he?'

'GPS and politics,'Reacher said. 'That was my first guess. A big state like Nebraska, I figured there could be bitching and moaning about which parts get attention, and which don't. So I thought maybe they were defending themselves in advance. They could come out with still frames from their GPS systems to show they've been everywhere in the state at one time or another. Cop cars all have trackers now, and all that kind of stuff can be subpoenaed if they get called in front of a committee. Then a little later on I changed my mind. I wondered if they'd had a bullshit call from someone, and they knew they weren't going to do anything about it, but they still needed to cover their asses by being able to prove they had showed up, at least. Then later still I wondered if it hadn't been such a bullshit call after all, and whether it was you who had made it.'

'It was me. Four days ago. And it wasn't a bullshit call. I told them everything I was thinking. Why didn't the guy even get out of his car?'

'Prejudice and local knowledge,'Reacher said. 'I bet you mentioned Seth beat you.'

'Well, yes, I did. Because he did.'

'Therefore they ignored everything else you said. They put it down to a wronged wife making stuff up to get her husband in trouble. Cops can be like that sometimes. It ain't right, but that's how it is. And they certainly weren't going to tackle the domestic issue itself. Not against the Duncans. Because of local knowledge. Dorothy Coe told me some neighbourhood kids join the State Police. So either they were asked, or else the story had already gotten around some other way, but in either case the message was the same, which was, in that corner of that county, you can't mess with the Duncans.'

'I don't believe it.'

'You tried,'Reacher said. 'Along with everything else, you have to remember that. You tried to do the right thing.'

They drove on and blew through what counted as the downtown area, past the Chamber of Commerce billboard, past the aluminium coach diner, past the gas station with its Texaco sign and its three service bays, past the hardware store, and the liquor store, and the bank, and the tyre shop and the John Deere dealership and the grocery and the pharmacy, past the water tower, past McNally Street, past the signpost to the hospital, and onward into territory Reacher hadn't seen before. The van's engine muttered low, and the tyres hummed, and from time to time Reacher thought he heard sounds from the load space behind him, people moving around, talking occasionally, even laughing. Beside him Eleanor Duncan concentrated on the dark road ahead, and he watched her in the corner of his eye.

Then an hour and sixty miles later they saw bright vapour lights at the highway cloverleaf, and big green signs pointing west and east. Eleanor slowed and stopped and Reacher got out and waved her away. She used the first ramp, west towards Denver and Salt Lake City, and he walked under the bridge and set up on the eastbound ramp, one foot on the shoulder and one in the traffic lane, and he stuck out his thumb and smiled and tried to look friendly.


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