Running Blind


Chapter 16

 

  "SO YOU'RE GOING to Portland, Oregon," Blake said. "You and Harper. "

  "Why?" Reacher asked.

  "So you can visit with your old friend Rita Scimeca. The lady lieutenant you told us about? Got raped down in Georgia? She lives near Portland. Small village, east of the city. She's one of the eleven on your list. You can get down there and check out her basement. She says there's a brand-new washing machine in there. In a box. "

  "Did she open it?" Reacher asked.

  Blake shook his head. "No, Portland agents checked with her on the telephone. They told her not to touch it. Somebody's on the way over right now. "

  "If the guy's still in the area, Portland could be his next call. It's close enough. "

  "Correct," Blake said. "That's why there's somebody on the way over. "

  Reacher nodded. "So now you're guarding them? What's that thing about barn doors and horses bolting? "

  Blake shrugged. "Hey, only seven left alive, makes the manpower much more feasible. "

  It was a cop's sick humor in a car full of cops of one kind or another, but still it fell a little flat. Blake colored slightly and looked away.

  "Losing Alison gets to me, much as anybody," he said. "Like family, right?"

  "Especially to her sister, I guess," Reacher said.

  "Tell me about it," Blake said. "She was burned as hell when the news came in. Practically hyperventilating. Never seen her so agitated. "

  "You should take her off the case. "

  Blake shook his head. "I need her. "

  "You need something, that's for damn sure. "

  "Tell me about it. "

  SPOKANE TO THE small village east of Portland measured about three hundred and sixty miles on the map Blake showed them. They took the car the local agent had used to bring them in from the airport. It still had Alison Lamarr's address handwritten on the top sheet of the pad attached to the windshield. Reacher stared at it for a second. Then he tore it off and balled it up and tossed it into the rear footwell. Found a pen in the glove box and wrote directions on the next sheet: 90W- 395S-84W-35S-26W. He wrote them big enough to see them in the dark when they were tired. Underneath the big figures, he could still see Alison Lamarr's address, printed through by the pressure of the local guy's ballpoint.

  "Call it six hours," Harper said. "You drive three and I'll drive three. "

  Reacher nodded. It was completely dark when he started the engine. He turned around in the road, shoulder to shoulder, spinning the wheel, exactly like he was sure the guy had done, but two days later and two hundred yards south. Rolled through the narrow downhill curves to Route 90 and turned right. Once the lights of the city were behind them the traffic density fell away and he settled to a fast cruise west. The car was a new Buick, smaller and plainer than Lamarr's boat, but maybe a little faster because of it. That year must have been the Bureau's GM year. The Army had done the same thing. Staff car purchasing rotated strictly between GM, Ford, and Chrysler, so none of the domestic manufacturers could get pissed at the government.

  The road ran straight southwest through hilly terrain. He put the headlights on bright and eased the speed upward. Harper sprawled to his right, her seat reclined, her head tilted toward him. Her hair spilled down and glowed red and gold in the lights from the dash. He kept one hand on the wheel, the other resting down in his lap. He could see lights in his mirror. Halogen headlights, on bright, swinging and bouncing a mile behind him. They were closing, fast. He accelerated to more than seventy.

  "The Army teach you to drive this fast?" Harper asked.

  He made no reply. They passed a town called Sprague and the road straightened. Blake's map had shown it dead straight all the way to a town called Ritzville, twenty-something miles ahead. Reacher eased up toward eighty miles an hour, but the headlights behind were still closing fast. A long moment later a car blasted past them, a long low sedan, a wide maneuver, turbulent slip-stream, a full quarter-mile in the opposite lane. Then it eased back right and pulled on ahead like the FBI's Buick was crawling through a parking lot.

  "That's fast," Reacher said.

  "Maybe that's the guy," Harper said sleepily. "Maybe he's heading down to Portland too. Maybe we'll get him tonight. "

  "I've changed my mind," Reacher said. "I don't think he drives. I think he flies. "

  But he eased the speed a little higher anyway, to keep the distant taillights in sight.

  "And then what?" Harper said. "He rents a car at the local airport?"

  Reacher nodded in the dark. "That's my guess. Those tire prints they found? Very standard size. Probably some anonymous midsize midrange sedan the rental companies have millions of. "

  "Risky," Harper said. "Renting cars leaves a paper trail. "

  Reacher nodded again. "So does buying airplane tickets. But this guy is real organized. I'm sure he's got cast-iron false ID. Following the paper trail won't get anybody anywhere. "

  "Well, we'll do it anyway, I guess. And it means he's been face-to-face with people at the rental counters. "

  "Maybe not. Maybe he books ahead and gets express pickup. "

  Harper nodded. "The return guy would see him, though. "

  "Briefly. "

  The road was straight enough to see the fast car a mile ahead. Reacher found himself easing up over ninety, pacing himself behind it.

  "How long does it take to kill a person?" Harper asked.

  "Depends how you do it," Reacher said.

  "And we don't know how he's doing it. "

  "No, we don't. That's something we need to figure. But whatever way, he's pretty calm and careful about it. No mess anywhere, no spilled paint. My guess is it's got to be twenty, thirty minutes, minimum. "

  Harper nodded and stretched. Reacher caught a breath of her perfume as she moved.

  "So think about Spokane," she said. "He gets off the plane, picks up the car, drives a half hour to Alison's place, spends a half hour there, drives a half hour back, and gets the hell out. He wouldn't hang around, right?"

  "Not near the scene, I guess," Reacher said.

  "So the rental car could be returned within less than two hours. We should check real short rentals from the airports local to the scenes, see if there's a pattern. "

  Reacher nodded. "Yes, you should. That's how you'll do this thing, regular hard work. "

  Harper moved again. Turned sideways in her seat. "Sometimes you say we and sometimes you say you. You haven't made up your mind, but you're softening a little, you know that?"

  "I liked Alison, I guess, what I saw of her. "

  "And?"

  "And I like Rita Scimeca too, what I remember of her. I wouldn't want anything to happen. "

  Harper craned her head and watched the taillights a mile ahead.

  "So keep that guy in sight," she said.

  "He flies," Reacher said. "That's not the guy. "

  IT WASN'T THE guy. At the far limit of Ritzville he stayed on Route 90, swinging west toward Seattle. Reacher peeled off south onto 395, heading straight for Oregon. The road was still empty, but it was narrower and twistier, so he took some of the urgency out of his pace and let the car settle back to its natural cruise.

  "Tell me about Rita Scimeca," Harper said.

  Reacher shrugged at the wheel. "She was a little like Alison Lamarr, I guess. Didn't look the same, but she had the same feel about her. Tough, sporty, capable. Very unfazed by anything, as I recall. She was a second lieutenant. Great record. She blitzed the officer training. "

  He fell silent. He was picturing Rita Scimeca in his mind, and imagining her standing shoulder to shoulder with Alison Lamarr. Two fine women, as good as any the Army would ever get.

  "So here's another puzzle," he said. "How is the guy controlling them?"

  "Controlling?" Harper repeated.

  Reacher nodded. "Think about it. He gets into their houses, and thirty minutes later they're dead
in the tub, naked, not a mark on them. No disturbance, no mess. How is he doing that?"

  "Points a gun, I guess. "

  Reacher shook his head. "Two things wrong with that. If he's coming in by plane, he doesn't have a gun. You can't bring a gun on a plane. You know that, right? You didn't bring yours. "

  "If he's coming in by plane. That's only a guess right now. "

  "OK, but I was just thinking about Rita Scimeca. She was a real tough cookie. She was raped, which is how she got on this guy's list, I guess, because three men went to prison and got canned for it. But five guys came to get her that night. Only three of them got as far as raping her, because one guy got a broken pelvis and another guy got two broken arms. In other words, she fought like hell. "

  "So?"

  "So wouldn't Alison Lamarr have done the same thing? Even if the guy did have a gun, would Alison Lamarr have been meek and passive for thirty straight minutes?"

  "I don't know," Harper said.

  "You saw her. She was no kind of a wallflower. She was Army. She had infantry training. Either she'd have gotten mad and started a fight, or she'd have bided her time and tried to nail the guy somewhere along the way. But she didn't, apparently. Why not?"

  "I don't know," Harper said again.

  "Neither do I," Reacher said back.

  "We have to find this guy. "

  Reacher shook his head. "You're not going to. "

  "Why not?"

  "Because you're all so blinded by this profiling shit you're wrong about the motive, is why not. "

  Harper turned away and stared out of the window at the blackness speeding past.

  "You want to amplify that?" she said.

  "Not until I get Blake and Lamarr sitting still and paying attention. I'm only going to say it once. "

  THEY STOPPED FOR gas just after they crossed the Columbia River outside of Richland. Reacher filled the tank and Harper went inside to the bathroom. Then she came out again and got into the car on the driver's side, ready for her three hours at the wheel. She slid her seat forward while he slid his backward. Raked her hair behind her shoulders and adjusted the mirror. Twisted the key and fired it up. Took off again south and eased her way up to a cruise.

  They crossed the Columbia again after it looped away west and then they were in Oregon. I-84 followed the river, right on the state line. It was a fast, empty highway. Up ahead, the vastness of the Cascade Range loomed unseen in the blackness. The stars burned cold and tiny in the sky. Reacher lay back in his seat and watched them through the curve of the side glass, where it met the roof. It was nearly midnight.

  "You need to talk to me," Harper said. "Or I'll fall asleep at the wheel. "

  "You're as bad as Lamarr," Reacher said.

  Harper grinned in the dark. "Not quite. "

  "No, not quite, I guess," Reacher said.

  "But talk to me anyway. Why did you leave the Army?"

  "That's what you want to talk about?"

  "It's a topic, I guess. "

  "Why does everybody ask me that?"

  She shrugged. "People are curious. "

  "Why? Why shouldn't I leave the Army?"

  "Because I think you enjoyed it. Like I enjoy the FBI. "

  "A lot of it was very irritating. "

  She nodded. "Sure. The Bureau's very irritating too. Like a husband, I guess. Good points and bad points, but they're my points, you know what I mean? You don't get a divorce because of a little irritation. "

  "They downsized me out of there," he said.

  "No, they didn't. We read your record. They downsized numbers, but they didn't target you. You volunteered to go. "

  He was quiet for a mile or two. Then he nodded.

  "I got scared," he said.

  She glanced at him. "Of what?"

  "I liked it the way it was. I didn't want it to change. "

  "Into what?"

  "Something smaller, I guess. It was a huge, huge thing. You've got no idea. It stretched all around the world. They were going to make it smaller. I'd have gotten promotion, so I would have been higher up in a smaller organization. "

  "What's wrong with that? Big fish in a small pond, right?"

  "I didn't want to be a big fish," he said. "I liked being a small fish. "

  "You weren't a small fish," she said. "A major isn't small. "

  He nodded. "OK, I liked being a medium-sized fish. It was comfortable. Kind of anonymous. "

  She shook her head. "That's not enough reason to quit. "

  He looked up at the stars. They were stationary in the sky, a billion miles above him.

  "A big fish in a small pond has no place to swim," he said. "I'd have been in one place, years at a time. Some big desk someplace, then five years on, another bigger desk some other place. Guy like me, no political skills, no social graces, I'd have made full colonel and no farther. I'd have served out my time stuck there. Could have been fifteen or twenty years. "

  "But?"

  "But I wanted to keep moving. All my life, I've been moving, literally. I was scared to stop. I didn't know what being stuck somewhere would feel like, but my guess was I'd hate it. "

  "And?"

  He shrugged. "And now I am stuck someplace. "

  "And?" she said again.

  He shrugged again and said nothing. It was warm in the car. Warm, and comfortable.

  "Say the words, Reacher," she said. "Get it out. You're stuck someplace, and?"

  "And nothing. "

  "Bullshit, nothing. And?"

  He took a deep breath. "And I'm having a problem with it. "

  The car went quiet. She nodded, like she understood. "Jodie doesn't want to keep moving around, I guess. "

  "Well, would you?"

  "I don't know. "

  He nodded. "Problem is, she does know. She and I grew up the same, always moving, base to base to base, all around the world, a month here, six months there. So she lives the life she lives because she went out there and created it for herself, because it's exactly what she wants. She knows it's exactly what she wants because she knows exactly what the alternative is. "

  "She could move around a little. She's a lawyer. She could change jobs, time to time. "

  He shook his head. "Doesn't work that way. It's about career. She'll make partner sometime real soon, the way she's going, and then she'll probably work at the same firm her whole life. And anyway, I'm not talking about a couple of years here, three years there, buy a house, sell a house. I'm talking about if I wake up in Oregon tomorrow and I feel like going to Oklahoma or Texas or somewhere, I just go. With no idea about where I'm going the next day. "

  "A wanderer. "

  "It's important to me. "

  "How important, though?"

  He shrugged. "I don't know, exactly. "

  "How are you going to find out?"

  "Problem is, I am finding out. "

  "So what are you going to do?"

  He was quiet for another mile.

  "I don't know," he said.

  "You might get used to it. "

  "I might," he said. "But I might not. It feels awful deep in my blood. Like right now, middle of the night, heading down the road someplace I've never been, I feel real good. I just can't explain how good I feel. "

  She smiled. "Maybe it's the company. "

  He smiled back. "Maybe it is. "

  "So will you tell me something else?"

  "Like what?"

  "Why are we wrong about this guy's motive?"

  He shook his head. "Wait until we see what we find in Portland. "

  "What are we going to find in Portland?"

  "My guess is a carton full of paint cans, with absolutely no clue as to where they came from or who sent them there. "

  "So?"

  "So then we put two and two together and make four. The way you guys have got it, you ain't making four. You're making some big inexplicable number
that's a long, long way from four. "

  REACHER RACKED HIS seat back a little more and dozed through most of Harper's final hour at the wheel. The second-to-last leg of the trip took them up the northern flank of Mount Hood on Route 35. The Buick changed down to third gear to cope with the gradient, and the jerk from the transmission woke him again. He watched through the windshield as the road looped around behind the peak. Then Harper found Route 26 and swung west for the final approach, down the mountainside, toward the city of Portland.

  The nighttime view was spectacular. There was broken cloud high in the sky, and a bright moon, and starlight. There was snow piled in the gullies. The world was like a jagged sculpture in gray steel, glowing below them.

  "I can see the attraction of wandering," Harper said. "Sight like this. "

  Reacher nodded. "It's a big, big planet. "

  They passed through a sleeping town called Rhododendron and saw a sign pointing ahead to Rita Scimeca's village, five miles farther down the slope. When they got there, it was nearly three in the morning. There was a gas station and a general store on the through road. Both of them were closed up tight. There was a cross street running north into the lower slope of the mountain. Harper nosed up it. The cross street had cross streets of its own. Scimeca's was the third of them. It ran east up the slope.

  Her house was easy to spot. It was the only one on the street with lights in the windows. And the only one with a Bureau sedan parked outside. Harper stopped behind the sedan and turned off her lights and the motor died with a little shudder and silence enveloped them. The rear window of the Bureau car was misted with breath and there was a single head silhouetted in it. The head moved and the sedan door opened and a young man in a dark suit stepped out. Reacher and Harper stretched and unclipped their belts and opened their doors. Slid out and stood in the chill air with their breath clouding around them.

  "She's in there, safe and sound," the local guy said to them. "I was told to wait out here for you. "

  Harper nodded. "And then what?"

  "Then I stay out here," the guy said. "You do all the talking. I'm security detail until the local cops take over, eight in the morning. "

  "The cops going to cover twenty-four hours a day?" Reacher asked.

  The guy shook his head, miserably.

  "Twelve," he said. "I do the nights. "

  Reacher nodded. Good enough, he thought. The house was a big square clapboard structure, built side-on to the street so the front faced the view to the west. There was a generous front porch with gingerbread railings. The slope of the street made room for a garage under the house at the front. The garage door faced sideways, under the end of the porch. There was a short driveway. Then the land sloped upward, so that the rest of the basement would be dug into the hillside. The lot was small, surrounded with tall hurricane fencing marching up the rise. The yard was cultivated, with flowers everywhere, the color taken out of them by the silver moonlight.

  "She awake?" Harper asked.

  The local guy nodded. "She's in there waiting for you. "