Running Blind


Chapter 28

  THE CAPTAIN SHOWED them to a preflight waiting room on the second floor. It was a utilitarian space, lit by fluorescent tubes, linoleum on the floor, plastic stacking chairs in untidy formation around low tables. Old coffee rings on the tables, a trash can in the corner full of discarded cups.

  "It's not much," the captain said. "But then it's all we got. All kinds of top brass wait in here. "

  Reacher thought do they wait three hours? But he said nothing. Just thanked the guy and stood at the window and stared out at the runways. Nothing much was happening down there. Harper joined him for a second and then turned back and sat down in a chair.

  "Talk to me," she said. "What is it?"

  "Start with the motive," he said. "Who's got a motive? "

  "I don't know. "

  "Go back to Amy Callan. Suppose she'd been the only victim? Who would you be looking at for a motive? "

  "Her husband. "

  "Why her husband?"

  "Dead wife, you always look at the husband," she said. "Because motives are often personal. And the closest connection to a wife is a husband. "

  "And how would you be looking at him?"

  "How? Same as always. We'd sweat him, sweat his alibi, keep on going until something busted open. "

  "And he wouldn't hold up, right?"

  "Sooner or later, he'd crack. "

  Reacher nodded. "OK, so suppose it is Amy Callan's husband. How does he avoid getting sweated like that?"

  "He can't avoid it. "

  "Yes, he can. He can avoid it by going out and finding a bunch of women with some kind of a similarity with his wife and killing them too. Doing it in some bizarre fashion that he knows is going to get everybody rushing off on some flight of fancy. In other words he can camouflage his chosen target behind a farrago of bullshit. He can take the spotlight off of himself by burying the personal connection in a crowd. Like where's the best place to hide a grain of sand?"

  She nodded. "On the beach. "

  "Right," he said.

  "So is it Callan's husband?"

  "No, it isn't," he said. "But?"

  "But we only need a motive against one of the women," she said. "Not all of them together. All but one are just decoys. Sand on the beach. "

  "Camouflage," he said. "Background noise. "

  "So which one? Which one is the real target?"

  Reacher said nothing. Moved away from the window and sat down to wait.

  YOU WAIT. IT'S cold up there in the hills. Cold, and uncomfortable, crouched next to the rocks. The wind is blowing in from the west, and it's damp. But you just wait. Surveillance is important. Certainty is everything. You know that if you stay focused, you can do anything. Anything at all. So you wait.

  You watch the cop in his car and amuse yourself thinking about his plight. He's a few hundred feet away, but he's in a different world. You can step away from your rock and you've got a million acres of mountainside to use as a bathroom. He's down there in civilization. Streets, sidewalks, people's yards. He can't use them. He'd be arrested. He'd have to arrest himself. And he's not running the motor. So the car must be cold. Does that make it better or worse?

  You watch him, and you wait.

  THE CAPTAIN CAME back a little before the three hours were up. He led them downstairs and out through the same door they had used on the way in. A staff car was waiting there.

  "Have a pleasant flight," he said.

  The car drove them a mile around the perimeter track and then cut across toward a Boeing airliner standing alone on the apron. Fuel bowsers were disconnecting and ground crew were swarming. The plane was brand-new and stark white.

  "We don't paint them until we know they work right," the driver said.

  There was a wheeled ladder at the forward cabin door. Flight crew in uniform clustered at the top, with fat briefcases and clipboards thick with paper.

  "Welcome aboard," the copilot said. "You should be able to find an empty seat. "

  There were two hundred and sixty of them. It was a regular passenger plane with the fripperies stripped out. No televisions, no in-flight magazines, no stewardess call buttons. No blankets, no pillows, no headsets. The seats were all the same color, khaki. The fabric was crisp and it smelled new. Reacher took three seats for himself and sat sideways, propped up against the window.

  "We've done a lot of flying, the last few days," he said.

  Harper sat down behind him. Buckled her belt.

  "That's for sure," she said.

  "Listen up, guys," the copilot called to them down the aisle. "This is a military flight, not FAA, so you get the military preflight announcement, OK? Which is, don't worry, because we ain't going to crash. And if we do, you're mashed into ground beef and burned to a cinder anyway, so what's to worry about?"

  Reacher smiled. Harper ignored the guy.

  "So which one is the real target?" she asked again.

  "You can figure it out," Reacher said.

  The plane moved back and turned. Headed out for the runway. A minute later it was in the air, smooth, quiet, and powerful. Then it was over the sprawl of D. C. , climbing hard. Then it was high in the clouds, settling to a westward cruise.

  THE GUY'S STILL holding it in. He hasn't moved out of his car, and his car has stayed right there in front of her house. You watched his partner bring his lunch bag. There was a twenty-ounce cup of coffee with it. Poor bastard is going to be real miserable real soon. But it doesn't affect your plan. How could it? It's two o'clock, and time for the call.

  You open the stolen mobile. Dial her number. Press on the little green telephone pictogram. You hear the connection go through. You hear ring tone. You crouch low in the lee of your rock, ready to speak. It's warmer down there. You're out of the wind. The ring tone continues. Is she going to answer? Maybe she won't. The type of contrary bitch who won't let her bodyguard use her bathroom might not be above ignoring her phone. You feel a momentary thrill of panic. What are you going to do? What if she doesn't pick up?

  She picks up.

  "Hello?" she says.

  She's wary, annoyed, defensive. She thinks it's the police sergeant, about to complain. Or the Bureau coordinator, about to persuade her back into line.

  "Hello, Rita," you say.

  She hears your voice. You feel her relax.

  "Yes?" she says.

  You tell her what you want her to do.

  "NOT THE FIRST one," Harper said. "The first one would be random. Leading us away from the scent. Probably not the second either. The second establishes the pattern. "

  "I agree," Reacher said. "Callan and Cooke were background noise. They started the smoke screen. "

  Harper nodded. Went quiet. She had moved out from behind him. Now she was sprawled across the opposite row in the empty plane. It was a weird feeling. Familiar, but strange. Nothing around them but neat uniform rows of vacant seats.

  "But he wouldn't leave it too late," Harper said. "He's got a target, he'd want to hit it before anything unraveled, right?"

  "I agree," Reacher said again.

  "So it's the third or the fourth. "

  Reacher nodded. Said nothing.

  "But which one?" Harper asked. "What's the key?"

  "Everything," Reacher said. "Same as it always was. The clues. The geography, the paint, the lack of violence. "

  LUNCH WAS A cold wrinkled apple and a square of Swiss cheese, which was about all her refrigerator had to offer. She served it to herself on a plate, to preserve some semblance of order. Then she washed the plate and put it back in the cupboard and walked through the hallway and unlocked the front door. Stood in the cold for a second and walked down her path to the driveway. The police car was still parked right across the opening. The cop saw her coming and buzzed his passenger window down.

  "I came to apologize," she said. She kept it as sweet as she could. "I shouldn't have said what I said. It's just getting to m
e a little, is all. Of course you should come in, anytime you need to. "

  The guy was staring at her, half puzzled, like he was thinking women! to himself. She kept her smile going and lifted her eyebrows and tilted her head like she was reinforcing her invitation.

  "Well, I'll come in right now," the guy said. "If you're sure it's OK. "

  She nodded and waited for him to get out. She noticed he left the passenger window down. The car would be cold when he got back. She led him back up the path. He was hurrying behind her. Poor guy must be desperate, she thought.

  "You know where it is," she said.

  She waited in the hallway. He came back out of the powder room with a relieved expression on his face. She held the front door for him.

  "Anytime," she said. "Just ring the bell. "

  "OK, ma'am," he said. "If you're sure. "

  "I'm sure," she said. "I appreciate what you're doing for me. "

  "What we're here for," the guy said, proud and shy.

  She watched him all the way back to the car. Locked the door again and stepped into the parlor. Stood and looked at the piano and decided to give it another forty-five minutes. Maybe an hour.

  THAT'S BETTER. AND the timing might be about right. You can't be sure. You're an expert in a lot of things, but you're not a urologist. You watch him on the way back to the car, and you figure he's too young to be into prostate trouble, so all that's going to count is the fullness of his bladder balanced against his natural reluctance to bother her again. Two-thirty now, he's bound to want to go at least twice more before eight. Probably once before and once after she's dead.

  THE CLOUD CLEARED over North Dakota. The ground was visible seven miles below them. The copilot wandered back into the cabin and pointed down to where he was born. A little town south of Bismarck. The Missouri River ran through it, a tiny silver thread. Then the guy wandered back again and left Reacher puzzling over navigation. He knew nothing about it. Virginia to Oregon, he'd have flown across Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho. He wouldn't have gone up to North Dakota. But something called great circle routes made it shorter to go way out of your way. He knew that. But he didn't understand it. How could it be quicker to go way out of your way?

  "Lorraine Stanley stole the paint," Harper said. "The lack of violence proves the guy is faking it. But what does the geography prove?"

  "We talked about that," Reacher said.

  "It demonstrates scope. "

  He nodded. "And speed. "

  She nodded in turn.

  "And mobility," he added. "Don't forget mobility. "

  IN THE END, she played for an hour and a half. The cop stayed away and she relaxed and her touch improved, better than it had ever been. Her mind locked on to the notes and she brought the speed higher and higher, right to the point where the forward motion got a little ragged. Then she backed it off and settled at a point just a little slower than the tempo was marked. But what the hell, it sounded magnificent. Maybe even better than it would played at exactly the right speed. It was involving, logical, stately. She was pleased with it.

  She pushed back on the stool and knitted her fingers and flexed them above her head. Then she closed the keyboard lid and stood up. Stepped out to the hallway and skipped up the stairs to her bathroom. Stood at the mirror and brushed her hair. Then she went back down to the coat closet and took out her jacket. It was short enough to be comfortable in the car and warm enough for the weather. She changed her shoes for her heavier pair. Unlocked the door to the basement stairs and went down. Unlocked the door to the garage and used the key-chain remote to open her car. The light came on inside. She switched the power on for the opener and slid into the car and started the engine while the garage door rumbled upward.

  She backed onto the driveway and hit the button to close the door again. Twisted in her seat and saw the police cruiser parked in her way. She left the motor running and got out and walked down toward it. The cop was watching her. He buzzed the window open.

  "I'm going to the store," she said.

  The guy looked at her for a second, like this was outside the range of permissible scenarios.

  "How long you going to be gone?" he asked.

  She shrugged.

  "Half hour, an hour," she said.

  "The store?" he said.

  She nodded. "I need some things. "

  He stared some more, and arrived at a decision.

  "OK, but I wait here," he said. "We're watching the house, not you personally. Domicile-based crimes, that's what we do. "

  She nodded again. "That's fine. Nobody's going to grab me at the store. "

  The cop nodded back. Said nothing. He started his engine and backed up the slope far enough that she could maneuver out past him. He watched her roll away down the hill, and then he eased back into position.

  YOU SEE THE garage door open, you see the car come out, you see the door close again. You see her stop on her driveway, and you see her get out. You watch the conversation through the Crown Vic's window. You see the cop back up, you see her reverse out onto the roadway. The cop moves back into position, she takes off down the hill. You smile to yourself and ease backward under the cover of the rocks. You stand up. You go to work.

  SHE MADE THE left at the bottom of her hill, and then the right onto the through road toward the city of Portland. It was cold. Another week of falling temperatures, and it would be snowing. Then her choice of automobile would start to look a little silly. Everybody else had big four-wheel-drives, either jeeps or pickup trucks. She had gone for a swoopy low-slung sedan, about four times longer than it was high. Gold paint, chrome wheels, butter-soft tan leather inside. It looked like a million dollars, but it was front-wheel-drive only, no traction control. Ground clearance was enough for a decent-sized snowball and not much more. The rest of the winter, she'd be walking or begging rides from her neighbors.

  But it was smooth and quiet and it rode like a dream. She drove the two miles west and slowed for the left into the shopping center. Waited for an oncoming truck to labor past and swooped into the parking lot. Turned tight and drove around behind the right-hand arm of stores and parked up alone in the overspill lane. Pulled the key and dropped it in her bag. Got out and walked through the cold toward the supermarket.

  It was warmer inside. She took a cart and walked every aisle, using time. There was no system in her shopping. She just looked at everything and took what she figured she was out of. Which was not very much, because the market didn't sell the things she was really interested in. No music books, no garden plants. She ended up with little enough in the cart to get her into the express line at the checkout.

  The girl put it all into one paper sack and she paid cash for it and walked out with the sack cradled in her arms. Turned right on the narrow sidewalk and window-shopped her way along the row. Her breath hung in the air. She stopped outside the hardware store. It was an old-fashioned place. It carried a little bit of everything. She had shopped there before, for sacks of bonemeal and ericaceous fertilizer to help her azaleas.

  She juggled the grocery sack into one arm and pulled the door. A bell rang. There was an old guy in a brown coat at the register. He nodded a greeting. She moved forward into the crowded aisles. Walked past the tools and the nails and found the decorating section. There were rolls of cheap wallpaper and packets of paste. Paintbrushes and paint rollers. And cans of paint. A display as tall as she was. Color charts were held in racks clipped to the shelves. She put her groceries on the floor and took a chart from a rack and opened it up. It was banded into colors like a huge rainbow. A big variety of shades.

  "Help you, miss?" a voice said.

  It was the old guy. He'd crept up behind her, helpful and anxious for a sale.

  "Does this stuff mix with water?" she asked.

  The old guy nodded.

  "They call it latex," he said. "But that just means water-based. You can thin i
t with water, clean the roller with water. "

  "I want a dark green," she said.

  She pointed at the chart.

  "Maybe like this olive," she said.

  "The avocado is attractive," the old guy said.

  "Too light," she said.

  "You going to thin it with water?" he asked.

  She nodded. "I guess. "

  "That'll make it lighter still. "

  "I think I'll take the olive," she said. "I want it to look kind of military. "

  "OK," the old guy said. "How much?"

  "One can," she said. "A gallon. "

  "Won't go far," he said. "Although if you thin it, that'll help. "

  He carried it back to the register for her and rang up the sale. She paid cash and he put it in a bag with a free wooden stirring stick. The store's name was printed off-center on the stick.

  "Thank you," she said.

  She carried the grocery sack in one hand and the hardware bag in the other. Walked along the row of stores. It was cold. She looked up and checked the sky. It was blackening with clouds. They were scurrying in from the west. She looped around behind the last store. Hurried to her car. Dumped her bags on the backseat and climbed in and slammed her door and started the engine.

  THE COP WAS cold, which kept his attention focused. Summertime, sitting and doing nothing could make him sleepy, but there was no chance of that with the temperature as low as it was now. So he saw the approaching figure when it was still about a hundred yards away down the hill. The crest of the slope meant he saw the head first, then the shoulders, then the chest. The figure was walking purposefully toward him, rising up over the foreshortened horizon, revealing more and more of itself, getting bigger. The head was gray, thick hair neatly trimmed and brushed. The shoulders were dressed in Army uniform. Eagles on the shoulder boards, eagles through the lapels, a colonel. A clerical collar where the shirt and tie should be. A padre. A military chaplain, approaching fast up the sidewalk. His face bobbed up and down with every stride. The white band of the collar moved below it. The guy was walking quickly. Practically marching.

  He stopped suddenly a yard from the cop's right headlight. Just stood on the sidewalk with his neck craned, looking up at Scimeca's house. The cop buzzed the passenger window down. He didn't know what to say. Some local citizen, he'd call, Sir, step this way, with enough tone in there to cancel out the sir. But this was a padre and a bird colonel. Practically a gentleman.

  "Excuse me?" he called.

  The colonel looked around and stepped the length of the fender. Bent down. He was tall. He put one hand on the Crown Vic's roof and the other on the door. Ducked his head and looked straight in through the open window.

  "Officer," he said.

  "Help you?" the cop asked.

  "I'm here to visit with the lady of the house," the padre said.

  "She's not home, temporarily," the cop said. "And we've got a situation here. "

  "A situation?"

  "She's under guard. Can't tell you why. But I'm going to have to ask you to step inside the car and show me some ID. "

  The colonel hesitated for a second, like he was confused. Then he straightened up and opened the passenger door. Folded himself into the seat and put his hand inside his jacket. Came out with a wallet. Flipped it open and pulled a worn military ID. Passed it across to the cop. The cop read it over and checked the photograph against the face next to him. Handed it back and nodded.

  "OK, Colonel," he said. "You can wait in here with me, if you like. I guess it's cold out there. "

  "It sure is," the colonel said, although the cop noticed he was sweating lightly. Probably from the fast walk up the hill, he figured.

  "I'M NOT GETTING anyplace," Harper said.

  The plane was on descent. Reacher could feel it in his ears. And he could feel abrupt turns. The pilot was military, so he was using the rudder. Civilian pilots avoid using the rudder. Using the rudder makes the plane slew, like a car skids. Passengers don't like the feeling. So civilian pilots turn by juicing the engines on one side and backing off on the others. Then the plane comes around smoothly. But military pilots don't care about their passengers' comfort. It's not like they've bought tickets.

  "Remember Poulton's report from Spokane?" he said.

  "What about it?"

  "That's the key. Something big and obvious. "

  SHE MADE THE left off the main road and the right into her street. The cop was back in the way again. Somebody was in the front seat next to him. She stopped on the crown of the road, ready to turn in, hoping he'd take the hint and move, but he just opened his door and got out, like he needed to talk to her. He walked across, stiff from sitting, and placed his hand on the roof of her car and bent down. She opened her window and he peered in and glanced at the shopping bags on the backseat.

  "Get what you need?" he asked.

  She nodded.

  "No problems?"

  She shook her head.

  "There's a guy here to see you," he said. "A padre, from the Army. "

  "The guy in your car?" she said, like she had to say something, although it was pretty obvious. She could see the collar.

  "Colonel somebody," the cop said. "His ID is OK. "

  "Get rid of him," she said.

  The cop was startled.

  "He's all the way from D. C. ," he said. "His ID says he's based there. "

  "I don't care where he's based. I don't want to see him. "

  The cop said nothing. Just glanced back over his shoulder. The colonel was getting out of the car. Easing up to his full height on the sidewalk. Walking over. Scimeca left her motor running and opened her door. Slid out and stood up and watched him coming, pulling her jacket tight around her in the cold.

  "Rita Scimeca?" the padre asked, when he was close enough.

  "What do you want?"

  "I'm here to see if you're OK. "

  "OK?" she repeated.

  "With your recovery," he said. "After your problems. "

  "My problems?"

  "After the assault. "

  "And if I'm not OK?"

  "Then maybe I can help you. "

  His voice was warm and low and rich. Infinitely believable. A church voice.

  "The Army send you?" she asked. "Is this official?"

  He shook his head.

  "I'm afraid not," he said. "I've argued it with them many times. "

  She nodded. "If they offer counseling, they're admitting liability. "

  "That's their view," the colonel said. "Regrettably. So this is a private mission. I'm acting against strict orders, in secret. But it's a matter of conscience, isn't it?"

  Scimeca glanced away.

  "Why me in particular?" she asked. "There were a lot of us. "

  "You're my fifth," he said. "I started with the ones who are obviously living alone. I thought that's where my help might be needed most. I've been all over the place. Some fruitful trips, some wasted trips. I try not to force myself on people. But I feel I have to try. "

  She was silent for a moment. Very cold.

  "Well, you've wasted another trip, I'm afraid," she said. "I decline your offer. I don't want your help. "

  The colonel was not surprised, not unsurprised. "Are you sure?"

  She nodded.

  "Totally sure," she said.

  "Really? Please think about it. I came a long way. "

  She didn't answer. Just glanced at the cop, impatiently. He shuffled his feet, calling the colonel's attention his way.

  "Asked and answered," he said, like a lawyer.

  There was silence in the street. Just the beat of Scimeca's motor idling, the drift of exhaust, a sharp chemical tang in the fall air.

  "I'm going to have to ask you to leave now, sir," the cop said. "We've got a situation here. "

  The colonel was still for a long moment. Then he nodded.

  "The off
er is always open," he said. "I could come back, anytime. "

  He turned abruptly and walked back down the hill, moving fast. The slope swallowed him up, legs, back, head. Scimeca watched him below the horizon and slid back into her car. The cop nodded to himself and tapped twice on the roof.

  "Nice car," he said, irrelevantly.

  She said nothing.

  "Right," the cop said.

  He walked back to his cruiser. Reversed it up the hill with his door hanging open. She turned into her driveway. Pushed the button on the remote and the garage door rumbled upward. She drove inside and pushed the button again. Saw the cop moving back into position before the door came down and left her in darkness.

  She opened her door and the dome light clicked on. She pulled the little lever at her side and popped the trunk. Got out of the car and took her bags from the backseat and carried them through to the basement. Carried them up the stairs to the hallway and through to the kitchen. Placed them side by side on the countertop and sat down on a stool to wait.

  IT'S A LOW-SLUNG car, so although the trunk is long enough and wide enough, it's not very tall. So you're lying on your side, cramped. Your legs are drawn up, like a fetal position. Getting in was no problem. She left the car unlocked, just like you told her to. You watched her walk away to the store, and then you just stepped over and opened the driver's door and found the lever and popped the trunk. Closed the door again and walked around and lifted the lid. Nothing to it. Nobody was watching. You sort of rolled inside and pulled the lid closed on top of you. It was easy. There were reinforcing members on the underside. Easy to grasp.

  It's a long wait in there. But then you feel her get back in and you hear the engine start. You feel a growing patch of heat under your thigh where the exhaust runs under the trunk floor. It's not a comfortable ride. You bounce around a little. You follow the turns in your mind and you know when she arrives back at her place. You hear the cop talking. There's a problem. Then you hear some idiot padre, pleading. You tense up in there. You start to panic. What the hell is going on? What if she asks him in? But she gets rid of him. You hear the ice in her voice. You smile in the dark and open and close your hands in triumph. You hear it when she drives into the garage. The acoustics change. The engine goes louder. You hear the exhaust beating against the walls and the floor. Then she shuts it down and it goes very quiet.

  She remembers to pop the trunk. You knew she would, because you told her not to forget. Then you hear her footsteps moving away and you hear the basement door open and close. You ease the trunk lid upward and you climb out. You stand and stretch in the dark. Rub your thigh where the heat has hurt it. Then you move around to the front of the car. You pull your gloves on tighter and you sit down on the fender and you wait.