Home > The Affair (Jack Reacher #16)(9)

The Affair (Jack Reacher #16)(9)
Author: Lee Child

"East. You have to drive three miles. Through the wrong side."

"Which side is the Toussaint's hotel?"

"Won't you be staying with your friend?"

"When I find him. If I find him. Until then I need a place."

"Toussaint's is OK," Pellegrino said. "I'll let you out there."

And he did. We drove out of the tunnel through the trees and the road broadened and the forest itself died back to stunted saplings left and right, all choked with weeds and trash. The road became an asphalt ribbon laid through a wide flat area of earth the size of a football field. It led through a right turn to a straight street between low buildings. Main Street, presumably. There was no architecture. Just construction, a lot of it old, most of it wood, with some stone at the foundation level. We passed a building marked Carter County Sheriff's Department, and then a vacant lot, and then a diner, and then we arrived at the Toussaint's hotel. It had been a fancy place once. It had green paint and trim and moldings and iron railings on the second-floor balconies. It looked like it had been copied from a New Orleans design. It had a faded signboard with its name on it, and a row of dim lights washing the exterior facade, three of which were out.

Pellegrino eased the cruiser to a stop and I thanked him for the ride and got out. He pulled a wide U-turn behind me and headed back the way we had come, presumably to park in the Sheriff's Department lot. I used a set of wormy wooden steps and crossed a bouncy wooden veranda and pushed in through the hotel door.

9

Inside the hotel I found a small square lobby and an unattended reception desk. The floor was worn boards partially covered by a threadbare rug of Middle Eastern design. The desk was a counter made of hardwood polished to a high shine by years of wear and labor. There was a matrix of pigeonholes on the wall behind it. Four high, seven wide. Twenty-eight rooms. Twenty-seven of them had their keys hanging in place. None of the pigeonholes contained letters or notes or any other kind of communication.

There was a bell on the desk, a small brass thing going green around the edges. I hit it twice, and a polite ding ding echoed around for a spell, but it produced no results. None at all. No one came. There was a closed door next to the pigeonholes, and it stayed closed. A back office, I guessed. Empty, presumably. I saw no reason why a hotel owner would deliberately avoid doubling his occupancy rate.

I stood still for a moment and then checked a door on the left of the lobby. It opened to an unlit lounge that smelled of damp and dust and mildew. There were humped shapes in the dark that I took to be armchairs. No activity. No people. I stepped back to the desk and hit the bell again.

No response.

I called out, "Hello?"

No response.

So I gave up for the time being and went back out, across the shaky veranda, down the worn steps, and I stood in a shadow on the sidewalk under one of the busted lamps. There was nothing much to see. Across Main Street was a long row of low buildings. Stores, presumably. All of them were dark. Beyond them was blackness. The night air was clear and dry and faintly warm. March, in Mississippi. Meteorologically I could have been anywhere. I could hear the thrill of breeze in distant leaves, and tiny granular sounds, like moving dust, or like termites eating wood. I could hear an extractor fan in the wall of the diner next door. Beyond that, nothing. No human sounds. No voices. No revelry, no traffic, no music.

Tuesday night, near an army base.

Not typical.

I had eaten nothing since lunch in Memphis, so I headed for the diner. It was a narrow building, but deep, set end-on to Main Street. The kitchen entrance was probably on the block behind. Inside the front door was a pay phone on the wall and a register and a hostess station. Beyond that was a long straight aisle with tables for four on the left and tables for two on the right. Tables, not booths, with freestanding chairs. Like a cafe. The only customers in the place were a couple about twice my age. They were face to face at a table for four. The guy had a newspaper and the woman had a book. They were settled in, like they were happy to linger over their meal. The only staff on view was a waitress. She was close to the swing door in back that led to the kitchen. She saw me step in and she hustled the whole length of the aisle to greet me. She put me at a table for two, about halfway into the room. I sat facing the front, with my back to the kitchen. Not possible to watch both entrances at once, which would have been my preference.

"Something to drink?" the waitress asked me.

"Black coffee," I said. "Please."

She went away and came back again, with coffee in a mug, and a menu.

I said, "Quiet night."

She nodded, unhappy, probably worried about her tips.

She said, "They closed the base."

"Kelham?" I said. "They closed it?"

She nodded again. "They locked it down this afternoon. They're all in there, eating army chow tonight."

"Does that happen a lot?"

"Never happened before."

"I'm sorry," I said. "What do you recommend?"

"For what?"

"To eat."

"Here? It's all good."

"Cheeseburger," I said.

"Five minutes," she said. She went away and I took my coffee with me and headed back past the hostess station to the pay phone. I dug in my pocket and found three quarters from my lunch-time change, which were enough for a short conversation, which was the kind I liked. I dialed Garber's office and a duty lieutenant put him on the line and he asked, "Are you there yet?"

I said, "Yes."

"Trip OK?"

"It was fine."

"Got a place to stay?"

"Don't worry about me. I've got seventy-five cents and four minutes before I eat. I need to ask you something."

"Fire away."

"Who briefed you on this?"

Garber paused.

"I can't tell you that," he said.

"Well, whoever it was, he's kind of hazy about the details."

"That can happen."

"And Kelham is locked down."

"Munro did that, as soon as he got there."

"Why?"

"You know how it is. There's a risk of bad feeling between the town and the base. It was a common-sense move."

"It was an admission of guilt."

"Well, maybe Munro knows something you don't. Don't worry about him. Your only job is to eavesdrop on the local cops."

"I'm on it. I rode in with one."

"Did he buy the civilian act?"

"He seemed to."

"Good. They'll clam up if they know you're connected."

"I need you to find out if anyone from Bravo Company owns a blue car."

"Why?"

"The cop said someone parked a blue car on the railroad track. The midnight train wrecked it. Could have been an attempt to hide evidence."

"He'd have burned it out, surely."

"Maybe it was the kind of evidence that burning wouldn't conceal. Maybe a big dent in the fender or something."

"How would that relate to a woman getting carved up in an alley?"

"She wasn't carved up. Her throat was cut. That was all. Deep and wide. One pass, probably. The cop I talked to said he saw bone."

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