Home > Persuader (Jack Reacher #7)(19)

Persuader (Jack Reacher #7)(19)
Author: Lee Child

"I don't like you," Paulie called. He was looking straight at me, so I assumed he was talking to me. His eyes were small. His skin glittered. He was a walking chemical imbalance. Exotic compounds were leaking from his pores.

"We should arm wrestle," he said.

"What?"

"We should arm wrestle," he said again. He came up right next to me, light and quiet on his feet. He towered over me. He practically blotted out the light. He smelled of sharp acrid sweat.

"I don't want to arm wrestle," I said. I saw Duke watching me. Then I glanced at Paulie's hands. They were clenched into fists, but they weren't huge. And steroids don't do anything for a person's hands, unless they exercise them, and most people don't think to do that.

"Pussy," he said.

I said nothing.

"Pussy," he said again.

"What's in it for the winner?" I asked.

"Satisfaction," he said.

"OK."

"OK what?"

"OK, let's do it," I said.

He seemed surprised, but he moved back to the weights bench fast enough. I took my jacket off and folded it over the exercise bicycle. Unbuttoned my right cuff and rolled my sleeve up to my shoulder. My arm looked very thin next to his. But my hand was a shade bigger. My fingers were longer. And what little muscle I had in comparison to him came from pure genetics, not out of some pharmacist's bottle.

We knelt down facing each other across the bench and planted our elbows. His forearm was a little longer than mine, which was going to put a kink in his wrist, which was going to help me. We slapped our palms together and gripped. His hand felt cold and damp to me. Duke took up station at the head of the bench, like a referee.

"Go," he said.

I cheated from the first moment. The aim of arm wrestling is to use the strength in your arm and shoulder to rotate your hand downward, taking your opponent's hand with it, to the mat. I had no chance of doing that. Not against this guy. No chance at all. It was going to be all I could do to keep my own hand in place. So I didn't even try to win. I just squeezed. A million years of evolution have given us an opposable thumb, which means it can work against the other four fingers like a pincer. I got his knuckles lined up and squeezed them mercilessly. And I have very strong hands. I concentrated on keeping my arm upright. Stared into his eyes and squeezed his hand until I felt his knuckles start to crush. Then I squeezed harder. And harder. He didn't give up. He was immensely strong. He kept the pressure on. I was sweating and breathing hard, just trying not to lose. We held it like that for a whole minute, straining and quivering in the silence. I squeezed harder. I let the pain build up in his hand. Watched it register in his face. Then I squeezed harder still. That's what gets them. They think it's already gotten as bad as it's going to get, and then it gets worse. And then worse still, like a ratchet. Worse and worse, like there's an infinite universe of agony ahead of them, stepping up and up and up, remorselessly, like a machine. They start concentrating on their own distress. And then the decision starts flickering in their eyes. They know I'm cheating, but they realize they can't do anything about it. They can't look up helplessly and say he's hurting me! It's not fair! That makes them the pussy, not me. And they can't face that. So they swallow it. They swallow it and they start worrying about whether it's going to get any worse. And it is. For sure. There's plenty more to come. There's always more to come. I stared into Paulie's eyes and squeezed harder. Sweat was making his skin slick, so my hand was moving easily over his, tighter and tighter. There were no friction burns to distract him. The pain was all right there in his knuckles.

"Enough," Duke called. "It's a tie."

I didn't loosen my grip. Paulie didn't back off with the pressure. His arm was as solid as a tree.

"I said enough," Duke called. "You assholes have got work to do."

I raised my elbow up high so he couldn't surprise me with a last-second effort. He looked away and dragged his arm off the bench. We let go of each other. His hand was marked vivid red and white. The ball of my thumb felt like it was on fire. He pushed himself off his knees and stood up and walked straight out of the room. I heard his heavy tread on the wooden staircase.

"That was real stupid," Duke said. "You just made another enemy."

I was out of breath. "What, I was supposed to lose?"

"It would have been better."

"Not my way."

"Then you're stupid," he said.

"You're head of security," I said. "You should tell him to act his age."

"Not that easy."

"So get rid of him."

"That's not easy either."

I stood up slowly. Rolled my sleeve down and buttoned my cuff. Glanced at my watch. Nearly seven in the morning. Time ticking away.

"What am I doing today?" I asked.

"Driving a truck," Duke said. "You can drive a truck, right?"

I nodded, because I couldn't say no. I had been driving a truck when I rescued Richard Beck.

"I need to shower again," I said. "And I need some clean clothes."

"Tell the maid," he said. He was tired. "What am I, your damn valet?"

He watched me for a second and headed for the stairs and left me all alone in the basement. I stood and stretched and panted and shook my hand loose from the wrist to ease the strain. Then I retrieved my jacket and went looking for Teresa Daniel. Theoretically she could be locked up somewhere down there. But I didn't find her. The basement was a warren of spaces carved and blasted out of the rock. Most of them were self-explanatory. There was a furnace room filled with a roaring boiler and a bunch of pipes. There was a laundry room, with a big washing machine sitting high on a wooden table, so it would drain by gravity into a pipe that ran out through the wall at knee height. There were storage areas. There were two locked rooms. Their doors were solid. I listened hard but heard nothing from inside them. I knocked gently and got no response.

I headed back upstairs and met Richard Beck and his mother in the ground-floor hallway. Richard had washed his hair and parted it low on the right and swept it sideways so it hung down thickly on the left, to hide his missing ear. It looked like the thing old guys do to hide the fact they're going bald on top. The ambivalence was still there in his face. He looked comfortable in the dark safety of his house, but I could see he also felt a little trapped. He looked pleased enough to see me. Not just because I had saved his ass, but maybe because I was a random representation of the outside world, too.

"Happy birthday, Mrs. Beck," I said.

She smiled at me, like she was flattered that I'd remembered. She looked better than she had the day before. She was easily ten years older than me, but I might have paid her some attention if we'd met somewhere by chance, like a bar or a club or on a long train ride.

"You'll be with us for a while," she said. Then it seemed to dawn on her why I would be with them for a while. I was hiding out there because I had killed a cop. She looked confused and glanced away and moved on through the hallway. Richard went with her and looked back at me, once, over his shoulder. I found the kitchen again. Paulie wasn't there. Zachary Beck was waiting for me instead.

"What weapons did they have?" he asked. "The guys in the Toyota?"

"They had Uzis," I said. Stick to the truth, like all good scam artists. "And a grenade."

"Which Uzis?"

 

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