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Home > Personal (Jack Reacher #19)(17)

Personal (Jack Reacher #19)(17)
Author: Lee Child

He said, ‘Reacher and Khenkin, is it?’

‘You’re well informed,’ Khenkin said. ‘To already know our names, I mean.’

‘We try our best,’ the guy said. He sounded Welsh to me, way back. A little sing-song. He stuck out his hand and said, ‘Bennett. Pleased to meet you. No point in trying my first name. You wouldn’t be able to pronounce it.’

‘What is it?’ I asked.

He answered with a guttural sound, like he was a coal miner with a lung disease. I said, ‘OK, Bennett it is. You MI6?’

‘I can be if you want. They paid for my ticket. But it’s all pretty fluid at the moment.’

‘You know your guy Carson?’

‘We met many times.’

‘Where?’

‘Here and there. Like I said, it’s all pretty fluid now.’

‘You think it’s him?’

‘Not really.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because the Frenchman is still alive. I think it’s your guy.’ Bennett sat down, on my right side, face-on to Khenkin on my left. The waiter showed up with Khenkin’s order, and Bennett asked him for the same thing. I asked for more coffee. The old guy looked happy. The tab was building. I hoped either Khenkin or Bennett had a wad of local currency. I didn’t.

Khenkin looked across at Bennett and asked, ‘Do you know the G8 venue?’

Bennett nodded. ‘By conventional standards it’s pretty safe. Maybe not so much, with Kott on the loose.’

I said, ‘It might not be Kott. You need to keep an open mind. Preconceptions are the enemy here.’

‘My mind is open so wide my brains are about to fall out. I still don’t think it’s Carson. Datsev, maybe.’

Khenkin said, ‘Then it wasn’t an audition, and we’re wasting our time on all this theoretical shit. Datsev wouldn’t audition. He’s too arrogant. If it was Datsev shooting, then it was what it was, which was a hit on the Frenchman, which failed, because of the glass, which also means we’re wasting our time, because the trail went cold days ago.’

The waiter came back, with Bennett’s coffee and bread, and a third pot of coffee for me, and across the street a minivan painted up in police department colours eased into the alley and stopped at the green door. A lone cop got out, in a blue uniform and a kepi hat, and he knocked on the green door and waited. A minute later a woman in a housedress opened up, and there followed a brief and confused conversation. I’ve come for the three guys, probably. They haven’t checked in yet, presumably. The cop stepped back and looked all around, up and down the alley, across rue Monsigny, and he tipped his hat forward and scratched the back of his head, and then his eyes came back to us in a kind of long-delayed slow-motion double take, and he thanked the woman in the housedress and set off towards us. I saw him make up his mind to pretend not to have been confused at all, to take the chance we were who he thought we were, and he stepped up to our table and said, ‘We have to go to the police station first.’ He said it in French, in a guttersnipe Paris accent the equivalent of a Brooklyn accent in old New York, or a Cockney accent in London, but without the charm, just a sulky put-upon whine, like the weight of an unfair world was pressing down on his shoulders.

Bennett said, ‘He says we have to go to the police station first.’

‘I know,’ Khenkin said.

I said nothing.

In the end Khenkin paid our tab, from a roll of crisp new euros that might have been genuine, or not. We all stood up and stretched and brushed crumbs from our clothes, and then we followed the cop across the street to the van. The sun was climbing higher in the morning sky, which was as blue as a robin’s egg, and I felt a little warmth, until the gusting wind snapped in again, like a cold hand on my shoulder. Khenkin’s expensive coat flapped around his knees, and then the gust died just as suddenly and the warmth came back, until we stepped into the shadow of the alley.

We climbed in the van, Bennett first, then Khenkin, then me, light-hearted at that point, the way you load up for transport off-post, to a bar or a club or somewhere you know women are waiting.

FIFTEEN

THE POLICE STATION we were taken to was not really a police station at all. Not the kind of place a member of the public would go to report a missing cat or a lost wallet. It was more like an intelligence bunker, entered through an anonymous grey door set among the row of government buildings on the left bank of the river, near the Assemblée Nationale, which is France’s version of the Capitol Building, or the Houses of Parliament. The grey door led to a flight of stairs, which led two storeys underground to a low-ceilinged warren with grey paint on the walls and grey linoleum on the floors. A DGSE facility, I figured, and I hoped the money they were saving on decor was being spent on results.

We were led to a kind of conference room. All the chairs had been taken out, and the table was loaded with a long line of twelve laptop computers. All of them were open to the exact same angle, and all the screens were showing the exact same things, which were animated Police nationale screensavers, moving slowly but purposefully around the screens, all in lock step, bouncing off tops and bottoms and sides, like an arcade ping pong game from way back when. A woman came in behind us, petite but all grown up, maybe forty-five years old, with soft dark hair and wise dark eyes. Under other circumstances I might have asked her to lunch. As it was she ignored me completely and spoke to no one in particular and said, ‘All our files are digital now. Start on the left and work to the right and you’ll know what we know.’

So Bennett and Khenkin and I crowded together in front of the first screen, and Khenkin tapped the touchpad with a manicured nail, and the screensaver disappeared, and a video recording took its place, and started rolling. French network television, I guessed, broadcasting the president’s speech. It had been an evening event. The guy was at a podium in front of some wide marble steps, all lit up. There were French flags behind him. The bulletproof glass shields either side of him were barely visible. His microphones were small black buds on the end of black swan-neck stems coming up out of the podium desktop. By the sound of them they were highly directional, aimed at the guy’s chest and throat and mouth, and not picking up a whole lot else. But clearly the TV people had mixed in some ambient sound from microphones elsewhere, because we could hear a quiet hubbub from the crowd, and some street sounds. The guy was giving it a lot of guff about how progress was still possible, and how the twenty-first century could still be France’s, given the right policies, which by chance happened to be his. At one point he stumbled over a word and glanced high to his left, almost pensively, and then he turned back and dug in again. Three seconds later he glanced left again, this time at something much closer, and he stumbled again, and then a couple of seconds after that he was knocked down and buried under a scrum of guys in dark suits and earpieces, who spirited him away along the floor like a giant turtle moving fast.

Khenkin used his nail again and rewound the coverage, to the president’s first stumble, to the glance high and left. He said, ‘That’s the muzzle flash. Has to be.’ Then three seconds later, at the second glance: ‘And that’s the bullet hitting the glass.’

We couldn’t make out the sound of the gunshot. Maybe some big-time digital expert could have isolated a spike on the soundtrack, but it wouldn’t have told us anything. Everyone already knew a gun had been fired.

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