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Home > Personal (Jack Reacher #19)(30)

Personal (Jack Reacher #19)(30)
Author: Lee Child

I said, ‘I don’t think they have them here.’

But they seemed to have a rough equivalent. I saw a couple of battered sedans outside a whitewashed storefront labelled Barking Minicabs. We walked over there and I went in alone. There was a guy behind a high plywood counter. I asked him for a car. He said street hails were not allowed. Pre-booked only.

I said, ‘I’m not hailing anything. I’m talking in a normal voice. And I’m not on the street.’

He said, ‘Pre-booked only. We could lose our licence.’

‘Do I look like a government inspector to you? Do I look like a cop?’

He said, ‘You have to book by telephone.’ He pointed to a large sign on the wall, which said Pre-booked only, with a telephone number below.

I said, ‘Really?’

He said, ‘We could lose our licence.’

I was about to contemplate alternative methods, but then I remembered I had a phone in my pocket. Scarangello had given it to me, in Paris. O’Day had fitted it with a GPS chip, for the mission. I took it out and dialled the number on the sign. There was silence at first, while a whole lot of location services and international assistance kicked in. Then a desk phone rang, about a yard from my elbow. The guy picked it up.

I said, ‘I need a car.’

The guy said, ‘Certainly, sir. When would you like it?’

‘Thirty seconds from now.’

‘Picking up where?’

‘Right here.’

‘Destination?’

I named the hotel.

‘Number of passengers?’

‘Two.’

The guy said, ‘Your driver will be with you in a minute.’

Which was technically twice as long as I had asked for, but I didn’t make any trouble about it. I just clicked off the call and rejoined Casey Nice on the sidewalk. I told her what had happened, and she said, ‘You shouldn’t have pushed it. They’ll remember you. And a place like that is probably paying protection money to the Romford Boys. They’ll trade gossip for sure.’

The car was worn out and filthy and not very spacious, but it got us where we were going, which was a budget hotel with a parking lot, trapped in a mixed line of various enterprises in a neighbourhood that way back long ago had been a remote and distant village. It still looked like one in certain hidden corners. There was old brickwork in places, and an inappropriately grand old house, now boxed in tight by much smaller suburban structures. An old manor, presumably, fat and happy two hundred years ago, the city just a folk tale, a whole day’s ride away. But then came the railroad, and maybe the manor lost a ten-acre field, and then another, and then came the buses and the cars, and the manor lost its orchard, and then its garden, and then everything except a flagstone square in front, big enough for two cars, if both of them were careful.

The hotel was purpose built, with an eye on efficiency. They could have taken a crane and stacked up the units at Pope Field four storeys high, and the result would have been similar. We checked in and got our keys, and Nice wanted to go up to dump her bags, so I went to find my own room, which was severely plain, but had everything I needed, and nothing I didn’t. I washed up and combed my hair with my fingers, and then I headed back downstairs, where I found Nice ready and waiting for me.

She said, ‘So what’s the plan?’

I said, ‘We’ll go take a look.’

‘At what?’

‘The G8 venue.’

TWENTY-FIVE

THE GUY AT the hotel desk called a minicab for us, properly pre-booked on the telephone, and it showed up surprisingly quickly. Nice gave the driver the address, and we headed what felt north and east to me, through streets that felt suburban, but compressed somehow, as if they were all just a little busier and narrower and faster than they really wanted to be. We passed a sign that said we were in Romford. But we stayed west of the centre and then looped around above it, on a small road, into a sudden expanse of green parkland, shaped like a slice of pizza, broadening out as it ran away from us, until it was bounded at its far end by the thrashing traffic on the orbital highway. Or on the M25 motorway, as the local signs called it.

In the middle of the wedge of green was a fine brick house, with bays and gables and chimneys, and steep-pitched roofs, and hundreds of glittering leaded windows. Elizabethan, possibly, or an elaborate Victorian fake. All around it was raked golden gravel, and all around the gravel was plain green lawn, very simple and mannered, but ultimately more corporate than Zen.

All around the lawn was a high brick wall, laid out in a giant rectangle. It boxed the house in completely, left side, right side, back, front, but at a very generous distance. The lawns were broad and deep. It was a well-judged calculation. The wall was indisputably related to the house, definitely part of the architecture, but from the inside the gardens would have felt extremely spacious. Beyond the wall was a slim remnant of the pie-shaped slice of green, and then London started up again, on both sides, as if exerting inward pressure.

I said, ‘Is this it?’

Casey Nice said, ‘Yes. It’s called Wallace Court. Home of the Darby family for many centuries. The house is from the fifteen hundreds and the wall is Victorian. It’s a conference centre now.’

I nodded. Another old manor, also fat and happy two centuries ago, but maybe luckier for longer. The Victorian owner must have seen something coming. Maybe he was an investor in the railroad. So he built the wall, to keep the world at bay. And I guessed that it had, in a tolerable way, for another hundred years or more, until the motorway was built, and the noise made living there impossible. So at long last the family had given up and moved out, and a home had become a business centre, where maybe the noise made people feel plugged in and energetic.

I said, ‘This can’t be a typical location for a G8 meeting.’

Casey Nice said, ‘No, it was controversial. Normally they want somewhere far more rural and isolated. But the Brits insisted. Because it’s near where the Olympics were, or something. I don’t think anyone’s real clear about the reason.’

We stayed in the minicab for a long moment after it stopped. It’s not the same with a sniper out there. Then we took a deep breath and climbed out for a closer look. The wall was about nine feet high, and thick, and ornamented, and buttressed. It must have cost a fortune. There must have been a billion bricks in it. Whole towns could have been built. I thought again about the Victorian guy. Mr Darby, from way back long ago. Probably wore a beard or muttonchop whiskers. He must have been colossally obstinate. Better to up sticks and go buy an island.

The wall had just one gate in it, at the front, ornate iron painted black, with gold leaf here and there. It was exactly symmetrical with the house’s front door, all the way down at the other end of the long straight driveway. Which all made the place not such a terrible spot. Untypical and controversial, maybe, but not suicidal. Bring in the army, put the infantry all around the outer face of the wall, fully armed, in battledress, maybe ten yards apart, put a big security apparatus around the single gate, and you’ve taken care of 99 per cent of conventional threats right there. An up-armoured Humvee might be able to burst through the bricks, or maybe not, but anything smaller certainly couldn’t. So I could see why eight secret services had signed off on it. They thought the place was adequate.

Until.

The G8 was still the best part of three weeks away, but preparations were already being made. That was clear. There were panel vans unloading in the distance. And there was a policeman at the gate. And he was watching us carefully. Not a polite bobby in a pointed hat, but a squat tough guy with a Kevlar vest and a Heckler and Koch sub-machine gun.

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