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Home > Personal (Jack Reacher #19)(9)

Personal (Jack Reacher #19)(9)
Author: Lee Child

EIGHT

WE LANDED IN Texarkana and found rental cars at the end of a long line of establishments all connected with the aviation business. Casey Nice came out with a perfectly standard Maryland driver’s licence, and I caught a glimpse of her date of birth, and I worked out she was twenty-eight years old. She accompanied the licence with a Visa card from a Maryland bank. In exchange she got a whole bunch of forms to sign, and then the key to a Ford F-150 pick-up truck, which seemed to be what people wanted at the Texarkana airport.

The truck was red and had a navigation device connected to the cigarette lighter. She put in the address we had. The thing scrolled like it was summoning up vast reserves of local knowledge, and then it told us the trip was going to be fifty miles. I looked back at the airport as we left. I could see our plane. Ahead were narrow winding roads and new leaves on the trees.

I said, ‘We should stop for lunch.’

She said, ‘Shouldn’t we do the job first?’

‘Eat when you can. That’s the golden rule.’

‘Where?’

‘First place we see.’

Which turned out not to be the kind of rural diner I was hoping for. Instead we rolled through a neat little crossroads town and came upon a crisp little commercial development with a Shell station at one end and a family restaurant at the other. In between were budget establishments selling life’s necessities at low prices, including a pharmacy and a clothing store. The restaurant had plain wood tables and mismatched plates, but it had good solid fare on the menu. I caught up on breakfast, with coffee and pancakes and eggs and bacon. Casey Nice ordered a salad, and drank plain water. She paid, on O’Day’s budget, presumably.

Then I detoured to the clothing store and hunted around at the khaki end of the colour spectrum and the low end of the price list, and I picked out underwear and socks, and pants, and a shirt, and a jacket that might have been intended for golf in the rain. I didn’t find any shoes better than the pair I had on. As always I changed in the cubicle and left my old stuff in the trash. As always Casey Nice was interested in the process. She said, ‘I heard about this at the briefing, but I wasn’t sure whether to believe it.’

I said, ‘You had a briefing about me?’

‘General O’Day calls you Sherlock Homeless.’

‘He should think about buying a new sweater himself.’

We got back in the red truck and moved on, north and west, skirting the corner of Texas, heading for the Oklahoma line. The navigation device showed our destination as a black and white chequered flag, like the end of an auto race, and it seemed to be out in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I hoped more roads would show up on the screen when we got closer.

An hour later more roads had indeed shown up, all thin and grey and twisting. There were lakes and streams and rivers too, oriented in a way that suggested a landscape scarred by ravines. Which a glance ahead at the real world confirmed. Low wooded hills, one behind the other, running left to right, like a washboard. Casey Nice pulled over a mile short of the chequered flag and took out her phone, but she couldn’t get a signal for whatever it was she wanted. A satellite view, maybe. So we were stuck with the navigation device, which had the chequered flag planted half a mile north of the road we were on, all alone in a sea of green.

‘A long driveway,’ I said.

‘Let’s hope it’s not straight,’ she said.

We rolled on, slower, until finally we saw the mouth of the driveway up ahead on the right. It was just a stony track through the trees, starting out between token gateposts made of piled rocks, and then winding quickly out of sight behind the new green leaves. There was a mailbox on the shoulder, all rusted, with no name on it. And directly opposite, on the left side of the road, clearly visible, was a house. Kott’s nearest neighbour, presumably.

I said, ‘Let’s start there.’

The neighbour’s house was nothing fancy, but it was a halfway decent place. It was long and low and made of brown boards. It had a gravel patch out front, with a pick-up truck parked on it. Out back it looked like there might be a small garden. On one side was a TV dish as big as a family car, and on the other side was a washing machine all streaked with rust, with its hoses hanging down in the dirt, all pale and perished.

I put a knuckle on the bell button and heard suburban chimes behind the door. There was no response. Then we heard footsteps and a guy came around from the back of the house, on the washing machine side. He was maybe forty, with close-cropped hair and a beard the same length, and a thick neck, and sceptical eyes, and a face that would have been unremarkable except for a missing front tooth, just left of centre in his upper jaw.

He spoke in a neutral tone and said, ‘Help you?’

Which in my experience are two words that can precede anything from genuine wholehearted cooperation to a bullet in the face. I said, ‘We’re looking for John Kott.’

He said, ‘Not me.’

‘Do you know where he lives?’

The guy pointed through his thin hedge, across the road, to the driveway mouth beyond.

I said, ‘Is he home?’

‘Who’s asking?’

‘He’s a buddy of mine.’

‘From where?’

‘Prison,’ I said.

‘Why don’t you drive on up and see for yourself?’

‘We’re in a rental. They make you pay now, if you blow a tyre. And that track looks pretty bad.’

The guy said, ‘I don’t know if he’s home.’

‘How long has he lived there?’

‘About a year.’

‘Is he working?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Then how does he pay the rent?’

‘I have no idea.’

‘Do you see him coming and going?’

‘If I happen to be watching.’

‘When was the last time you saw him?’

‘Can’t say for sure.’

‘Today? Yesterday?’

‘Can’t say. I don’t spend a lot of time watching.’

‘A month ago? Two months?’

‘Can’t say.’

I asked, ‘What does he drive?’

‘An old blue pick-up truck,’ the guy said. ‘A Ford, from way back long ago.’

‘You ever hear shooting up there?’

‘Up where?’

‘In the woods. Or the hills.’

‘This is Arkansas,’ the guy said.

‘Does Mr Kott get visitors?’

‘Can’t say.’

‘Any strange people hanging around?’

‘What kind of strange people?’

‘Strange foreign people, maybe.’

‘You’re the first I’ve seen in a long time.’

I said, ‘I’m not a strange foreign person. I’m neither of those things.’

He asked, ‘Where were you born?’

To which there was no good answer. He could tell by my voice I wasn’t born in the South. And New York or Chicago or Los Angeles would be all the same to him. So I told him the truth. I said, ‘West Berlin.’

He didn’t reply.

‘Marine family,’ I said.

‘I was air force,’ he said. ‘I don’t like the Marines. Bunch of showboating glory hunters, in my opinion.’

‘No offence taken,’ I said.

The guy turned away and looked at Casey Nice, top to bottom, bottom to top, quite slowly, and he said, ‘I’m guessing you were never in prison.’

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