At that point the Interstate was a six-lane road, and the three eastbound lanes were jammed solid with inching vehicles. Cars, trucks, SUVs, they were all creeping forward, braking, stopping, waiting, creeping forward again. McQueen was drumming his fingers on the wheel, frustrated. King was staring ahead through the windshield, patient and resigned. Delfuenso was staring ahead too, anxious, like she was late for something.
Reacher asked in the silence, ‘Where are you guys headed tonight?’
‘Chicago,’ King said.
Which Reacher was privately very pleased about. There were plenty of buses in Chicago. Plenty of morning departures. South through Illinois, east through Kentucky, and then Virginia was right there. Good news. But he didn’t say so out loud. It was late at night, and he felt a sympathetic tone was called for.
He said, ‘That’s a long way.’
‘Six hundred miles,’ King said.
‘Where are you coming from?’
The car stopped, rolled forward, and stopped again.
‘We were in Kansas,’ King said. ‘We were doing real well, too. No traffic. No delays. Up till now. This thing here is the first time we’ve stopped in more than three hours.’
‘That’s pretty good.’
‘I know, right? Minimum of sixty all the way. I think this is literally the first time Don has touched the brake. Am I right, Don?’
McQueen said, ‘Apart from when we picked Mr Reacher up.’
‘Sure,’ King said. ‘Maybe that broke the spell.’
Reacher asked, ‘Are you on business?’
‘What kind of business?’
‘We’re in software.’
‘Really?’ Reacher said, trying to be polite.
‘We’re not programmers,’ King said. ‘That’s all pizza and skateboards. We’re in corporate sales.’
‘You guys work hard.’
‘Always,’ King said again.
‘Successful trip so far?’
‘Not so bad.’
‘I thought you might be on some kind of a team-building thing. Like an exercise. Or a retreat.’
‘No, just business as usual.’
‘So what’s with the shirts?’
‘I know, right?’ he said. ‘New corporate style. Casual Fridays all week long. But clearly branded. Like a sports uniform. Because that’s how software is these days. Very competitive.’
‘Do you live here in Nebraska?’
King nodded. ‘Not so very far from right here, actually. There are plenty of tech firms in Omaha now. Way more than you would think. It’s a good business environment.’
The car rolled forward, braked, stopped, moved on again. It was McQueen’s own vehicle, Reacher guessed. Not a rental. Not a pool car. Too worn, too messy. The guy must have drawn the short straw. Designated driver for this particular trip. Or maybe he was the designated driver for every trip. Maybe he was low man on the totem pole. Or maybe he just liked driving. A road warrior. A road warrior who was taking time away from his family. Because he was a family man, clearly. Because it was a family car. But only just. There was kid stuff in it, but not a lot. There was a sparkly pink hair band on the floor. Not the kind of thing an adult woman would wear, in Reacher’s opinion. There was a small fur animal in a tray on the console. Most of its stuffing was compressed to flatness, and its fur was matted, as if it was regularly chewed. One daughter, Reacher figured. Somewhere between eight and twelve years old. He couldn’t be more precise than that. He knew very little about children.
But the kid had a mother or a stepmother. McQueen had a wife or a girlfriend. That was clear. There was feminine stuff everywhere in the car. There was a box of tissues with flowers all over it, and a dead lipstick in the recess in the console, right next to the fur animal. There was even a crystal pendant on the key. Reacher was pretty sure he would be smelling perfume on the upholstery, if he had been able to smell anything at all.
Reacher wondered if McQueen was missing his family. Or maybe the guy was perfectly happy. Maybe he didn’t like his family. Then from behind the wheel McQueen asked, ‘What about you, Mr Reacher? What line of work are you in?’
‘No line at all,’ Reacher said.
‘You mean casual labour? Whatever comes your way?’
‘Not even that.’
‘You mean you’re unemployed?’
‘But purely by choice.’
‘Since I left the army.’
McQueen didn’t reply to that, because he got preoccupied. Up ahead traffic was all jockeying and squeezing into the right-hand lane. Those slow-motion manoeuvres were what was causing most of the delay. A wreck, Reacher figured. Maybe someone had spun out and hit the barrier and clipped a couple of other cars on the rebound. Although there were no fire trucks present. No ambulances. No tow trucks. All the flashing lights were at the same height, on car roofs. There were so many of them and they were blinking so fast that they looked continuous, like a permanent wash of red-blue glare.
The car inched onward. Start, stop, start, stop. Fifty yards ahead of the lights McQueen put his turn signal on and bullied his way into the right-hand lane. Which gave Reacher a straight line of sight to the obstruction.
It wasn’t a wreck.
It was a roadblock.
The nearest cop car was parked at an angle across the left-hand lane, and the second was parked a little farther on, at the same angle, across the middle lane. Together they sat there like arrows, one, two, both pointing towards the right-hand lane, giving drivers no choice at all but to move over. Then there were two cars parked in the middle lane, in line with the traffic flow, opposite two parked in line on the shoulder, and then came two more, angled again, positioned in such a way as to force people through a tight and awkward turn, all the way across the width of the road, all the way into the left-hand lane, after which they could fan out and accelerate away and go about their business.
A well organized operation, Reacher thought. A slow approach was guaranteed by the congestion, and slow progress through the obstruction was guaranteed by the sharp left turn at the end of it. Careful and extended scrutiny was guaranteed by the long narrow gauntlet between the two in-line cars in the middle lane and the parallel in-line pair on the shoulder. This was no one’s first rodeo.
But what was it for? Eight cars was a big deal. And Reacher could see shotguns out. This was no kind of a routine check. This was not about seatbelts or licence tags. He asked, ‘Have you had the radio on? Has something bad happened?’
‘Relax,’ King said. ‘We get this from time to time. Escaped prisoner, most likely. There are a couple of big facilities west of here. They’re always losing people. Which is crazy, right? I mean, it ain’t brain surgery. It’s not like their doors don’t have locks.’
McQueen made eye contact in the mirror and said, ‘It’s not you, I hope.’
‘Not me what?’ Reacher asked.
‘Who just escaped from jail.’
A smile in his voice.
‘No,’ Reacher said. ‘It’s definitely not me.’
‘That’s good,’ McQueen said. ‘Because that would get us all in trouble.’
They inched onward, in the impatient queue. Through a long glassy tunnel of windshields and rear windows Reacher could see the troopers at work. They were wearing their hats. They had shotguns held low and big Maglites held overhand. They were shining their flashlight beams into one car after another, front, back, up, down, counting heads, checking floors, sometimes checking trunks. Then, satisfied, they were waving cars away and turning to the next in line.
‘Don’t worry, Karen,’ King said, without turning his head. ‘You’ll be home again soon.’
Delfuenso didn’t reply.
King glanced back at Reacher and said, ‘She hates being on the road,’ by way of explanation.
Reacher said nothing.
They crept forward. Up ahead the routine never changed.
Eventually Reacher identified a pattern. The only circumstance under which the troopers were checking trunks was when there was a male driver alone in a car. Which ruled out King’s escaped prisoner theory. No reason why an escaped prisoner couldn’t hide in the trunk of a car occupied by two people, or three, or four. Or five, or six, or a whole busload. Much more likely the troopers had gotten a specific tip about a lone guy hauling something large and something bad. Drugs, guns, bombs, stolen goods, whatever.
They crept forward. Now they were third in line. Both cars ahead had lone men at the wheel. Both got their trunks checked. Both got waved onward. McQueen rolled forward and stopped where a trooper told him to. One guy stepped in front of the hood and flicked his flashlight beam across the licence plate. Four more stepped up, two on each side, and shone their lights in through the windows, front, back, counting. Then the guy in front stepped aside and the guy nearest McQueen waved him onward, his hand gesturing low and urgent, right in McQueen’s line of vision.
McQueen eased forward and hauled on the wheel and made the tight left turn, and then the tight right turn, and then he was facing a thousand miles of free-flowing emptiness ahead of him. He breathed out and settled in his seat, and beside him King breathed out and settled in his seat, and McQueen hit the gas and the car accelerated hard and drove on east, fast, like there was no more time to waste.
A minute later and across the barrier Reacher saw a car coming on equally fast in the opposite direction. A dark Ford Crown Victoria, with flashing blue lights behind the grille. A government vehicle, clearly, rushing towards some kind of a big emergency.
THE DARK CROWN Victoria was an FBI squad car out of the Omaha field office. The duty agent there had taken Sheriff Goodman’s call and had reacted instantly. Goodman had said professionals, which in FBI terms meant organized crime, and organized crime was the FBI’s preferred diet, because reputations were made there, and glory and promotions were earned there. So an on-call special agent had been dispatched immediately, a decorated twenty-year Bureau veteran, highly qualified, highly experienced, and highly regarded.
Her name was Julia Sorenson, and she was just shy of forty-seven years old, and she had been in Omaha just shy of forty-seven very happy months. Omaha was not New York or D.C., but it was not a Bureau backwater, either. It was not Siberia. Not even close. For some unknown historical reason crime followed the railroad tracks, and Nebraska had some of the planet’s biggest rail yards within its state lines. So Sorenson’s talents were not being wasted. She was not frustrated and she was not unfulfilled.
She dialled as she drove and called Sheriff Goodman’s cell and told him she was on her way. She arranged to meet him at the crime scene, in one hour’s time.
Goodman was in his car when he took that call. He had one deputy securing the crime scene and babysitting the eyewitness, and all the others were blocking the local roads out of the county. Which left himself as the only available mobile unit. He was out and about, looking for the bright red car.
His county was large but not geographically complicated. A century earlier someone had drawn a square on a map, and the shape had stuck. The square was transected twice, first by a two-lane road running all the way across it left to right, west to east, and again by a two-lane road running bottom to top, south to north. Those two roads met near the middle of the square and made a crossroads, around which a town of eight thousand people had grown up. Cross-county traffic east to west and west to east was light, because the Interstate fifty miles north ran parallel and took most of the load. But traffic north to south and south to north was markedly heavier, because in one direction the Interstate attracted traffic, and in the other direction it dumped it out. It had taken local business people about five minutes to notice that pattern, and three miles out of town to the north they had developed a long ragged strip with gas and diesel and diners and motels and bars and convenience stores and cocktail lounges. Relaxed citizens thought of the place as merely another business district, and uptight citizens called it Sin City. It was subject to exactly the same laws, rules, and regulations as the rest of the county, but for fifty years in an unspoken way those laws and rules and regulations had been enforced with a very light touch. The result was keno and poker machines in the bars, and strippers in the cocktail lounges, and rumours of prostitution in the motels, and a river of tax revenue into the county’s coffers.
Two-way traffic, just like the two-lane road.
Goodman was headed up there. For no moral reason, but simply because the place was the last stop before the distant highway, and it was pocked with abandoned lots and long-dead enterprises and windowless cinder block walls. If you wanted to stash a getaway car and transfer to it unmolested, it was about the only game in town.
He cleared the crossroads and left the respectable neighbourhoods behind. Next came a soybean field, and then came a quarter-mile stretch of shoulder with old fourth-hand farm machinery parked on it. All of it was for sale, but most of it had waited so long for a buyer it had rusted solid. Then came more beans, and then came Sin City’s glow in the distance. There were gas stations at each end of the strip, one on the west side of the road and one on the east, both of them as big as stadium parking lots, for the eighteen-wheelers, both of them lit up bright by lights on tall poles, both of them with oil company signs hoisted high enough to see for miles. In between were the diners and the motels and the bars and the convenience stores and the cocktail lounges, all of them variously scattered on both sides of the road at random angles, some of them lit, some of them not, all of them standing alone in parking lots made of crushed stone. Some had survived fifty years, and some had been abandoned to weedy decay long ago.
Goodman started on the east side of the two-lane. He looped past a diner he patronized from time to time, driving slow and one-handed, using the other on the interior handle for the spotlight mounted on his windshield pillar, checking the parked vehicles. He drove around the back of the diner, past the trash bins, and then onward, circling a cocktail lounge, checking a motel, finding nothing. The gas station at the end of the strip had a couple of fender-bent sedans parked near its lube bays, but neither was bright red, and judging by the grime on their windshields both had been there for a good long spell.
Goodman waited for passing traffic and then nosed across the road and started again on the west side, at the north end, where the first establishment was a bar made of cinder blocks painted cream about twenty years before. No windows. Just ventilators on the roof, like mushrooms. No red cars anywhere near it. Next place in line was a cocktail lounge, fairly clean, said to be Sin City’s most salubrious. Goodman turned to figure-eight around the front of it, and his pillar spotlight lagged a little, and there it was.
A bright red import, parked neatly behind the lounge.
REACHER LEANED TO his right a little, to see past Don McQueen’s head and through the windshield to the road in front, which put his shoulder nominally in Karen Delfuenso’s space. She leaned a corresponding amount to her own right, hard against her door, to preserve her distance. Reacher saw the flat spread of headlight beams, and beyond them nothing but darkness rushing at him, with a lonely pair of red tail lights far away in the distance. The speedometer was showing eighty miles an hour. Fuel was showing three-quarters full. Engine temperature was showing dead-on normal. There was a stovebolt logo on the airbag cover, which meant the car was a Chevrolet. Total recorded miles were just over forty thousand. Not a new car, but not an old one, either. It was humming along quite happily.
Reacher settled back in his seat, and Delfuenso tracked his movement. Alan King half turned in the front and said, ‘My brother was in the army. Peter King. Maybe you knew him.’
‘It’s a very big institution,’ Reacher said.
King smiled, a little sheepish.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Dumb comment, I guess.’
‘But a common one. Everyone assumes we all knew each other. I don’t know w
hy. I mean, how many people live where you live?’
‘A million and a half, maybe.’
‘Do you know them all?’
‘I don’t even know my neighbours.’
‘There you go. What branch was your brother in?’
‘He was an artilleryman. He went to the Gulf the first time around.’
‘So did I.’
‘Then maybe you did know him.’
‘We were half a million strong. Everyone went. Biggest deal you ever saw.’
‘What was it like?’
‘Didn’t your brother tell you?’
‘We don’t talk.’
‘It was hot,’ Reacher said. ‘That’s most of what I remember.’
‘What branch were you in?’
‘I was a cop,’ Reacher said. ‘Military Police. Criminal Investigation Division, man and boy.’
King half shrugged, half nodded, and said nothing more. He faced front again and stared out into the darkness.
On the shoulder a sign flashed by: Welcome to Iowa.
Sheriff Goodman aimed his car into the lounge’s rear lot and put his headlights on bright. The parked import was not a Toyota, or a Honda, or a Hyundai, or a Kia. It was a Mazda. A Mazda 6, to be precise. A five-door hatch, but the rear profile was sleek, so it looked pretty much like a regular four-door sedan. It was a late model. It was fire-engine red. It was empty, but not yet dewed over. It hadn’t been parked for long.