The vacation cabins were laid out haphazardly, like a handful of dice thrown down. Reacher figured the location furthest from the water would be the least desirable, and sure enough found it was being used as some kind of a resident manager’s accommodations, with a front room done up as an office, with one of its window panes converted to an opening hutch, which had a shelf behind it with a little brass bell and a ballpoint pen on a chain. He rang the bell and a long moment later an old guy stepped up, slowly, like he had arthritis. Yes, he had vacancies. The overnight charge was a modest sum. Reacher paid cash and signed his name with the pen on the chain, and got a key in return, to what turned out to be a tiny wooden house that smelled hot and moldy. Not a prime position, but it had a partial sideways view of the lake. The rest of the view was all trees, inevitably. There was a bed and two chairs, and a bathroom and kitchen facilities, and a short shelf with creased and battered paperback books on it. Outside in back there was a small deck with two folding chairs slung with faded and sun-rotted fabric. Reacher spent the rest of the afternoon in one of them, with his feet up on the other, reading a book from the shelf, warm, alone, relaxed, as happy as he could remember being.

He woke at seven in the morning but lay in bed a whole extra hour, stretched out like a starfish, to let the walkers and the boaters get through the diner ahead of him. He figured they would be looking for an early start. He wasn’t. He figured about ten o’clock would be optimum, to catch the first wave of departures. A ride back to Route 11 was all he needed. To I-95 would be a bonus, and Bangor or Portland or anyplace further south would be the icing on the cake. He figured he would head to New York next. Yankees tickets would be easy to get. The dog days of summer, folks out of town, plenty of space in the high seats in the sun.

He showered and dressed and packed, which consisted of folding his toothbrush and putting it in his pocket. He saw the maid on her way between two other cabins, and told her his was vacant and ready for her. She looked like she could have been the waitress’s sister, from the diner, and probably was. He walked on, thinking about coffee, and pancakes, and a corner table in a quiet empty room, and maybe someone’s abandoned newspaper to read.

He didn’t get the quiet empty room.

Henry and Suzanne were in there, with about nine other people, all milling about, all talking in a tense and agitated fashion, like a scene in a movie where folks find out the mining company has poisoned their water. They all turned to look at him as he stepped inside. He said, “What’s up?”

Henry said, “They closed the trail.”

“Who did?”

“The cops. State, I think. They strung tape across the entrance.”

“When?”

“In the night.”

“Why?”

“No one knows.”

“They won’t tell us,” Suzanne said. “We’ve been calling all morning. All they’ll say is the trail is closed until further notice.”

Another guy said, “It’s closed at Cripps, too. We started that end last year. I still have the motel number. Same situation. Tape between the trees.”

Reacher said, “It’s a four-day walk, right? There must be a bunch of people still in there. Maybe something happened.”

“Then why won’t they tell us?”

Reacher said nothing. Not his problem. All he wanted was pancakes. And coffee, more urgently. He looked for the waitress, and caught her eye, and found an empty table.

Henry followed him straight to it. “Can they do that?”

Reacher said, “Do what?”

“Close the trail like that.”

“They just did.”

“Is it legal?”

“How would I know?”

“You were a cop.”

“I was a military cop. I wasn’t a park ranger.”

“It’s a public resource.”

“I’m sure there’s a good reason. Maybe someone got eaten by a bear.”

One by one the whole disgruntled group came over and gathered around. Eleven people standing up, Reacher sitting down. The guy who still had the number for the Cripps motel asked, “How do you know that?”

Reacher said, “Know what?”

“That someone got attacked by a bear.”

“I said maybe. Like a joke.”

“Bear attacks aren’t very funny.”

A guy said, “Maybe it’s just a drill.”

“What kind of drill?”

“Like a rehearsal. For a medical emergency, maybe. For the first responders.”

“Then why would they say until further notice? Why wouldn’t they say until lunchtime today, or some such?”

Another guy asked, “Who should we call?”

Suzanne said, “They’re not telling us anything.”

“We could try the governor’s office.”

Another woman said, “Like he’s going to tell us anything, if the others aren’t.”

“It can’t be bears.”

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t know.”

Suzanne looked at Reacher and said, “What should we do?”

Reacher said, “Go for a walk someplace else.”

“We can’t. We’re stuck here. Helen’s got the van.”

“She left already?”

“She didn’t want to eat breakfast here.”

“Can’t you call her?”

“No bars.”

“Bars aren’t open yet.”

“I mean no cell phone coverage here. We can’t call her. We tried, from the payphone in the store. She’s off the network somewhere.”

“So go kayaking instead. That’s probably just as much fun.”

Henry said, “I don’t want to go kayaking. I want to walk the trail.”

Eventually the small crowd wandered away again, out through the door to the parking lot, still mumbling and grumbling, and the waitress came by to take Reacher’s order. He ate and drank in silence, and he got the check, and he paid in cash. He asked the waitress, “Does the trail get closed a lot?”

She said, “It never happened before.”

“Did you see who did it?”

She shook her head. “I was asleep.”

“Where’s the nearest state police barracks?”

“The kayak owner says it was soldiers.”

“Does he?”

She nodded. “He says he saw them.”

“In the middle of the night?”

She nodded again. “He lives nearest the arch. They woke him up.”

Reacher put an extra dollar on her tip and walked out to the street. He turned right and took a step in the direction of out of town, but then he stopped and went back and found the hundred-yard side street that led to the trail.

Henry and Suzanne were right there at the arch. Just the two of them. They had their backpacks on. The arch had tape tied across it, three lengths, one knee high, one waist high, and one chest high, all two-inch plastic ribbon, blue and white, twisted on itself in places, saying Police Line Do Not Cross.

Henry said, “See?”

Reacher said, “I believed you the first time.”

“So what do you think?”

“I think the trail is closed.”

Henry turned away and stared at the tape, like he could make it dematerialize by willpower alone. Reacher walked back to Main Street, and onward out of town, to the welcome board on the shoulder. Ten minutes, he thought. Maybe less. He figured that morning’s exodus would be brisker than normal.

But the first vehicle he saw was coming, not going. Into town, not out. And it was a military vehicle. A Humvee, to be precise, painted up in black and green camouflage. It roared past, all thrashing gears and whining tires. It took the curve and disappeared.

Four guys in it, hard men, all in the new Army Combat Uniform.

Reacher waited. A minute later a car came driving out of town, but it was full. Two in the front, two in the back. No room for a hitchhiker, especially one as large as Reacher. He recognize

d people he had seen in the diner, disconsolate and complaining, boots on and ready, backpacks piled in the corner, no place to go.

He waited.

Next up was another Humvee, heading in, not out. Roaring engine, thrashing drive train, howling tires, four guys wearing ACUs. Reacher watched it around the corner and even at a distance he heard it slow, and change gear, and speed up again. A right hand turn, he thought, and he would have bet the few bucks in his pocket it was heading for the wooden arch.

He stared after it, thinking.

Then another car came driving out of town. A sedan. Two people. An empty back seat. The driver was the guy who still had the number for the motel in Cripps. He slowed and stopped and the woman next to him buzzed her window down. She asked, “Where are you headed?”

Reacher said nothing.

She said, “We’re going back to Boston.”

Which would have been great. Three hours from New York. Multiple routes. Lots of traffic. But Reacher said, “I’m sorry, but I changed my mind. I’m going to stay here.”

The woman shrugged and the car took off without him.

He walked back to the cabin rental office and rang the bell. His cabin was still available. He paid for another night, and got the same key in return. Then he headed for the arch, a hundred yards along the side street, and when he got there he found the two Humvees and their eight occupants. The Humvees were parked side by side, noses out, blocking the whole width of the road. Their occupants already had their boots on the ground. They were all armed with M16s. They were setting up an exclusion zone. Reacher knew the signs. Two squads, four hours on, four hours off. Military police, for sure. Reacher knew those signs, too. Not the National Guard, either. Regular U.S. Army. Not a drill. No one was going to get past them.

There was no sign of Henry or Suzanne.

Reacher said, “Sergeant?”

One of the grunts turned around. Chevrons on the tab in the center of his chest. Twenty years younger than Reacher, at least. A whole different generation. The military police has no secret handshake. No magic word. And no real inclination to shoot the breeze with some ancient geezer, no matter who he might claim to have been, one day long ago, way back when.

The sergeant said, “Sir, you need to step back ten yards.”

Reacher said, “That would be a hell of a long step, wouldn’t it?”

Two PFCs were hauling sawhorses out of a Humvee. A-shaped ends, and planks to fit between, marked No Entry.

Reacher said, “I’m guessing your orders are to keep people out of the woods. Which is fine with me. Knock yourselves out. But close observation of the terrain will reveal the woods start where the woods start, not a Humvee’s length plus ten yards down the street.”

The sergeant said, “Who are you?”

“I’m a guy who once read the Constitution.”

“This whole place is woods.”

“So I noticed.”

“So back off now.”

“Unit?”

“345th MP.”

“Name?”

“Cain. Spelled C, A, I, N, with no E.”

“You got a brother?”

“Like I haven’t heard that one before.”

Reacher nodded. He said, “Carry on the good work, sergeant,” and he turned and walked away.

He went back to the cabin rental office, and rang the bell again. The old guy stepped up, creakily, and Reacher asked him, “Are my friends still here? The people I came in with? Henry something and Suzanne something?”

“They checked out early this morning.”

“They didn’t come back again?”

“They’re gone, mister.”

Reacher nodded, and headed for his hut, where he spent the next four hours on the back deck, sitting in one lawn chair, his feet up on the other, watching the sky. It was another beautiful day, and he saw nothing except bright blue emptiness, and wispy contrails arching way overhead, eight miles up.

In the early afternoon he headed to the diner for a late lunch. He was the only customer. The town felt deserted. No trail, no business. The waitress didn’t look happy. Not just about the lack of revenue. She was on the wall phone, listening to someone, concern on her face. A tale of woe, clearly. She hung up after a long minute and walked over to Reacher’s table.

She said, “They’re sending search parties south from Cripps. For the walkers. They’re grabbing them and hustling them out. Real fast.”

Reacher said, “Soldiers?”

She nodded. “Lots of them.”

“Weird.”

“That’s not the worst of it. They’re holding them for questioning afterward. They want to know if they saw anything.”

“Soldiers are doing that, too?”

“Men in suits. My friend thinks they’re the FBI.”

“Who’s your friend?”

“She works at the motel in Cripps.”

“What are people supposed to have seen?”

“All we have is rumors. A bear gone rogue, maybe. A man-eater. Packs of wild coyotes, mountain lions, bigfoot monsters. Or some vicious murderer escaped from the penitentiary. Or wolves. Or vampires.”

“You believe in vampires?”

“I watch the television, same as anyone else.”

“It’s not vampires,” Reacher said.

“There’s something in those woods, mister.”

Reacher ate a tuna melt and drank coffee and water, and then he headed back to the arch for a second look. The sawhorses were in place, ten yards upstream of the parked Humvees. Four grunts were standing easy, weapons shouldered. A show of force. No entry. Not a drill. Pleasant duty, overall, given the season. Winter would have been much worse.

Reacher walked back to town. Just as he hit Main Street the colorless minivan came around the corner. Helen was at the wheel. She pulled over next to him and buzzed her window down.

She said, “Have you seen Henry and Suzanne?”

He said, “Not since breakfast time.”

“People say the trail is closed.”

“It is.”

“So I came to pick them up.”

“Good luck with that.”

“Where are they?”

“I think Henry is a hard man to dissuade.”


Tags: Lee Child Jack Reacher Thriller
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