“They went anyway?”

“That’s my guess.”

“After it was closed?”

“There was a brief window of opportunity. After the tape went up, before the soldiers arrived.”

“I heard about the soldiers.”

“What else have you heard?”

“There’s something bad in the woods.”

“Vampires, maybe,” Reacher said.

“This isn’t funny. I heard it might be escaped prisoners or rogue military units. Something very dangerous. Everyone is talking. It’s on the local AM station. There are anchors in Cripps already.”

“You want a cup of coffee?”

Helen parked in front of the diner, and they went in together, to the same table Reacher had used before. The waitress brought coffee, and then hustled away and got on the wall phone again. To her friend in Cripps, presumably. For updates, and gossip, and rumor.

Helen said, “Henry is an idiot.”

“He likes the woods,” Reacher said. “Can’t blame him for that.”

“But there’s something in there now, obviously.”

“I guess there is.”

“Which he must have known. It’s not brain surgery. He’s an idiot, but he’s not an idiot. But he went in anyway. And dragged Suzanne in with him. He is an idiot. Both sorts.”

“Suzanne could have said no.”

“Actually, she’s just as bad. No impulse control. I heard they have search parties moving south from Cripps.”

Reacher nodded. “I heard that, too. Straight from the horse’s mouth. Or slightly secondhand, I suppose. Our waitress has a friend up there.”

“What are they searching for?”

“People like Henry and Suzanne. They’re getting them out and asking questions about what they saw.”

“But they’ll miss Henry and Suzanne. Won’t they? It’s inevitable. They’re expecting a three-day pipeline. They’ll stop when they get all the people who started out yesterday morning. Henry and Suzanne will be twenty-four hours behind them. They’ll leave them in there. With whatever else is in there. This is not good.”

“It’s a big woods.”

“The thing could be roaming and hunting. Or if it’s escaped prisoners they’ll stick close to the trail anyway. They would have to. Henry and Suzanne will be in there alone with them.”

Reacher said, “It’s not escaped prisoners.”

“How do you know?”

“I went to see the soldiers at the arch. They’re military police, like I was. But technically what they’re doing isn’t entirely kosher. The military can’t perform civilian law enforcement duties. There are all kinds of rules about that. But their sergeant told me his unit number with no hesitation at all. And then he told me his name, just as fast. He even spelled it out for me. Cain, with no e.”

“What does all that mean?”

“It means he’s not afraid of anything. So he can get right in my face. Which means he has a solid gold get-out-of-jail-free card. Which must be urgent orders from somewhere very high up. From an unimpeachable source. As in, if some citizen like me makes a fuss, I’m going to get crushed by the machine. He’s going to get a medal. Which makes this a national security issue. It’s showing all the signs. And people escaped from the penitentiary isn’t national security. That’s a state affair.”

Helen was quiet for a second.

Then she said, “A national security issue could be a rogue military unit. Or a band of terrorists. Or escaped prisoners from Homeland Security. Or some kind of mutant has gotten free. Like a genetic experiment. Or someone else’s genetic experiment, set free. On purpose. Maybe this is an attack. And they’re right there in it.”

“It’s none of the above,” Reacher said.

“How do you know?”

“Because I sat in a chair all morning and watched the sky.”

“Which told you what?”

“No circling spotter planes, no drones, no helicopters. If they were hunting a warm-blooded creature or creatures, they’d have been up there all day with heat-seeking cameras. And air-to-ground radar, and whatever other fancy things they have now.”

“So what do you think they’re looking for?”

“They aren’t looking. I told you that. No aerial surveillance.”

“Then what aren’t they looking for?”

“Something with no heat signature, and too small to show up on radar.”

“Which would be what?”

“I have no idea.”

“But something they don’t want us to see, obviously. Something we can’t know about.”

“Evidently.”

“It could be a cold-blooded creature. Like a snake.”

“Or a vampire. Are they cold-blooded?”

“This isn’t funny. But OK, maybe it’s not a creature at all. Maybe it’s a piece of secret equipment. Inert, somehow.”

“Possibly.”

“How did it get in there?”

“That’s a great question,” Reacher said. “I think it must have fallen off an airplane.”

They got refills of coffee, and Helen worried away at the problem in her mind, and eventually she said, “This is very bad indeed.”

Reacher said, “Not really. Henry and Suzanne don’t have much to fear from a piece of inert equipment. It’s not going to jump up and bite them in the ass.”

“But it is. That’s exactly what it’s going to do. Figuratively speaking. They’re in the woods illegally, twenty-four hours behind anyone else. That looks secretive. Like their job is to find the thing and smuggle it out. Suppose it’s a bomb or a missile? That happens, right? Bombs and missiles fall off airplanes. Accidently. Sometimes, right? I read it in a book. But more likely deliberately. Like it’s one big conspiracy. What do we do if Henry and Suzanne are taken to be the designated retrieval party? It wouldn’t take much imagination. They sneak in through the tape, they’re all alone in a deserted twenty-four-hour time window, their job is to grab the missile ahead of your government, and pass it on down the chain, until one day an airliner comes down at JFK and it’s 9/11 all over again.”

“Henry and Suzanne are hikers. Wilderness enthusiasts. It’s the summer vacation. They’re Canadians, for God’s sake.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nicest people in the world. Almost as good as being Swiss.”

“But whatever, they’ll check them out.”

“Names and numbers, in a couple of databases. Nearest thing to doing nothing at all.”

“Suzanne has a history.”

Reacher said, “What kind?”

“She’s a lovely person. You have to understand that. She has sympathy for everybody.”

“Is that a problem?”

Helen said, “Of course it is. Because everybody means everybody. Plain English. Which means if you focus the spotlight one particular way, you can see sympathies going where your country doesn’t want them to go. Out of context and more than balanced by other things elsewhere and not at all fair, but facts are facts.”

Reacher said nothing.

Helen said, “And she’s very passionate politically. And very active.”

“How active is very active?”

“It’s what she does. Like a job. Henry runs the bike shop on his own most of the time.”

“So she’s in more than a couple of databases. A couple hundred, at least.”

“Red-flagged in most of them, probably. I mean, she’s not Che Guevara or Chairman Mao, but computer memory is very cheap these days, and they have to fill it up with something. She’s in the top million, I’m sure. And I’m equally sure they have preprogrammed responses ready. The screens will light up like a Christmas tree and she’ll be hauled off to Egypt or Syria. She’ll be in the system. They might let her come home in a year or so, all weird and slightly off. If she lives through it.”

Reacher said, “It might not be a missile. It might be some boring black box full of coded data. Maybe it fell o

ff a satellite, not an airplane. No possible use to anyone else. Which makes the idea of a retrieval party insane to them. They’re not going to be chasing shadows. If they see Henry and Suzanne coming around the corner, dressed like hikers, walking like hikers, and sounding like hikers, then they’re going to call them hikers. They’re going to give them a drink of water and send them on their way.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“It’s one of a number of possibilities.”

“What are all the others?”

“I guess some of them could come uncomfortably close to the kind of thing you’re worried about.”

“How many of them?”

“Practically all of them, really. Bottom line is she’s a foreign national with a history in the middle of a national-security lockdown.”

Helen said, “We have to go get them out.”

Resistance was futile. Reacher knew that right away. He was a realistic man. A Stoic, in the original meaning of the name. A guy who accepted circumstances for what they were, and didn’t seek to change them. He asked, “How fast do they walk?”

Helen said, “Not very. They’re communing, not commuting. They’re stepping off the path and making footprints in the virgin earth. They’re looking at everything. They’re listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. We should be able to catch up to them.”

“Better to get ahead of them.”

“How?”

They started in the diner’s kitchen, where the bewildered day guy gave up two machete-like weapons. Cleavers, possibly, for cutting meat. Then they hustled down to the kayak dock and rented a slim two-place vessel. It was bright orange in color. It had waterproof fabric around the seat holes. To tie around the rower’s waist, Reacher figured. Like wearing the boat like a pair of pants. To stop water getting in. Which he thought was overkill, on a fine day in August, on an inland body of water about as placid as a millpond.

Reacher took the back seat. It was a tight fit. Helen looked better, in the front. The rental guy let go of a rope and they paddled away, chaotic at first, then getting better. Much better. All about building up a rhythm. Long, steady, propulsive strokes. Like swimming. But faster than swimming. Faster than walking, too. Certainly faster than communing, and putting prints in the virgin earth, and listening to birds. Maybe twice as fast. Maybe more. Which was good. The lake turned like a crooked come-on finger, which gave them a natural outflanking maneuver, at first running parallel to the trail, and then cutting up and in, all the way to the far end of the finger, right to where the nail would be, which would be as near the trail as they could hope to get. Because after the turn the lake dug into the woods, just like Maine itself dug into Canada. Like a blade. Like a knife wound. The far tip might dump them just a couple hundred yards from the path itself. A quarter mile, maximum. The primeval part of the forest was not wide at that location. Because of the water. Like a bay. Like a river estuary.

They paddled on. Not a sprint. A middle-distance race. The mile, maybe. Black-and-white film of skinny gentlemen pounding around cinder tracks. Baggy white shirts. Grimaces. Digging in. Enduring. The machetes were between Reacher’s feet. They slid backward and forward, backward and forward, with the pulse of every stroke.

The far tip of the finger was a rocky V tight up against tree trunks. Which made it easy to steady the ship prior to getting out. There were handholds everywhere. But it made it hard to move more than a foot ashore. It was all about squeezing through, leading with one shoulder, leading with the other, being careful with the trailing foot, like crossing a crowded room at a party, except with statues instead of people, all of them as solid as iron. And not in candlelight, but in a strange green glow, from the bright sun behind a billion still and silent leaves.

And any wider clearing was no real bonus, either, because they were all tangled with vines and brambles, which to some extent could be blundered through, but nine times out of ten the machetes were needed in the last yard or two, to release ankles all snarled up and fresh out of momentum.

Reacher asked, “You OK?”

Helen answered, “In what way?”

“You don’t like the woods.”

“You want to take three wild-ass guesses as to why? As in, right now this minute?”

They pressed on, Reacher leading, making a big hole in the vegetation, Helen coming through it close behind, both of them making prints where maybe no human had ever walked before. And then they sensed rather than saw the trail up ahead, a slit, a discontinuity, an absence. A hole in the woodland sounds. A change in the sky. A seam in the canopy. And then they came upon it, stepping over gnarled trunks bent like knees, turning, squeezing, and finally falling out on what was literally the beaten track. The air above it was damp and still, and noticeably cool.

Helen said, “So are we ahead of them?”

“I think so,” Reacher said. “For sure, if they’re sightseeing. Maybe not, if something spooked them and they hustled. But I’m pretty sure we made it. And when it comes to speculation, I’m a very cautious man.”

“So we wait here?”

“The most efficient use of our time would be to move and meet them head on. By definition we’d turn them around closer to Naismith than here.”

“We might be walking away from them.”

“Life’s a gamble, I guess.”

“It was a spooky situation from the start. Maybe they were hustling all the way. Just to be able to say they’d done the miles. They could have passed here thirty minutes ago.”

“I’m guessing they didn’t hustle. They seemed really into this stuff. I think they’re strolling slow, stopping all the time, looking at this and that. All on their own. It’s just them and the forest. I say they’re thirty minutes in front of us.”

“You’ve done this kind of thing before, right?”

“From time to time.”

“Did you get them right?”

“Some of them.”

She took a breath and said, “OK, we’ll hope to meet them head on. And if we don’t, I’m going to call you some very un-Canadian names. Some with several syllables.”

“Sticks and stones,” Reacher said.

“I’ll go first,” she said.

The trail was much easier underfoot, and it was a straight shot, with no twisting or dodging, which meant they could pay a little attention to things more than a foot and a half away. Of which there were many. And which in the end slowed them down more than the tripwire brambles. Because there was a lot to look at. Primeval was the right word. Not necessarily Reacher’s thing, but he couldn’t deny some sense of primitive connection. It could have been that a hundred generations of his ancestors had lived in the woods. They had to live somewhere. The trees were spotty with lichen and smooth with light green moss, and they bent and twisted and jostled for light and space, and the gloomy shapes they made seemed to talk, just faintly, like a distant hum. Perfect ambush location ahead and left, so take care. Two defensive positions ahead and right, so plan to use the first, with the second to fall back on if necessary. A hundred generations, and by definition all of them survived.

They walked on, through cool air, like cellar air, still and damp and undisturbed. The trail itself was soft and springy, a dark, leaf-rich loam. Like carpet.

No hikers up ahead.

Not in the first five minutes, or the first ten. Which made each new minute more and more likely. Two couples on exactly opposite vectors, one moving fast, one moving slow, fifteen minutes already gone. The window in which the encounter would have to take place was getting smaller and smaller. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen soon.

It didn’t.

Not in the next five minutes, or the next ten. Which was getting arithmetically difficult. It was hard to imagine Henry and Suzanne could be slow enough to make the big numbers work. Unless they had chickened out and turned around, straight back to Naismith. Second thoughts, maybe, and an honorable retreat. They might have stepped out behind Serge

ant Cain at the exact same moment Reacher and Helen had paddled away from the kayak dock.

No way of knowing.


Tags: Lee Child Jack Reacher Thriller
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