Echo Burning (Jack Reacher #5)(12)

by Lee Child

Reacher looked at each of them for a second and then turned away and led Carmen to a booth at the far end of the room. He slid across sticky vinyl and tilted his head back into a jet of cold air coming down from a vent in the ceiling. Carmen sat opposite and raised her head and he looked at her face-on for the first time.

"My daughter looks nothing at all like me," she said. "Sometimes I think that's the cruelest irony in this whole situation. Those big old Greer genes just about steamrollered mine, that's for sure."

She had spectacular dark eyes with long lashes and a slight tilt to them, and a straight nose that made an open Y-shape against her brows. High cheekbones framed by thick black hair that shone navy in the light. A rosebud of a mouth with a subtle trace of red lipstick. Her skin was smooth and clear, the color of weak tea or dark honey, and it had a translucent glow behind it. It was actually a whole lot lighter in color than Reacher's own sunburned forearms, and he was white and she wasn't.

"So who does Ellie look like?" he asked.

"Them," she said.

The waitress brought ice water and a pad and a pencil and an upturned chin and no conversation. Carmen ordered iced coffee and Reacher ordered his hot and black.

"She doesn't look like she's mine at all," Carmen said. "Pink skin, yellow hair, a little chubby. But she's got my eyes."

"Lucky Ellie," Reacher said.

She smiled briefly. "Thank you. Plan is she should stay lucky."

She held the water glass flat against her face. Then she used a napkin to wipe the dew away. The waitress brought their drinks. The iced coffee was in a tall glass, and she spilled some of it as she put it down. Reacher's was in an insulated plastic carafe, and she shoved an empty china mug across the table next to it. She left the check face down halfway between the two drinks, and walked away without saying anything at all.

"You need to understand I loved Sloop once," Carmen said.

Reacher made no reply, and she looked straight at him.

"Does it bother you to hear this kind of stuff?" she asked.

He shook his head, although the truth was it did bother him, a little. Loners aren't necessarily too comfortable with a stranger's intimacies.

"You told me to start at the beginning," she said.

"Yes," he said. "I did."

"So I will," she said. "I loved him once. You need to understand that. And you need to understand that wasn't hard to do. He was big, and he was handsome, and he smiled a lot, and he was casual, and he was relaxed. And we were in school and we were young, and L.A. is a very special place, where anything seems possible and nothing seems to matter very much."

She took a drinking straw from the canister on the table and unwrapped it.

"And you need to know where I was coming from," she said. "Truth is, I had it all completely backward. I wasn't some Mexican worrying about whether the white family would accept me. I was worrying about my family accepting this gringo boy. That's how it seemed to me. I come from a thousand acres in Napa, we've been there forever, we were always the richest people I knew. And the most cultured. We had the art, and the history, and the music. We gave to museums. We employed white people. So I spent my time worrying about what my folks would say about me marrying out."

He sipped his coffee. It was stewed and old, but it would do.

"And what did they say?" he asked.

"They went insane. I thought they were being foolish. Now I understand they weren't."

"So what happened?"

She sipped her drink through the straw. Took a napkin from a canister and dabbed her lips. It came away marked with her lipstick.

"Well, I was pregnant," she said. "And that made everything a million times worse, of course. My parents are very devout, and they're very traditional, and basically they cut me off, I guess. They disowned me. It was like the whole Victorian thing, expelled from the snowy doorstep with a bundle of rags, except it wasn't snowing, of course, and the bundle of rags was really a Louis Vuitton valise."

"So what did you do?"

"We got married. Nobody came, just a few friends from school. We lived a few months in L.A., we graduated, we stayed there until the baby was a month away. It was fun, actually. We were young and in love."

He poured himself a second cup of coffee.

"But?" he asked.

"But Sloop couldn't find a job. I began to realize he wasn't trying very hard. Getting a job wasn't in his plan. College was four years of fun for him, then it was back to the fold, go take over Daddy's business. His father was ready to retire by then. I didn't like that idea. I thought we were starting up fresh, on our own, you know, a new generation on both sides. I felt I'd given stuff up, and I thought he should, too. So we argued a lot. I couldn't work, because of being so pregnant, and I had no money of my own. So in the end we couldn't make the rent, so in the end he won the argument, and we trailed back here to Texas, and we moved in to the big old house with his folks and his brother and his cousins all around, and I'm still there."

The dying fall was back in her voice. The day her life changed forever.

"And?" he asked.

She looked straight at him. "And it was like the ground opens up and you fall straight through to hell. It was such a shock, I couldn't even react at all. They treated me strange, and the second day I suddenly realized what was going on. All my life I'd been like a princess, you know, and then I was just a hip kid among ten thousand others in L.A., but now I was suddenly just a piece of beaner trash. They never said it straight out, but it was so clear. They hated me, because I was the greaseball whore who'd hooked their darling boy. They were painfully polite, because I guess their strategy was to wait for Sloop to come to his senses and dump me. It happens, you know, in Texas. The good old boys, when they're young and foolish, they like a little dark meat. Sometimes it's like a rite of passage. Then they wise up and straighten out. I knew that's what they were thinking. And hoping. And it was a shock, believe me. I had never thought of myself like that. Never. I'd never had to. Never had to confront it. The whole world was turned upside down, in an instant. Like falling in freezing water. Couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't even move."

"But he didn't dump you, evidently."

She looked down at the table.