Echo Burning (Jack Reacher #5)(8)


by Lee Child

"I hope so, too," he said.

She just stared at him. So why did you pick me up?" he asked.

"Why do you think?"

"I don't know," he said. "I thought I just got lucky. I guess I thought you were a kind person doing a stranger a favor."

She shook her head.

"No, I was looking for a guy like you," she said.

"Why?"

"I must have picked up a dozen guys," she said. "And I've seen hundreds. That's about all I've been doing, all month long. Cruising around West Texas, looking at who needs a ride."

"Why?"

She shrugged the question away. A dismissive little gesture.

"The miles I've put on this car," she said. "It's unbelievable. And the money I've spent on gas."

"Why?" he asked again.

She went quiet. Wouldn't answer. Just went into a long silence. The armrest on the door was digging into his kidney. He arched his back and pressed with his shoulders and adjusted his position. Found himself wishing somebody else had picked him up. Somebody content just to motor from A to B. He looked up at her.

"Can I call you Carmen?" he asked.

She nodded. "Sure. Please."

"O.K., Carmen," he said. "Tell me what's going on here, will you?"

Her mouth opened, and then it closed again. Opened, and closed.

"I don't know how to start," she said. "Now that it's come to it."

"Come to what?"

She wouldn't answer.

"You better tell me exactly what you want," he said. "Or I'm getting out of the car right here, right now."

"It's a hundred and ten degrees out there."

"I know it is."

"A person could die in this heat."

"I'll take my chances."

"You can't get your door open," she said. "The car is tilted too much."

"Then I'll punch out the windshield."

She paused a beat.

"I need your help," she said again.

"You never saw me before."

"Not personally," she said. "But you fit the bill."

"What bill?"

She went quiet again. Came up with a brief, ironic smile.

"It's so difficult," she said. "I've rehearsed this speech a million times, but now I don't know if it's going to come out right."

Reacher said nothing. Just waited.

"You ever had anything to do with lawyers?" she asked. "They don't do anything for you. They just want a lot of money and a lot of time, and then they tell you there's nothing much to be done."

"So get a new lawyer," he said.

"I've had four," she said. "Four, in a month. They're all the same. And they're all too expensive. I don't have enough money."

"You're driving a Cadillac."

"It's my mother-in-law's. I'm only borrowing it."

"You're wearing a big diamond ring."

She went quiet again. Her eyes clouded.

"My husband gave it to me," she said.

He looked at her. "So can't he help you?"

"No, he can't help me," she said. "Have you ever gone looking for a private detective?"

"Never needed one. I was a detective."

"They don't really exist," she said. "Not like you see in the movies. They just want to sit in their offices and work with the phone. Or on their computers, with their databases. They won't come out and actually do anything for you. I went all the way to Austin. A guy there said he could help, but he wanted to use six men and charge me nearly ten thousand dollars a week."

"For what?"

"So I got desperate. I was really panicking. Then I got this idea. I figured if I looked at people hitching rides, I might find somebody. One of them might turn out to be the right type of person, and willing to help me. I tried to choose pretty carefully. I only stopped for rough-looking men."

"Thanks, Carmen," Reacher said.

"I don't mean it badly," she said. "It's not uncomplimentary."

"But it could have been dangerous."

She nodded. "It nearly was, a couple of times. But I had to take the risk. I had to find somebody. I figured I might get rodeo guys, or men from the oil fields. You know, tough guys, roughnecks, maybe out of work, with a little time on their hands. Maybe a little anxious to earn some money, but I can't pay much. Is that going to be a problem?"

"So far, Carmen, everything is going to be a problem."

She went quiet again.

"I talked to them all," she said. "You know, chatted with them a little, discussed things, like we did. I was trying to make some kind of judgment about what they were like, inside, in terms of their characters. I was trying to assess their qualities. Maybe twelve of them. And none of them were really any good. But I think you are."

"You think I'm what?"

"I think you're my best chance so far," she said. "Really, I do. A former cop, been in the army, no ties anywhere, you couldn't be better."

"I'm not looking for a job, Carmen."

She nodded happily. "I know. I figured that out already. But that's better still, I think. It keeps it pure, don't you see that? Help for help's sake. No mercenary aspect to it. And your background is perfect. It obligates you."

He stared at her. "No, it doesn't."

"You were a soldier," she said. "And a policeman. It's perfect. You're supposed to help people. That's what cops do. "

"We spent most of our time busting heads. Not a whole lot of helping went on."

"But it must have. That's what cops are for. It's like their fundamental duty. And an army cop is even better. You said it yourself, you do what's necessary."

"If you need a cop, go to the county sheriff. Pecos, or wherever it is."

"Echo," she said. "I live in Echo. South of Pecos."

"Wherever," he said. "Go to the sheriff."

She was shaking her head. "No, I can't do that."

Reacher said nothing more. Just lay half on his back, pressed up against the door by the car's steep angle. The engine was idling patiently, and the air was still roaring. The woman was still braced above him. She had gone silent. She was staring out past him and blinking, like she was about to cry. Like she was ready for a big flood of tears. Like she was tragically disappointed, maybe with him, maybe with herself.