The guy had neither injury the night before. And Reacher had no idea the guy was a cop. He just looked like some idiot in a bar. Reacher had gone there because he heard the music was good, but it wasn't, so he had backed away from the band and ended up on a bar stool watching ESPN on a muted television fixed high on a wall. The place was crowded and noisy, and he was wedged in a space with a woman on his right and the heavyweight guy with the brush-cut on his left. He got bored with the sports and turned around to watch the room. As he turned, he saw how the guy was eating.
The guy was wearing a white tank-top shirt and he was eating chicken wings. The wings were greasy and the guy was a slob. He was dripping chicken fat off his chin and off his fingers onto his shirt. There was a dark teardrop shape right between his pecs. It was growing and spreading into an impressive stain. But the best barroom etiquette doesn't let you linger on such a sight, and the guy caught Reacher staring.
"Who you looking at?" he said.
It was said low and aggressively, but Reacher ignored it.
"Who you looking at?" the guy said again.
Reacher's experience was, they say it once, maybe nothing's going to happen. But they say it twice, then trouble's on the way. Fundamental problem is, they take a lack of response as evidence that you're worried. That they're winning. But then, they won't let you answer, anyway.
"You looking at me?" the guy said.
"No," Reacher answered.
"Don't you be looking at me, boy," the guy said.
The way he said boy made Reacher think he was maybe a foreman in a lumber mill or a cotton operation. Whatever muscle work was done around Lubbock. Some kind of a traditional trade passed down through the generations. Certainly the word cop never came to his mind. But then, he was relatively new to Texas.
"Don't you look at me," the guy said.
Reacher turned his head and looked at him. Not really to antagonize the guy. Just to size him up. Life is endlessly capable of surprises, so he knew one day he would come face to face with his physical equal. With somebody who might worry him. But he looked and saw this wasn't the day. So he just smiled and looked away again.
Then the guy jabbed him with his finger.
"I told you not to look at me," he said, and jabbed.
It was a meaty forefinger and it was covered in grease. It left a definite mark on Reacher's shirt.
"Don't do that," Reacher said.
The guy jabbed again.
"Or what?" he said. "You want to make something out of it?"
Reacher looked down. Now there were two marks. The guy jabbed again. Three jabs, three marks. Reacher clamped his teeth. What were three greasy marks on a shirt? He started a slow count to ten. Then the guy jabbed again, before he even reached eight.
"You deaf?" Reacher said. "I told you not to do that."
"You want to do something about it?"
"No," Reacher said. "I really don't. I just want you to stop doing it, is all."
The guy smiled. "Then you're a yellow-bellied piece of shit."
"Whatever," Reacher said. "Just keep your hands off me."
"Or what? What you going to do?"
Reacher restarted his count. Eight, nine.
"You want to take this outside?" the guy asked.
"Touch me again and you'll find out," Reacher said. "I warned you four times."
The guy paused a second. Then, of course, he went for it again. Reacher caught the finger on the way in and snapped it at the first knuckle. Just folded it upward like he was turning a door handle. Then because he was irritated he leaned forward and headbutted the guy full in the face. It was a smooth move, well delivered, but it was backed off to maybe a half of what it might have been. No need to put a guy in a coma, over four grease marks on a shirt. He moved a pace to give the man room to fall, and backed into the woman on his right.
From Echo Burning by Lee Child. (c) June 2001, Putnam Pub Group, used by permission
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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