He did the paperwork, with Illinois ID. Rode the bus to the Hertz lot and found his car. It was the plain-jane Crown Vic, in steel blue metallic, neither light nor dark. He was happy with it. He heaved his bags into the trunk and drove to a motel near the new ballpark on the road from Fort Worth to Dallas. Checked in with the same Illinois ID, ate, and slept a few hours. He woke early and met his two partners in the fierce morning heat outside the motel at exactly the same moment Jack Reacher first stuck out his thumb, more than four hundred miles away in Lubbock.
Second surprise after the cop showing up was he got a ride within three minutes. He wasn't even sweating yet. His shirt was still dry. Third surprise was the driver who stopped for him was a woman. Fourth and biggest surprise of all was the direction their subsequent conversation took.
He had been hitching rides for the best part of twenty-five years, in more countries than he could easily recall, and three minutes was about the shortest interval between sticking out his thumb and climbing into a car he could remember. As a mode of transportation, hitching rides was dying out. That was his conclusion, based on a lot of experience. Commercial drivers had insurance problems with it, and private citizens were getting worried about it. Because who knew what kind of a psycho you were? And in Reacher's case, it was worse than the average, especially right then. He wasn't some dapper little guy, neat and inoffensive. He was a giant, six-five, heavily built, close to two hundred and fifty pounds. Up close, he was usually scruffy, usually unshaven, and his hair was usually a mess. People worried about him. They stayed away from him. And now he had the fresh new bruise on his forehead. Which was why he was surprised about the three minutes.
And why he was surprised about the woman driver. There's usually a pecking order, based on some kind of subconscious assessment of risk. Top of the list, a young girl will get a ride from an older man easiest of all, because where's the threat in that? Although now, with some of the young girls turning into scam artists wanting a hundred bucks in exchange for dropping fake molestation claims, even that is getting harder. And whatever, right down there at the bottom of the list is a big scruffy guy getting a ride from a neat slender woman in an expensive coupe. But it happened. Within three minutes.
He was hurrying south and west of the motel strip, stunned by the heat, hard to see in the jagged morning shadows, his left thumb jammed out urgently, when she pulled over at his side with the wet hiss of wide tires on hot pavement. It was a big white car and the sun on the hood dazzled him. He turned blindly and she buzzed her far window down. Seven forty-two, Friday morning.
"Where to?" she called, like she was a cab driver, not a private citizen.
"Anywhere," he said.
He regretted it, instantly. It was a dumb thing to say, because to have no specific destination usually makes things worse. They think you're some kind of an aimless drifter, which makes them suspicious, and makes them worried they might never get rid of you. Makes them worried you'll want to ride all the way home with them. But this woman just nodded.
"O.K.," she said. "I'm headed down past Pecos."
He paused a beat, surprised. Her head was ducked down, her face tilted up, looking out at him through the window.
"Great," he said.
He stepped off the curb and opened the door and slid inside. The interior was freezing cold. She had the air roaring on maximum and the seat was leather and it felt like a block of ice. She buzzed the window up again with the button on her side as he swung the door shut behind him.
"Thanks," he said. "You don't know how much I appreciate this."
She said nothing. Just made some kind of all-purpose dismissive gesture away from him as she craned to look over her shoulder at the traffic stream behind her. People have their reasons for giving rides, all of them different. Maybe they hitched a lot when they were younger and now they're settled and comfortable they want to put back what they took out. Like a circular thing. Maybe they have charitable natures. Or maybe they're just lonely and want a little conversation.
From Echo Burning by Lee Child. (c) June 2001, Putnam Pub Group, used by permission
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