Black Jack – Diane Capri

He’d never been lucky before, but today was different. Reed could feel it in his bones. The daily nausea and abdominal pain was barely noticeable for the first time in weeks, which was lucky right there. Otherwise, he might have been sleeping and missed his big break. The original plan he’d worked up had been excellent. One adjustment to take advantage of his luck and the plan became absolutely brilliant. All the elements had fallen into place with zero effort. Even the winter weather had become a willing accomplice. How lucky could one guy be? Weak sunlight had finally melted the last of the snow on the driveway yesterday. Temperatures above forty were a welcome respite from the early, bitter cold that began in late October and never let up. A white Christmas had come and gone, which meant New York residents were grateful for the brief winter thaw. A nor’easter was forecast tomorrow, and more storms would follow, which was also lucky, as it turned out. He’d already planned to take advantage of both the thaw and the storms, but now, when this opportunity coincided with his preparation, he seized the chance. He’d been watching the abandoned house for a while, which was the kind of simple task he could easily perform in spite of his worsening symptoms. Very few vehicles traveled the two-lane road in front of the house at all because of the deep snow.

Only a couple of neighbors with four-wheel drive SUVs occasionally drove past to reach the small town seven miles south. The road was never plowed out, and neither was the driveway. Which made it easy to see whether anyone came or went. No one had. No visitors, no deliveries, nothing. He took many long naps and longer breaks without missing anything at all. He knew he hadn’t missed anything because afterward, he zoomed through the recorded video, simply to be sure. Not once in all these weeks had any kind of vehicle pulled into the long driveway. He grinned. Until today.

He’d slept several uninterrupted hours for a change, which was another lucky thing because he felt rested and ready. The sunrise awakened him when the first light cleared the trees. A moment to urinate and stretch out the kinks in his muscles before he poured his last cup of hot, black coffee from the thermos, and he was alert and watching at the very moment his luck arrived. He’d already swallowed half the coffee when the red Lexus rounded the corner and came into view. The sun glinted off the windshield as the driver slowed and turned into the driveway. He found his long lens camera and snapped a few quick shots of the sedan. The license plate was New York blue and gold, but road grime obscured the number, which was perfect. Lexus sedans were common in New York. Without a specific plate number, the car could belong to almost anyone. The driver pulled all the way up to the big double garage door and parked.

Through the lens, he watched the driver’s side door open, and a woman climbed out. Which was the moment he realized how lucky he really was. He continued shooting as he watched. She was covered from the neck down by a black leather coat and gloves, black pants and boots. The warmer weather had encouraged her to forego her hat and scarf, but she’d donned stylish oversized sunglasses. This just keeps getting better and better. Even from this distance, she was beautiful, in an ethereal way. Tall, blonde, almost painfully thin. Mid-thirties. Or close enough.

He watched her through the long lens as she walked up the sidewalk toward the house, emptyhanded. At the front door, she entered a code on the real estate agent’s lockbox, removed the key to unlock the door, and went inside. Damn! How great is that? Reed’s grin consumed his whole face. He relaxed in his seat. He glanced at the clock so he’d know precisely where to find her arrival on the video feed later. The house was totally empty. It was also cold and dark. The electricity had been off for weeks. Cell phone signals were weak in this area for commercial carriers, too. She wouldn’t stay inside very long.

Almost like he felt the wheels turning in his head and clicking into place, the improved plan unfolded quickly. When he had it all worked out, he gulped the cold dregs from the plastic cup, screwed the top onto the thermos, and dropped it onto the seat. He wanted hot coffee and plenty of it, but he couldn’t get more just yet. He rechecked the clock. Twenty-two minutes so far. Reed wondered what she might be doing inside the house. Taking photos or video with a cell phone, probably. Nothing else was the least bit likely. Twelve minutes later, she stepped out through the front door and turned to close it solidly. Reed raised his long lens camera to his eye again and snapped photos in long bursts.

She bent to return the key and punch the code to secure the lockbox again, closed the storm door, and tested the handle. She slipped her sunglasses on before she faced the bright sunlight, which probably seemed intense after she’d become accustomed to the dark interior of the house. She returned to her car and reversed the Lexus out of the long driveway. At the road, she turned toward Garrison and drove the speed limit until she rounded the corner out of sight. Reed checked the clock and noted the exact time. All he had to do was edit the surveillance video to remove all evidence of her departure, which he accomplished before the coffee finished brewing. The video now showed her arrive, go inside, and never come out. He didn’t even need to move the car. No one would check the video for a while. Why would they? No reason to check it until after the body was discovered inside the house.

And if they checked the video first, before the body was found? That was okay, too. Because they’d go inside looking for her. It’s all good. It had been a long time since he’d felt good about anything. Reacher would find out. How long would it take him to come running? For her? Not long, probably. Reed shook his head, still smiling. He refilled his thermos with the fresh coffee. Within minutes, he was on the road tailing her red sedan. He knew right where he’d find it.

He had plenty of time. The snow wouldn’t start until early tomorrow morning. Around two o’clock or so, according to the weather guys. He looked at his eyes reflected in the rearview mirror. “You’re one lucky bastard, you know that?” CHAPTER TWO Monday, January 17 11:00 p.m. Garrison, New York His luck was holding. Cloud cover blocked the moon and the stars. The closest neighbors were out of town for the season. The rest of the neighborhood was already in bed for the night.

The only ambient light originated across the river in the back of the house. After midnight, even that would diminish. But sound carried across the water, which meant his mission must be completed as silently as possible. The storm was forecast to begin after 0200 hours and continue tomorrow. At least six inches of heavy snow was expected. He’d have the body in place well before the snow made it impossible to enter without leaving tracks that could be traced and identified later. Tracks that would prompt a search inside the house too soon. Reed checked the clock. The mission launched precisely at 0100 hours. Two more hours to kill.

He checked the existing video feeds first. Constant video without snags, stalls, or time gaps in the feed was essential. Afterward, he’d edit his activities out as flawlessly as he’d edited out her departure this morning. Sophisticated forensics could locate the edits, but the analysis would never be requested because no one would have a reason to ask. Olympic athletes trained off the field with repeated mental rehearsals, one step at a time, emphasizing success and handling obstacles. He’d perfected his plan the same way. The mission would last sixty minutes. Sixty-five, max. Start to finish. Delivering the paint into the tub was the slowest activity and the only segment that couldn’t be rushed.

Don gloves, cap, mask, boot covers, and protective clothing. Disable all lights on the inside and outside of the SUV. Back the vehicle slowly and quietly down the driveway to the attached garage. Get out and open the big garage door manually because the power to operate the electric opener was turned off, which had also disabled the automatic light on the opener. Return to the vehicle. Move it into the garage far enough to prevent any casual observation of activities from the road while permitting access to the cargo. The SUV would not fit completely inside because of the garage’s interior layout. Which meant he couldn’t close the garage door. He relied on stealth and total darkness to cloak his activities. Open the back hatch.

He now had access to his supplies and equipment. He visualized her naked body lying prone inside the body bag on the plastic sheet. She’d been dead long enough to be somewhat flexible again. He’d previously removed her clothes and placed them in a plastic garbage bag to limit the potential for transferred trace evidence and reduce the amount of time he spent inside the house. He carried her into the bathroom inside the body bag and placed her in the tub. He removed her from the body bag and posed her body like a corpse in repose. The oversized tub had grips on the bottom to prevent her from slipping lower into the paint. He returned to the garage with the body bag and stowed it carefully. He collected the plastic bag containing her clothes. Over the past few weeks, he’d bought fifteen gallons of olive green oil-based paint from several sellers in New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York using small cash purchases.

Earlier today, he’d emptied the cans into the big shop vac with a pumping feature and disposed of the empty cans at three different landfills. He saw himself hefting the battery-powered shop vac inside the house. In the bathroom for the second time, he dropped the plastic bag of clothes on the floor at the foot of the tub. He flipped the switch on the shop vac to low volume and used the pumping feature to let the paint flow slowly through the hose into the bathtub. He emptied the clothes from the bag and placed them as if they’d been casually dropped when she undressed before stepping into the bath. Panties first, nightgown next. No bra. He watched the paint flowing into the tub until the paint line reached above her shoulders to the base of her neck. He pressed the off switch on the shop vac. He used his flashlight to check the room.

Satisfied with his work, he carried the shop vac and the plastic bag out to the garage again. He relocked the interior door that connected the house to the garage. He lifted the shop vac into the plastic sheet covering the cargo area of the SUV and stuffed the plastic bag in with the body bag. He returned to the driver’s seat and pulled slowly out of the garage. He lowered the big door to the ground and then pulled away. He checked the clock. Another half hour yet. At precisely 0100 hours, before the snow began to fall, he executed his plan exactly as he’d visualized it. Not one snag. How lucky could he get? Back at his site, Reed pulled off his protective gear and stuffed everything into the plastic bag that had held her body.

He edited the video footage to eliminate all evidence of his activities. When he’d finished, three inches of snow was already on the ground. The unblemished white blanket covered the lawn and the driveway of the house. He smiled with satisfaction. On his circuitous route home, he stopped at four appropriate dump sites to dispose of the body bag, the protective gear, the remaining paint, and the dismantled shop vac. The only thing left to do now was to wait until the body was discovered and the media did what they always do. Reacher would be here soon. CHAPTER THREE Eleven Days Later Friday, January 28 2:30 p.m. New Windsor, New York FBI Special Agent Kim Otto landed at Stewart International, a secondary airport about seventy miles north of Manhattan, ten minutes behind schedule.

The flight’s altitude had been high above the clouds until the pilot forced his way through the heavy cloud cover for landing. She’d popped her tenth antacid just before the bouncy landing, and she was grateful to be on the ground in one piece. She’d been seated near the front of the small jet, which meant she could grab her bags and deplane ahead of the slower passengers. At the end of the jetway, she spied the signs pointing her toward ground transportation on the lower level. She stopped briefly in the restroom and then hurried to the exit. An unmarked black FBI SUV waited at the curb. The driver, a large black man who resembled a human tank, lowered the window and showed his photo ID badge. “Agent Otto?” “Alive and well, no thanks to the flight gods.” She nodded. “Unlock the back door, and I’ll stow these bags.

We can be on our way. Maybe make up a little time on the road.” She stashed her travel bag and her laptop case behind the front passenger seat. She climbed up onto the running board and then tucked into the cabin. She fished her cell phone out of her blazer pocket and turned it on, which would ping whoever might be tracking her location, for better or worse. She grabbed the large alligator clip she kept in her overcoat pocket, fastened her seatbelt, loosened the shoulder harness to a comfortable length, and placed the clip at the retractor to hold the webbing in place. The tight steel grip held the harness in position as comfortably as possible, given the physics of it all. The driver watched her organize herself as if she was an unusual lab specimen of some kind. The alligator clamp business triggered a wide grin. He extended his hand.

“Agent Reggie Smithers, at your service.” His voice was a pleasant rumble like he should be hosting a late-night radio call-in show for lonely women. She placed her small hand inside his oversized paw and gripped for the handshake as well as she could. “Seatbelts in these big SUVs invariably cut across my body at an angle guaranteed to behead me in a crash. Even if the airbags deploy,” Kim said, deadly serious in reply to his obvious amusement. “Yeah, I can see how that might happen. What are you? Four-ten, and ninety pounds soaking wet?” His smile displayed teeth resembling an entire set of white piano keys. “What are you? Six-five and three-ten in your birthday suit?” Kim shot back. When he roared with laughter, she shrugged. She liked him already.

“Are we still waiting for your partner? Agent Gaspar?” Smithers asked. Kim shook her head. “He’s on medical leave. I got called up three hours ago. Nobody I could bring along on short notice. So it’s just me, for now.” “Got it.” He pulled the SUV away from the curb, still chuckling. “We’re less than fifteen miles from Garrison. But another eight inches of heavy snow fell in the past twelve hours.

Plows can’t keep up. Probably take us about twice as long as usual to get there, if there’s no crashes ahead to tie us up.” When he’d entered the flow of slow-moving traffic along the snow-covered pavement, she relented. “Four-eleven and ninety-seven pounds of absolutely terrifying power, if you must know.” He nodded and kept his eyes straight ahead, but the corner of his mouth twitched. He cleared his throat. “You came in from Detroit, right? About a ninety-minute flight, give or take?” “A little slower today, due to the weather. They de-iced the plane twice. It’s pretty cold out there.” Kim hated flying.

Human error being almost a given, added to bad weather, terrorist alerts, and everything else, air travel was always a recipe for disaster. She absolutely despised air travel in winter, which never came close to the best conditions. Not even remotely. She saw a drive-through fast food joint up ahead on the right. “Pull in over there, and I’ll buy you a coffee.” “We’re already running behind.” Smithers frowned. “My orders were to get you to Garrison as quickly as possible. We don’t have much daylight left.” Kim shrugged, an all-purpose gesture she’d stolen from Gaspar because it could mean anything or nothing.

Properly deployed, it stopped conversation, too. Worked as well for her as it did for him. But when they reached the entrance to the coffee place, the traffic had stopped, and a sea of red taillights stretched at least half a mile ahead. Smithers turned the big SUV into the driveway and pulled around to the order window. “How do you take it?” “Large, hot, and black,” Kim replied pleasantly, wiggling her eyebrows like Groucho Marx. Smithers roared with laughter again. “Okay. I deserved that. No more personal appearance remarks from me.” “Good plan.

” Kim smiled. Smithers was competent. He wouldn’t be an FBI Special Agent otherwise. He was human, too. Which wasn’t actually a given. Some agents could be absolute jerks. She’d met way too many of them. He ordered two large black coffees to go. Kim handed him a ten-dollar bill. He gave her the change.

In less than five minutes they were parked behind the taillights with everyone else again. When the coffee proved too hot to drink just yet, she said, “You work out of the New York Field Office, I assume.” “Organized Crime Unit. Protection rackets, mostly. You know. Old fashioned mobsters,” he replied. She nodded. “Any idea why I’ve been called to Garrison?” “Not exactly. And I’m under orders not to discuss what I do know.” “Why?” “Because they want you to have fresh eyes when you get there.

” She cocked her head. The explanation made sense as long as the situation wasn’t an armed shooter or another imminent danger. Whatever was going on wasn’t immediately life-threatening, at least. Which got her hackles up. “Why was I ordered to rush out here with no intel at all, if this isn’t an immediate threat?” “Sorry, Otto. I understand why you’re annoyed, believe me. I’m not thrilled about any of this, myself. But I can’t answer that question, either. You’ll see for yourself soon enough.” “Okay.

” She took a breath and held on to her patience. “Tell me about Garrison then.” “What I know about the place won’t take much time to tell. It’s a little hamlet over in the next county. Established back when Moses was a pup. Active tourist place now. Country dwellers. Yankee Doodle Dandy and all that.” He craned his neck to see around the traffic. “Across the Hudson River from West Point.

” Kim smiled. “So you’re not a fan of Garrison?” “I’m not planning to live there, no. Fortunately, not many mobsters live there, either, so I won’t be required to move.” He punched a few buttons on the navigation system. “Looks like Interstate 84 is the only reasonable way to get across the river. Guess we’ll just grunt this out. Unless you want me to order up a helo?” “Way too cold, windy, and dark out there to get me in a helicopter. No thanks.” She shuddered. Again, she took his comments to confirm that the situation in Garrison wasn’t urgent.

Which limited the possibilities. She tried not to jump to conclusions about the job, but so far, she’d seen no reason to be on full alert. After covering very little ground for another two miles, Smithers turned on a jazz station. They traveled the remaining miles across the river on the interstate without conversation, which was fine with her. Just because two people were in a vehicle together didn’t necessarily mean they had to talk to each other, Gaspar often said. After they crawled across the Hudson behind the line of traffic, the navigation system identified a secondary state road running south along the east side of the river down to Garrison. “How about we take the scenic route? We can get out of this traffic, at least.” Kim pointed to the estimated drive time. Nineteen minutes to cover the distance, not taking the snow into account. But at least they’d be moving.

“Works for me.” Smithers put the SUV in four-wheel drive and turned south following the nav system’s directions. They traveled through mostly unoccupied countryside bedecked with snow suitable for a Currier & Ives Christmas card. Kim hoped they wouldn’t need to walk around out there. She hadn’t packed proper clothes for hunting evidence under two feet of snow. Smithers drove over the twisty road with the confidence of a man used to handling all types of road conditions. Kim liked him more by the minute. The headlight beams bounced along the semi-darkness caused by the heavy cloud cover, even though it was not quite half-past three and the sun was technically still above the horizon. He kept the SUV between the ditches and made up some lost time by accelerating on the straight, flat sections, but on the curves, he was forced to slow. “Good thing my partner isn’t driving.

Gaspar’s from Miami. Probably never seen this much snow in his life,” Kim said when they entered the township of Garrison, which seemed to be nothing more than a wide spot in the snowy forest. “So this is it?” “We’re almost there. Another couple of miles.” Smithers had both hands gripped onto the steering wheel. “Thing is, these houses can have a Garrison zip code and be way off the beaten track, you know?” The navigation system identified the next turn onto an even narrower country road. Fresh snow covered the two-lane here, but at least one vehicle had driven through. Deep ruts in the snow suggested a heavy vehicle. When Smithers lined up the SUV’s wheels in the prior vehicle’s ruts, Kim figured they were getting close. Above the snow line, the top rail of decorative rough timber ranch fencing marked the edge of the properties off the shoulder.

Mailboxes were visible about a hundred yards apart, suggesting driveways leading to residences might be under all that snow. Poles held cables above the treetops. She could see West Point across the river between the houses. The ruts Smithers was riding led into the next driveway ahead. He turned right and followed them in toward the house. Kim glanced at the mailbox as they passed, but the aluminum letters that had listed the name above the address had been removed. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a long driveway. At the end was a low, sprawling house barely visible in the approaching darkness. The headlights provided enough wattage to identify dark cedar siding and a big stone chimney. There were no lights on inside or outside the building.

Kim glanced at her watch. It was now only 4:30 p.m., yet the place had an abandoned, dead-of-night feel. At the end of the driveway, in front of the double garage door, another FBI unmarked SUV was parked, lights off and the engine running. An agent was seated behind the wheel. No one else was in the vehicle. Smithers drove up close and slipped the transmission into park. He opened the console and moved a few small boxes around until he found what he wanted. “You’ll need these.

” He handed her paper booties to cover her boots, a paper cap to cover her hair, and gloves. “Agent Brice is waiting for you inside.” She’d have asked more questions, but there was no point. He’d told her everything he was authorized to say, and he wouldn’t say more. She appreciated his ability to follow orders. The agent in the first vehicle on the scene turned off his engine and walked back to join them. He was bundled up against the weather. She stuffed the protective covers into her overcoat pocket and pulled her alligator clamp from the seatbelt. When the passenger door opened, a cold wind blew inside the cabin. Smithers said, “Agent Kim Otto, this is Agent Terry Poulton.

Also Organized Crime Unit.” His sandy red hair and freckled face reminded her of that actor, what was his name? Caruso, maybe? Poulton might have been a little older. They shook hands and changed places. He handed her a flashlight. Kim slipped out of the front seat and stood on the running board before she stepped down into a snowdrift that almost reached the hem of her coat. Dry snow swirled everywhere. She stuffed her hands deep into her pockets and trudged around the front of the SUV. “The sidewalk is just ahead on the left,” Agent Poulton called out before he stepped into the warm vehicle and closed the door. Smithers left his headlights on for her, which meant she didn’t need the flashlight outside. She might need it inside the house from the looks of it.

Everything around the house was very quiet. The air smelled crisp and so cold that inhaling burned her nostrils. The river was behind the house. West Point would be visible a mile away, probably. But the world beyond the headlight beams was black and empty on this side of the house. No visible stars or moon or ambient light of any kind. Which might mean that the neighboring homes were also unoccupied, at least for the winter months. Or maybe there were hedges or something else blocking any spillover of illumination. Hard to say. She followed the single set of Poulton’s footprints in the snow.

Easier than breaking her own trail, and it could help to preserve any potential evidence that might be out there. Even so, each step meant lifting her foot in a high parade march all the way to the sidewalk and then up to the entrance. The front door was open behind a full glass storm door. When she stepped up onto the stoop, a flashlight turned on inside. Smithers punched off the headlights. She glanced back toward the big SUV, but it had blended into the blackness. “I’m FBI Special Agent Houston Brice. Thanks for coming on such short notice.” He wore paper booties, a paper cap, and gloves. She couldn’t see his face yet.

“Sorry for the radio silence. We wanted you to have fresh eyes.” “Yeah, that’s what Smithers said. Of course, I’d have been more prepared if you’d told me anything at all.” She stomped the snow off her boots and swiped her clothes to remove as much moisture as she could. “Sorry. Following orders, myself. You’ll understand in a minute,” Brice said. “No problem.” She leaned against the siding to slip her feet into the paper booties.

Her hair was already captured in a low chignon on the back of her neck. She slipped the paper cap over her head and pulled the gloves on as she walked across the threshold. Inside, she pulled the flashlight out of her pocket and flipped the on switch. Then she waited for her eyes to adjust. The first thing she noticed was the cold. Probably well below thirty degrees in here. The temperature outside had been in the teens or lower. “No heat?” “The forced air heating system is gas. But it takes electricity to operate the blower.” He shrugged.

“There’s no electricity in here.” “Why not?” “Turned off by the electric company. The house is unoccupied. Listed for sale. We’re running that down now.” She nodded. “I hope they’ve done something about the pipes to avoid freezing, then.” Brice replied, “The house will be a mess if they didn’t, and it’s a pretty nice house.” “How old is this place? Thirty, forty years?” Her guess was based on the size of the lot and the location. Property on the Hudson River, even sixty miles from Manhattan, wasn’t cheap.

Lots as big as this one were divided up and sold by developers looking for big bucks these days. “Probably at least thirty years, for sure. But it’s been renovated more recently.” He stood to one side and aimed his flashlight around a large, open floor plan. “Older homes weren’t designed like this. And the kitchen looks like one of those cooking shows on television where all the high-end stuff is built in. Even has a big wine cooler. Like they have in the fancy restaurants. I’m guessing someone paid a few hundred grand to renovate. Maybe more.” She moved further into the house. After the cold and the open floor plan, the next thing she noticed was nothing. Literally nothing. As in no furniture at all.

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