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Bad Luck and Trouble (Jack Reacher #11)(13)
Author: Lee Child

"Franz's place first?" she asked.

Reacher nodded. "Franz is the focus here."

So they rode the elevator down and got in the Mustang together and crawled south on La Cienega to the post office at the tip of Culver City.

***

They parked right outside Franz's trashed office and walked back past the dry cleaner and the nail salon and the discount pharmacy. The post office was empty. A sign on the door said that the lobby had been open a half-hour. Clearly whatever initial rush there had been was over.

"We can't do this when it's empty," Reacher said.

"So let's find the landlord first," Neagley said.

They asked in the pharmacy. An old man in a short white coat was standing under an old-fashioned security camera behind the dispensing counter. He told them that the guy who owned the dry cleaner's store was the landlord. He spoke with the kind of guarded hostility that tenants always use about the people who get their rent checks. He outlined a short success story in which his neighbor had come over from Korea and opened the cleaners and used the profits to leverage the whole strip mall. The American dream in action. Reacher and Neagley thanked him and walked past the nail salon and ducked into the cleaner's and found the right guy immediately. He was rushing around in a crowded work area heavy with the stink of chemicals. Six big drum machines were churning away. Pressing tables were hissing. Racks of bagged clothes were winding around on a motorized conveyor above head height. The guy himself was sweating. Working hard. It looked like he deserved two strip malls. Or three. Maybe he already had them. Or more.

Reacher got straight to the point. Asked, "When did you last see Calvin Franz?"

"I hardly ever saw him," the guy answered. "I couldn't see him. He painted over his window, first thing he ever did." He said it like he had been annoyed about it. Like he had known he was going to have to get busy with a scraper before he could rent the unit again.

Reacher said, "You must have seen him coming and going. I bet nobody here works longer hours than you."

"I guess I saw him occasionally," the guy said.

"When do you guess you stopped seeing him occasionally?"

"Three, four weeks ago."

"Just before the guys came around and asked you for his key?"

"What guys?"

"The guys you gave his key to."

"They were cops."

"The second set of guys were cops."

"So were the first."

"Did they show you ID?"

"I'm sure they did."

"I'm sure they didn't," Reacher said. "I'm sure they showed you a hundred dollar bill instead. Maybe two or three of them."

"So what? It's my key and it's my building."

"What did they look like?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because we were Mr. Franz's friends."

"Were?"

"He's dead. Someone threw him out of a helicopter."

The dry cleaner just shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't remember the guys," he said.

"They trashed your unit," Reacher said. "Whatever they paid you for the key won't cover the damage."

"Fixing the unit is my problem. It's my building."

"Suppose it was your pile of smoldering ashes? Suppose I came back tonight and burned the whole place down?"

"You'd go to prison."

"I don't think so. A guy with a memory as bad as yours wouldn't have anything to tell the police."

The guy nodded. "They were white men. Two of them. Blue suits. A new car. They looked like everybody else I see."

"That's all?"

"Just white men. Not cops. Too clean and too rich."

"Nothing special about them?"

"I'd tell you if I could. They trashed my place."

"OK."

"I'm sorry about your friend. He seemed like a nice guy."

"He was," Reacher said.

14

Reacher and Neagley walked back to the post office. It was a small, dusty place. Government decor. It had gotten moderately busy again. Normal morning business was in full swing. There was one clerk working and a short line of waiting customers. Neagley handed Reacher Franz's keys and joined the line. Reacher stepped to a shallow waist-high counter in back and took a random form out of a slot. It was a demand for confirmation of delivery. He used a pen on a chain and bent down and pretended to fill out the form. He turned his body sideways and rested his elbow on the counter and kept his hand moving. Glanced at Neagley. She was maybe three minutes from the head of the line. He used the time to survey the rows of mail boxes.

They filled the whole end wall of the lobby. They came in three sizes. Small, medium, large. Six tiers of small, then below them four tiers of medium, then three tiers of large closest to the floor. Altogether one hundred eighty of the small size, ninety-six mediums, and fifty-four large. Total, three hundred thirty boxes.

Which one was Franz's?

One of the large ones, for sure. Franz had been running a business, and it had been the kind of business that would have generated a fair amount of incoming mail. Some of it would have been in the form of thick legal-sized packages. Credit reports, financial information, court transcripts, eight-by-ten photographs. Large, stiff envelopes. Professional journals. Therefore, a large box.

But which large box?

No way of telling. If Franz had been given a free choice, he would have picked the top row, three up from the floor, right-hand end. Who wants to walk farther than he needs to from the street door and then crouch all the way down on the linoleum? But Franz wouldn't have been given a free choice. You want a post office box, you take what's available at the time. Dead men's shoes. Someone dies or moves away, their box becomes free, you inherit it. Luck of the draw. A lottery. One chance in fifty-four.

Reacher put his left hand in his pocket and fingered Franz's key. He figured it would take between two and three seconds to test it in each lock. Worst case, almost three minutes of dancing along the array. Very exposed. Worse than worst case, he could be busy trying a box right in front of its legitimate owner who had just stepped in behind him. Questions, complaints, shouts, calls to the postal police, a potential federal case. Reacher had no doubt at all that he could get out of the lobby unharmed, but he didn't want to get out empty-handed.

He heard Neagley say: "Good morning."

He glanced left and saw her at the head of the counter line. Saw her leaning forward, commanding attention. Saw the counter clerk's eyes lock in on hers. He dropped the pen and took the key from his pocket. Stepped unobtrusively to the wall of boxes and tried the first lock on the left, three up from the floor.

Failure.

He rocked the key clockwise and counterclockwise. No movement. He pulled it out and tried the lock below. Failure. The one below that. Failure.

Neagley was asking a long complicated question about air mail rates. Her elbows were on the counter. She was making the clerk feel like the most important guy in the world. Reacher shuffled right and tried again, one box over, three up from the floor.

Failure.

Four down, fifty to go. Twelve seconds consumed, odds now improved from one-point-eight-five chances in a hundred to two chances in a hundred. He tried the next box down. Failure. He crouched, and tried the box nearest to the floor.

Failure.

He stayed in a crouch and shuffled right. Started the next column from the bottom up. No luck with the lowest. No luck with the one above. No luck with the third up. Nine down, twenty-five seconds elapsed. Neagley was still talking. Then Reacher was aware of a woman squeezing in on his left. Opening her box, high up. Raking out a dense mass of curled junk. Sorting it, as she stood there. Move, he begged her. Step away to the trash receptacle. She backed away. He stepped to his right and tried the fourth row. Neagley was still talking. The clerk was still listening. The key didn't fit the top box. It didn't fit the middle box. It didn't fit the bottom box.

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