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  • Published: 19 March 2024
  • ISBN: 9780552177566
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 416
  • RRP: $22.99

The Secret

Jack Reacher, Book 28


Keith Bridgeman was alone in his room when he closed his eyes. The morning medical rounds were over. Lunch had been delivered and eaten and cleared away. Other people’s visitors had clattered along the corridor in search of relatives and friends. A janitor had swept and mopped and hauled off the day’s trash. And finally a little peace had descended on the ward.

Bridgeman had been in the hospital for a month. Long enough to grow used to its rhythms and routines. He knew it was time for the afternoon lull. A break from getting poked and prodded and being made to get up and move around and stretch. No one was going to bother him for another three hours, minimum. So he could read. Watch TV. Listen to music. Gaze out of the window at the sliver of lake that was visible between the next pair of skyscrapers.

Or he could take a nap.

Bridgeman was sixty-two years old. He was in rough shape. That was clear. He could debate the cause – the kind of work he had devoted his life to, the stress he had suffered, the cigarettes and alcohol he had consumed – but he couldn’t deny the effect. A heart attack so massive that no one had expected him to survive.

Defying odds that great is tiring work. He chose the nap.

These days he always chose the nap.

Bridgeman woke up after only an hour. He was no longer alone. Two other people were in the room with him. Both were women. Maybe in their late twenties. They were the same height. The same slim build. One was on the left side of his bed, nearer to the door. The other was level with her on the right, nearer to the window. They were standing completely still. In silence. Staring at him. Their hair was pulled back, smooth and dark and tight. Their faces were expressionless like mannequins’ and their skin shone in the harsh artificial light as if it was moulded from plastic.

The women were wearing white coats over hospital scrubs. The coats were the correct length. They had all the necessary pockets and badges and tags. The scrubs were the right shade of blue. But the women weren’t medics. Bridgeman was sure about that. His sixth sense told him so. It told him they shouldn’t be there. That they were trouble. He scanned each of them in turn. Their hands were empty. Their clothes were not bulging. There was no sign of guns or knives. No sign of any hospital equipment they could use as weapons. But Bridgeman still wasn’t happy. He was in danger. He knew it. He could feel it as keenly as a gazelle that had been ambushed by a pair of lions.

Bridgeman glanced at his left leg. The call button was where the nurse had left it, lying on the sheet between his thigh and the safety rail. His hand darted toward it. It was a fluid movement. Smooth. Fast. But the woman was faster. She snatched the button then dropped it, leaving it dangling on its wire, almost to the floor, well out of Bridgeman’s reach.

Bridgeman felt his heart quiver and tremble in his chest. He heard an electronic beep. It came from a piece of equipment on a stand near the head of the bed. It had a screen with a number in the centre of the top half and two jagged lines that zigzagged across the full width of the lower half. The first line showed his pulse. It was spiking wildly. Its peaks were surging closer together like they were chasing one another. The number showed his heart rate. It was climbing. Fast. The beeps grew louder. More frequent. Then the sound became continuous. Insistent. Impossible to ignore. The number stopped rising. It began to flash. It changed direction. And it kept going down until it reached 00. The lines flattened out. First at the left of the screen and then all the way across until both were perfectly horizontal. The display was inert. Lifeless. Except for the desperate electronic howl.

It told of total cardiac failure.

But only for a moment.

The second woman had grabbed Bridgeman’s right wrist when the alarm began to shriek. She had yanked a square blue clip off the tip of his index finger and attached it to her own. The screen flashed twice. Then the sound cut out. The heart rate started to climb. The two lines began to tick their way from left to right. None of the values were quite the same as Bridgeman’s. The woman was younger. Fitter. Healthier. Calmer. But the readings were close enough. Not too high. Not too low. Nothing to trigger another alarm.

Bridgeman clutched his chest with both hands. Sweat was prickling out across his forehead and his scalp. His skin felt clammy. He had to make an effort to breathe.

The woman with the clip on her finger lowered herself into the visitor’s chair next to the window. The woman on the left of the bed waited a moment then looked at Bridgeman and said, ‘We apologize. We didn’t mean to startle you. We’re not here to hurt you. We just need to talk.’

Bridgeman said nothing.

The woman said, ‘We have two questions. That’s all. Answer them honestly and you’ll never see us again. I promise.’

Bridgeman didn’t respond.

The woman saw him glancing past her, toward the door. She shook her head. ‘If you’re hoping the cavalry’s going to come, you’re out of luck. Those clips slip off people’s fingers all the time. And what do they do? Stick them right back on. Anyone at the nurses’ station who heard the alarm will figure that’s what you did. So. First question, OK?’

Bridgeman’s mouth was dry. He did his best to moisten his lips then took a deep breath. But not to answer questions. To call for help the old-fashioned way.

The woman read his play. She put a finger to her lips and took something out of her coat pocket. A photograph.

She held it out for Bridgeman to take. It showed a gloved hand holding a copy of the Tribune next to a window. Bridgeman could read the date on the newspaper. Tuesday, 7 April 1992. It was that day’s edition. Then he saw two figures through the glass. A woman and a child. A little girl. Even though they were facing away from the camera Bridgeman had no doubt who they were. Or where they were. It was his daughter and granddaughter. In the home he had bought them in Evanston, after his wife died.

The woman took hold of Bridgeman’s arm and felt for his pulse. It was fast and weak. She said, ‘Come on now. Calm down. Think of your family. We don’t want to hurt them. Or you. We just need you to understand how serious this situation is. We only have two questions, but they’re important. The sooner you answer, the sooner we’re out of here. Ready?’

Bridgeman nodded and slumped back against his pillow.

‘First question. You’re meeting with a journalist the day after tomorrow. Where is the information you’re planning to give her?’

‘How do you know about—’

‘Don’t waste time. Answer the question.’

‘OK. Look. There is no information. We’re just going to chat.’

‘No credible journalist is going to believe a whistleblower without ironclad proof. Where is it?’

‘Whistleblower? That’s not what this is. The reporter’s from a little weekly rag in Akron, Ohio. Where I was born. The story’s about my heart attack. My recovery. It’s a miracle, according to the doctors. People back home want to read about it. They say I’m an inspiration.’

‘Heart attack? That’s what you’re going with? When you’re sitting on a much bigger story?’

‘What bigger story?’

The woman leaned in closer. ‘Keith, we know what you did. What you all did. Twenty-threeyears ago. December 1969.’

‘December ’69? How do you know . . .? Who are you?’

‘We’ll come to who we are. Right now you need to tell me what information you’re planning to give this reporter from Akron.’

‘No information. I’m going to tell her about my recovery. That’s all. I will never talk about December ’69. Why we were there. What we were doing. What happened. Not to anyone. I swore I wouldn’t and I keep my word. My wife never even knew.’

‘So you don’t have any documents or notes hidden in this room?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Then you won’t mind if I take a look around.’

The woman didn’t wait for an answer. She started with the locker next to the bed. She opened the door and rummaged through Bridgeman’s spare pyjamas and books and magazines. She moved on to a leather duffel on the floor near the door. It held a set of clothes. Nothing else. Next she checked the bathroom. Nothing significant there, either. So she moved to the centre of the room and put her hands on her hips. ‘Only one place left to check. The bed.’

Bridgeman didn’t move.

‘Do it for your daughter. And your granddaughter. Come on. I’ll be quick.’

Bridgeman felt his pulse start to speed up again. He closed his eyes for a moment. Took a breath. Willed himself to relax. Then pushed back the sheet, swung his legs over the side of the mattress, and slid down on to his feet.

He looked at the woman in the chair. ‘Can I at least sit? I’m older than you. I have one foot in the grave.’

The woman held up her finger with the clip attached. ‘Sorry. The cable’s too short for me to move. You want to sit, use the windowsill.’

Bridgeman turned and looked at the windowsill. Considered sitting on it. But taking orders from one of the women was bad enough so he settled on leaning against it. He watched as the other woman finished her search of the bed. Again she came up empty.

‘Believe me now?’ Bridgeman said.

The woman took a piece of paper out of her pocket and handed it to Bridgeman. There was a list of names. Six of them, handwritten in shaky, spidery script. Bridgeman’s was one of them. He recognized all the other five. Varinder Singh. Geoffrey Brown. Michael Rymer. Charlie Adam. Neville Pritchard. And beneath the final name there was a symbol. A question mark.

The woman said, ‘A name is missing. Who is it?’

Bridgeman’s heart was no longer racing. Now it felt like it was full of sludge. Like it didn’t have the strength to force his blood into his arteries. He couldn’t answer. It would mean breaking his oath. He had sworn to never reveal a single detail. They all had, twenty-three years before, when it became clear what they had done. And the missing name belonged to the flakiest of the group. Better for everyone if it remained off the list.

The woman handed Bridgeman another photograph.

Another shot of his daughter and granddaughter, on foot this time, halfway across a crosswalk. The picture had been taken through a car windshield.

Bridgeman was channelling all his energy into trying to breathe. It was only a name that the woman wanted. What harm could come from telling her? Plenty, he knew.

The woman said, ‘Bonus question. What happens tomorrow? Or the next day? Is the driver drunk? Do his brakes fail?’

Bridgeman said, ‘Buck. The missing name. It’s Owen Buck.’

The woman shook her head. ‘Buck’s dead. He died of cancer a month ago. Right after he wrote that list. So his isn’t the name I need. He said there was an eighth name. He didn’t know what it was. But he was certain one of you others do.’

Bridgeman didn’t answer. He was struggling to make sense of the information. Buck’s conscience must have gotten the better of him. He was always mumbling about doing something stupid. But that didn’t explain why he told this woman there was an extra name. Maybe his mind had gone. Maybe whatever cancer drugs they gave him had fried his brain.

The woman said, ‘Maybe the driver will be distracted? Maybe he’ll be asleep at the wheel?’

‘Maybe there is another name.’ Bridgeman closed his eyes. ‘Maybe someone knows what it is. One of the others might. But not me. I don’t think one exists.’

The woman said, ‘Maybe there’ll be enough of your granddaughter left to bury. Maybe there won’t.’

Bridgeman was struggling for air. ‘Don’t. Please. I don’t know. I swear. I gave you Buck’s name. I didn’t know he’s dead. I’ve been sick. I’ve been in here. No one told me. So if I knew of some other name I’d tell you it, too. But I don’t. So I can’t.’

‘You can. You don’t have to say it. You can do what Owen Buck did. Write it down. He gave me six names. You only need to give me one.’

She pulled a pen from her coat pocket and held it out. Bridgeman stared at it for a moment. Then he took it and added Owen Buck to the top of the list.

He said, ‘That’s the only name I know. I swear.’

The woman said, ‘Have you ever seen a child’s coffin, Keith? Because if you haven’t I don’t think anything can really prepare you for how tiny it will seem. Especially when it’s next to the full-size one your daughter will be in.’

Bridgeman’s knees started to shake. He looked like he was ready to collapse.

The woman’s voice softened. ‘Come on. One name. Two lives saved. What are you waiting for?’

Bridgeman’s body sagged. ‘Buck was wrong. There isn’t another name. Not that I know of. I was there three years. I never heard of anyone else getting brought on board.’

The woman stared at Bridgeman for ten long seconds, then shrugged. She took the pen and the paper and slid them back into her pocket. ‘I guess we’re done here.’ She stretched out and touched Bridgeman’s forehead. ‘Wait a minute. You feel awful. Let me open the window. Fresh air will perk you up. I don’t want to leave you like this.’

Bridgeman said, ‘You can’t. The windows don’t open in this hospital.’

‘This one does.’ The woman leaned past Bridgeman, pushed down on the handle, and the window swung out on a broad arc. Then she scrabbled under the collar of her scrubs and pulled a fine chain up and over her head. The key to the window was hanging from it. ‘Here.’ She dropped the chain into the breast pocket of Bridgeman’s pyjama top. ‘A present. Something to remember us by, because you’re never going to see us again. As promised. There’s just one last thing before we go. You asked who we are.’ The woman stood a little straighter. ‘My name is Roberta Sanson.’

The woman with the finger clip climbed out of her chair. ‘And I’m her sister. Veronica Sanson. Our father was Morgan Sanson. It’s important you know that.’

Morgan Sanson. The name was an echo from the past. An unwelcome one. Four syllables he had hoped to never hear again. It took a fraction of a second for the significance to hit him then Bridgeman pushed off from the wall. He tried to dodge around Roberta Sanson but he never stood a chance. He was too frail. The space was too cramped. And the sisters were too highly motivated. Roberta shifted sideways and blocked his path.Then she grabbed his shoulders with both hands and drove himback until he was pressed against the sill. She checked that he was lined up with the open window. Veronica bent down and took hold of his legs, just above the ankles. She straightened and Roberta pushed. Bridgeman kicked. He twisted and thrashed. Roberta and Veronica pushed one more time. Two more times, to make sure there was no room for error. Then they let gravity do the rest.

The Secret Lee Child, Andrew Child

Jack Reacher, "the coolest continuing series character" (Stephen King), returns in a brand new, pulse-pounding read from Lee and Andrew Child.

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