"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Carnage: 61 Hours by Lee Child (2010)

61 Hours (2010), like many other Jack Reacher thrillers written by Lee Child, achieves its heights by digging into the Matter of North America: carnage wrought on the U.S. working class from decades of depression, intensified workplace speedup, shortened lifespan, addiction to prescription drugs; made worse by contemptuous and dismissive treatment at the hands of the country's liberal dictators of capital, who dismiss them as a "basket of deplorables," and "clingers to their guns and Bibles."

Bolton, SD in 61 Hours has made a deal with the devil for full employment: allowing construction of a massive federal penitentiary. But this has also made Bolton ground-zero for prison guards and adoubled police force, not to mention an illegal drug industry. 

An abandoned and officially forgotten Air Force building at the end of a runway five miles from town has been occupied by a hundreds-strong motorcycle gang under generalship of Mexican kingpin Plato.

Into this landscape brewing showdown countdown (61 hours and counting) comes Reacher.

Reacher woke up at ten to seven, to a silent sepulchral world. Outside the den windows the air was thick with heavy flakes. They were falling gently but relentlessly onto a fresh accumulation that was already close to a foot deep. There was no wind. Each one of the billions of flakes came parachuting straight down, sometimes wavering a little, sometimes spiraling, sometimes sidestepping an inch or two, each one disturbed by nothing except its own featherweight instability. Most added their tiny individual masses to the thick white quilt they landed on. Some stuck to fantastic vertical feathered shapes on power lines and fence wires, and made the shapes taller.

     The bed was warm but the room was cold. Reacher guessed that the iron stove had been banked overnight, its embers hoarded, its air supply cut off. He wondered for a moment about the correct protocol for a houseguest under such circumstances. Should he get up and open the dampers and add some wood? Would that be helpful? Or would it be presumptuous? Would it upset a delicate and long-established combustion schedule and condemn his hosts to an inconvenient midnight visit to the woodpile two weeks down the road?

     In the end Reacher did nothing. Just kept the covers pulled up to his chin and closed his eyes again.

     Five to seven in the morning.

     Forty-five hours to go.

Reacher befriends an old woman waiting to testify against the local drug ring. Like Reacher, she has a touch of the poet.

....They all wrapped up in all the clothes they had and stepped through the door. The wind was steady out of the west. All the way from Wyoming. It was bitter. Reacher had been in Wyoming in the winter, and survived. He made a mental note never to risk it again. Peterson ranged ahead and one of the day-watch women trailed behind and the other kept pace on the opposite sidewalk. Reacher stayed at Janet Salter's shoulder. She had a scarf wrapped around the lower portion of her face. Reacher didn't. As long as the wind was on his back, the situation was tolerable. But when they turned and headed north to town, his nose and cheeks and chin went numb and his eyes started to water. He pulled his hood forward and shielded his face as much as was prudent. He felt he needed some kind of peripheral vision. The sidewalk was humped and ridged with glazed snow. Walking on it was difficult.

     Janet Salter asked him, "What are you thinking about?"

     Her voice was muffled, literally. Her words came out thick and soft and then froze and whipped away on the wind.

     "I'm thinking about February of 1936," Reacher said. "Minus fifty-eight degrees, the height of the Depression, dust storms, droughts, blizzards, why the hell didn't you all move to California?"

     "Lots of folks did. The others had no choice but to stay. And that year had a warm summer, anyway."

     "Peterson told me. A hundred-seventy-eight-degree swing."

     "Did he tell you about the chinooks?"


     "Chinooks are hot winds out of the Black Hills. One day in January of 1943 it was minus four degrees, and then literally two minutes later it was plus forty-five. A forty-nine degree swing in a hundred and twenty seconds. The most dramatic ever recorded in America. Everyone had broken windows from the thermal shock."

     "Wartime," Reacher said.

     "The hinge of fate," Janet Salter said. "That exact day the Germans lost control of the airfields at Stalingrad, many thousands of miles away. It was the beginning of the end for them. Maybe the wind knew."

Reacher is unofficially recruited by two local cop commanders, Holland and Peterson. They all show up at the air force facility in the subzero after dark and find the key to the structure's massive door.

Chapter 33

….Reacher tried the handle. It turned downward sixty degrees with a hefty motion that was halfway between precise and physical. Like an old-fashioned bank vault. The door itself was very heavy. It felt like it weighed a ton, literally. Its outer skin was a two-inch-thick steel plate. Inset by two inches in every direction on the back was a ten-inch-deep rectangular protuberance that socketed home between the jambs and the lintel and the floor saddle. The protuberance was like a welded steel box. Probably packed with ceramics. When closed, the whole thing would make a seamless foot-thick part of the wall. The hinges were massive. But not recently oiled. They shrieked and squeaked and protested. But the door came open. Reacher hauled it through a short two-foot arc and then slipped in behind it and leaned into it and pushed it the rest of the way. Like pushing a broken-down truck.

     Nothing but darkness inside the stone building.

     "Flashlights," Holland said.

     Peterson hustled back and visited both cars and returned with three flashlights. They clicked on one after the other and beams played around and showed a bare concrete bunker maybe twenty feet deep and thirty feet wide. Two stories high. The stone was outside veneer only. For appearances. Underneath it the building was brutal and utilitarian and simple and to the point. In the center of the space it had the head of a spiral stair that dropped straight down through the floor into a round vertical shaft. The air coming up out of it smelled still and dry and ancient. Like a tomb. Like a pharaoh's chamber in a pyramid. The hole for the stairwell was perfectly circular. The floor was cast from concrete two feet thick. The stairs themselves were welded from simple steel profiles. They wound round and down into distant blackness.

     "No elevator," Peterson said.

     "Takes too much power," Reacher said. He was fighting the pedantic part of his brain that was busy pointing out that a spiral was a plane figure. Two dimensions only. Thus a spiral staircase was a contradiction in terms. It was a helical staircase. A helix was a three-dimensional figure. But he didn't say so. He had learned not to. Maybe Susan in Virginia would have understood. Or maybe not.

     "Can you imagine?" Holland said, in the silence. "You're seven years old and you're looking to head down there and you know you won't be coming back up until you're grown?"

     "If you got here at all," Reacher said. "Which you wouldn't have. The whole concept was crazy. They built the world's most expensive storage facility, that's all."

     Close to the stairwell shaft there were two wide metal ventilation pipes coming up through the floor. Maybe two feet in diameter. They came up about a yard and stopped, like broad chimneys on a flat roof. Directly above both of them were circular holes in the concrete ceiling. One shaft would have been planned as an intake, connected to one of the building's fake chimneys, fitted with fans and filters and scrubbers to clean the poisoned air. The other would have been the exhaust, to be vented up and out through the second fake chimney. An incomplete installation. Never finished. Presumably the fake chimneys were capped internally. Some temporary fix that had lasted fifty years. There was no sign of rain or snow inside the bunker.

     Reacher stepped over to one of the pipes and shone his flashlight beam straight down. Like looking down a well. He couldn't see bottom. The pipe was lined on the inside with stainless steel. Smooth and shiny. Efficient air movement. No turbulence. No furring, no accumulation of dirt. Regular cleaning had not been on the agenda. There would have been no one left alive to do it.

     Reacher stepped back and leaned over the stair rail and shone his flashlight beam straight down the stairwell. Saw nothing except stairs. They wound on endlessly, wrapped around a simple steel pipe. No handrail on the outer circumference. The space was too tight.

     "This place is very deep," he said.

     His voice echoed back at him.

     "Probably needed to be," Holland said.

     The stairs had once been painted black, but their edges were worn back to dull metal by the passage of many feet. The safety rail around the opening was scuffed and greasy.

     Peterson said, "I'll go first."

     Five to ten in the evening.

     Six hours to go.

     Reacher waited until Peterson's head was seven feet down, and then he followed. The stairs were in a perfectly round vertical shaft lined with smooth concrete. Space was cramped. There had been construction difficulties. The voice from Virginia had read him notes from faxed files: The design was compromised several times during construction because of the kind of terrain they found. Clearly the terrain had meant they hadn't drilled beyond the bare minimum. The diameter was tight. Reacher's shoulders brushed the concrete on one side and the central pipe on the other. But it was his feet that were the major problem. They were too big. A helical staircase has treads that narrow from the outside to the inside. Reacher was walking on his heels the whole way. Coming back up, he would be walking on his toes.

     They went down, and down, and down, Peterson first, then Reacher, then Holland. Fifty feet, then seventy-five, then a hundred. Their flashlight beams jerked and stabbed through the gloom. The steel under their feet clanged and boomed. The air was still and dry. And warm. Like a mine, insulated from the surface extremes.

     Reacher called, "See anything yet?"

     Peterson called back, "No."

     They kept on going, corkscrewing down, and down, and down, their flashlight beams turning perpetually clockwise, washing the troweled concrete wall. They passed through strange acoustic nodes where the whole shaft resonated like the bore of an oboe and the sound of their feet on the metal set up weird harmonic chords, as if the earth's core was singing to them.

     Two hundred feet.

     Then more.

     Then Peterson called, "I'm there, I think."

     Reacher clattered on after him, two more full turns.

     Then he came to a dead stop, deep underground.

     He sat down, on the second-to-last step.

     He used his flashlight, left, right, up, down.

     Not good.

     He heard the voice from Virginia in his head again: Something about the construction compromises made it useless for anything else.

     Damn straight they did.

     The stairwell shaft ended in an underground chamber made of concrete. It was perfectly circular. Like a hub. Maybe twenty feet in diameter. The size of a living room. But round. Like a living room in a movie about the future. It had eight open doorways leading off to eight horizontal corridors, one at each point of the compass, like bicycle spokes. The corridors were dark. Deep in shadow. The doorways were straight and square and true. The chamber's floor was hard and flat and dry and smooth. The walls were hard and flat and dry and smooth. The ceiling was hard and flat and dry and smooth. Altogether the whole place was a neat, crisp, exact piece of construction. Well designed, well engineered, well built. Ideal for its intended purpose.

     Which was an orphanage.

     For children.

     What made it useless for anything else was that the ceiling was only five feet six inches above the floor. That was all. Bad terrain. The round chamber and the accompanying spoked corridors had been burrowed laterally into a thin and ungenerous seam between upper and lower plates of unyielding hard rock. The low ceiling was a necessary concession to reality. And a professional disappointment, probably. But theoretically adequate for a pack of unaccompanied kids, all runty and starving. Reacher could picture the engineers confronting the unexpected problem, poring over geological surveys, looking up tables of average height versus age, shrugging their shoulders, revising their plans, signing off on the inevitable. Technically acceptable, they would have said, which was the only standard military engineers understood.

     But the place was not acceptable for anything else, technically or otherwise. Not even close. Not acceptable for Marine training or any other kind of military purpose. Not acceptable for any kind of full-grown adult. Peterson had advanced maybe ten feet into the space and he was buckled at the knees and his head was ducked way down. He was crouching. His shoulders were on the ceiling. He was waddling painfully, ludicrously stooped, like a Russian folk dancer.

     And Peterson was three inches shorter than Reacher.

     Reacher stood up again. He was on the bottom step. Nine inches above the round chamber's floor. Its ceiling was level with his waist. His whole upper body was still inside the shaft.

     Not good.

     Holland came on down and crowded in behind him. Said, "We won't hear the siren way down here."

     "Does your cell phone work?"

     "Not a chance."

     "Then we better be quick."

     "After you," Holland said. "Mind your head."

     Reacher had a choice. He could shuffle along on his knees or scoot along on his butt. He chose to scoot on his butt. Slow and undignified, but less painful. He snaked downward off the last stair like a clumsy gymnast and sat down and scuttled a cautious yard, heels and knuckles and ass, like a kid playing at being a crab. Ahead of him the two ventilation shafts came down through the low ceiling and ended a stubby foot below the concrete. Three separate parallel bores, one wide for the stairs, two narrow for the pipes, all ending the prescribed distance below the surface in a ludicrous horizontal slot burrowed laterally and grudgingly into the rock.

     Reacher said, "I was already taller than this when I was seven."

     His voice came back to him with a strange humming echo. The acoustics were weird. The concrete he was sitting on was neither warm nor cold. There was a faint smell of kerosene in the air. And a draft. Air was coming down the stairwell shaft and circulating back up through the ventilation shafts. A venturi effect. The stone building's door was open more than two hundred feet above them and the wind was blowing hard across it and sucking air out of the bunker. The same way a spray gun sucks paint out of a reservoir or a carburetor sucks gas out of a fuel line. But nature abhors a vacuum, so some circulatory layer was feeding air right back in, just as fast.

     "Move," Holland said.

     Reacher scuttled another yard. Holland ducked down and stepped off the last stair and came after him, crouching like Peterson, spinning slowly, playing his flashlight beam around a whole wide circle.

     "Eight doorways," he said. "Eight choices. Which one has the lab?"

     The same strange, humming echo, like Holland's voice was everywhere and nowhere.

     Reacher said, "There is no lab."

     "Has to be. Where there's meth there's a lab."

     "There was a lab," Reacher said. "Once upon a time. But it wasn't here. It was a big place in New Jersey or California or somewhere. It had a sign outside."

     "What are you talking about?"

     Reacher played his flashlight beam low across the floor. Started at the bottom step and followed a faint track of dirt and scuffs that curled counterclockwise across the concrete to a doorway more or less opposite where he was sitting. South, if he was north, or north, if he was south. He had been turned around so many times by the staircase he had lost his bearings.

     "Follow me," he said.

     He scooted off. He found it faster to turn around and travel backward. Push with his feet, pivot on his hands, dump down on his ass, and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. It was warm work. He pulled off his hat and his gloves and unzipped his coat. Then he resumed. Holland and Peterson followed him all the way, bent over, crouching, waddling, always in his view. He could hear knee joints popping and cracking. Ligaments, and fluid. Holland's, he guessed. Peterson was younger and in better shape.

     He made it to the doorway and swiveled around and shone his flashlight down the length of the corridor. It was a tunnel maybe a hundred feet long, perfectly horizontal, like a coal seam. It was five feet six inches high, and about the same in width. The left-hand half was an unobstructed hundred-foot walkway. The right-hand half was built up into a long low continuous concrete shelf, a hundred feet long, about two feet off the floor. A sleeping shelf, he guessed. He imagined bedrolls laid head to toe all along its length, maybe twenty of them. Twenty sleeping children. Five feet each.

     But the place had never been used. There were no bedrolls. No sleeping children. What was on the shelf instead was the war surplus flown back fifty years earlier from the old U.S. bomber bases in Europe. Aircrew requirements. Hundreds and hundreds of bricks of white powder, wrapped smooth and tight in yellowing glassine, each packet printed with the crown device, the headband, the three points, the three balls representing jewels. A registered trademark, presumably, for a now defunct but once entirely legitimate and government-contracted outfit called Crown Laboratories, whoever and wherever they had been.

     Peterson said, "I don't believe it."

     The packs looked to be stacked ten high and ten deep in groups of a hundred and there were maybe a hundred and fifty groups along the whole length of the shelf. A total of fifteen thousand, minus those already removed. The stack was a little depleted at the near end. It looked like a brick wall in the process of patient demolition.

     Holland asked, "Is this forty tons?"

     "No," Reacher said. "Not even close. This is only about a third of it. There should be another two stacks just like this."

     "How many packs in forty tons?" Peterson asked.

     "Nearly forty-five thousand."

     "That's insane. That's forty-five billion in street value."

     "Your granddaddy's tax dollars at work."

     "What was it for?"

     "World War Two aircrew," Reacher said. "Bombers, mostly. None of us have any idea what that war was like for them. Toward the end they were flying twelve hour trips, sometimes more, Berlin and back, deep into Germany, day after day after day. Every trip they were doing stuff that had never been done before, in terms of precision and endurance. And they were in mortal danger, every single minute. Every second. Casualties were terrible. They would have been permanently terrified and demoralized, except they were always too exhausted to think. Pep pills were the only way to keep them in the air."

     "These aren't pills."

     "Delivery method was up to the medical officers. Some made it up into pills, some preferred drinking it dissolved in water, some recommended inhaling it, some liked suppositories. Probably some prescribed all four ways at once."

     "I had no idea."

     "It was general issue, like boots or ammunition. Like food."

     "Can't have been good for them."

     "Some of the planes had little wires soldered near the end of the throttle travel. The last quarter-inch. War boost, it was called. If you needed it, you hauled the throttle back and busted the wire and got maximum power. It strained the engine, which wasn't good, but it saved your life, which was good. Same exact principle with the dope."

     "How much did they get through?"

     "Way more than we can guess. The Air Force in Europe was hundreds of thousands strong back then. And demand was pretty strong, too. It was a tough gig. I'm sure I would have snorted my body weight before my first tour was half-done."

     "And this much was left over?"

     "This could have been a month's supply. Suddenly not needed anymore. Shutting down production was pretty haphazard at the end."

     "Why is it here?"

     "Couldn't just junk it. Couldn't sell it. Certainly couldn't burn it. The whole of Europe would have gotten high as kites off the smoke."

     They went quiet. Just stared.

     Then Holland said, "Let's find the rest."

     The rest was shared between the next two tunnels to the left. The same hundred-foot shelves, the same meticulous stacks of packets, the same dull flashlight reflections off the yellowed glassine. A full fifteen thousand bricks in the second tunnel, another full fifteen thousand in the third.

     Holland dropped to his knees. Clenched his fists. Smiled wide.

     "Close to ninety thousand pounds, all told," he said. "The damn DEA will have to listen to us now. This has got to be the biggest drug bust in history. And we did it. Little old us. The Bolton PD, in South Dakota. We're going to be famous. We're going to be legends. No more poor relations. The damn prison staff can kiss my ass."

     "Congratulations," Reacher said.

     "Thank you."

     "But it's not all good. Plato found it a year before you did."


     "Rumor and logic, I guess. He knew it had been used in the war, and he knew there was likely to be surplus stock somewhere, so he tracked it down. He's probably got guys in the Air Force. That's probably why we found the cargo manifest. It was on top of a pile somewhere, because someone else had been looking for it already."

     Peterson said, "I can't believe the bikers left it all sitting here. The temptation to take some with them must have been huge."

     Reacher said, "I get the impression that if Plato tells you to leave something, you leave it." He shuffled a little farther into the tunnel, picturing a long line of sweating men fifty years ago passing the two-pound packets hand to hand to hand and then stacking them neatly like craftsmen. Probably the shortest guys had been detailed for the work. He didn't know what the Air Force's height requirement had been fifty years earlier. But probably some of the guys had been standing straight, and some of them hadn't. They had probably roped the packs down the ventilation tubes in kitbags. Five or ten at a time, maybe more. Trestles and pulleys on the surface. Some kind of an improvised system. Too laborious to carry them all down the stairs one by one. Probably the bikers had brought them back up the same way. The fact that the ventilation pipes were unfinished and open at both ends must have been too obvious to ignore.

     He shuffled a little farther in and made another discovery.

     There was a lateral link feeding sideways off the main tunnel. Like part of a circle's circumference butting up against its radius. He squeezed down it and came out in the next tunnel along. He shuffled deeper in and found two more lateral links, one to the left, one to the right. The whole place was a warren. A maze. There was a total of eight spokes, and three separate rings. Each ring had its own curved shelf. Lots more linear feet for sleeping children. Lots of corners. Some turned only left, some turned only right. There were no four-way junctions. Everything was a T, upright at the far end of the spokes, rotated randomly left or right at the other turns. A bizarre layout. The plan view on the blueprint must have looked like a Celtic brooch. Maybe there had been more construction compromises than just the ceiling height. Possibly the whole thing was supposed to be like an odd truncated underground version of the Pentagon itself, but rounded off, not angular, and with some of the links between rings and spokes not made.

     The wedges of solid rock separating the spokes and the rings had been hollowed out in ten separate places. Bathrooms, maybe, never installed, or kitchens, never installed, or storerooms for subsistence rations, never supplied. Everything was faced with smooth crisp concrete. It was dry and dusty. The air smelled old. The whole place was absolutely silent.

     Peterson called, "Take a look at this."

     Reacher couldn't locate his voice. It came through all the tunnels at once, from everywhere, humming and singing and fluttering and riding the walls.

     Reacher called, "Where are you?"

     Peterson said, "Here."

     Which didn't help. Reacher threaded his way back to the main circular hall and asked again. Peterson was in the next tunnel along. Reacher scooted over and joined him there. Peterson was looking at a fuel tank. It was a big ugly thing that had been welded together out of curved sections of steel small enough to have been dropped down the ventilation shafts. It was sitting on a shelf. It was maybe forty feet long. It was big enough to hold maybe five thousand gallons. It was sweating slightly and it smelled of kerosene. Not original to the place. The welds were crude. Technically unacceptable. Air Force mechanics would have done better work.

     Peterson stooped forward and rapped it with his knuckles. The sound came back dull and liquid. Reacher thought back to the fuel truck that had nearly creamed him in the snow at the bottom of the old county two-lane.

     "Great," he said. "We're two hundred feet underground with five thousand gallons of jet fuel in a home-made tank."

     "Why jet fuel? It smells like kerosene."

     "Jet fuel is kerosene, basically. So it's one or the other. And there's way more here than they need for the heaters in the huts. And they just got it. After they already knew they were leaving. And after plowing the runway. So a plane is coming in. Probably soon. It's going to refuel. Holland needs to tell the DEA about that. They're going to need to be fast."

     "It won't come in the dark. There are no runway lights."

     "Even so. Time is tight. How far away is the nearest DEA field office?"

     Peterson didn't answer. Instead he asked, "How did they fill a tank all the way down here?"

     "They backed the fuel truck to the door and dropped the hose down the air shaft."

     "That would need a long hose."

     "They have long hoses for houses with big yards."

     Then Holland called out, "Guys, take a look at this."

     His voice reached them with a strange hissing echo, all around the circular room, like a whispering gallery. He was in a tunnel directly opposite. Reacher scooted and Peterson stooped and scuffled and they made their way over to him. He was playing his flashlight beam close and then far, all the way down the hundred-foot length and back again.

     It was like something out of a fairy tale.

     Like Aladdin's cave.


 Chapter 34

     Holland's flashlight beam threw back bright reflections off gold, off silver, off platinum. It set up glitter and refraction and sparkle off brilliant diamonds and deep green emeralds and rich red rubies and bright blue sapphires. It showed old muted colors, landscapes, portraits, oils on canvas, yellow gilt frames. There were chains and lockets and pins and necklaces and bracelets and rings. They were coiled and piled and tangled and tossed all the way along the shelf. Yellow gold, rose gold, white gold. Old things. New things. A hundred linear feet of loot. Paintings, jewelry, candlesticks, silver trays, watches. Small gold clocks, tiny suede bags with drawstrings, a cut-glass bowl entirely filled with wedding bands.

     "Unredeemed pledges," Peterson said. "In transit, from Plato's pawn shops."

     "Barter," Reacher said. "For his dope."

     "Maybe both," Holland said. "Maybe both things are the same in the end."

     They all shuffled down the tunnel. They were unable to resist. The shelf was a hundred feet long and maybe thirty-two inches wide. More than two hundred and fifty square feet of real estate. The size of a decent room. There was no space on it large enough to put a hand. It was more or less completely covered. Some of the jewelry was exquisite. Some of the paintings were fine. All of the items were sad. The fruits of desperation. The flotsam and jetsam of ruined lives. Hard times, addiction, burglary, loss. Under the triple flashlight beams the whole array flashed and danced and glittered and looked simultaneously fabulous and awful. Someone's dreams, someone else's nightmares, all secret and buried two hundred feet down.

     A hundred pounds' weight, or a thousand.

     A million dollars' worth, or ten….

Carnage follows carnage. The abandoned facility is a claustrophobic nightmare: a nightmare by government design for kids who would be orphaned in World War Three; a nightmare for Bolton when Plato confirms the bunker is an El Dorado of government-manufactured amphetamines. (Drugs born of necessities of aerial war against German imperialism during World War Two.)

*   *   *

61 Hours is Lee Child in top form. It is equal to other volumes on the carnage theme: Make Me (2015) and The Midnight Line (2017).



4 November 2020

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