He headed back to Knox's seat. The door was leaking air. The bus was colder at the front than the back. He said, 'Well?'
Knox said, 'They're sending a car as soon as possible.'
'A car won't do it.'
'I told them that. I described the problem. They said they'll work something out.'
'You seen storms like this before?'
'This is not a storm. The storm is sixty miles away. This is the edge.'
Reacher shivered. 'Is it coming our way?'
Reacher left him there and walked down the aisle, all the way past the last of the seats. He sat on the floor outside the toilet, with his back pressed hard against the rear bulkhead, hoping to feel some residual heat coming in from the cooling engine.
Five minutes to five in the afternoon.
Fifty-nine hours to go.
FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER THE LAWYER GOT HOME. A LONG, SLOW trip. His driveway was unploughed and he worried for a moment that his garage door would be frozen shut. But he hit the remote and the half-horsepower motor on the ceiling inside did its job and the door rose up in its track and he drove in. Then the door wouldn't shut after him, because the clumps of snow his tyres had pushed in triggered the door's child safety feature. So he fussed with his overshoes once more and took a shovel and pushed the snow back out again. The door closed. The lawyer took off his overshoes again and stood for a moment at the mud room door, composing himself, cleansing himself, taking a mental shower. Twenty minutes to six. He walked through to the warmth of his kitchen and greeted his family, as if it was just another day.
By twenty minutes to six the inside of the bus was dark and icy and Reacher was hugging himself hard and shivering violently. Ahead of him the twenty old people and Knox the driver were all doing pretty much the same thing. The windows on the windward side of the bus were all black with stuck snow. The windows on the leeward side showed a grey panorama. A blizzard, blowing in from the north and the east, driven hard and relentlessly by the winter wind, hitting the aerodynamic interruption of the dead vehicle, boiling over it and under it and around it and swirling into the vacuum behind it, huge weightless flakes dancing randomly up and down and left and right.
Then: faint lights in the grey panorama.
White lights, and red, and blue, pale luminous spheres snapping and popping and moving through the gloom. The faint patter of snow chains in the eerie padded silence. A cop car, coming towards them on the wrong side of the divided highway, nosing slow and cautious through the weather.
A long minute later a cop was inside the bus. He had come through the ditch and in through the door, but he had just gotten out of a heated car and he was wearing winter boots and waterproof pants and gloves and a parka and a plastic rain shield over a fur hat with ear flaps, so he was in pretty good shape. He was tall and lean and had lined blue eyes in a face that had seen plenty of summer sun and winter wind. He said his name was Andrew Peterson and that he was second-in-command over at the Bolton PD. He took off his gloves and moved through the aisle, shaking hands and introducing himself by name and rank over and over again, to each individual and each couple, in a manner designed to appear guileless and frank and enthusiastic, like a good old country boy just plain delighted to help out in an emergency. But Reacher was watching those lined blue eyes and thinking that his front was false. Reacher was thinking that Peterson was actually a fairly shrewd man with more things on his mind than a simple road rescue.
That impression was reinforced when Peterson started asking questions. Who were they all? Where were they from? Where had they started today? Where were they headed tonight? Did they have hotel reservations up ahead? Easy answers for Knox and the twenty old folks, a tour group, from Seattle, hustling from one scheduled stop at the Dakotaland Museum to the next at Mount Rushmore, and yes, they had confirmed reservations at a tourist motel near the monument, thirteen rooms, for the four married couples, plus four pairs who were sharing, plus four individuals who had paid a singles supplement, plus one for Knox himself.
All true information, but not exactly necessary, in the circumstances.
Peterson made Knox show him the motel paperwork.
Then he turned to Reacher. Smiled and said, 'Sir, I'm Andrew Peterson, from the Bolton PD, deputy chief. Would you mind telling me who you are?'
Plenty of heartland cops were ex-military, but Reacher didn't think Peterson was. He wasn't getting the vibe. He figured him for a guy who hadn't travelled much, a straight-arrow kid who had done well in a local high school and who had stuck around afterwards to serve his community. Expert in a casual way with all the local stuff, a little out of his depth with anything else, but determined to do his best with whatever came his way.
'Sir?' Peterson said again.
Reacher gave his name. Peterson asked him whether he was part of the group. Reacher said no. So Peterson asked him what he was doing on the bus. Reacher said he was heading west out of Minnesota, hoping to turn south before too long, hoping to find better weather.
'You don't like our weather?'
'Not so far.'
'And you hitched a ride on a tour bus?'
Peterson looked at Knox, and Knox nodded.
Peterson looked back at Reacher and asked, 'Are you on vacation?'
Reacher said, 'No.'
'Then what exactly is your situation?'
'My situation doesn't matter. None of this matters. None of us expected to be where we are right now. This whole thing was entirely unpredictable. It was an accident. Therefore there's no connection between us and whatever it is that's on your mind. There can't be.'
'Who says I have something on my mind?'
Peterson looked at Reacher, long and hard. 'What happened with the bus?'
'Ice, I guess,' Reacher said. 'I was asleep at the time.'
Peterson nodded. 'There's a bridge that doesn't look like a bridge. But there are warning signs.'
Knox said, 'A car coming the other way was sliding all over the place. I twitched.' His tone was slightly defensive. Peterson gave him a look full of sympathy and empty of judgement and nodded again. He said, 'A twitch will usually do it. It's happened to lots of people. Me included.'
Reacher said, 'We need to get these people off this bus. They're going to freeze to death. I am, too.'
Peterson was quiet for a long second. There's no connection between us and whatever it is that's on your mind. Then he nodded again, definitively, like his mind was made up, and he called out, 'Listen up, folks. We're going to get you to town, where we can look after you properly. The lady with the collar bone and the lady with the wrist will come with me in the car, and there will be alternative transportation right along for the rest of you.'
The step down into the ditch was too much for the injured women, so Peterson carried one and Reacher carried the other. The car was about ten yards away, but the snow was so thick by then that Reacher could barely see it, and when he turned back after Peterson had driven away he couldn't see the bus at all. He felt completely alone in the white emptiness. The snow was in his face, in his eyes, in his ears, on his neck, swirling all around him, blinding him. He was very cold. He felt a split second of panic. If for some reason he got turned around and headed in the wrong direction, he wouldn't know it. He would walk until he froze and died.
But he took a long step sideways and saw the crimson haloes of the flares. They were still burning valiantly. He used them to work out where the bus must be and headed for it. Came up against its leeward side and tracked around the front, back into the wind, through the ditch to the door. Knox let him in and they crouched together in the aisle and peered out into the darkness, waiting to see what kind of a ride had been sent for them.