Sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, twenty-four hours in a day, seven days in a week, fifty-two weeks in a year. Reacher ballparked the calculation in his head and came up with a little more than thirty million seconds in any twelve-month span. During which time nearly ten million significant crimes would be committed in the United States alone. Roughly one every three seconds. Not rare. To see one actually take place, right in front of you, up close and personal, was not inherently unlikely. Location mattered, of course. Crime went where people went. Odds were better in the center of a city than the middle of a meadow.
Reacher was in a hollowed-out town in Maine. Not near a lake. Not on the coast. Nothing to do with lobsters. But once upon a time it had been good for something. That was clear. The streets were wide, and the buildings were brick. There was an air of long-gone prosperity. What might once have been grand boutiques were now dollar stores. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Those dollar stores were at least doing some business. There was a coffee franchise. There were tables out. The streets were almost crowded. The weather helped. The first day of spring, and the sun was shining.
Reacher turned in to a street so wide it had been closed to traffic and called a plaza. There were café tables in front of blunt red buildings either side, and maybe thirty people meandering in the space between. Reacher first saw the scene head-on, with the people in front of him, randomly scattered. Later he realized the ones that mattered most had made a perfect shape, like a capital letter T. He was at its base, looking upward, and forty yards in the distance, on the crossbar of the T, was a young woman, walking at right angles through his field of view, from right to left ahead of him, across the wide street, direct from one sidewalk to the other. She had a canvas tote bag hooked over her shoulder. The canvas looked to be medium weight, and it was a natural color, pale against her dark shirt. She was maybe twenty years old. Or even younger. She could have been as young as eighteen. She was walking slow, looking up, liking the sun on her face.
Then from the left-hand end of the crossbar, and much faster, came a kid running, head-on toward her. Same kind of age. Sneakers on his feet, tight black pants, sweatshirt with a hood on it. He grabbed the woman’s bag and tore it off her shoulder. She was sent sprawling, her mouth open in some kind of breathless exclamation. The kid in the hood tucked the bag under his arm like a football, and he jinked to his right, and he set off running down the stem of the T, directly toward Reacher at its base.
Then from the right-hand end of the crossbar came two men in suits, walking the same sidewalk-to-sidewalk direction the woman had used. They were about twenty yards behind her. The crime happened right in front of them. They reacted the same way most people do. They froze for the first split second, and then they turned and watched the guy run away, and they raised their arms in a spirited but incoherent fashion, and they shouted something that might have been Hey!
Then they set out in pursuit. Like a starting gun had gone off. They ran hard, knees pumping, coattails flapping. Cops, Reacher thought. Had to be. Because of the unspoken unison. They hadn’t even glanced at each other. Who else would react like that?
Forty yards in the distance the young woman scrambled back to her feet, and ran away.
The cops kept on coming. But the kid in the black sweatshirt was ten yards ahead of them, and running much faster. They were not going to catch him. No way. Their relative numbers were negative.
Now the kid was twenty yards from Reacher, dipping left, dipping right, running through the broken field. About three seconds away. With one obvious gap ahead of him. One clear path. Now two seconds away. Reacher stepped right, one pace. Now one second away. Another step. Reacher bounced the kid off his hip and sent him down in a sliding tangle of arms and legs. The canvas bag sailed up in the air and the kid scraped and rolled about ten more feet, and then the men in the suits arrived and were on him. A small crowd pressed close. The canvas bag had fallen about a yard from Reacher’s feet. It had a zipper across the top, closed tight. Reacher ducked down to pick it up, but then he thought better of it. Better to leave the evidence undisturbed, such as it was. He backed away a step. More onlookers gathered at his shoulder.
The cops got the kid sitting up, dazed, and they cuffed his hands behind him. One cop stood guard and the other stepped over and picked up the canvas bag. It looked flat and weightless and empty. Kind of collapsed. Like there was nothing in it. The cop scanned the faces all around him and fixed on Reacher. He took a wallet from his hip pocket and opened it with a practiced flick. There was a photo ID behind a milky plastic window. Detective Ramsey Aaron, county police department. The picture was the same guy, a little younger and a lot less out of breath.
Aaron said, “Thank you very much for helping us out with that.”
Reacher said, “You’re welcome.”
“Did you see exactly what happened?”
“Then I’ll need you to sign a witness statement.”
“Did you see the victim ran away afterward?”
“No, I didn’t see that.”
“She seemed OK.”
“Good to know,” Aaron said. “But we’ll still need you to sign a statement.”
“You were closer to it all than I was,” Reacher said. “It happened right in front of you. Sign your own statement.”
“Frankly, sir, it would mean more coming from a regular person. A member of the public, I mean. Juries don’t always like police testimony. Sign of the times.”
Reacher said, “I was a cop once.”
“In the army.”
“Then you’re even better than a regular person.”
“I can’t stick around for a trial,” Reacher said. “I’m just passing through. I need to move on.”
“There won’t be a trial,” Aaron said. “If we have an eyewitness on the record, who is also a military veteran, with law enforcement experience, then the defense will plead it out. Simple arithmetic. Pluses and minuses. Like your credit score. That’s how it works now.”
Reacher said nothing.
“Ten minutes of your time,” Aaron said. “You saw what you saw. What’s the worst thing could happen?”
“OK,” Reacher said.
It was longer than ten minutes, even at first. They hung around and waited for a black-and-white to come haul the kid to the police station. Which showed up eventually, accompanied by an EMS truck from the firehouse, to check the kid’s vital signs. To pronounce him fit for processing. To avoid an unexplained death in custody. Which all took time. But in the end the kid went in the back seat and the uniforms in the front, and the car drove away. The rubberneckers went back to meandering. Reacher and the two cops were left standing alone.
The second cop said his name was Bush. No relation to the Bushes of Kennebunkport. Also a detective with the county. He said their car was parked on the street beyond the far corner of the plaza. He pointed. Up where their intended stroll in the sun had begun. They all set out walking in that direction. Up the stem of the T, then a right turn along the crossbar, the cops retracing their earlier steps, Reacher following the cops.
Reacher said, “Why did the victim run?”
Aaron said, “I guess that’s something we’ll have to figure out.”
Their car was an old Crown Vic, worn but not sagging. Clean but not shiny. Reacher got in the back, which he didn’t mind, because it was a regular sedan. No bulletproof divider. No implications. And the best legroom of all, sitting sideways, with his back against the door, which he was happy to do, because he figured the rear compartment of a cop car was very unlikely to spontaneously burst open from gentle internal pressure. He felt sure the designers would have thought of that consideration.
The ride was short, to a dismal low-built concrete structure on the edge of town. There were tall antennas and satellite dishes on its roof. It had a parking lot with three unmarked sedans and a lone black-and-white cruiser all parked in a line, plus about ten more empty spaces, and the stove-in wreck of a blue SUV in one far corner. Detective Bush drove in and parked in a slot marked D2. They all got out. The weak spring sun was still hanging in there.
“Just so you understand,” Aaron said. “The less money we put in our buildings, the more we can put in catching the bad guys. It’s about priorities.”
“You sound like the mayor,” Reacher said.
“Good guess. It was a selectman, making a speech. Word for word.”
They went inside. The place wasn’t so bad. Reacher had been in and out of government buildings all his life. Not the elegant marble palaces of D.C. necessarily, but the grimy beat-up places where government actually happened. And the county cops were about halfway up the scale, when it came to luxurious surroundings. Their main problem was a low ceiling. Which was simple bad luck. Even government architects succumbed to fashion sometimes, and back when atomic was a big word they briefly favored brutalist structures made of thick concrete, as if the 1950s public would feel reassured the forces of order were protected by apparently nuclear-resistant structures. But whatever the reason, the bunker-like mentality too often spread inside, with cramped airless spaces. Which was the county police department’s only real problem. The rest was pretty good. Basic, maybe, but a smart guy wouldn’t want it much more complicated. It looked like an OK place to work.
Aaron and Bush led Reacher to an interview room on a corridor parallel to the detectives’ pen. Reacher said, “We’re not doing this at your desk?”
“Like on the TV shows?” Aaron said. “Not allowed. Not anymore. Not since 9/11. No unauthorized access to operational areas. You’re not authorized until your name appears as a cooperating witness in an official printed file. Which yours hasn’t yet, obviously. Plus our insurance works best in here. Sign of the times. If you were to slip and fall, we’d rather there was a camera in the room, to prove we were nowhere near you at the time.”
“Understood,” Reacher said.
They went in. It was a standard facility, perhaps made even more oppressive by a compressed, hunkered-down feeling, coming from the obvious thousands of tons of concrete all around. The inside face was unfinished, but painted so many times it was smooth and slick. The color was a pale government green, not helped by ecological bulbs in the fixtures. The air looked seasick. There was a large mirror on the end wall. Without doubt a one-way window.
Reacher sat down facing it, on the bad-guy side of a crossways table, opposite Aaron and Bush, who had pads of paper and fistfuls of pens. First Aaron warned Reacher that both audio and video recording were taking place. Then Aaron asked Reacher for his full name, and his date of birth, and his Social Security number, all of which Reacher supplied truthfully, because why not? Then Aaron asked for his current address, which started a whole big debate.
Reacher said, “No fixed abode.”
Aaron said, “What does that mean?”
“What it says. It’s a well-known form of words.”
Copyright © 2017 by Lee Child. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.