NATHAN RUBIN DIED because he got brave. Not the sustained kind of thing that wins you a medal in a war, but the split-second kind of blurting outrage that gets you killed on the street.
He left home early, as he always did, six days a week, fifty weeks a year. A cautious breakfast, appropriate to a short round man aiming to stay in shape through his forties. A long walk down the carpeted corridors of a lakeside house appropriate to a man who earned a thousand dollars on each of those three hundred days he worked. A thumb on the button of the garage-door opener and a twist of the wrist to start the silent engine of his expensive imported sedan. A CD into the player, a backward sweep into his gravel driveway, a dab on the brake, a snick of the selector, a nudge on the gas, and the last short drive of his life was under way. Six forty-nine in the morning, Monday.
The only light on his route to work was green, which was the proximate cause of his death. It meant that as he pulled into his secluded slot behind his professional building the prelude ahead of Bach’s B Minor Fugue still had thirty-eight seconds left to run. He sat and heard it out until the last organ blast echoed to silence, which meant that as he got out of his car the three men were near enough for him to interpret some kind of intention in their approach. So he glanced at them. They looked away and altered course, three men in step, like dancers or soldiers. He turned toward his building. Started walking. But then he stopped. And looked back. The three men were at his car. Trying the doors.
“Hey!” he called.
It was the short universal sound of surprise, anger, challenge. The sort of instinctive sound an earnest, naive citizen makes when something should not be happening. The sort of instinctive sound which gets an earnest, naive citizen killed. He found himself heading straight back to his car. He was outnumbered three to one, but he was in the right, which swelled him up and gave him confidence. He strode back and felt outraged and fit and commanding.
But those were illusory feelings. A soft suburban guy like him was never going to be in command of a situation like that. His fitness was just health club tone. It counted for nothing. His tight abdominals ruptured under the first savage blow. His face jerked forward and down and hard knuckles pulped his lips and smashed his teeth. He was caught by rough hands and knotted arms and held upright like he weighed nothing at all. His keys were snatched from his grasp and he was hit a crashing blow on the ear. His mouth filled with blood. He was dropped onto the blacktop and heavy boots smashed into his back. Then his gut. Then his head. He blacked out like a television set in a thunder-storm. The world just disappeared in front of him. It collapsed into a thin hot line and sputtered away to nothing.
So he died, because for a split second he got brave. But not then. He died much later, after the split second of bravery had faded into long hours of wretched gasping fear, and after the long hours of fear had exploded into long minutes of insane screaming panic.
JACK REACHER STAYED alive, because he got cautious. He got cautious because he heard an echo from his past. He had a lot of past, and the echo was from the worst part of it.
He had served thirteen years in the Army, and the only time he was wounded it wasn’t with a bullet. It was with a fragment of a Marine sergeant’s jawbone. Reacher had been stationed in Beirut, in the U.S. compound out by the airport. The compound was truck-bombed. Reacher was standing at the gate. The Marine sergeant was standing a hundred yards nearer the explosion. The jawbone fragment was the only piece left of the guy. It hit Reacher a hundred yards away and went tumbling through his gut like a bullet. The Army surgeon who patched Reacher up told him afterward he was lucky. He told him a real bullet in the gut would have felt much worse. That was the echo Reacher was hearing. And he was paying a whole lot of attention to it, because thirteen years later he was standing there with a handgun pointing straight at his stomach. From a range of about an inch and a half.
The handgun was a nine-millimeter automatic. It was brand-new. It was oiled. It was held low, lined up right on his old scar. The guy holding it looked more or less like he knew what he was doing. The safety mechanism was released. There was no visible tremor in the muzzle. No tension. The trigger finger was ready to go to work. Reacher could see that. He was concentrating hard on that trigger finger.
He was standing next to a woman. He was holding her arm. He had never seen her before. She was staring at an identical nine-millimeter pointed at her own gut. Her guy was more tensed up than his. Her guy looked uneasy. He looked worried. His gun was trembling with tension. His fingernails were chewed. A nervous, jumpy guy. The four of them were standing there on the street, three of them still like statues and the fourth hopping slightly from foot to foot.
They were in Chicago. Center of the city, a busy sidewalk, a Monday, last day of June. Broad daylight, bright summer sunshine. The whole situation had materialized in a split second. It had happened in a way that couldn’t have been choreographed in a million years. Reacher had been walking down the street, going nowhere, not fast, not slow. He had been about to pass the exit door of a store-front dry cleaner. The door had opened up in his face and an old metal walking cane had clattered out on the sidewalk right in front of him. He’d glanced up to see a woman in the doorway. She was about to drop an armful of nine dry-cleaning bags. She was some way short of thirty, expensively dressed, dark, attractive, self-assured. She had some kind of a bad leg. Some kind of an injury. Reacher could see from her awkward posture it was causing her pain. She’d thrown him a would-you-mind look and he’d thrown her a no-problem look and scooped up the metal cane. He’d taken the nine bags from her with one hand and given her the cane with the other. He’d flicked the bags up over his shoulder and felt the nine wire hangers bite into his finger. She had planted the cane on the sidewalk and eased her forearm into the curved metal clip. He had offered his hand. She had paused. Then she had nodded in an embarrassed fashion and he had taken her arm and waited a beat, feeling helpful but awkward. Then they had turned together to move away. Reacher had figured he would maybe stroll a few steps with her until she was steady on her feet. Then he would let her arm go and hand back her garments. But he’d turned straight into the two men with the nine-millimeter automatics.
The four of them stood there, face-to-face in pairs. Like four people eating together in a tight booth in a diner. The two guys with the guns were white, well fed, vaguely military, vaguely alike. Medium height, short brown hair. Big hands, muscular. Big, obvious faces, bland pink features. Tense expressions, hard eyes. The nervous guy was smaller, like he burned up his energy worrying. They both wore checked shirts and poplin windbreakers. They stood there, pressed together. Reacher was a lot taller than the other three. He could see all around them, over their heads. He stood there, surprised, with the woman’s dry cleaning slung over his shoulder. The woman was leaning on her crutch, just staring, silent. The two men were pointing the guns. Close in. Reacher felt they’d all been standing like that for a long time. But he knew that feeling was deceptive. It probably hadn’t been more than a second and a half.
The guy opposite Reacher seemed to be the leader. The bigger one. The calmer one. He looked between Reacher and the woman and jerked his automatic’s barrel toward the curb.
“In the car, bitch,” the guy said. “And you, asshole.”
He spoke urgently, but quietly. With authority. Not much of an accent. Maybe from California, Reacher thought. There was a sedan at the curb. It had been waiting there for them. A big car, black, expensive. The driver was leaning across and behind the front passenger seat. He was stretching over to pop the rear door. The guy opposite Reacher motioned with the gun again. Reacher didn’t move. He glanced left and right. He figured he had about another second and a half to make some kind of an assessment. The two guys with the nine-millimeter automatics didn’t worry him too much. He was one-handed, because of the dry cleaning, but he figured the two guys would go down without too much of a problem. The problems lay beside him and behind him. He stared up into the dry cleaner’s window and used it like a mirror. Twenty yards behind him was a solid mass of hurrying people at a crosswalk. A couple of stray bullets would find a couple of targets. No doubt about that. No doubt at all. That was the problem behind him. The problem beside him was the unknown woman. Her capabilities were an unknown quantity. She had some kind of a bad leg. She would be slow to react. Slow to move. He wasn’t prepared to go into combat. Not in that environment, and not with that partner.
The guy with the California accent reached up and grabbed Reacher’s wrist where it was pinned against his collar by the weight of the nine clean garments hanging down his back. He used it to pull him toward the car. His trigger finger still looked ready to go to work. Reacher was watching it, corner of his eye. He let the woman’s arm go. Stepped over to the car. Threw the bags into the rear seat and climbed in after them. The woman was pushed in behind him. Then the jumpy guy crowded in on them and slammed the door. The leader got in front on the right. Slammed the door. The driver nudged the selector and the car moved smoothly and quietly away down the street.
THE WOMAN WAS gasping in pain and Reacher figured she had the jumpy guy’s gun jammed in her ribs. The leader was twisted around in the front seat with his gun hand resting against the thick leather headrest. The gun was pointed straight at Reacher’s chest. It was a Glock 17. Reacher knew all about that weapon. He had evaluated the prototype for his unit. That had been his assignment during his light-duty convalescence after the Beirut wound. The Glock was a tough little weapon. Seven and a half inches long from firing pin to muzzle tip. Long enough to make it accurate. Reacher had hit thumbtack heads at seventy-five feet with it. And it fired a decent projectile. It delivered quarter-ounce bullets at nearly eight hundred miles an hour. Seventeen rounds to a magazine, hence the name. And it was light. For all its power, it weighed under two pounds. The important parts were steel. The rest of it was plastic. Black polycarbonate, like an expensive camera. A fine piece of craftsmanship.
But he hadn’t liked it much. Not for the specialized requirements of his unit. He’d recommended rejection. He’d supported the Beretta 92F instead. The Beretta was also a nine-millimeter, a half-pound heavier, an inch longer, two fewer rounds in the magazine. But it had about ten percent more stopping power than the Glock. That was important to him. And it wasn’t plastic. The Beretta had been Reacher’s choice. His unit commander had agreed. He had circulated Reacher’s paper and the Army as a whole had backed his recommendation. The same week they promoted him and pinned on his Silver Star and his Purple Heart, they ordered Berettas even though the Beretta was more expensive and NATO was crazy for the Glock and Reacher had been just about a lone voice and was not long out of West Point. Then he had been assigned elsewhere and served all around the world and hadn’t really seen a Glock 17 since. Until now. Twelve years later, he was getting a pretty damn good second look at one.
He switched his attention away from the gun and took a second look at the guy holding it. He had a decent tan which whitened near his hairline. A recent haircut. The driver had a big shiny brow, thinning hair swept back, pink and vivid features, the smirk that pig-ugly guys use when they think they’re handsome. Same cheap chain store shirt, same windbreaker. Same corn-fed bulk. Same in-charge confidence, edged around with a slight breathlessness. Three guys, all of them maybe thirty or thirty-five, one leader, one solid follower, one jumpy follower. All of them tense but rehearsed, racing through some kind of a mission. A puzzle. Reacher glanced past the steady Glock into the leader’s eyes. But the guy shook his head.
“No talking, asshole,” he said. “Start talking, I’ll shoot you. That’s a damn promise. Keep quiet, you could be OK.”
Reacher believed him. The guy’s eyes were hard and his mouth was a tight line. So he said nothing. Then the car slowed and pulled onto a lumpy concrete forecourt. It headed around behind an abandoned industrial building. They had driven south. Reacher figured they were now maybe five miles south of the Loop. The driver eased the big sedan to a stop with the rear door lined up with the back of a small panel truck. The truck was standing alone on the empty lot. It was a Ford Econoline, dirty white, not old, but well used. There had been some kind of writing on the side. It had been painted over with fresh white paint which didn’t exactly match the bodywork. Reacher scanned around. The lot was full of trash. He saw a paint can discarded near the truck. A brush. There was nobody in sight. The place was deserted. If he was going to make some kind of a move, this was the right time to make it, and the right location. But the guy in front smiled a thin smile and leaned right over into the back of the car. Caught Reacher’s collar with his left hand and ground the tip of the Glock’s muzzle into Reacher’s ear with his right.
“Sit still, asshole,” the guy said.
The driver got out of the car and skipped around the hood. Pulled a new set of keys from his pocket and opened up the rear doors of the truck. Reacher sat still. Jamming a gun into a person’s ear is not necessarily a smart move. If the person suddenly jerks his head around toward it, the gun comes out. It rolls around the person’s forehead. Then even a quick trigger finger won’t do much damage. It might blow a hole in the person’s ear, just the outside flap, and it’s sure to shatter the person’s eardrum. But those are not fatal wounds. Reacher spent a second weighing those odds. Then the jumpy guy dragged the woman out of the car and hustled her straight into the back of the truck. She hopped and limped across the short distance. Straight out of one door and in through the other. Reacher watched her, corner of his eye. Her guy took her pocketbook from her and tossed it back into the car. It fell at Reacher’s feet. It thumped heavily on the thick carpet. A big pocketbook, expensive leather, something heavy in it. Something metal. Only one metal thing women carry could make a heavy thump like that. He glanced across at her, suddenly interested.
She was sprawled in the back of the truck. Impeded by her leg. Then the leader in the front pulled Reacher along the leather seat and passed him on to the jumpy guy. As soon as one Glock was out of his ear, the other was jammed into his side. He was dragged over the rough ground. Across to the rear of the truck. He was pushed inside with the woman. The jumpy guy covered them both with the trembling Glock while the leader reached into the car and pulled out the woman’s metal crutch. He walked over and tossed it into the truck. It clanged and boomed on the metal siding. He left her dry cleaning in the back of the sedan with her handbag. Then he pulled a set of handcuffs from the pocket of his jacket. He caught the woman’s right wrist and cuffed it with half the handcuff. Pulled her roughly sideways and caught Reacher’s left wrist. Snapped the other half of the cuff onto it. Shook the cuff to check it was secure. Slammed the truck’s left rear door. Reacher saw the driver emptying plastic bottles into the sedan. He caught the pale color and the strong smell of gasoline. One bottle into the backseat, one into the front. Then the leader swung the truck’s right rear door shut. Last thing Reacher saw before darkness enveloped him was the driver, pulling a matchbook from his pocket.
ONE THOUSAND SEVEN hundred and two miles from Chicago by road, guest quarters were being prepared. They took the form of a single room. The room was following an unconventional design, specified by a thorough man after a great deal of careful thought. The design called for several unusual features.
The quarters were designed for a specific purpose, and for a specific guest. The nature of the purpose and the identity of the guest had dictated the unusual features. The construction was concentrated on the second floor of an existing building. A corner room had been selected. It had a series of large windows on the two outside walls. They faced south and east. The glass had been smashed out and was replaced by heavy plywood sheeting nailed to the remaining window frames. The plywood was painted white on the outside, to match the building’s siding. On the inside, the plywood was left unfinished.
The corner room’s ceiling was torn out. It was an old building, and the ceiling had been made of heavy plaster. It had been pulled down in a shower of choking dust. The room was now open to the rafters. The interior walling was torn off. The walls had been paneled in old pine, worn smooth with age and polish. That was all gone. The framing of the building and the heavy old tar paper behind the exterior siding was exposed. The floorboards were pulled up. The dusty ceiling of the room below was visible under the heavy joists. The room was just a shell.
The old plaster from the ceiling and the boards from the walls and the floor had been thrown out through the windows before they were covered over with the plywood. The two men who had done the demolition work had shoveled all that debris into a large pile, and they had backed their truck up to the pile ready to cart the trash away. They were very anxious to leave the place looking neat and tidy. This was the first time they had worked for this particular employer, and there had been hints of more work to come. And looking around, they could see that there was plenty more needed doing. All in all, an optimistic situation. New contracts were hard to find, and this particular employer had shown no concern over price. The two men felt that to make a good first impression was very much in their long-term interest. They were hard at work loading their truck with every last plaster fragment when the employer himself stopped by.
“All done?” he asked.
The employer was a huge guy, freakishly bloated, with a high voice and two nickel-sized red spots burning on his pale cheeks. He moved lightly and quietly, like a guy a quarter his size. The overall effect was a guy people looked away from and answered quickly.
“Just clearing up,” the first guy said to him. “Where do we dump this stuff?”
“I’ll show you,” the employer said. “You’ll need to make two trips. Bring those boards separately, right?”
The second guy nodded. The floorboards were eighteen inches wide, from back when lumbermen had the pick of any tree they wanted. No way would they fit into the flatbed with the rest of the junk. They finished loading the plaster and their employer squeezed into their truck with them. He was such a big guy, it made for a tight fit. He pointed beyond the old building.
“Drive north,” he said. “About a mile.”
The road led them straight out of town and then wound upward through some steep bends. The employer pointed to a place.
“In there,” he said. “All the way in back, OK?”
He strolled quietly away and the two guys unloaded their truck. Drove it back south and heaved the old pine boards in. Followed the winding bends again and unloaded. They carried the boards inside and stacked them neatly. All the way in back of the dark space. Then the employer stepped out of the shadows. He had been waiting for them. He had something in his hand.
“We’re all done,” the first guy said.
The employer nodded.
“You sure are,” he said.
His hand came up. He was holding a gun. A dull black automatic. He shot the first guy in the head. The crash of the bullet was deafening. Blood and bone and brain sprayed everywhere. The second guy froze in terror. Then he ran. He launched himself sideways in a desperate sprint for cover. The employer smiled. He liked it when they ran. He dropped his huge arm to a shallow angle. Fired and put a bullet through the back of the guy’s knee. Smiled again. Now it was better. He liked it when they ran, but he liked it better when they were squirming on the floor. He stood and listened to the guy’s yelping for a long moment. Then he strolled quietly over and took careful aim. Put a bullet through the other knee. He watched for a while, then he tired of the game. Shrugged and put a final bullet through the guy’s head. Then he laid the gun on the ground and rolled the two bodies over and over until they were stacked neatly in line with the old floorboards.
THEY HAD BEEN on the road an hour and thirty-three minutes. Some urban crawling, then an acceleration to a steady cruise. Maybe sixty miles covered. But in the noisy darkness inside the panel truck Reacher had no idea which direction those sixty miles were taking him.
He was handcuffed to the young woman with the bad leg and within the first few minutes of their forced acquaintance they had worked out how to get as comfortable as they were ever going to get. They had crabbed around inside the truck until they were sitting sideways on the floor, legs straight out, propped against the big wheel well on the right, braced against the motion. The woman sat against the rear side and Reacher sat on the forward side. Their cuffed wrists lay together on the flat top of the metal bulge like they were lovers idling their time away in a café.
At first, they hadn’t spoken. They just sat for a long time in stunned silence. The immediate problem was the heat. It was the middle of the last day of June in the Midwest. They were shut into an enclosed metal space. There was no ventilation. Reacher figured the rush of air over the outside of the truck’s body must be cooling it to an extent, but nowhere near enough.
He just sat there in the gloom and used the hot dead time thinking and planning like he was trained to do. Staying calm, staying relaxed, staying ready, not burning his energy away with useless speculation. Assessing and evaluating. The three guys had shown a measure of efficiency. No great talent, no real finesse, but no significant mistakes. The jumpy guy with the second Glock was the weakest component of the team, but the leader had covered for him pretty well. An efficient threesome. Not at all the worst he’d ever seen. But at that point, he wasn’t worrying. He’d been in worse situations and survived them. Much worse situations, and more than once. So he wasn’t worrying yet.
Then he noticed something. He noticed that the woman was not worrying yet, either. She was calm, too. She was just sitting there, swaying, cuffed to his wrist, thinking and planning like maybe she was trained to do, as well. He glanced across at her in the gloom and saw her looking steadily at him. A quizzical stare, calm, in control, faintly superior, faintly disapproving. The confidence of youth. She met his gaze. Held it for a long moment. Then she stuck out her cuffed right hand, which jarred his left wrist, but it was an encouraging gesture. He reached around and shook her hand and they smiled brief ironic smiles together at their mutual formality.
“Holly Johnson,” she said.
She was assessing him carefully. He could see her eyes traveling around his face. Then they flicked down to his clothing, and back up to his face. She smiled again, briefly, like she had decided he merited some kind of courtesy.
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
He looked back at her. Looked at her face. She was a very good-looking woman. Maybe twenty-six, twenty-seven. He looked at her clothes. A line from an old song ran through his head: hundred-dollar dresses, that I ain’t paid for yet. He waited for the next line, but it didn’t come. So he smiled back at her and nodded.
“Jack Reacher,” he said. “Pleasure’s all mine, Holly, believe me.”
It was difficult to speak, because the truck was cruising noisily. The sound of the engine was fighting with the roar from the road. Reacher would have been happy to sit quiet for a time, but Holly wasn’t.
“I need to get rid of you,” she said.
A confident woman, well in control of herself. He made no reply. Just glanced at her and glanced away. The next line was: cold, cold-blooded woman. A dying fall, a sad poignant line. An old Memphis Slim song. But the line was not right for her. Not right at all. This was not a cold-blooded woman. He glanced over again and shrugged at her. She was staring at him. Impatient with his silence.
“You understand exactly what’s happening?” she asked him.
He watched her face. Watched her eyes. She was staring straight at him. Astonishment on her face. She thought she was stuck in there with an idiot. She thought he didn’t understand exactly what was happening.
“It’s pretty clear, right?” he said. “From the evidence?”
“What evidence?” she said. “It was all over in a split second.”
“Exactly,” he said. “That’s all the evidence I need, right? Tells me more or less what I need to know.”
He stopped talking and started resting again. Next opportunity to get away would be the next time the truck stopped. Could be some hours away. He felt he could be in for a long day. Felt he should be prepared to conserve his resources.
“So what do you need to know?” the woman said.
Her eyes were steady on his.
“You’ve been kidnapped,” he said. “I’m here by accident.”
She was still looking at him. Still confident. Still thinking. Still not sure whether or not she was cuffed to an idiot.
“It’s pretty clear, right?” he said again. “It wasn’t me they were after.”
She made no reply. Just arched a fine eyebrow.
“Nobody knew I was going to be there,” he said. “I didn’t even know I was going to be there. Until I got there. But it was a well-planned operation. Must have taken time to set up. Based on surveillance, right? Three guys, one in the car, two on the street. The car was parked exactly level. They had no idea where I was going to be. But obviously they knew for sure where you were going to be. So don’t be looking at me like I’m the idiot here. You’re the one made the big mistake.”
“Mistake?” the woman said.
“You’re too regular in your habits,” Reacher said. “They studied your movements, maybe two or three weeks, and you walked right into their arms. They weren’t expecting anybody else to be there. That’s clear, right? They only brought one set of handcuffs.”
He raised his wrist, which raised hers too, to make his point. The woman went quiet for a long moment. She was revising her opinion of him. Reacher rocked with the motion of the vehicle and smiled.
“And you should know better,” he said. “You’re a government agent of some sort, right? DEA, CIA, FBI, something like that, maybe a Chicago PD detective? New in the job, still fairly dedicated. And fairly wealthy. So somebody is either looking for a ransom, or you’ve already become a potential problem to somebody, even though you’re new, and either way you should have taken more care of yourself.”
She looked across at him. Nodded, eyes wide in the gloom. Impressed.
“Evidence?” she asked.
He smiled at her again.
“Couple of things,” he said. “Your dry cleaning? My guess is every Monday lunch break you take last week’s clothes in to get them cleaned, and you pick up this week’s clothes to wear. That means you must have about fifteen or twenty outfits. Looking at that thing you got on, you’re not a cheap dresser. Call it four hundred bucks an outfit, you’ve got maybe eight grand tied up in things to wear. That’s what I call moderately wealthy, and that’s what I call too regular in your habits.”
She nodded slowly.
“OK,” she said. “Why am I a government agent?”
“Easy enough,” he said. “You had a Glock 17 shoved at you, you were bundled into a car, you were thrown in a truck, handcuffed to a complete stranger and you’ve got no idea where the hell they’re taking you, or why. Any normal person would be falling apart over all that, screaming the place down. But not you. You’re sitting there quite calmly, which suggests some kind of training, maybe some kind of familiarity with upsetting or dangerous situations. And maybe some kind of sure knowledge there’ll be a bunch of people looking to get you back soon as they can.”
He stopped and she nodded for him to continue.
“Also, you had a gun in your bag,” he said. “Something fairly heavy, maybe a thirty-eight, long barrel. If it was a private weapon, a dresser like you would choose something dainty, like a snub twenty-two. But it was a big revolver, so you were issued with it. So you’re some kind of an agent, maybe a cop.”
The woman nodded again, slowly.
“Why am I new in the job?” she asked.
“Your age,” Reacher said. “What are you? Twenty-six?”
“Twenty-seven,” she said.
“That’s young for a detective,” he said. “College, a few years in uniform? Young for the FBI, DEA, CIA, too. So whatever you are, you’re new at it.”
“OK,” she said. “Why am I fairly dedicated?”
Reacher pointed, left-handed, rattling their shared handcuff.
“Your injury,” he said. “You’re back to work after some kind of an accident, before you’re really recovered. You’re still using that crutch for your bad leg. Most people in your position would be staying home and drawing sick pay.”
“I could be handicapped,” she said. “Could have been born this way.”
Reacher shook his head in the gloom.
“That’s a hospital crutch,” he said. “They loaned it to you, short-term, until you’re over your injury. If it was a permanent thing, you’d have bought your own crutch. Probably you’d have bought a dozen. Sprayed them all different to match all your expensive outfits.”
She laughed. It was a pleasant sound above the drone and boom of the truck’s engine and the roar of the road.
“Pretty good, Jack Reacher,” she said. “I’m an FBI Special Agent. Since last fall. I just ripped up my cruciate ligaments playing soccer.”
“You play soccer?” Reacher said. “Good for you, Holly Johnson. What kind of an FBI agent since last fall?”
She was quiet for a beat.
“Just an agent,” she said. “One of many at the Chicago office.”
Reacher shook his head.
“Not just an agent,” he said. “An agent who’s doing something to somebody who maybe wants to retaliate. So who are you doing something to?”
She shook her head back at him.
“I can’t discuss that,” she said. “Not with civilians.”
He nodded. He was comfortable with that.
“OK,” he said.
“Any agent makes enemies,” she said.
“Naturally,” he replied.
“Me as much as anybody,” she said.
He glanced across at her. It was a curious remark. Defensive. The remark of a woman trained and eager and ready to go, but chained to a desk since last fall.
“Financial section?” he guessed.
She shook her head.
“I can’t discuss it,” she said again.
“But you already made enemies,” he said.
She gave him a half-smile which died fast. Then she went quiet. She looked calm, but Reacher could feel in her wrist that she was worried for the first time. But she was hanging in there. And she was wrong.
“They’re not out to kill you,” he said. “They could have killed you in that vacant lot. Why haul you away in this damn truck? And there’s your crutch, too.”
“What about my crutch?” she said.
“Doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Why would they toss your crutch in here if they’re going to kill you? You’re a hostage, Holly, that’s what you are. You sure you don’t know these guys? Never saw them before?”
“Never,” she said. “I don’t know who the hell they are, or what the hell they want from me.”
He stared at her. She sounded way too definite. She knew more than she was telling him. They went quiet in the noise. Rocked and bounced with the movement of the truck. Reacher stared into the gloom. He could feel Holly making decisions, next to him. She turned sideways again.
“I need to get you out of here,” she said again.
He glanced at her. Glanced away and grinned.
“Suits me, Holly,” he said. “Sooner the better.”
“When will somebody miss you?” she asked.
That was a question he would have preferred not to answer. But she was looking hard at him, waiting. So he thought about it, and he told her the truth.
“Never,” he said.
“Why not?” she asked. “Who are you, Reacher?”
He looked across at her and shrugged.
“Nobody,” he said.
She kept on looking at him, quizzically. Maybe irritated.
“OK, what kind of nobody?” she asked.
He heard Memphis Slim in his head: got me working in a steel mill.
“I’m a doorman,” he said. “At a club in Chicago.”
“Which club?” she asked.
“A blues place on the South Side,” he said. “You probably don’t know it.”
She looked at him and shook her head.
“A doorman?” she said. “You’re playing this pretty cool for a doorman.”
“Doormen deal with a lot of weird situations,” he said.
She looked like she wasn’t convinced and he put his face down near his wristwatch to check the time. Two-thirty in the afternoon.
“And how long before somebody misses you?” he asked.
She looked at her own watch and made a face.
“Quite a while,” she said. “I’ve got a case conference starting at five o’clock this afternoon. Nothing before then. Two and a half hours before anybody even knows I’m gone.”
RIGHT INSIDE THE shell of the second-floor room, a second shell was taking shape. It was being built from brand-new softwood two-by-fours, nailed together in the conventional way, looking like a new room growing right there inside the old room. But the new room was going to be about a foot smaller in every dimension than the old room had been. A foot shorter in length, a foot narrower in width, and a foot shorter in height.
The new floor joists were going to be raised a foot off the old joists with twelve-inch lengths of the new softwood. The new lengths looked like a forest of short stilts, ready to hold the new floor up. More short lengths were ready to hold the new framing a foot away from the old framing all the way around the sides and the ends. The new framing had the bright yellowness of new wood. It gleamed against the smoky honey color of the old framing. The old framing looked like an ancient skeleton which was suddenly growing a new skeleton inside itself.
Three men were building the new shell. They were stepping from joist to joist with practiced skill. They looked like men who had built things before. And they were working fast. Their contract demanded they finish on time. The employer had been explicit about it. Some kind of a rush job. The three carpenters were not complaining about that. The employer had accepted their first bid. It had been an inflated bid, with a large horse-trading margin built in. But the guy had not eaten into that margin. He had not negotiated at all. He had just nodded and told them to start work as soon as the wrecking crew had finished. Work was hard to find, and employers who accepted your first price were even harder to find. So the three men were happy to work hard, and work fast, and work late. They were anxious to make a good first impression. Looking around, they could see the potential for plenty more employment.
So they were giving it their best shot. They ran up and down the stairs with tools and fresh lumber. They worked by eye, marking cut-lines in the wood with their thumb-nails, using their nail guns and their saws until they ran hot. But they paused frequently to measure the gap between the old framing and the new. The employer had made it clear that dimension was critical. The old framing was six inches deep. The new framing was four. The gap was twelve inches.
“Six and four and twelve,” one guy said. “Twenty-two inches total.”
“OK?” the second guy asked the crew chief.
“Ideal,” the crew chief said. “Exactly what he told us.”
HOLLY JOHNSON’S FIVE o’clock case conference was allocated to the Chicago FBI office’s third-floor meeting room. This was a large room, better than forty feet by twenty, and it was more or less filled by a long polished table flanked by thirty chairs, fifteen on each side. The chairs were substantial and leather, and the table was made of fine hardwood, but any tendency for the place to look like a corporate boardroom was defused by the scruffy government wall covering and the cheap carpet. There were ninety square yards of carpet on the floor, and the whole ninety together had probably cost less than just one of the chairs.
Five o’clock in the summer, the afternoon sun streamed in through the wall of windows and gave the people arriving in the room a choice. If they sat facing the windows, they got the sun in their eyes and squinted through the meeting and ended up with a blinding headache. And the sun overpowered the air conditioning, so if they sat backs to the window, they got heated up to a point where it got uncomfortable and they started worrying about whether their deodorant was still OK at five o’clock in the afternoon. A tough choice, but the top option was to avoid the headache and take the risk of heating up. So the early attendees took the seats on the window side.
First into the room was the FBI lawyer with special responsibility for financial crime. He stood for a moment and made a judgment about the likely duration of the meeting. Maybe forty-five minutes, he thought, knowing Holly, so he turned and tried to assess which seat might get the benefit of the shade from the slim pillar splitting the wall of windows into two. The bar of shadow was lying to the left of the third chair in the row, and he knew it would inch toward the head of the table as time passed. So he spilled his pile of folders onto the table in front of the second chair and shrugged his jacket off and claimed the place by dropping it onto the chair. Then he turned again and strolled to the credenza at the end of the room for a cup of coffee from the filter machine.
Next in were two agents working on cases that might be tied into the mess that Holly Johnson was dealing with. They nodded to the lawyer and saw the place he’d claimed. They knew there was no point in choosing between the other fourteen chairs by the window. They were all going to get equally hot. So they just dumped their portfolios at the nearest two places and lined up for coffee.
“She not here yet?” one of them said to the lawyer.
“Haven’t seen her all day,” the lawyer said.
“Your loss, right?” the other guy said.
Holly Johnson was a new agent, but talented, and that was making her popular. In the past, the Bureau would have taken no pleasure at all in busting the sort of businessmen that Holly was employed to chase down, but times had changed, and the Chicago office had gotten quite a taste for it. The businessmen now looked like scumbags, not solid citizens, and the agents were sick and tired of looking at them as they rode the commuter trains home. The agents would be getting off the train miles before the bankers and the stockbrokers were anywhere near their expensive suburbs. They would be thinking about second mortgages and even second jobs, and they’d be thinking about the years of private detective work they were going to have to put in to boost up the mean government pension. And the executives would be sitting there with smug smiles. So when one or two of them started to take a fall, the Bureau was happy enough about it. When the ones and twos turned into tens and twenties, and then hundreds, it became a blood sport.
The only drawback was that it was hard work. Probably more difficult to nail than anything else. That was where Holly Johnson’s arrival had made things easier. She had the talent. She could look at a balance sheet and just know if anything was wrong with it. It was like she could smell it. She’d sit at her desk and look at the papers, and cock her head slightly to one side, and think. Sometimes, she’d think for hours, but when she stopped thinking, she’d know what the hell was going on. Then she’d explain it all in the case conference. She’d make it all sound easy and logical, like there was no way anybody could be in any kind of doubt about it. She was a woman who made progress. She was a woman who made her fellow agents feel better on those commuter trains at night. That’s what was making her popular.
Fourth person into the third-floor meeting room was the agent assigned to help Holly out with the fetching and carrying until she recovered from her soccer injury. His name was Milosevic. A slight frame, a slight West Coast accent. Less than forty, casually dressed in expensive designer khaki, gold at his neck and on his wrist. He was also a new arrival, recently transferred in to the Chicago office, because that was where the Bureau found it needed its financial people. He joined the line for coffee and looked around the room.
“She’s late?” he said.
The lawyer shrugged at him and Milosevic shrugged back. He liked Holly Johnson. He had worked with her five weeks, since the accident on the soccer field, and he had enjoyed every minute of it.
“She’s not usually late for anything,” he said.
Fifth person in was Brogan, Holly’s section head. Irish, from Boston via California. The young side of middle age. Dark hair, red Irish face. A tough guy, handsomely dressed in an expensive silk jacket, ambitious. He’d come to Chicago the same time as Milosevic, and he was pissed it wasn’t New York. He was looking for the advancement he was sure he deserved. There was a theory that Holly’s arrival in his section was enhancing his chances of getting it.
“She not here yet?” he said.
The other four shrugged at him.
“I’ll kick her ass,” Brogan said.
Holly had been a stock analyst on Wall Street before applying to join the FBI. Nobody was clear why she’d made the change. She had some kind of exalted connections, and some kind of an illustrious father, and the easy guess was she wanted to impress him somehow. Nobody knew for sure whether the old guy was impressed or not, but the feeling was he damn well ought to be. Holly had been one of ten thousand applicants in her year, and she’d passed in right at the top of the four hundred who made it. She’d creamed the recruitment criteria. The Bureau had been looking for college graduates in law or accountancy, or else graduates in flimsier disciplines who’d then worked somewhere for three years at least. Holly had qualified in every way. She had an accountancy degree from Yale, and a master’s from Harvard, and three years on Wall Street on top of all that. She’d blitzed the intelligence tests and the aptitude assessments. She’d charmed the three serving agents who’d grilled her at her main interview.
She’d sailed through the background checks, which was understandable on account of her connections, and she’d been sent to the FBI Academy at Quantico. Then she’d really started to get serious. She was fit and strong, she learned to shoot, she murdered the leadership reaction course, she scored outstanding in the simulated shoot-outs in Hogan’s Alley. But her major success was her attitude. She did two things at once. First, she bought into the whole Bureau ethic in the biggest way possible. It was totally clear to everybody that here was a woman who was going to live and die for the FBI. But second, she did it in a way which avoided the slightest trace of bullshit. She tinged her attitude with a gentle mocking humor which saved people from hating her. It made them love her instead. There was no doubt the Bureau had signed a major new asset. They sent her to Chicago and sat back to reap the benefits.
LAST INTO THE third-floor conference room was a bunch of men who came in together. Thirteen agents and the Agent-in-Charge, McGrath. The thirteen agents were clustered around their boss, who was conducting a sort of rolling policy review as he walked. The thirteen agents were hanging on to every word. McGrath had every advantage in the book. He was a man who’d been to the top, and then come back down again into the field. He’d spent three years in the Hoover Building as an Assistant Director of the FBI, and then he’d applied for a demotion and a pay cut to take him back to a Field Office. The decision had cost him ten thousand dollars a year in income, but it had bought him back his sanity, and it had bought him undying respect and blind affection from the agents he worked with.
An Agent-in-Charge in a Field Office like Chicago is like the captain on a great warship. Theoretically, there are people above him, but they’re all a couple of thousand miles away in Washington. They’re theoretical. The Agent-in-Charge is real. He runs his command like the hand of God. That’s how the Chicago office looked at McGrath. He did nothing to undermine the feeling. He was remote, but he was approachable. He was private, but he made his people feel he’d do anything at all for them. He was a short, stocky man, burning with energy, the sort of tireless guy who radiates total confidence. The sort of guy who makes a crew better just by leading it. His first name was Paul, but he was always called Mack, like the truck.
He let his thirteen agents sit down, ten of them backs to the window and three of them with the sun in their eyes. Then he hauled a chair around and stuck it at the head of the table ready for Holly. He walked down to the other end and hauled another chair around for himself. Sat sideways on to the sun. Started getting worried.
“Where is she?” he said. “Brogan?”
The section head shrugged, palms up.
“She should be here, far as I know,” he said.
“She leave a message with anybody?” McGrath asked. “Milosevic?”
Milosevic and the other fifteen agents and the Bureau lawyer all shrugged and shook their heads. McGrath started worrying more. People have a pattern, a rhythm, like a behavioral fingerprint. Holly was only a minute or two late, but that was so far from normal that it was setting the bells ringing. In eight months, he had never known her to be late. It had never happened. Other people could be five minutes late into the meeting room and it would seem normal. Because of their pattern. But not Holly. At three minutes past five in the afternoon, McGrath stared at her empty chair and knew there was a problem. He stood up again in the quiet room and walked to the credenza on the opposite wall. There was a phone next to the coffee machine. He picked it up and dialed his office.
“Holly Johnson call in?” he asked his secretary.
“No, Mack,” she said.
So he dabbed the cradle and dialed the reception counter, two floors below.
“Any messages from Holly Johnson?” he asked the agent at the door.
“No, chief,” the agent said. “Haven’t seen her.”
He hit the button again and called the main switchboard.
“Holly Johnson call in?” he asked.
“No, sir,” the switchboard operator said.
He held the phone and gestured for pen and paper. Then he spoke to the switchboard again.
“Give me her pager number,” he said. “And her cell phone, will you?”
The earpiece crackled and he scrawled down the numbers. Cut the switchboard off and dialed Holly’s pager. Just got a long low tone telling him the pager was switched off. Then he tried the cell phone number. He got an electronic bleep and a recorded message of a woman telling him the phone he was dialing was unreachable. He hung up and looked around the room. It was ten after five, Monday afternoon.
SIX-THIRTY ON REACHER’S watch, the motion inside the truck changed. Six hours and four minutes they’d cruised steadily, maybe fifty-five or sixty miles an hour, while the heat peaked and fell away. He’d sat, hot and rocking and bouncing in the dark with the wheel well between him and Holly Johnson, ticking off the distance against a map inside his head. He figured they’d been taken maybe three hundred and ninety miles. But he didn’t know which direction they were headed. If they were going east, they would be right through Indiana and just about out of Ohio by now, maybe just entering Pennsylvania or West Virginia. South, they would be out of Illinois, into Missouri or Kentucky, maybe even into Tennessee if he’d underestimated their speed. West, they’d be hauling their way across Iowa. They might have looped around the bottom of the lake and headed north up through Michigan. Or straight out northwest, in which case they could be up near Minneapolis.
But they’d gotten somewhere, because the truck was slowing. Then there was a lurch to the right, like a pull off a highway. There was gear noise and thumping over broken pavement. Cornering forces slammed them around. Holly’s crutch slid and rattled side to side across the ridged metal floor. The truck whined up grades and down slopes, paused at invisible road junctions, accelerated, braked hard, turned a tight left, and then drove slowly down a straight lumpy surface for a quarter hour.
“Farming country somewhere,” Reacher said.
Copyright © 2006 by CHILD LEE(AUTHOR). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.