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Advance Reader’s Copy — Not for Sale
THE MIDNIGHT LINE
A Jack Reacher Novel
This is an uncorrected ebook file.
Please do not quote for publication until you check your copy against the finished book.
Tentative On-Sale Date: November 7, 2017
Tentative Publication Month: November 2017
Tentative Print Price: $28.99
Tentative ebook Price: $14.99
Please note that books will not be available in stores until the above on-sale date.
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An imprint of Random House
1745 Broadway • New York, NY • 10019
By Lee Child
The Hard Way
Bad Luck and Trouble
Nothing to Lose
Worth Dying For
A Wanted Man
Never Go Back
No Middle Name
The Midnight Line
Not a Drill
This is an uncorrected e-book file. Please do not quote for publication until you check your copy against the finished book.
The Midnight Line is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Lee Child
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
DELACORTE PRESS and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Title page art from an original photograph by FreeImages.com/Ariel de Silva Parreira
Hardback ISBN 978-0-399-59348-2
Ebook ISBN 978-0-399-59349-9
Book design by Virginia Norey
So far in our history, nearly two million Purple Hearts have been awarded.
This book is respectfully dedicated to each and every recipient.
By Lee Child
About the Author
Jack Reacher and Michelle Chang spent three days in Milwaukee. On the fourth morning she was gone. Reacher came back to the room with coffee and found a note on his pillow. He had seen such notes before. They all said the same thing. Either directly or indirectly. Chang’s note was indirect. And more elegant than most. Not in terms of presentation. It was a ballpoint scrawl on motel notepaper gone wavy with damp. But elegant in terms of expression. She had used a simile, to explain and flatter and apologize all at once. She had written, “You’re like New York City. I love to visit, but I could never live there.”
He did what he always did. He let her go. He understood. No apology required. He couldn’t live anywhere. His whole life was a visit. Who could put up with that? He drank his coffee, and then hers, and took his toothbrush from the bathroom glass, and walked away, through a knot of streets, left and right, toward the bus depot. She would be in a taxi, he guessed. To the airport. She had a gold card and a cell phone.
At the depot he did what he always did. He bought a ticket for the first bus out, no matter where it was going. Which turned out to be an end-of-the-line place way north and west, on the shore of Lake Superior. Fundamentally the wrong direction. Colder, not warmer. But rules were rules, so he climbed aboard. He sat and watched out the window. Wisconsin flashed by, its hayfields baled and stubbly, its pastures worn, its trees dark and heavy. It was the end of summer.
It was the end of several things. She had asked the usual questions. Which were really statements in disguise. She could understand a year. Absolutely. A kid who grew up on bases overseas, and was then deployed to bases overseas, with nothing in between except four years at West Point, which wasn’t exactly known as a leisure-heavy institution, then obviously such a guy was going to take a year to travel and see the sights before he settled down. Maybe two years. But not more. And not permanently. Face it. The pathology meter was twitching.
All said with concern, and no judgment. No big deal. Just a two-minute conversation. But the message was clear. As clear as such messages could be. Something about denial. He asked, denial of what? He didn’t secretly think his life was a problem.
That proves it, she said.
So he got on the bus to the end-of-the-line place, and he would have ridden it all the way, because rules were rules, except he took a stroll at the second comfort stop, and he saw a ring in a pawn shop window.
The second comfort stop came late in the day, and it was on the sad side of a small town. Possibly a seat of county government. Or some minor part of it. Maybe the county police department was headquartered there. There was a jail in town. That was clear. Reacher could see bail bond offices, and a pawn shop. Full service, right there, side by side on a run-down street beyond the restroom block.
He was stiff from sitting. He scanned the street beyond the restroom block. He started walking toward it. No real reason. Just strolling. Just loosening up. As he got closer he counted the guitars in the pawn shop window. Seven. Sad stories, all of them. Like the songs on country radio. Dreams, unfulfilled. Lower down in the window were glass shelves loaded with smaller stuff. All kinds of jewelry. Including rings. Including class rings. All kinds of high schools. Except one of them wasn’t. One of them was West Point 2005.
It was a handsome ring. It was a conventional shape, and a conventional style, with intricate gold filigree, and a black stone, maybe semi-precious, maybe glass, surrounded by an oval hoop that had West Point around the top, and 2005 around the bottom. Old-style letters. A classic approach. Either respect for bygone days, or a lack of imagination. West Pointers designed their own rings. Whatever they wanted. An old tradition. Or an old entitlement, perhaps, because West Point class rings had been the first class rings of all.
It was a very small ring.
Reacher wouldn’t have gotten it on any of his fingers. Not even his left-hand pinky, not even past the nail. Certainly not past the first knuckle. It was tiny. It was a woman’s ring. Possibly a replica for a girlfriend or a fiancée. That happened. Like a tribute or a souvenir.
But possibly not.
Reacher opened the pawn shop door. He stepped inside. A guy at the register looked up. He was a big bear of a man, scruffy and unkempt. Maybe in his middle thirties, dark, with plenty of fat over a big frame anyway. With some kind of cunning in his eyes. Certainly enough to perfect his response to his sudden six-five two-fifty visitor. Driven purely by instinct. The guy wasn’t afraid. He had a loaded gun under the counter. Unless he was an idiot. Which he didn’t look. All the same, the guy didn’t want to risk sounding aggressive. But he didn’t want to sound obsequious, either. A matter of pride.
So he said, “How’s it going?”
Not well, Reacher thought. To be honest. Chang would be back in Seattle by then. Back in her life.
But he said, “Can’t complain.”
“Can I help you?”
“Show me your class rings.”
The guy threaded the tray backward off the shelf. He put it on the counter. The West Point ring had rolled over, like a tiny golf ball. Reacher picked it up. It was engraved inside. Which meant it wasn’t a replica. Not for a fiancée or a girlfriend. Replicas were never engraved. An old tradition. No one knew why.
Not a tribute, not a souvenir. It was the real deal. A cadet’s own ring, earned over four hard years. Worn with pride. Obviously. If you weren’t proud of the place, you didn’t buy a ring. It wasn’t compulsory.
The engraving said S.R.S. 2005.
The bus blew its horn three times. It was ready to go, but it was a passenger short. Reacher put the ring down and said, “Thank you,” and walked out of the store. He hustled back past the restroom block and leaned in the door of the bus and said to the driver, “I’m staying here.”
“Not looking for one.”
“You got a bag in the hold?”
“Have a nice day.”
The guy pulled a lever and the door sucked shut in Reacher’s face. The engine roared and the bus moved off without him. He turned away from the diesel smoke and walked back toward the pawn shop.
The guy in the pawn shop was a little disgruntled to have to get the ring tray out again so soon after he had put it away. But he did, and he placed it in the same spot on the counter. The West Point ring had rolled over again. Reacher picked it up.
He said, “Do you remember the woman who pawned this?”
“How would I?” the guy said. “I got a million things in here.”
“You got records?”
“You a cop?”
“No,” Reacher said.
“Everything in here is legal.”
“I don’t care. All I want is the name of the woman who brought you this ring.”
“We went to the same school.”
“Where is that? Upstate?”
“East of here,” Reacher said.
“You can’t be a classmate. Not from 2005. No offense.”
“None taken. I was from an earlier generation. But the place doesn’t change much. Which means I know how hard she worked for this ring. So now I’m wondering what kind of unlucky circumstance made her give it up.”
The guy said, “What kind of a school was it?”
“They teach you practical things.”
“Like a trade school?”
“More or less.”
“Maybe she died in an accident.”
“Maybe she did,” Reacher said. Or not in an accident, he thought. There had been Iraq, and there had been Afghanistan:2005 had been a tough year to graduate. He said, “But I would like to know for sure.”
“Why?” the guy said again.
“I can’t tell you exactly.”
“Is it an honor thing?”
“I guess it could be.”
“Trade schools have that?”
“Some of them.”
“There was no woman. I bought that ring. With a lot of other stuff.”
“About a month ago.”
“I’m not going to tell you my business. Why should I? It’s all legal. It’s all perfectly legitimate. The state says so. I have a license and I pass all kinds of inspections.”
“Then why be shy about it?”
“It’s private information.”
Reacher said, “Suppose I buy the ring?”
“It’s fifty bucks.”
“Deal,” Reacher said. “So now I’m entitled to know its provenance.”
“This ain’t Sotheby’s auction house.”
The guy paused a beat.
Then he said, “It was from a guy who helps out with a charity. People donate things and take the deduction. Mostly old cars and boats. But other things too. The guy gives them an inflated receipt for their tax returns, and then he sells the things he gets wherever he can, for whatever he can, and then he cuts a check to the charity. I buy the small stuff from him. I get what I get, and I hope to turn a profit.”
“So you think someone donated this ring to a charity and took a deduction on their income taxes?”
“Makes sense, if the original person died. From 2005. Part of the estate.”
“I don’t think so,” Reacher said. “I think a relative would have kept it.”
“Depends if the relative was eating well.”
“You got tough times here?”
“I’m OK. But I own the pawn shop.”
“Yet people still donate to good causes.”
“In exchange for phony receipts. In the end the government eats the tax relief. Welfare by another name.”
Reacher said, “Who is the charity guy?”
“I won’t tell you that.”
“It’s none of your business. I mean, who the hell are you?”
“Just a guy already having a pretty bad day. Not your fault, of course, but if asked to offer advice I would have to say it might prove a dumb idea to make my day worse. You might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
“You threatening me now?”
“More like the weather report. A public service. Like a tornado warning. Prepare to take cover.”
“Get out of my store.”
“Fortunately I no longer have a headache. I got hit in the head, but that’s all better now. A doctor said so. A friend made me go. Two times. She was worried about me.”
The pawn shop guy paused another beat.
Then he said, “Exactly what kind of a school was that ring from?”
Reacher said, “It was a military academy.”
“Those are for, excuse me, problem kids. Or disturbed. No offense.”
“Don’t blame the kids,” Reacher said. “Look at the families. Tell the truth, at our school there were a lot of parents who had killed people.”
“More than the average.”
“So you stick together forever?”
“We don’t leave anyone behind.”
“The guy won’t talk to a stranger.”
“Does he have a license and does he pass inspections by the state?”
“What I’m doing here is legal. My lawyer says so. As long as I honestly believe it. And I do. It’s from a charity. I’ve seen the paperwork. All kinds of people do it. They even have commercials on TV. Cars, mostly. Sometimes boats.”
“But this particular guy won’t talk to me?”
“I would be surprised.”
“Does he have no manners?”
“I wouldn’t ask him over to a picnic.”
“What’s his name?”
“That’s what he goes by.”
“Where would I find Mr. Rat?”
“Look for a minimum six Harley-Davidsons. Jimmy will be in whatever bar they’re outside of.”
The town was relatively small. Beyond the sad side was a side maybe five years from going sad. Maybe more. Maybe ten. There was hope. There were some boarded-up enterprises, but not many. Most stores were still doing business, at a leisurely rural pace. Big pick-up trucks rolled through, slowly. There was a billiard hall. Not many street lights. It was getting dark. Something about the architecture made it clear it was dairy country. The shape of the stores looked like old-fashioned milking barns. The same DNA was in there somewhere.
There was a bar in a standalone wooden building, with a patch of weedy gravel for parking, and on the gravel were seven Harley-Davidsons, all in a neat line. Possibly not actual Hells Angels as such. Possibly one of many other parallel denominations. Bikers were as split as Baptists. All the same, but different. Apparently these particular guys liked black leather tassels and chromium plating. They liked to lay back and ride with their legs spread wide and their feet sticking out in front of them. Possibly a cooling effect. Perhaps necessary. Generally they wore heavy leather vests. And pants, and boots. All black. Hot, in late summer.
The bikes were all painted dark shiny colors, four with orange flames, three with rune-like symbols outlined in silver. The bar was dull with age, and some shingles had slipped. There was an air conditioner in one of the windows, straining to keep up, dripping water in a puddle below. A cop car rolled past, slowly, its tires hissing on the blacktop. County Police. Probably spent the first half of its watch ginning up municipal revenue with a radar gun out on the highway, now prowling the back streets of the towns in its jurisdiction. Showing the flag. Paying attention to the trouble spots. The cop inside turned his head and gazed at Reacher. The guy was nothing like the pawnbroker. He was all squared away. His face was lean, and his eyes were wise. He was sitting behind the wheel with a ramrod posture, and his haircut was fresh. A whitewall buzz cut. Maybe just a day old. Not more than two.
Reacher stood still and watched him roll away. He heard a motorcycle exhaust in the distance, coming closer, getting louder, heavy as a hammer. An eighth Harley came around the corner, as slow as gravity would allow, a big heavy machine, blatting and popping, the rider laying back with his feet on pegs way out in front. He leaned into a turn and slowed on the gravel. He was wearing a black leather vest over a black T shirt. He parked last in line. His bike idled like a blacksmith hitting an anvil. Then he shut it down and hauled it up on its stand. Silence came back.
Reacher said, “I’m looking for Jimmy Rat.”
The guy glanced at one of the other bikes. Couldn’t help himself. But he said, “Don’t know him,” and walked away, stiff and bow-legged, to the door of the bar. He was pear shaped, and maybe forty years old. Maybe five-ten, and bulky. He had a sallow tan, like his skin was rubbed with motor oil. He pulled the door and stepped inside.
Reacher stayed where he was. The bike the new guy had glanced at was one of the three with silver runes. It was as huge as all the others, but the footrests and the handlebars were set a little closer to the seat than most. About two inches closer than the new guy’s, for example. Which made Jimmy Rat about five-eight, possibly. Maybe skinny, to go with his name. Maybe armed, with a knife or a gun. Maybe vicious.
Reacher walked to the door of the bar. He pulled it open and stepped inside. The air was dark and hot and smelled of spilled beer. The room was rectangular, with a full-length copper bar on the left, and tables on the right. There was an arch in the rear wall, with a narrow corridor beyond. Restrooms and a pay phone and a fire door. Four windows. A total of six potential exits. The first thing an ex-MP counted.
The eight bikers were packed in around two four-tops shoved together by a window. They had beers on the go, in heavy glasses wet with humidity. The new guy was shoehorned in, pear shaped on a chair, with the fullest glass. Six of the others were in a similar category, in terms of size and shape and general visual appeal. One was worse. About five-eight, stringy, with a narrow face and restless eyes.
Reacher stopped at the bar and asked for coffee.
“Don’t have any,” the barman said. “Sorry.”
“Is that Jimmy Rat over there? The small guy?”
“You got a beef with him, you take it outside, OK?”
The barman moved away. Reacher waited. One of the bikers drained his glass and stood up and headed for the restroom corridor. Reacher crossed the room and sat down in his vacant chair. The wood felt hot. The eighth guy made the connection. He stared at Reacher, and then he glanced at Jimmy Rat.
Who said, “This is a private party, bud. You ain’t invited.”
Reacher said, “I need some information.”
Jimmy Rat looked blank. Then he remembered. He glanced at the door, somewhere beyond which lay the pawn shop, where he had made assurances. He said, “Get lost, bud.”
Reacher put his left fist on the table. The size of a supermarket chicken. Long thick fingers with knuckles like walnuts. Old nicks and scars healed white against his summer tan. He said, “I don’t care what scam you’re running. Or who you’re stealing from. Or who you’re fencing for. I got no interest in any of that. All I want to know is where you got this ring.”
He opened his fist. The ring lay in his palm. West Point 2005. The gold filigree, the black stone. The tiny size. Jimmy Rat said nothing, but something in his eyes made Reacher believe he recognized the item.
Reacher said, “Another name for West Point is the United States Military Academy. There’s a clue right there, in the first two words. This is a federal case.”
“You a cop?”
“No, but I got a quarter for the phone.”
The missing guy got back from the restroom. He stood behind Reacher’s chair, arms spread wide in exaggerated perplexity. As if to say, what the hell is going on here? Who is this guy? Reacher kept one eye on Jimmy Rat, and one on the window alongside him, where he could see a faint ghostly reflection of what was happening behind his shoulder.
Jimmy Rat said, “That’s someone’s chair.”
“Yeah, mine,” Reacher said.
“You’ve got five seconds.”
“I’ve got as long as it takes for you to answer my question.”
“You feeling lucky tonight?”
“I won’t need to be.”
Reacher put his right hand on the table. It was a little larger than his left. Normal for right-handed people. It had a few more nicks and scars, including a white V-shaped blemish that looked like a snakebite, but had been made by a nail.
Jimmy Rat shrugged, like the whole conversation was really no big deal.
He said, “I’m part of a supply chain. I get stuff from other people who get it from other people. That ring was donated or sold or pawned and not redeemed. I don’t know anything more than that.”
“What other people did you get it from?”
Jimmy Rat said nothing. Reacher watched the window with his left eye. With his right he saw Jimmy Rat nod. The reflection in the glass showed the guy behind winding up a big roundhouse right. Clearly the plan was to smack Reacher on the ear. Maybe topple him off the chair. At least soften him up a little.
Reacher chose the path of least resistance. He ducked his head, and let the punch scythe through the empty air above it. Then he bounced back up, and launched from his feet, and twisted, and used his falling-backward momentum to jerk his elbow into the guy’s kidney, which was rotating around into position just in time. It was a good solid hit. The guy went down hard. Reacher fell back in his chair and sat there like absolutely nothing had happened.
Jimmy Rat stared.
The barman called, “Take it outside, pal. Like I told you.”
He sounded like he meant it.
Jimmy Rat said, “Now you’ve got trouble.”
He sounded like he meant it too.
Right then Chang would be shopping for dinner. Maybe a small grocery close to her home. Wholesome ingredients. But simple. She was probably tired.
A bad day.
Reacher said, “I’ve got six fat guys and a runt. That’s a walk in the park.”
He stood up. He turned and stepped on the guy on the floor and walked over him. Onward to the door. Out to the gravel, and the line of shiny bikes. He turned and saw the others come out after him. The not-very magnificent seven. Generally stiff and bow-legged, and variously contorted due to beer guts and bad posture. But still, a lot of weight. In the aggregate. Plus fourteen fists, and fourteen boots.
Possibly steel capped.
Maybe a very bad day.
But who cared, really?
The seven guys fanned out in a semicircle, three on Jimmy Rat’s left, and three on his right. Reacher kept moving, rotating them the way he wanted, his back to the street. He didn’t want to get trapped against someone’s rear fence. He didn’t want to get jammed in a corner. He didn’t plan on running, but an option was always a fine thing to have.
The seven guys tightened their semicircle, but not enough. They stayed about ten feet away, with better than a yard between each one of them. Which made the first two plays obvious. They would come shuffling in, slowly, maybe grunting and glaring, whereupon Reacher would move fast and punch his way through the line, after which everyone would turn around, Reacher now facing a new inverted semicircle, now only six in number. Then rinse and repeat, which would reduce them to five. They wouldn’t fall for it a third time, so at that point they would swarm, all except Jimmy Rat, who Reacher figured wouldn’t fight at all. Too smart. Which in the end would make it a close-quarters four-on-one brawl.
A bad day.
“Last chance,” Reacher said. “Tell the little guy to answer my question, and you can all go back to your suds.”
No one spoke. They tightened some more and hunched down into crouches and started shuffling forward, hands apart and ready. Reacher picked out his first target and waited. He wanted him five feet away. One pace, not two. Better to save the extra energy for later.
Then he heard tires on the road again, behind him, and in front of him the seven guys straightened up and looked around, with exaggerated wide-eyed innocence all over their faces. Reacher turned and saw the cop car again. The same guy. County Police. The car coasted to a stop and the guy took a good long look. He buzzed his passenger window down, and leaned across inside, and caught Reacher’s eye, and said, “Sir, please approach the vehicle.”
Which Reacher did, but not on the passenger side. He didn’t want to turn his back. Instead he tracked around the trunk to the driver’s window. Which buzzed down, while the passenger side buzzed back up. The cop had his gun in his hand. Relaxed, held low in his lap.
The cop said, “Want to tell me what’s going on here?”
Reacher said, “Were you army or Marine Corps?”
“Why would I be either?”
“Most of you are, in a place like this. Especially the ones who hike all the way to the nearest PX to get their hair cut.”
“I was army.”
“Me too. There’s nothing going on here.”
“I need to hear the whole story. Lots of guys were in the army. I don’t know you.”
“Jack Reacher, 110th MP. Terminal at major. Pleased to meet you.”
The cop said, “I heard of the 110th MP.”
“In a good way, I hope.”
“Your HQ was in the Pentagon, right?”
“No, our HQ was in Rock Creek, Virginia. Some ways north and west of the Pentagon. I had the best office there for a couple of years. Was that your security question?”
“You passed the test. Rock Creek it was. Now tell me what’s going on. You looked like you were fixing to fight these guys.”
“So far we’re just talking,” Reacher said. “I asked them something. They told me they would prefer to answer me outside in the open air. I don’t know why. Maybe they were worried about eavesdroppers.”
“What did you ask them?”
“Where they got this ring.”
Reacher rested his wrist on the door and opened his hand.
“West Point,” the cop said.
“Sold to the pawn shop by these guys. I want to know who they got it from.”
“I don’t know exactly. I guess I want to know the story.”
“These guys won’t tell you.”
“You know them?”
“Nothing we can prove.”
“They bring stuff in from South Dakota through Minnesota. Two states away. But never enough to get the Feds interested in an interstate kind of thing. And never enough to put a South Dakota police detective on an airplane. So it’s pretty much risk-free for them.”
“Where in South Dakota?”
“We don’t know.”
Reacher said nothing.
The cop said, “You should get in the car. There are seven of them.”
“I’ll be OK,” Reacher said.
“I’ll arrest you, if you like. To make it look good. But you need to be gone. Because I need to be gone. I can’t stay here my whole watch.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Maybe I should arrest you anyway.”
“For what? Something that hasn’t happened yet?”
“For your own safety.”
“I could take offense,” Reacher said. “You don’t seem very worried about their safety. You talk like it’s a foregone conclusion.”
“Get in the car. Call it a tactical retreat. You can find out about the ring some other way.”
“What other way?”
“Then forget all about it. A buck gets ten there’s no story at all. Probably the guy came back all sad and bitter and sold the damn ring as fast as he could. To pay the rent on his trailer.”
“Is that how it is around here?”
“You’re doing OK.”
“It’s a spectrum.”
“It wasn’t a guy. The ring is too small. It was a woman.”
“Women live in trailers too.”
Reacher nodded. He said, “I agree, a buck gets ten it’s nothing. But I want to know for sure. Just in case.”
Silence for a moment. Just the engine’s whispered idle, and a breeze in the telephone wires.
“Last chance,” the cop said. “Play it smart. Get in the car.”
“I’ll be OK,” Reacher said again. He stepped back and straightened up. The cop shook his head in exasperation, and waited a beat, and then gave up and drove away, slowly, tires hissing on the blacktop, exhaust fumes trailing. Reacher watched him all the way to the corner, and then he stepped back up on the sidewalk, where the black-clad semicircle re-formed around him.
The seven bikers resumed their previous positions, and they hunched down into their combat stances again, feet apart, hands held wide and ready. But they didn’t move. They didn’t want to. Not right away. From their point of view a new factor had been introduced. Their opponent was completely batshit crazy. He had proved it. He had been offered a graceful exit by the county cops, and he had turned it down. He had stayed to fight it out.
They didn’t know.
Reacher waited. At that point he figured Chang would be hauling her packages home. Dumping them on the kitchen counter. Assembling her ingredients. Taking a knife from a drawer. Maybe heating the stove. Dinner for one. A quiet evening. A relief, perhaps.
Still the bikers didn’t move.
Reacher said, “You guys having second thoughts now?”
Reacher said, “Answer my question and I’ll let you walk away.”
Then eventually he said, “A person less patient than me might think it’s time to shit or get off the pot.”
Still no response.
He said, “Then I guess I was just born lucky. This is like winning the slots in Vegas. Ding, ding, ding. I got seven big girls all in a line.”
Which got a reaction, like he wanted it to. Like he needed it to. Motion was his friend. He wanted moving mass and momentum. He wanted them raging and blundering. Which he got. They glanced among themselves, outraged, but not wanting to be the first to move, or the last, and then on some kind of unspoken signal they all jerked forward, suddenly mad as hell, all pumped up and vulnerable. Reacher put his original plan in action. It was still good. Still the obvious play. He waited until they were five feet away, and then he launched hard and smashed through the line with a horizontal elbow in his first target’s face, and then he turned immediately and launched again, no delay at all, stamping his foot to kill the old momentum and get some new, scything his elbow at the guy to the right of the sudden new gap, who turned straight into it, facing front with all kinds of urgency, meeting the blow like a head-on wreck on the highway.
Reacher turned again and stood still. The five survivors formed up in a new semicircle. Reacher took a long step back. Simply to gauge their intentions. Which were exactly as predicted. Jimmy Rat faded backward, and the other four came on forward.
Reacher had graduated most of the specialist combat schools the army had to offer, most of them on posts inside the old Confederacy, all of them staffed by grizzled old veterans who had done things no normal person could imagine. Such schools concluded with secret notes in secret files and a lot of bruises and maybe even broken bones. The rule of thumb in such establishments, when faced with four opponents, was to make it three opponents pretty damn quickly. And then to make it two opponents just as fast, which was the win right there, the whole ball game, because obviously any graduate of any such school could not possibly have the slightest problem going one-on-two, because if he did, it would mean the instructors had done a poor job of instructing, which was of course logically impossible in the army.
Reacher called it getting his retaliation in first. The four guys were all hunched again, arms wide, bow-legged and feet apart. Maybe they thought such poses looked threatening. To Reacher they looked like a target-rich environment. He darted in and picked off the end guy on the left with a kick in the balls, and then danced away at right-angles, in line with them, where the back three couldn’t get to him without detouring around the end guy, who by that point was doubled over, retching and puking and gasping.
Reacher stepped back again. The back three came after him, making the detour, the first guy going right, the second left, the third right again. All of which gave Reacher time to slip around behind the line of bikes, to the other side. Which gave the three guys a decision to make. Obviously two would follow one way and one the other, but which one and which way? Obviously the lone guy carried the greatest risk. He was the weak point and would get hit first, and maybe hardest. Who wanted that duty?
Reacher saw Jimmy Rat watching from the sidewalk.
The three guys split up two and one, the two coming around to Reacher’s right, the lone guy from the left. Reacher moved to meet him, fast, his mind on the invisible geometry unspooling behind him, figuring he would get just shy of three seconds of pure one-on-one, before the other two arrived behind him.
Three seconds was plenty. The lone guy thought he was ready, but he wasn’t. He was thinking all wrong. His subconscious mind was telling him his best play was to hang back a little. Human nature. Millions of years of evolution. Then the front part of his brain was telling him no, if a confrontation was inevitable, then logically his interests would be best served by staging it as close to reinforcements as he could get. Therefore he should move toward the other two. Not away from them.
The stop-start impulses in the guy’s head produced a sudden forward lurch, which brought him too close too soon. His mental bandwidth was all taken up with locomotion issues. Time and space. He wasn’t thinking about how to defend himself. Until too late. And even then he showed no imagination. He had seen elbows and feet, and he improvised a kind of all-purpose defensive posture against either, but Reacher ignored both and took the last unexpected stride at full speed, and seamlessly head-butted the guy full on the bridge of the nose. Moving mass and momentum. You bet your ass. Game over, right there. A second and a half.
Reacher turned fast and found the last two guys already around behind the line of motorcycles, twelve feet away, coming on at a medium speed, somewhere between eager and obligated. Reacher stepped backward over his head-butted victim and looped back around to the street side of the bikes. He watched the last two follow. Watched them realize. They were on an oval racetrack. They could go around and around all night long.
They split up, one and one. They glanced and paused and coordinated. They waited, one behind the last bike on the left, one behind the last bike on the right. The survivors. The pick of the litter. The smartest, certainly. Always better to go fifth and sixth than first or second.
Then on a silent count of three they stepped forward. Not the worst Reacher had ever seen. Their speed was right, and their angles were right. The textbooks would say it was very likely Reacher would get hit. From one direction or another. It was almost unavoidable. They would arrive together. He would be the turkey in the sandwich.
Probably Chang was sitting down and eating by that point. Whatever she had made. At her kitchen table. With a glass of wine. A small celebration, maybe. Home safe.
Getting hit was a rare event for Reacher. And he intended to keep it rare. Not just vanity. Getting hit was inefficient. It degraded future performance.
He stepped forward, just as the two guys were rounding the ends of the line of bikes. Now the angle was flatter. More of a straight line than a triangle. He took a breath. The two guys got closer. One from his left, and one from his right. They were mincing along, pace for pace, always glancing ahead at the relative distances. Aiming to arrive together.
Human nature. Millions of years of evolution.
Reacher darted left, and two things happened. The left-hand guy reared up backward, because he was surprised, and the right-hand guy sped up forward, to close the gap, because he was in full-on hunting mode, and his prey was getting away.
So Reacher spun back instantly, and the right-hand guy ran full speed straight into his scything elbow, whereupon Reacher turned once more, and found he had half a second to spare, because the left-hand guy was taking some major amount of time to get his rearing-up-backward momentum converted into forward motion again. Which gave Reacher space to pick his spot. He kicked the guy in the knee, which dropped him face down on the gravel, bang, and then Reacher kicked him in the head, but left-footed, which was his weaker side. Normal for right-handed people. And appropriate. No need to go too far. Being dumb wasn’t a capital crime. Wasn’t a crime at all, in fact. Merely a handicap.
He breathed out.
From the sidewalk Jimmy Rat said, “Feel better now?”
Reacher said, “A little.”
“You could work for me, if you want.”
“I don’t want.”
“Is it woman trouble?”
Reacher didn’t answer. Instead he squeezed between adjacent handlebars, and he swung his leg over, and he sat down on Jimmy Rat’s bike. He pushed back in the saddle and got comfortable and put his foot up on a peg.
“Hey,” Jimmy Rat said. “You can’t do that. You can’t sit on another rider’s motorcycle. It’s disrespectful. It’s a thing, man.”
“How big of a thing?”
“It’s rule one.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
Jimmy Rat said nothing.
Reacher said, “Answer my question and I’m out of here.”
“I want a place and a name in South Dakota, where you got that ring.”
Reacher said, “I’m happy to sit here all night. Right now there are no witnesses. But sooner or later someone will come along. They’ll see me sitting on your bike. With you doing nothing about it. Like a pussy, not a rat. You’ll be finished.”
Jimmy Rat glanced all around.
He said, “This is not a guy you want to meet.”
“Neither were you,” Reacher said. “But here I am anyway.”
There was the sound of traffic, one block over. Maybe a pick-up truck, rolling slow. Jimmy Rat watched the corner. Would it turn in? It didn’t. It hissed away into the distance, and silence came back.
There was the sound of another car, a block the other way.
Jimmy Rat said, “He operates out of a laundromat in Rapid City. His name is Arthur Scorpio.”
The car on the parallel block was slowing. Preparing to turn toward them. It was thirty seconds from the corner. Reacher got off the bike, and squeezed back between the handlebars again, to the sidewalk. Jimmy Rat went the other way, around the bikes, into the shadows behind the building. Maybe in through the rear door.
The car showed up at the corner, right on time. It was the county cop. Back again.
The cop paused a beat, with his foot on the brake, and then he hauled on the wheel and stopped on the same curb he had used before. He buzzed his window down and surveyed the scene. Six men, all horizontal, some of them moving. Plus Reacher on the sidewalk, standing straight.
The cop said, “Sir, please approach the vehicle.”
Reacher stepped over.
The cop said, “Congratulations.”
“What you did here.”
“No, this was all self-inflicted. I was just a spectator. They had some kind of a big falling out. I think someone sat on the wrong motorcycle.”
“That’s your story?”
“You don’t believe it?”
“Just theoretically, would I be expected to?”
“The pawnbroker’s lawyer says it would be better for us all if you did.”
“I want you out of the county.”
“Works for me. I’m planning on the first bus.”
“Not fast enough.”
“Want me to steal a motorbike?”
“I’ll drive you.”
“You want me gone that bad?”
“It would save a lot of paperwork. For both of us.”
“Where would you drive me?”
“I’m guessing they answered your question. So now you’re headed west. The county line out there is a straight shot to the I-90 on-ramp. Plenty of friendly folks. You’ll get a ride.”
So Reacher climbed in, and forty uneventful minutes later he climbed out again, in the middle of nowhere, on a dark two-lane road, next to a sign that said he was leaving one county and entering the next. He waved goodbye to the cop, and walked forward, a hundred yards, two hundred, and then he stopped and looked back. The cop flashed his lights and backed up and turned and drove away. Reacher watched his tail lights disappear, and then he moved on, to a spot where the shoulder widened a little. He waited there. Ahead of him was about sixty miles of two-lane, and then I-90. Which led west through Minnesota, into South Dakota, through Sioux Falls, and all the way to Rapid City.
And onward. All the way to Seattle, if he wanted.
At that moment, more than fifteen hundred miles away, Michelle Chang was eating a delivery pizza at her kitchen table. With a glass of water, not wine. Not a celebration. Just calories. She had been busy all afternoon, catching up on a week’s worth of missed chores. She was tired, and partly happy to be on her own, and partly not. She figured Reacher would have gone to Chicago next. Plenty of options from there. She missed him. But it wouldn’t have worked. She knew that. She knew it as clearly as she had ever known anything.
Also at that moment, nearly seven hundred miles away, a phone was ringing on a desk in the Rapid City Police Department’s Crimes Against Property unit. It was answered by a detective named Gloria Nakamura. She was small and dark and three years in. No longer a rookie, but not yet a veteran. She was an hour away from the end of her watch. She said, “Property, Nakamura.”
It was a tech from Computer Crimes, doing her a favor. He said, “My guy at the phone company called me. Someone named Jimmy on a Wisconsin number just left a voicemail for Arthur Scorpio. On his personal cell. Some kind of warning.”
Nakamura said, “What kind?”
“I’ll email it to you.”
“Owe you,” Nakamura said, and hung up. Her email dinged. She clicked on the message, and clicked on a file, and dabbed her volume button. She heard what sounded like a barroom, and then a nervous voice speaking fast. It said, “Arthur, this is Jimmy. I just had a guy inquiring about an item I got from you. He seems set on working his way along the chain of supply. I didn’t tell him anything, but he already found me somehow, so what I’m thinking is maybe he’ll somehow find you too. If he does, take him seriously. That’s my advice. This guy is like Bigfoot come out of the forest. Heads up, OK?”
Then there was a plastic rattle as a big old receiver was fumbled back in its cradle. Maybe a pay phone on a wall. In a bar in Wisconsin. The Arthur Scorpio file was already three inches thick. Nothing ever stuck. But Rapid City’s CID never quit. Every scrap of intelligence was logged. Sooner or later something would click. Nakamura wrote it up. After the narrative summary she added her notes. No smoking gun, but persuasive about the existence of a supply chain. Then she opened a search engine and typed Bigfoot. She got the gist. A mythic ape-man, hairy, seven feet tall, from the Northwest woods. She reopened her document and added: Maybe Bigfoot will shake something loose! She emailed a copy to her lieutenant.
Afterward she felt bad about the exclamation point. It looked girlish. But it had to. Really she meant for her boss to read her note and order an immediate resumption of surveillance. Just in case Scorpio’s incoming visitor proved significant. A no brainer, surely. Obviously Jimmy from Wisconsin was lying when he said he didn’t tell the guy anything. That claim wasn’t logical. A guy scary enough to warrant a heads-up voicemail was scary enough to elicit the answer to just about any question he wanted to ask. So obviously the guy was already on his way. Time was therefore of the essence. But her boss claimed all executive authority as his own. Nudging was counterproductive. Hence the giggly deflection, to take the sting away. To make the guy think it was his own idea all along.
Then the night shift came in, and Nakamura went home. She decided she would swing by Scorpio’s laundromat in the morning. On her way back to work. Thirty minutes or an hour. Just to take a look. It was possible Bigfoot might have arrived by then.
Reacher had no reason to doubt the county cop when he said western Wisconsin was populated by friendly folks. The problem was quantity, not quality. It was a lonely rural road, in the middle of nowhere, and by that point it was late in the evening. There was no traffic. Or almost none, to be exact. A Dodge pick-up truck had blasted by in a howl of warm wind, and five minutes after that a Ford F-150 had slowed down to take a look, before speeding up again and driving on without stopping. Now the eastern horizon was stubbornly dark and silent. But Reacher remained optimistic. It only took one. And there was plenty of time. There was no big strategic hurry. The ring had been in the pawn shop for a month. There was no red-hot trail to follow.
A buck gets ten there’s no story at all.
Reacher waited, and eventually he saw distant headlights in the east, just dim twinkles like faraway stars. For a whole minute they seemed to get no closer, because of the head-on perspective, but then the picture sharpened. A pick-up truck, he thought, or an SUV. Because of the height and the spacing of the lights. He stood a yard inside the traffic lane and stuck out his thumb. He turned half sideways, like a Hollywood pose, so his profile was presented at an angle, so visually his bulk was minimized. Nothing he could do about his height. But the less threatening the better. He was an experienced hitchhiker. He knew he was subject to snap decisions.
It was a pick-up truck. A big one. A crew cab. Japanese. Lots of chrome and lots of shiny paint. It slowed down. Came close. The driver’s face was lit up red, from the instrument panel. Not going to happen, Reacher thought. The driver was a woman. She’d have to be nuts.
The truck stopped.
It was a Honda. Dark red metallic. The window buzzed down. There was a dog on the back seat. Like a German Shepherd, but bigger. About the size of a pony. Maybe a freak mutation. It had teeth the size of rifle ammunition. The woman leaned across the console. She had dark hair up in a knot. She was wearing a dark red shirt. She was about forty-five years old.
She said, “Where are you headed?”
Reacher said, “I need to get on I-90.”
“Hop right in. That’s near where I’m going.”
“About where I’m going?”
“About me hopping in. From the safety point of view. You don’t know me. As a matter of fact I’m not a threat, but I would say that anyway, right?”
“I have a savage dog in here.”
“I might be armed. The obvious play would be shoot the dog first. Or cut its throat. And then start on you. That’s what I would be worried about. Professionally speaking, I mean.”
“You a cop?”
“I was in the military police.”
“Then hop in.”
She was a farmer, she said, with a lot of dairy cattle on a lot of acres. Doing well, Reacher figured, judging by her car. It felt about as wide as a Humvee inside. It was upholstered in quilted leather. It was as silent as a limousine. They talked. He asked if she had always been a farmer, and she said yes, four generations. She asked him what he did for a living, and he said he was between jobs. The giant dog followed the conversation from the back seat, turning its wicked head one way, and then the other.
An hour later she stopped and let him out at the I-90 cloverleaf. He thanked her and waved her away. She was a nice person. One of the random encounters that made his life what it was.
Then he walked to the westbound ramp and started over, standing at an angle, one foot on the rumble strip, the other in the traffic lane, with his thumb out wide.
Nearly seven hundred miles away, in his office behind his laundromat in Rapid City, Arthur Scorpio was clearing the last of the day’s texts and emails and voicemails off his phone. He got to Jimmy Rat’s message, and heard I didn’t tell him anything, but he already found me somehow, so what I’m thinking is maybe he’ll somehow find you too. Which, translated into plain English, meant I snitched on you and a guy is definitely on his way. So, in the long term, no more business for Jimmy Rat, and in the short term, defensive measures might have to be considered.
Scorpio called his secretary at home. She was on her way to bed. He asked her, “Who or what is Bigfoot?”
She said, “He’s a giant ape-man who lives in the woods. On the slopes in the Northwest. About seven feet tall and covered in hair. Eats bears and cattle. One rancher lost a thousand head, over the years.”
“Where was this?”
“Nowhere,” the secretary said. “It’s imaginary. Like a fairytale.”
Scorpio said, “Huh.”
Then he disconnected, and made two more calls, both to reliable guys he knew, and then he locked up his laundromat and drove himself home.
Close to midnight Reacher got a ride in a shiny stainless steel truck carrying five thousand gallons of organic milk in a tank shaped like a boat-tail bullet. It was headed to Sioux Falls, which was the western limit of that particular dairy’s distribution area. But which was still more than 350 miles short of Rapid City. Don’t worry, the driver said. Onward rides would be easy to get. There was a truck stop with all kinds of traffic, night and day. A real big place, like the crossroads of the world.
Reacher kept the guy talking all the way through Minnesota, which he figured was his job, like human amphetamine. Anything to keep the guy awake. Anything to avoid the old joke: I want to die peacefully in my sleep like Grandpa. Not screaming in terror like his passengers. The resulting conversation spiraled off in all kinds of different directions. Institutional injustices in the milk business were exposed. Grievances were aired. Then the guy wanted to hear war stories, so Reacher made some up. The big truck stop came along soon enough. The guy had not been exaggerating. There was an acres-wide fuel stop, and a spreading two-story motel a hundred yards long, and a warehouse-sized family restaurant, blazing with neon outside and fluorescence inside. There were back-to-back eighteen-wheelers wheezing in and out, and all kinds of cars and trucks and panel vans.
Reacher climbed out of the milk tanker and headed straight for the motel office, where he took a room, even though it was already close to dawn. No point arriving in Rapid City all tired and exhausted. No point arriving exactly when expected, either. Obviously Jimmy Rat would have called Arthur Scorpio. Some kind of a get-in-first cover-your-ass play, as in It wasn’t me, honest, but I think someone dimed you out. Which wouldn’t necessarily be believed in every particular, but which would certainly be acted upon, as a distant early warning. There’s something out there. The oldest fear in human history. Scorpio would post sentries right away. And so in turn Reacher would make them stare at a whole lot of nothing for the first day. To dull them down, to sap their enthusiasm, to make them yawn and blink. Always better to engage at a time of your own choosing. So he ate breakfast in the bustling restaurant, and then he headed back to his room, and took a shower, and went to bed just as the sun rose, with the tiny West Point ring on the night table beside him.
At that point, more than 350 miles away to the west, in Rapid City, Detective Gloria Nakamura was already up and about. She had woken before dawn, and showered and dressed and eaten breakfast. Now she was heading out, a whole hour early. To work, but not yet.
She commuted in her own car, which was a mid-size Chevy sedan. It was pale blue, and as anonymous as a rental. She drove through downtown, and turned off the main drag toward Arthur Scorpio’s territory. He owned a whole city block. His laundromat was in the center building. Like a flagship operation. The block fronted on a cracked concrete cross street with a narrow sidewalk featuring a dead tree in a bone-dry pit. Running down the back of the block was a service alley, for deliveries and trash collection.
She tried the alley first. It was patched and narrow. Overhead a skein of power lines and phone wires looped left and right from tilted poles. There was a guy outside the laundromat’s back door. He was leaning on the wall, with his arms folded. He was in a short black coat against the dawn chill. A black sweater under it. Black pants, black shoes. He was more than six feet tall, and heavy. About twice Nakamura’s size. He was wide awake and watchful.
She wanted to take a cell phone picture. For the endless file. But she couldn’t be obvious about it. She had heard nothing from her boss. Surveillance had not been officially reauthorized. So she swiped through to camera, and put the phone to her ear, next to her window, as if she was taking a call, and she drove slowly by, eyes front, furtively dabbing with her thumb, click click click, until the sentry was well behind her. Then she turned left out of the alley, and left again, and drove past the front of the building.
There was another guy at the front door. Same deal. Leaning on the wall, watchful, arms crossed. Dressed in black. Like a nightclub bouncer. No velvet rope. Nakamura put her phone to her ear. Click click click. She turned right at the end of the block and parked on the street where the guy couldn’t see her.
She checked her pictures. Both sets were tilted and blurry and neither had the subject anywhere near the center of the frame. But the building was recognizable. The overall context was clear. The narrative told a story. Scorpio had gotten word from Wisconsin, and had immediately hired security. Local muscle. Two guys. One in front, one in back.
Because Scorpio was at least somewhat worried about Bigfoot.
Who was where?
Incoming, Nakamura thought. Had to be. He seems set on working his way along the chain of supply. She got out of her car. She walked back the same way she had come, and turned in on Scorpio’s street. She stayed on the opposite sidewalk. The guy at the laundromat’s door saw her. She felt his eyes on her. He didn’t move. Just watched. She kept walking. There was a breakfast place almost opposite the laundromat. Not Scorpio’s. His neighbor’s. It had an undersized front window, but if you took the first table and craned up in your chair you got a pretty good view. Nakamura had spent hours in there.
She pushed in the door.
Her table was taken. By a guy with the ruins of a bacon and egg breakfast pushed away from him, and a half-full cup of coffee cradled in its place. He was a neat, compact man, in a collar and tie, and a dark conventional suit made of sensible hardwearing fibers. His hair was neatly brushed. He was somewhere over fifty, but how much over was hard to say. His hair was still brown. He had a lean and ageless face. He could have been sixty. He could have been seventy.
He was watching the laundromat through the window.
Had to be. Nakamura knew the signs. He wasn’t craning up in his chair, because although not tall he was taller than she was. But even so, his back was unnaturally straight. Had to be, to get his eye line up over the sill. And his gaze was unwavering. He never looked down. He found his cup by feel, and raised it blind, and watched over the rim while sipping.
Was this Bigfoot?
Take him seriously, the voice from Wisconsin had said. And certainly the guy at the table looked like he should be taken seriously. Deep down there was something hard and competent about him. Not immediately obvious. His expression was amiable. But he had limited patience. He wasn’t to be messed with. That was clear. Theoretically it was possible to imagine him as a quiet and deadly foe of some sort. It was possible to imagine him as the kind of man who might merit a whispered heads-up voicemail. With an urgent warning and a pithy description. But the description would not have been like Bigfoot come out of the forest. Not for this man. It would have been a reference to a spy movie perhaps, about a faceless KGB killer blending in with the crowd. It would have been about how neat he was. How physically unobtrusive. He was almost dapper. He was the opposite of Bigfoot.
So who was he?
One sure way to find out.
She sat down across from him, and took her badge from her purse. It was in a department-issued vinyl wallet, opposite a photo ID behind a plastic window. Nakamura, Gloria, Detective, and her signature and her picture.
The guy took a pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses from an inside pocket, and put them on. He glanced at the ID, and glanced away. He took a small notebook from another inside pocket. He opened it with his thumb. He glanced at it, changed pages, and glanced away.
He said, “You’re with Property Crimes.”
“You got us all listed in there?”
“Yes,” he said.
“I like to know who does what in a place.”
“What are you doing here?”
“What’s your name?”
“Bramall,” the guy said. “First name Terrence, but you can call me Terry.”
“And what’s your job, Mr. Bramall?”
“I’m a private investigator.”
“What brings you to Rapid City?”
“A private investigation.”
“Of Arthur Scorpio?”
“I’m afraid I’m bound by a certain degree of confidentiality. Unless and until I believe a crime has been or is about to be committed. Which I don’t at this moment.”
Nakamura said, “I need to know whether you’re for him or against him.”
“Like that, is it?”
“He won’t be voted citizen of the year.”
“He’s not my client, if that’s what you mean.”
Nakamura asked, “Do you have a partner?”
“Romantically?” Bramall said. “Or professionally?”
“Are you part of an agency?”
“Why do you ask?”
“We heard someone was on his way here. Not you. Someone else. He was in Wisconsin yesterday. I wondered if he was an associate.”
“Not mine,” Bramall said. “I’m a one-man band.”
Nakamura took a business card from her purse. She put it on the table, near Bramall’s coffee cup. She said, “Call me if you need me. Or if you decide to take the confidentiality stick out of your ass. Or if you need advice. Scorpio is a dangerous man. Never forget that.”
“Thank you,” Bramall said, his eyes on the window.
Nakamura walked back to her car, with the guy at the laundromat door watching her all the way. She drove to work, and got there early. She woke her computer and opened a search engine. She typed Bramall, Terrence, private investigator, Chicago. She got a bunch of hits. The guy was sixty-seven years old. He was retired FBI. A long and distinguished career. Many successful cases. Senior rank. Multiple medals and awards. Now he was in business on his own account. He was high end. He didn’t advertise. He was hard to get. He was expensive. He was a true specialist. He offered only one service. All he did was find missing persons.
Reacher woke himself up when he figured the lunch rush would be over. He felt OK, after his exertions the previous evening. No real aches or pains. He checked the mirror. He had a light bruise on his forehead, from head-butting the fourth guy. And his right forearm was tender. It had dispatched three of them all by itself. Fully fifty percent. Along the bone there was nothing to bruise, but the skin looked about twice as thick as normal. And red, with tiny puncture wounds here and there. Even through his shirtsleeve. Which happened. Teeth, usually, or chips of bone from broken noses, or eye sockets. Collateral damage. But really nothing to worry about. He was in good shape. Same old same old, on another lonely day.
He showered and dressed and walked over to the emptying restaurant and ate off the all-day breakfast menu. He asked for quarters in his change and stopped at a pay phone near the door. He dialed an ancient number from memory.
It rang twice and was answered.
“West Point,” a woman’s voice said. “Superintendent’s office. How may I help you?”
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Reacher said. “I’m a graduate of the academy, and I have an inquiry I’m sure will end up in your office anyway, so I figured I might as well start there.”
“May I have your name, sir?”
Reacher gave it, and his date of birth, and his service number, and his graduation year. He heard the woman write it all down.
She said, “What is the nature of your inquiry?”
“I need to identify a female cadet from the class of 2005. Her initials were S.R.S. and she was small. That’s all I’ve got so far.”
He heard her write it down.
She said, “Are you a journalist?”
“Do you work in law enforcement?”
“Then why do you need to make this identification?”
“I have lost property to return.”
“You can send it here. We can forward it.”
“I know you can,” Reacher said. “And I know why you’re suggesting we do it that way. You have all kinds of security issues to worry about now. Privacy rights too. Not like it was when I was there. I understand that completely. You really shouldn’t tell me anything. Which is fine. I don’t want to put you on the spot, believe me.”
“Then we seem to understand each other.”
“Just do me one favor. Look her up, and then look me up. Consider all the possible circumstances. Either you’ll be kind of happy you didn’t give me a name, or you’ll be kind of sorry. I’ll call you back sometime and you can tell me which it was. Purely out of interest.”
“Why would I be sorry I followed procedure?”
“Because in the end you’ll realize that right now was the first faint whisper you ever heard that a West Pointer with the initials S.R.S. was in some kind of trouble somewhere. Maybe alone and in need of help. Afterward you’ll wish you’d taken it seriously from the beginning. You’ll be sorry you didn’t tell me sooner.”
“Who are you exactly?”
“Look me up,” Reacher said.
The voice said, “Call me back.”
Reacher walked the length of the motel to an area near the fuel pumps, where a kind of unofficial hitchhiking market was being run, by a homeless-looking guy wearing a coat tied up with rope. He would collect the desired destination from each new arriving hitchhiker, and then he would walk around shouting it out to the drivers in line for the pumps, and sooner or later one or another would wave and agree to some particular destination, and the lucky hitchhiker would tip the shouting guy a dollar and climb up in the cab.
Good business. Reacher was happy to pay a buck. Not that he would need help or luck. Every single driver was going to Rapid City. It was 350 miles away, but it was the first stop. There wasn’t much before it. After it there were choices. Wyoming, Montana, Idaho. But everyone had to pass through Rapid City first.
He got a ride inside about a minute and a half, in a huge red truck pulling a white boxed-in trailer. The cab had a quadruple sleeper pod behind the seats, bigger than some accommodations Reacher had been raised in. For cross-country house moving jobs, the driver said. The whole crew could sleep in the vehicle. Saved on motels.
The guy was old, like a lot of drivers. Maybe it was a fading profession. Maybe it had gotten too hard. Reacher thought the last of the frontier would die with it. Those guys were the final generation. The end of the DNA. Now people wanted to be home every night.
The guy said it would be five hours and five minutes to Rapid City. He said it with the kind of confidence that comes from having done it a thousand times before. They rolled out, sitting way up high, with a clear view to the horizon, and they ground up through the gears, and up, and up, until they were bowling along at more than seventy on the flat, and faster still on the down grades. The mile markers flashed past. Five hours and five minutes seemed dead-on plausible.
As always the driver wanted to know where his temporary passenger was traveling to, and why. As if in payment. A long story, for a long distance. For some reason Reacher told him the truth. The pawn shop, the ring, his compulsion to find out what connected the two. Which he said he couldn’t entirely explain.
The driver chewed on it all for ten whole miles.
Then he said, “My wife would say you feel guilty about something.”
Reacher didn’t answer.
“She reads books,” the driver said. “She thinks about things.”
“I don’t even know who this woman is. I don’t know her name. I never met her. How could I feel guilty about her? All I know is she sold her ring.”
“Doesn’t have to be about her. There’s a word. Transference, I think. Or projection, although that might be something different. My wife would say you feel guilty about a separate issue.”
“Would it have to be related?”
“Broadly, I suppose. Not necessarily that you made some other woman sell her jewelry too. Doesn’t have to be obvious. My wife would say it might be some other failure or injustice.”
Reacher said nothing.
“My wife would ask if you had a wife or girlfriend to talk things over with.”
Chang would be halfway through her first full day back to work. Maybe she had new cases. Maybe she was already back at the airport.
“Tell your wife to keep on reading,” Reacher said. “She sounds like a very smart woman.”
As so often, getting from the highway to the city was the hardest part of the trip. The red truck was too big for downtown. Reacher got out at the cloverleaf, at ten to eight in the evening, after five hours and five minutes exactly. He stretched and breathed and set out looking for a local ride. There was plenty of traffic. Plenty of pick-up trucks, and SUVs, and regular cars. But there was the wrong frame of mind. They were all coming off the highway. They were all on their last lap. All almost home. Almost there. Almost to the bar. Almost to the girlfriend’s house. Almost to wherever. They all sped past. No one was in the mood to offer a ride. Not then. Did not compute. Rides were offered at the start of a journey. Not at the end.
Best hope in such a situation would always be a guy who had shaken his head three hundred miles ago, and then regretted it all the way since. Mostly a self-image thing. Such a guy was cooler than that. Such a guy would stop in his last few miles, maybe secretly hoping his limited offer would get a rueful refusal, thereby salving his conscience at zero personal cost, but also weirdly happy to actually go ahead and pick a guy up and drive him five or ten miles. In Reacher’s experience, given the traffic density, such a guy would come along about every twenty or twenty-five minutes. Visibility was key. The earlier they saw you, the better your chances. More time for the cool-guy thing to kick back in. Enough space to glide to a casual stop, and lean across with a smile.
In the end it took forty minutes. At eight-thirty exactly a Dodge crew cab pulled over. The driver put on a generous but apologetic expression and said he was going only as far as downtown. Reacher said that was great. He said he needed the part with the cheap motels. The guy said he would be passing by that general area, about two streets over, and would be happy to point the way.
The cheap part of downtown was dark. Daylight was long gone. There were lights on some street corners, and some of them worked, but not enough. Reacher got out of the Dodge and walked a long block west, mostly by feel, with visibility about a yard, and then another block just the same, and then he turned left and as promised he found two side-by-side motels, on a strip that also featured a diner and a gas station and a tire shop, which likely meant it was a popular route in and out of town. The right-hand motel had a tall lit-up sign, with come-on offers stacked up vertically, like logs in a pile: Free Breakfast, Free Cable, Free Wi-Fi, Free Upgrades.
The left-hand motel had: Free Everything.
Which Reacher doubted. Not the actual accommodation itself, surely. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. There was an old lady at the desk. She was slender and refined. She had blue hair, spun as fine as cotton candy. She was maybe eighty. Maybe she was the original owner, from way back long ago. Reacher asked his question, and she smiled and said no, he had to pay for his room, but everything else was included. She said it with a half-amused look in her eye, up and then down, and he sensed she meant Free Everything partly as a response to her neighbor’s boasting, whether good humored or teasing or edgy all in the eye of the beholder, but also partly she meant it as a despairing lament that these days, whatever you did, there was always someone in the world prepared to do it cheaper. Where could she go after free?
Reacher paid for a room.
He asked her, “Where could I wash my clothes around here?”
“What clothes?” she said. “You don’t have a bag.”
“Theoretically. Suppose I got a bag.”
“You would go to a laundromat.”
“How many do you have?”
“How many do you need?”
“Some might be better than others.”
“Are you worried about bedbugs? You shouldn’t be. That’s what laundromats are for. Turn the dryer on high, and you kill them stone dead. That’s what I do here. With the sheets.”
“Good to know,” Reacher said. “How many laundromats are there in Rapid City? I’m curious, is all. I like to know things.”
She thought about it and almost answered, but then she stopped herself, too naturally meticulous to rely on memory alone. She wanted corroboration. She took a thin Yellow Pages from a drawer. She checked under L, and again under C, for coin-operated.
“Three,” she said.
“Do you know the owners?”
Again she thought about it, at first looking skeptical, as if the question was odd and such acquaintances unlikely, but then her face changed, as if she was recalling old trade associations, and local business campaigns, and rubber chicken, and cocktail parties.
She said, “Actually I do know two of the three.”
“What are their names?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’m looking for a man named Arthur Scorpio.”
“He’s the third of the three,” she said. “I don’t know him at all.”
“But you know the name.”
“This is a small town. We gossip.”
“He’s not well spoken of.”
“In what way?”
“Just gossip. I shouldn’t repeat it. But a friend with a great-nephew in the police department says they have a file on Mr. Scorpio three inches thick.”
“He buys and sells stolen property,” Reacher said. “That’s the story I got.”
“Are you a policeman?”
“No. Just a regular guy.”
“What do you want from Arthur Scorpio?”
“I want to ask him a question.”
“You should proceed with great caution. Mr. Scorpio has a reputation for hostility.”
“I’ll ask politely,” Reacher said.
There was a Rapid City street plan in the front of the Yellow Pages. The old lady tore it out, very carefully, and she marked where the motel was, and where Scorpio’s laundromat was. She folded the page in quarters and gave it to Reacher. For the morning, no doubt she assumed, but he went straight there. Nearly ten o’clock in the evening. He walked long pitch-dark blocks, checking the old lady’s map wherever he found a bulb that worked, and then up ahead he saw the glow of neon. A late-night convenience store, on a corner. According to the old lady’s map, Scorpio’s laundromat was across the street and halfway down the block.
Reacher found it right where it should be. Just beyond a dead tree. It was in the middle of the block, in the center unit of a larger structure that ran from corner to corner. It was currently closed for business. The lights were off. The door was locked, and it had a padlocked chain wrapped through the handles. The door was glass, with a wider window next to it. Inside was gloom, with a row of stacked machines on one wall, ghostly white and bulky, and a row of plastic lawn chairs on the other, below dispensers for change and soap and fabric conditioner and dryer sheets. Everything seemed to cost a dollar.
Across the street was the lit-up convenience store way on the left, and then a shoe outlet, and then a couple of empty units dead ahead, and then a little right of center was a breakfast place. A real greasy spoon. Its front window was small, but its line of sight would be good. Its food too, probably. And its coffee. Reacher made a mental note.
Then he walked around the block, and located the laundromat’s rear door, in an alley. It was a blank fireproof slab, made of metal. A standard industrial product. Nothing special. A zoning requirement, maybe, or insurance. It was locked.
He walked back. He paced out the depth of the building, from the alley to the street. Too much. It was about twice the depth he could see through the laundromat’s window. Which meant there was another room in back, about equal in size. A storeroom, maybe, or offices. Where business was done, that gave rise to gossip.
He stood in the dark a minute more, and then headed back the way he had come. On the opposite corner he stopped in at the convenience store. He figured a cup of coffee would be a good idea. Maybe a sandwich. He was hungry. There was another guy in there on the same mission. He was standing at the deli counter sipping from a go-cup. He was a small man, neat and compact, in a dark suit and a necktie. Apparently he had ordered an elaborate construction involving a fried egg and a large quantity of grated cheese. Clearly not worried about cholesterol. The counterman finished his work and wrapped the sloppy result first in paper, and then in aluminum foil. He handed it over and the guy in the suit turned and stepped around Reacher and headed for the door.
Reacher ordered his go-to, which was roast beef and Swiss cheese, with mayo and mustard, on white bread. Plus coffee. The counterman turned away and spun up the slicing machine. Reacher asked him, “What do you know about the laundromat down the block?”
The guy turned back. The blade hissed and sung behind him. He looked puzzled at first, and then a little hostile, as if he suspected someone was making fun of him. Then he looked preoccupied, as if he was struggling with a difficult arithmetic calculation, and coming out with an answer he liked but didn’t trust.
He said, “That’s what the other guy just asked.”
Reacher said, “The guy with the fried egg sandwich?”
“But what does that kind of guy need with a laundromat? The suits go to the dry cleaner, and the shirts get starched for a buck and a half. Am I right?”
“I’ll be back in a second,” Reacher said.
He stepped to the door, and out to the sidewalk.
No sign of the guy in the suit and the tie.
No echo of lonely nighttime footsteps.
Reacher came back in and stepped back to the counter, and the guy making his sandwich said, “He would need to wash his underwear, maybe. And socks. But all the hotels have laundry bags in the closet. A guy like that wouldn’t sit and watch the soap suds go around and around.”
“You think he’s staying in a hotel?”
“He’s not local. Did you get a look at him? He’s some kind of a professional person. I would say a lawyer, in town to try a big case, but he didn’t look rich enough. So now I’m thinking IRS or something. A government worker. And then you asked the same question. About the laundromat. I don’t think you’re IRS, but you could be a cop. So now I’m thinking Arthur Scorpio has got trouble coming.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“Whether it works. Mr. Scorpio has been in trouble before. Nothing ever sticks.”
The next morning Reacher left his not-free room just as the sun was coming up. He retraced his steps from the night before, until the last couple of blocks, which he looped around at a distance, until he was beyond them. Then he doubled back, toward Scorpio’s alley from the far side, and he peeked in.
There was a sentry posted at the laundromat’s rear door. Leaning on the wall, arms folded, short black coat, black sweater, black pants and shoes. Maybe forty years old, maybe six-two, maybe two-ten.
Reacher backed away, and looped around again at the same distance he had used before, two blocks over, two blocks down, so he could approach the breakfast place unseen, from the rear. He figured it would have an alley of its own behind it. Like Scorpio’s place. A necessary amenity. Greasy spoons generated a lot of trash. Eggshells, coffee grounds, packaging, leftovers. Drums of used grease. And where there was an alley would be a kitchen door. It would be open. Almost certainly a legal requirement. This door must remain unlocked during business hours. To act as a fire escape for the cook. Another necessary amenity. Greasy spoon kitchens burned like napalm.
Reacher found the alley. Found the door. He went in through the kitchen. Into the dining room. He focused on the window, and stepped left for a better view.
There was a second sentry at the laundromat’s front door. Same kind of guy. Same kind of pose. Leaning on the wall, impassive, dressed in black.
Arthur Scorpio was taking precautions.
There’s something out there.
Reacher looked away, and looked around the room. And saw the guy he had seen the night before. In the convenience store. In the dark suit and the necktie. He was at the table under the window, looking out.
Detective Gloria Nakamura repeated her routine from the previous day. Up before dawn, showered, dressed, breakfasted, and out the door a whole hour early. To work, but not yet. She parked where she had before, and turned in on Scorpio’s street, and felt the guy at the laundromat door watching her all the way. She walked to the breakfast place and went in.
Her table was taken. Again. By the same guy as the day before. Bramall, Terrence, private investigator, Chicago. The same dark suit, a fresh shirt, a different tie.
And standing in the middle of the room was Bigfoot.
No doubt about it. The guy was huge. Not quite seven feet, but close. Almost to the ceiling. And he was wide. From shoulder to shoulder he looked like four basketballs in a rack in her high school gym. He had fists like Thanksgiving turkeys. He was wearing canvas work pants and a huge black T shirt. His forearms were battered and sculpted. His hair was a mess. Like he had toweled it dry but not combed it. Like he didn’t even own a comb. He hadn’t shaved in days. His face was all bone and stubble. His eyes were pale blue, like her car, and he was looking straight at her.
Reacher saw a petite Asian woman, wearing a black skirt suit like a uniform. Five feet nothing, maybe ninety-five pounds soaking wet. Maybe thirty years old. Long black hair, big dark eyes, cute as a button. But no smile. A severe expression instead, as if she was in charge of something important. As if looking severe was the only way to stay in charge of it. Which was possibly true, when you were starting out from five feet nothing and ninety-five pounds. But whatever, she certainly wasn’t shy. She was looking straight back at him, openly, examining him, top to bottom and side to side. With some kind of dawning recognition in her eyes. Which he didn’t understand. Not at first. He was pretty sure he had never seen her before. He felt he would remember. Then he figured Jimmy Rat would have included a description. In the cover-your-ass phone call he must have made. A big guy in a black T shirt is coming. Maybe the Asian woman worked for Arthur Scorpio. Maybe she had been briefed about the emergency.
Or maybe she was just an office worker, grumpy about her early start.
He looked away.
The guy in the necktie was still staring out the window. His expression was patient and contained. And equable. He looked like the type of guy who would give a polite answer to a reasonable question. But maybe only as a professional veneer. As if he held a place in a hierarchy where old-fashioned courtesy oiled the wheels. He reminded Reacher of army colonels he had known. Squared away, buttoned up, a little gray and dusty, but driven by some kind of quiet internal vigor and confidence.
Reacher took a table against the wall, at a distance, where he could see out the window over the other guy’s head. Nothing was happening out there. The sentry was still leaning on the laundromat wall. Not moving. The lights were on inside. There were no customers yet.
A waitress came by and Reacher ordered his go-to breakfast, which was coffee plus a short stack of pancakes with eggs, bacon and maple syrup. The coffee arrived first. Black, fresh, hot and strong. Pretty good.
The Asian woman sat down at his table.
She took a small vinyl wallet from her purse. She opened it up and held it out for inspection. On the left was a gold-colored shield. On the right was a photo ID behind a plastic window. It said Nakamura, Gloria, Detective, Rapid City Police Department. It had a picture of her face. Dark eyes, a severe expression.
She said, “Were you in Wisconsin yesterday?”
Which told Reacher that Jimmy Rat had indeed made a phone call. And that the Rapid City PD was tapping Scorpio’s line. Which meant there was an active and ongoing investigation. Probably the typed transcript of Jimmy Rat’s call was already the new top sheet in the three-inch file.
But out loud he said, “Are you entitled to ask that question, even as a cop? I have the right to privacy, and the right to go where I want. It’s a First Amendment thing. And a Fourth.”
“Are you declining to answer my question?”
“No choice, I’m afraid. I was in the army. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. Can’t stop now.”
“What’s your name?”
“Reacher. First name Jack. No middle initial.”
“What did you do in the army, Mr. Reacher?”
“I was a military cop. A detective, just like you.”
“And now you’re a private investigator?”
She glanced at the guy in the necktie as she said it.
Reacher asked her, “Is that guy a private investigator?”
She said, “I decline to answer your question.”
He said, “I’m not a private investigator. Just a private citizen. What did you hear from Wisconsin?”
“I’m not sure I should tell you.”
“Cop to cop. Because that’s what we are.”
“If you want to be.”
She put her ID wallet back in her purse and took out her phone. She swiped through to a section with audio recordings. She chose one and touched an on-screen symbol. Reacher heard a plastic and distorted version of barroom noise, and then Jimmy Rat’s voice. He recognized it right away. It sounded fast and nervous. It said, “Arthur, this is Jimmy. I just had a guy inquiring about an item I got from you. He seems set on working his way along the chain of supply. I didn’t tell him anything, but he already found me somehow, so what I’m thinking is maybe he’ll somehow find you too.”
Nakamura touched the pause symbol.
Reacher said, “Why would that be me?”
She pressed play again.
Jimmy Rat said, “If he does, take him seriously. That’s my advice. This guy is like Bigfoot come out of the forest. Heads up, OK?”
Nakamura pressed stop.
“Bigfoot?” Reacher said. “That’s not very nice.”
She said, “What item?”
“Does it matter? All I want to do is ask Scorpio a question. Then I’ll be gone.”
“Suppose he doesn’t answer?”
“Jimmy in Wisconsin did.”
“Scorpio has protection.”
“So did Jimmy in Wisconsin.”
“What item?” Nakamura said again.
Reacher dug in his pocket and came out with the ring. West Point 2005. The gold filigree, the black stone, the tiny size. He put it on the table. Nakamura picked it up. She tried it on. Third finger, right hand. It fit easily. Even loosely. But then, she was five feet nothing and weighed ninety-five pounds. Her fingers were about as thin as pencils.
She took the ring off again. She weighed it in her palm. She looked at the inside, at the engraving. She asked, “Who is S.R.S.?”
“I don’t know,” Reacher said.
“So what’s the story?”
“I found it in a pawn shop in a small town in Wisconsin. It’s not the kind of thing you would give up easily. This woman suffered four hard years to get it. Every day they tried to break her and make her quit. That’s how West Point works. And 9/11 had just happened. Those were serious years. And what came afterward was worse. Iraq, and Afghanistan. She might have sold her car, or the watch she got from her aunt for Christmas, but she wouldn’t have sold her ring.”
“Does this guy Jimmy own the pawn shop?”
Reacher shook his head. “He’s a local biker. Goes by the name Jimmy Rat. He wholesaled the ring along with a bunch of other trinkets. He told me he got it from Arthur Scorpio, here in Rapid City. So now I want to know who Arthur Scorpio got it from. That’s the only question I want to ask him.”
“He won’t tell you.”
“That’s what the guy in the pawn shop said about Jimmy Rat.”
Nakamura didn’t reply. Nothing was happening out the window. The waitress came back with Reacher’s meal. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, maple syrup. It looked good. He asked for more coffee. Nakamura ordered hot tea and a bran muffin.
Reacher put the ring back in his pocket.
The guy in the necktie got up and left.
Still nothing happening out the window.
Reacher asked, “What kind of private investigator is he?”
Nakamura said, “I didn’t say he was.”
“I told you stuff. Now you can tell me stuff.”
The waitress brought Nakamura’s muffin. It was about as big as her head. She broke off a pea-sized crumb and ate it.
She said, “He’s from Chicago. His name is Terry Bramall. He’s retired FBI. He finds missing persons.”
“Who is he looking for here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is Scorpio a kidnapper too?”
“We don’t think so.”
“Yet Mr. Bramall from Chicago is watching his place. Not just this morning. He was in the neighborhood last night. I saw him in the convenience store.”
“You got in last night?”
Reacher nodded. “Pretty late.”
“You came straight here from Wisconsin. This is important to you.”
“I could have gotten here sooner. I took a nap in Sioux Falls.”
“Exactly how did you get Arthur Scorpio’s name from Jimmy Rat?”
“I asked him nicely.”
She didn’t reply. He carried on eating his breakfast. She sipped her tea. There was a long silence.
Then she said, “Arthur Scorpio is not well liked within the police department.”
“Understood,” Reacher said.
“Nevertheless I am officially required to warn you against committing any kind of crime inside our jurisdiction.”
“Don’t worry,” Reacher said. “All I’m going to do is ask him a question. No law against that.”
“What if he doesn’t answer?”
“I suppose that’s always a theoretical possibility,” Reacher said.
She took a business card from her purse. She put it on the table, near his coffee cup. She said, “Those are my numbers. Office and cell. Call me if you need to talk. Scorpio is a dangerous man. Never forget that.”
She put five bucks on the table. For her tea and her muffin. Then she got up and left. Out the door, along the sidewalk, and out of sight.
Still nothing happening out the window.
She had left her muffin. Whole and untouched, apart from the pea-sized crumb she had eaten. So Reacher ate the rest of it, with another mug of coffee. Then he called for his check, and asked for quarters in his change. He stopped in the restroom corridor, where there was a pay phone on the wall. Just like there was in the bar in Wisconsin. Which was where Jimmy Rat had made his call to Arthur Scorpio. The background noise proved it. Reacher had seen the guy loop around the line of bikes, to the rear of the building, where he must have gone in the back door, where he must have seen the phone on the wall, where he must have decided upon an immediate warning. Right there and then. While Reacher was still outside, still talking to the county cop.
Some kind of urgency.
Reacher leaned on the wall, where he could still watch the front window, and he dialed the same ancient number from memory.
The same woman answered.
“West Point,” she said. “Superintendent’s office. How may I help you?”
“This is Reacher,” he said.
“Wait one, major.”
She knew his rank. She had read his file. There was a click, and a long silence, and then another click, and a man’s voice said, “This is the supe.”
The superintendent. The big boss. What any other college would call the president.
Reacher said, “Good morning, general,” politely but vaguely, because he didn’t know the guy’s name. He didn’t keep up with alumni affairs. But the supe was always a general. Usually smart and accomplished, sometimes progressive, never a pushover.
The guy said, “Your inquiry yesterday was most irregular.”
“Yes, sir,” Reacher said, purely out of habit. In such situations there were only three permissible responses at West Point: Yes sir, no sir, no excuse sir.
The guy said, “I would like an explanation.”
So Reacher told the same story he had just gotten through telling Nakamura, about the pawn shop, and the ring, and his nagging sense of disquiet.
The supe said, “So this is about a ring.”
“It seemed significant.”
“Yesterday you implied the former cadet was in danger.”
“She might be.”
“But you don’t know for sure.”
“She pawned the ring, or sold it, or had it stolen. Any of which would suggest some kind of misfortune. I think we should find out.”
“She’s one of ours, general.”
The guy said, “I read your file. You did well. Not well enough to get a statue on campus, which you wouldn’t get anyway, mostly because of the corners you cut.”
“No excuse, sir,” Reacher said, purely out of habit.
“I have one obvious question. What are you doing now?”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s a long story, general. We shouldn’t take the time.”
“Major, I’m sure you understand that supplying personal details about current or former military personnel is strictly prohibited about nineteen different ways. The only possible chance it could happen would be a top-secret off-the-record whisper from one West Pointer to another. Purely as a courtesy. Exactly the kind of oak-paneled bullshit we’re always being accused of. Therefore naturally you and I face a question of mutual trust. Possibly less important to you than to me. You could put my mind at rest by letting me take your measure.”
Reacher was quiet a beat.
“I get uneasy,” he said. “I can’t stay in one place. I’m sure if you gave the VA enough time, they could come up with a name for it. Maybe I could get a check from the government.”
“It’s a medical condition?”
“Some would say.”
“Does it bother you?”
“Turns out I don’t want to stay in one place anyway.”
“How frequently do you move around?”
“Do you think that’s a fitting way for a West Pointer to live?”
“I think it’s perfectly fitting.”
“In what sense?”
“We fought for freedom. This is what freedom looks like.”
The guy said, “There are a hundred reasons for selling a ring. Or pawning it. Or losing it, or getting it stolen somehow. Not all the reasons are bad. This could be completely innocent.”
“Could be? That’s a little lukewarm, general. Sounds like you don’t know for sure. Even after reading her file. Which therefore can’t have reassured you completely. So now you’re hinting about a whisper. Because now you’re worried. I think deep down you want to tell me her name. So let me guess. She took off the green suit and now she’s under the radar.”
“Three years ago.”
“Five hard tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“Unpleasant things, I imagine.”
“Is she small?”
“Like a bird.”
“That’s her,” Reacher said. “Now it’s decision time, general. What are you going to do?”
The supe didn’t answer.
Out the window Reacher saw a black sedan slow up. It stopped on the curb across the street. Outside the laundromat. The driver’s door opened. A guy climbed out. He was tall and bony. Maybe fifty years old. He had gray hair cut short. He was wearing a black suit with a white shirt buttoned to the neck, but without a tie. He stood on the sidewalk for a second, and looked a question at the sentry at the door. Who shook his head, as if to say, No trouble, boss.
Who nodded back at the sentry, and then stepped past him, in through the door.
The sentry stepped across the sidewalk in the other direction and got in Scorpio’s car. He drove it away. To park it, presumably. On a side street, or in the alley. Maybe a five-minute absence. The first of two such absences, presumably. He would go retrieve the car at close of business. Two five-minute windows every day.
Good to know.
In Reacher’s ear the West Point supe said, “She might not want to be found. Did you consider that? No one comes back whole. Not from five tours.”
“I’m not trying to sell her a timeshare in Mexico. If she looks OK from a distance I’ll walk away and leave her alone.”
“How will you even find her? She’s under the radar. Will her name even help?”
“It won’t hurt,” Reacher said. “Especially not at the end. I’ll follow the ring until I find someone who heard of her.”
The supe said, “Her name is Serena Rose Sanderson.”
Out the window the front sentry walked back into view, after parking Scorpio’s car. He resumed his position, leaning on the wall to the left of the laundromat door, arms folded, impassive.
He had been gone just over five minutes.
Still no customers inside.
Into the phone Reacher said, “Where is Serena Rose Sanderson from?”
“As a cadet her home state was listed as Wyoming,” the supe said. “That’s all we’ve got. You think she went back there?”
“Depends,” Reacher said. “For some people, home is the first place they go. For others, it’s the last. What was she like?”
“She was before my time,” the supe said. “But her file is very solid. She was pretty close to outstanding, without ever quite getting there. Never in the top five, always in the top ten. That kind of person. She branched infantry, which was considered a smart choice for a woman, back in ’05. She knew she wouldn’t see combat, but she guessed the chaos would push her pretty damn near to it. Which I’m sure is what happened. Close support units were always busy. A lot of driving for resupply, which meant a lot of roadside IEDs. Plus vehicle recovery, which would have exposed her out in the open. Off post she would have been armed at all times. I’m sure she was in firefights. Those units took plenty of casualties, same as anyone else. She has a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. So she was wounded herself at some point.”
“Terminal at major,” the guy said. “Like you. On her last tour she was doing a pretty big job. She led her soldiers well. On paper she’s a credit to the school.”
“OK,” Reacher said. “Thank you, general.”
“So proceed, but with caution.”
“I read your file,” the guy said again. “If you tilt it right and hold it in a sunbeam you can see the invisible writing. You were effective, but reckless.”
“You know you were. You got away with things time after time.”
“One damn thing after another. But you always came up smelling of roses.”
“Then draw the appropriate conclusion, general. I wasn’t reckless. I was relying on methods I knew had worked before, and would likely work again. I felt I was the opposite of reckless. There’s a clue in the word. Reck comes from reckon, and I felt I did more reckoning than most folks. Not less.”
“Call me back,” the guy said. “Let me know about Sanderson.”
For the second day running Gloria Nakamura was early to work. She parked her car and walked up the stairs. The mother hen at the gate to the detectives’ pen told her the lieutenant wanted to see her. First thing. Urgent but not critical. The mother hen said his voice on the phone had sounded OK. Not particularly angry.
Nakamura dropped her bag at her desk and headed off down the corridor. The lieutenant’s office was a corner suite at the far end of the floor. He was a cancer survivor, worn down to nothing but lacy bone and sinew, but lit up through his papery skin by some kind of crazed internal energy. He had gotten some bonus years, and he was going to slap the shit out of them. He was going to get big things done. Privately Nakamura felt his brush with death had produced an epiphany. He was afraid of being forgotten.
He was at his desk, reading email.
He said, “You sent me a thing about Arthur Scorpio.”
She said, “The voicemail from Wisconsin. Yes, boss. There have been developments.”
“Has Bigfoot arrived?”
“Yes, boss, I believe he has. But first there was a private eye from Chicago.”
“What did he want?”
“He wouldn’t say. But I checked him out. He’s a missing persons specialist. Very expensive.”
“About a million people nationwide.”
“Any reason to believe one of them is washing his shorts in Scorpio’s place?”
“There’s nothing on the wires.”
“Tell me about Bigfoot.”
“He’s a military veteran named Reacher. He found a West Point class ring in a pawn shop and he’s tracing its provenance.”
“Like a hobby?”
“No, like a matter of military honor. Like a moral obligation. Verging on the sentimental, in my opinion.”
“How is Scorpio involved?”
“The likelihood is the ring was stolen property fenced by Scorpio to a Wisconsin biker named Jimmy Rat, who then sold it onward to the pawn shop, where Bigfoot found it. Bigfoot says the pawn shop owner told him Jimmy Rat’s name, who told him Arthur Scorpio’s name. Now he wants Scorpio to name the next name. Whoever he got the ring from. And so on, all the way down the line. Bigfoot wants to return the ring to its rightful owner. That’s my assessment.”
“Scorpio won’t tell him shit.”
“I think he might. I’m not sure Bigfoot was telling the whole truth about what happened in Wisconsin. I don’t think a biker with a lucrative trade in stolen property would tell anyone anything. Least of all the name of a supplier. Not voluntarily. You should listen to the audio. Jimmy Rat sounds scared.”
“I saw him, boss. You could put him in a zoo.”
“You think Scorpio will be scared too?”
“Either way I think a serious crime is about to be committed. Either Bigfoot will squeeze too hard, or Scorpio will push back too hard.”
Then she waited.
The lieutenant said, “I think we should get the surveillance going again.”
She said, “Yes, boss,” and breathed out.
“Just you. Eyes on at all times. Nothing subtle. Get right up in his grill.”
“I might need back up. I might need to intervene.”
“No,” the guy said. “Don’t intervene. Let nature take its course. It’s a win-win. If Scorpio hurts the guy, that’s great, because then we’ve got something on him at last. We’ve got you as an actual eyewitness to a felony assault. On the other hand, if the guy hurts Scorpio, that’s good news anyway. The worse the better. Plus you could always arrest the guy afterward. If you wanted to. For a felony assault of his own. If you need to boost your quarterly numbers, I mean.”
Reacher left the breakfast place through the kitchen door and slipped away through the alley. He didn’t want the front sentry to see him. Not yet. The Bigfoot description would leave the guy in no doubt. Word would pass instantly to Scorpio inside. Better not to get them too excited too soon.
So he skirted around at a safe radius, and then headed downtown, and started looking for better hotels than his own. The kind of place a retired-FBI gumshoe might choose. No fleapits, but nothing fancy, either. Probably a mid-market national chain. The guy probably had a loyalty card.
Reacher found four possibilities. At the first he went in and asked the clerk for a guest named Terrence Bramall, small guy, neat, in a suit and tie. If he was in a car, it might have Illinois plates. The woman pattered at her keyboard and stared at her screen, and then she said she was sorry, but currently the hotel had no guests with that name.
At the second possibility Reacher was told Terrence Bramall had checked out just thirty minutes before.
Or maybe even less, the clerk said. Maybe only twenty. She call