The sixth book in the Jack Reacher series
This one is for
my brother Richard in Gloucester, England;
my brother David in Brecon, Wales;
my brother Andrew in Sheffield, England;
and my friend Jack Hutcheson in Penicuik, Scotland.
They found out about him in July and stayed angry all through August. They tried to kill him in September. It was way too soon. They weren’t ready. The attempt was a failure. It could have been a disaster, but it was actually a miracle. Because nobody noticed.
They used their usual method to get past security and set up a hundred feet from where he was speaking. They used a silencer and missed him by an inch. The bullet must have passed right over his head. Maybe even through his hair, because he immediately raised his hand and patted it back into place as if a gust of wind had disturbed it. They saw it over and over again, afterward, on television. He raised his hand and patted his hair. He did nothing else. He just kept on with his speech, unaware, because by definition a silenced bullet is too fast to see and too quiet to hear. So it missed him and flew on. It missed everybody standing behind him. It struck no obstacles, hit no buildings. It flew on straight and true until its energy was spent and gravity hauled it to earth in the far distance where there was nothing except empty grassland. There was no response. No reaction. Nobody noticed. It was like the bullet had never been fired at all. They didn’t fire again. They were too shaken up.
So, a failure, but a miracle. And a lesson. They spent October acting like the professionals they were, starting over, calming down, thinking, learning, preparing for their second attempt. It would be a better attempt, carefully planned and properly executed, built around technique and nuance and sophistication, and enhanced by unholy fear. A worthy attempt. A creative attempt. Above all, an attempt that wouldn’t fail.
Then November came, and the rules changed completely.
Reacher’s cup was empty but still warm. He lifted it off the saucer and tilted it and watched the sludge in the bottom flow toward him, slow and brown, like river silt.
“When does it need to be done?” he asked.
“As soon as possible,” she said.
He nodded. Slid out of the booth and stood up.
“I’ll call you in ten days,” he said.
“With a decision?”
He shook his head. “To tell you how it went.”
“I’ll know how it went.”
“OK, to tell you where to send my money.”
She closed her eyes and smiled. He glanced down at her.
“You thought I’d refuse?” he said.
She opened her eyes. “I thought you might be a little harder to persuade.”
He shrugged. “Like Joe told you, I’m a sucker for a challenge. Joe was usually right about things like that. He was usually right about a lot of things.”
“Now I don’t know what to say, except thank you.”
He didn’t reply. Just started to move away, but she stood up right next to him and kept him where he was. There was an awkward pause. They stood for a second face-to-face, trapped by the table. She put out her hand and he shook it. She held on a fraction too long, and then she stretched up tall and kissed him on the cheek. Her lips were soft. Their touch burned him like a tiny voltage.
“A handshake isn’t enough,” she said. “You’re going to do it for us.” Then she paused. “And you were nearly my brother-in-law.”
He said nothing. Just nodded and shuffled out from behind the table and glanced back once. Then he headed up the stairs and out to the street. Her perfume was on his hand. He walked around to the cabaret lounge and left a note for his friends in their dressing room. Then he headed out to the highway, with ten whole days to find a way to kill the fourth-best-protected person on the planet.
It had started eight hours earlier, like this: team leader M. E. Froelich came to work on that Monday morning, thirteen days after the election, an hour before the second strategy meeting, seven days after the word assassination had first been used, and made her final decision. She set off in search of her immediate superior and found him in the secretarial pen outside his office, clearly on his way to somewhere else, clearly in a hurry. He had a file under his arm and a definite stay back expression on his face. But she took a deep breath and made it clear that she needed to talk right then. Urgently. And off the record and in private, obviously. So he paused a moment and turned abruptly and went back inside his office. He let her step in after him and closed the door behind her, softly enough to make the unscheduled meeting feel a little conspiratorial, but firmly enough that she was in no doubt he was annoyed about the interruption to his routine. It was just the click of a door latch, but it was also an unmistakable message, parsed exactly in the language of office hierarchies everywhere: you better not be wasting my time with this.
He was a twenty-five-year veteran well into his final lap before retirement, well into his middle fifties, the last echo of the old days. He was still tall, still fairly lean and athletic, but graying fast and softening in some of the wrong places. His name was Stuyvesant. Like the last Director-General of New Amsterdam, he would say when the spelling was questioned. Then, acknowledging the modern world, he would say: like the cigarette. He wore Brooks Brothers every day of his life without exception, but he was considered capable of flexibility in his tactics. Best of all, he had never failed. Not ever, and he had been around a long time, with more than his fair share of difficulties. But there had been no failures, and no bad luck, either. Therefore, in the merciless calculus of organizations everywhere, he was considered a good guy to work for.
“You look a little nervous,” he said.
“I am, a little,” Froelich said back.
His office was small, and quiet, and sparsely furnished, and very clean. The walls were painted bright white and lit with halogen. There was a window, with white vertical blinds half closed against gray weather outside.
“Why are you nervous?” he asked.
“I need to ask your permission.”
“For something I want to try,” she said. She was twenty years younger than Stuyvesant, exactly thirty-five. Tall rather than short, but not excessively. Maybe only an inch or two over the average for American women of her generation, but the kind of intelligence and energy and vitality she radiated took the word medium right out of the equation. She was halfway between lithe and muscular, with a bright glow in her skin and her eyes that made her look like an athlete. Her hair was short and fair and casually unkempt. She gave the impression of having hurriedly stepped into her street clothes after showering quickly after winning a gold medal at the Olympics by playing a crucial role in some kind of team sport. Like it was no big deal, like she wanted to get out of the stadium before the television interviewers got through with her teammates and started in on her. She looked like a very competent person, but a very modest one.
“What kind of something?” Stuyvesant asked. He turned and placed the file he was carrying on his desk. His desk was large, topped with a slab of gray composite. High-end modern office furniture, obsessively cleaned and polished like an antique. He was famous for always keeping his desktop clear of paperwork and completely empty. The habit created an air of extreme efficiency.
“I want an outsider to do it,” Froelich said.
Stuyvesant squared the file on the desk corner and ran his fingers along the spine and the adjacent edge, like he was checking the angle was exact.
“You think that’s a good idea?” he asked.
Froelich said nothing.
“I suppose you’ve got somebody in mind?” he asked.
“An excellent prospect.”
Froelich shook her head.
“You should stay outside the loop,” she said. “Better that way.”
“Was he recommended?”
Stuyvesant nodded again. The modern world.
“Was the person you have in mind recommended?”
“Yes, by an excellent source.”
“Yes,” Froelich said again.
“So we’re already in the loop.”
“No, the source isn’t in-house anymore.”
Stuyvesant turned again and moved his file parallel to the long edge of the desk. Then back again parallel with the short edge.
“Let me play devil’s advocate,” he said. “I promoted you four months ago. Four months is a long time. Choosing to bring in an outsider now might be seen to betray a certain lack of self-confidence, mightn’t it? Wouldn’t you say?”
“I can’t worry about that.”
“Maybe you should,” Stuyvesant said. “This could hurt you. There were six guys who wanted your job. So if you do this and it leaks, then you’ve got real problems. You’ve got half a dozen vultures muttering told you so the whole rest of your career. Because you started second-guessing your own abilities.”
“Thing like this, I need to second-guess myself. I think.”
“No, I know. I don’t see an alternative.”
Stuyvesant said nothing.
“I’m not happy about it,” Froelich said. “Believe me. But I think it’s got to be done. And that’s my judgment call.”
The office went quiet. Stuyvesant said nothing.
“So will you authorize it?” Froelich asked.
Stuyvesant shrugged. “You shouldn’t be asking. You should have just gone ahead and done it regardless.”
“Not my way,” Froelich said.
“So don’t tell anybody else. And don’t put anything on paper.”
“I wouldn’t anyway. It would compromise effectiveness.”
Stuyvesant nodded vaguely. Then, like the good bureaucrat he had become, he arrived at the most important question of all.
“How much would this person cost?” he asked.
“Not much,” Froelich said. “Maybe nothing at all. Maybe expenses only. We’ve got some history together. Theoretically. Of a sort.”
“This could stall your career. No more promotions.”
“The alternative would finish my career.”
“You were my choice,” Stuyvesant said. “I picked you. Therefore anything that damages you damages me, too.”
“I understand that, sir.”
“So take a deep breath and count to ten. Then tell me that it’s really necessary.”
Froelich nodded, and took a breath and kept quiet, ten or eleven seconds.
“It’s really necessary,” she said.
Stuyvesant picked up his file.
“OK, do it,” he said.
She started immediately after the strategy meeting, suddenly aware that doing it was the hard part. Asking for permission had seemed like such a hurdle that she had characterized it in her mind as the most difficult stage of the whole project. But now that felt like nothing at all compared with actually hunting down her target. All she had was a last name and a sketchy biography that might or might not have been accurate and up to date eight years ago. If she even remembered the details correctly. They had been mentioned casually, playfully, late one night, by her lover, part of some drowsy pillow talk. She couldn’t even be sure she had been paying full attention. So she decided not to rely on the details. She would rely solely on the name itself.
She wrote it in large capital letters at the top of a sheet of yellow paper. It brought back a lot of memories. Some bad, most good. She stared at it for a long moment, and then she crossed it out and wrote UNSUB instead. That would help her concentration, because it made the whole thing impersonal. It put her mind in a groove, took her right back to basic training. An unknown subject was somebody to be identified and located. That was all, nothing more and nothing less.
Her main operational advantage was computer power. She had more access to more databases than the average citizen gets. UNSUB was military, she knew that for sure, so she went to the National Personnel Records Center’s database. It was compiled in St. Louis, Missouri, and listed literally every man or woman who had served in a U.S. military uniform, anywhere, ever. She typed in the last name and waited and the inquiry software came back with just three short responses. One she eliminated immediately, by given name. I know for sure it’s not him, don’t I? Another she eliminated by date of birth. A whole generation too old. So the third had to be UNSUB. No other possibility. She stared at the full name for a second and copied the date of birth and the Social Security number onto her yellow paper. Then she hit the icon for details and entered her password. The screen redrew and came up with an abbreviated career summary.
Bad news. UNSUB wasn’t military anymore. The career summary dead-ended five whole years ago with an honorable discharge after thirteen years of service. Final rank was major. There were medals listed, including a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. She read the citations and wrote down the details and drew a line across the yellow paper to signify the end of one era and the start of another. Then she plowed on.
Next logical step was to look at Social Security’s Master Death Index. Basic training. No point trying to chase down somebody who was already dead. She entered the number and realized she was holding her breath. But the inquiry came back blank. UNSUB was still alive, as far as the government knew. Next step was to check in with the National Crime Information Center. Basic training again. No point trying to sign up somebody who was serving time in prison, for instance, not that she thought it was remotely likely, not in UNSUB’s case. But you never knew. There was a fine line, with some personality types. The NCIC database was always slow, so she shoved drifts of accumulated paperwork into drawers and then left her desk and refilled her coffee cup. Strolled back to find a negative arrest-or-conviction record waiting on her screen. Plus a short note to say UNSUB had an FBI file somewhere in their records. Interesting. She closed NCIC and went straight to the FBI’s database. She found the file and couldn’t open it. But she knew enough about the Bureau’s classification system to be able to decode the header flags. It was a simple narrative file, inactive. Nothing more. UNSUB wasn’t a fugitive, wasn’t wanted for anything, wasn’t currently in trouble.
She wrote it all down, and then clicked her way into the nationwide DMV database. Bad news again. UNSUB didn’t have a driver’s license. Which was very weird. And which was a very big pain in the butt. Because no driver’s license meant no current photograph and no current address listing. She clicked her way into the Veterans’Administration computer in Chicago. Searched by name, rank, and number. The inquiries came up blank. UNSUB wasn’t receiving federal benefits and hadn’t offered a forwarding address. Why not? Where the hell are you? She went back into Social Security and asked for contributions records. There weren’t any. UNSUB hadn’t been employed since leaving the military, at least not legally. She tried the IRS for confirmation. Same story. UNSUB hadn’t paid taxes in five years. Hadn’t even filed.
OK, so let’s get serious. She hitched straighter in her chair and quit the government sites and fired up some illicit software that took her straight into the banking industry’s private world. Strictly speaking she shouldn’t be using it for this purpose. Or for any purpose. It was an obvious breach of official protocol. But she didn’t expect to get any comeback. And she did expect to get a result. If UNSUB had even a single bank account anywhere in the fifty states, it would show up. Even a humble little checking account. Even an empty or abandoned account. Plenty of people got by without bank accounts, she knew that, but she felt in her gut UNSUB wouldn’t be one of them. Not somebody who had been a U.S. Army major. With medals.
She entered the Social Security number twice, once in the SSN field and once in the taxpayer ID field. She entered the name. She hit search.
One hundred and eighty miles away, Jack Reacher shivered. Atlantic City in the middle of November wasn’t the warmest spot on earth. Not by any measure. The wind came in off the ocean carrying enough salt to keep everything permanently damp and clammy. It whipped and gusted and blew trash around and flattened his pants against his legs. Five days ago he had been in Los Angeles, and he was pretty sure he should have stayed there. Now he was pretty sure he should go back. Southern California was a very attractive place in November. The air was warm down there, and the ocean breezes were soft balmy caresses instead of endless lashing fusillades of stinging salt cold. He should go back there. He should go somewhere, that was for damn sure.
Or maybe he should stick around like he’d been asked to, and buy a coat.
He had come back east with an old black woman and her brother. He had been hitching rides east out of L.A. in order to take a one-day look at the Mojave Desert. The old couple had picked him up in an ancient Buick Roadmaster. He saw a microphone and a primitive PA system and a boxed Yamaha keyboard among the suitcases in the load space and the old lady told him she was a singer heading for a short residency all the way over in Atlantic City. Told him her brother accompanied her on the keyboard and drove the car, but he wasn’t much of a talker anymore, and he wasn’t much of a driver anymore, and the Roadmaster wasn’t much of a car anymore. It was all true. The old guy was completely silent and they were all in mortal danger several times inside the first five miles. The old lady started singing to calm herself. She gave it a few bars of Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me” and Reacher immediately decided to go all the way east with her just to hear more. He offered to take over the driving chores. She kept on singing. She had the kind of sweet smoky voice that should have made her a blues superstar long ago, except she was probably in the wrong place too many times and it had never happened for her. The old car had failed power steering to wrestle with and all kinds of ticks and rattles and whines under the hammer-heavy V-8 beat, and at about fifty miles an hour the noises all came together and sounded like a backing track. The radio was weak and picked up an endless succession of local AM stations for about twenty minutes each. The old woman sang along with them and the old guy kept completely quiet and slept most of the way on the backseat. Reacher drove eighteen hours a day for three solid days, and arrived in New Jersey feeling like he’d been on vacation.
The residency was at a fifth-rate lounge eight blocks from the boardwalk, and the manager wasn’t the kind of guy you would necessarily trust to respect a contract. So Reacher made it his business to count the customers and keep a running total of the cash that should show up in the pay envelope at the end of the week. He made it very obvious and watched the manager grow more and more resentful about it. The guy took to making short cryptic phone calls with his hand shielding the receiver and his eyes locked on Reacher’s face. Reacher looked straight back at him with a wintry smile and an unblinking gaze and stayed put. He sat through all three sets two weekend nights running, but then he started to get restless. And cold. The Mamas and the Papas were in his head: I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A. So on the Monday morning he was about to change his mind and get back on the road when the old keyboard player walked him back from breakfast and finally broke his silence.
“I want to ask you to stick around,” he said. He pronounced it wanna ax, and there was some kind of hope in the rheumy old eyes. Reacher didn’t answer.
“You don’t stick around, that manager’s going to stiff us for sure,” the old guy said, like getting stiffed for money was something that just happened to musicians, like flat tires and head colds. “But we get paid, we got gas money to head up to New York, maybe get us a gig from B. B. King in Times Square, resurrect our careers. Guy like you could make a big difference in that department, count on it.”
Reacher said nothing.
“Of course, I can see you being worried,” the old guy said. “Management like that, bound to be some unsavory characters lurking in the background.”
Reacher smiled at the subtlety.
“What are you, anyway?” the old guy asked. “Some kind of a boxer?”
“No,” Reacher said. “No kind of a boxer.”
“Wrestler?” the old guy asked. He said it wrassler. “Like on cable television?”
“You’re big enough, that’s for damn sure,” the old guy said. “Plenty big enough to help us out, if you wanted to.”
He said it he’p. No front teeth. Reacher said nothing.
“What are you, anyway?” the old guy asked again.
“I was a military cop,” Reacher said. “In the Army, thirteen years.”
“As near as makes no difference.”
“No jobs for you folks afterward?”
“None that I want,” Reacher said.
“You live in L.A.?”
“I don’t live anywhere,” Reacher said. “I move around.”
“So road folk should stick together,” the old guy said. “Simple as that. Help each other. Keep it a mutual thing.”
He’p each other.
“It’s very cold here,” Reacher said.
“That’s for damn sure,” the old guy said. “But you could buy a coat.”
So he was on a windswept corner with the sea gale flattening his pants against his legs, making a final decision. The highway, or a coat store? He ran a brief fantasy through his head, La Jolla maybe, a cheap room, warm nights, bright stars, cold beer. Then: the old woman at B. B. King’s new club in New York, some retro-obsessed young A amp;R man stops by, gives her a contract, she makes a CD, she gets a national tour, a sidebar in Rolling Stone, fame, money, a new house. A new car. He turned his back on the highway and hunched against the wind and walked east in search of a clothing store.
On that particular Monday there were nearly twelve thousand FDIC-insured banking organizations licensed and operating inside the United States and between them they carried over a thousand million separate accounts, but only one of them was listed against UNSUB’s name and Social Security number. It was a simple checking account held at a branch of a regional bank in Arlington, Virginia. M. E. Froelich stared at the branch’s business address in surprise. That’s less than four miles from where I’m sitting right now. She copied the details onto her yellow paper. Picked up her phone and called a senior colleague on the other side of the organization and asked him to contact the bank in question for all the details he could get. Especially a home address. She asked him to be absolutely as fast as possible, but discreet, too. And completely off the record. Then she hung up and waited, anxious and frustrated about being temporarily hands-off. Problem was, the other side of the organization could ask banks discreet questions quite easily, whereas for Froelich to do so herself would be regarded as very odd indeed.
Reacher found a discount store three blocks nearer the ocean and ducked inside. It was narrow but ran back into the building a couple of hundred feet. There were fluorescent tubes all over the ceiling and racks of garments stretching as far as the eye could see. Seemed to be women’s stuff on the left, children’s in the center, and men’s on the right. He started in the far back corner and worked forward.
There were all kinds of coats commercially available, that was for damn sure. The first two rails had short padded jackets. No good. He went by something an old Army buddy had told him: a good coat is like a good lawyer. It covers your ass. The third rail was more promising. It had neutral-colored thigh-length canvas coats made bulky by thick flannel linings. Maybe there was some wool in there. Maybe some other stuff, too. They certainly felt heavy enough.
“Can I help you?”
He turned around and saw a young woman standing right behind him.
“Are these coats good for the weather up here?” he asked.
“They’re perfect,” the woman said. She was very animated. She told him all about some kind of special stuff sprayed on the canvas to repel moisture. She told him all about the insulation inside. She promised it would keep him warm right down to a subzero temperature. He ran his hand down the rail and pulled out a dark olive XXL.
“OK, I’ll take this one,” he said.
“You don’t want to try it on?”
He paused and then shrugged into it. It fit pretty well. Nearly. Maybe it was a little tight across the shoulders. The sleeves were maybe an inch too short.
“You need the 3XLT,” the woman said. “What are you, a fifty?”
“A fifty what?”
“No idea. I never measured it.”
“Height about six-five?”
“I guess,” he said.
“Two-forty,” he said. “Maybe two-fifty.”
“So you definitely need the big-and-tall fitting,” she said. “Try the 3XLT.”
The 3XLT she handed him was the same dull color as the XXL he had picked. It fit much better. A little roomy, which he liked. And the sleeves were right.
“You OK for pants?” the woman called. She had ducked away to another rail and was flicking through heavy canvas work pants, glancing at his waist and the length of his legs. She came out with a pair that matched one of the colors in the flannel lining inside the coat. “And try these shirts,” she said. She jumped over to another rail and showed him a rainbow of flannel shirts. “Put a T-shirt underneath it and you’re all set. Which color do you like?”
“Something dull,” he said.
She laid everything out on top of one of the rails. The coat, the pants, the shirt, a T-shirt. They looked pretty good together, muddy olives and khakis.
“OK?” she said brightly.
“OK,” he said. “You got underwear too?”
“Over here,” she said.
He rooted through a bin of reject-quality boxers and selected a pair in white. Then a pair of socks, mostly cotton, flecked with all kinds of organic colors.
“OK?” the woman said again. He nodded and she led him to the register at the front of the store and bleeped all the tags under the little red light.
“One hundred and eighty-nine dollars even,” she said.
He stared at the red figures on the register’s display.
“I thought this was a discount store,” he said.
“That’s incredibly reasonable, really,” she said. He shook his head and dug into his pocket and came out with a wad of crumpled bills. Counted out a hundred and ninety. The dollar change she gave him left him with four bucks in his hand.
The senior colleague from the other side of the organization called Froelich back within twenty-five minutes.
“You get a home address?” she asked him.
“One hundred Washington Boulevard,” the guy said. “Arlington, Virginia. Zip code is 20310- 1500.”
Froelich wrote it down. “OK, thanks. I guess that’s all I need.”
“I think you might need a little more.”
“You know Washington Boulevard?”
Froelich paused. “Runs up to the Memorial Bridge, right?”
“It’s just a highway.”
“No buildings? Got to be buildings.”
“There is one building. Pretty big one. Couple hundred yards off the east shoulder.”
“The Pentagon,” the guy said. “This is a phony address, Froelich. One side of Washington Boulevard is Arlington Cemetery and the other side is the Pentagon. That’s it. Nothing else. There’s no number one hundred. There are no private mailing addresses at all. I checked with the Postal Service. And that zip code is the Department of the Army, inside the Pentagon.”
“Great,” Froelich said. “You tell the bank?”
“Of course not. You told me to be discreet.”
“Thanks. But I’m back at square one.”
“Maybe not. This is a bizarre account, Froelich. Six-figure balance, but it’s all just stuck in checking, earning nothing. And the customer accesses it via Western Union only. Never comes in. It’s a phone arrangement. Customer calls in with a password, the bank wires cash through Western Union, wherever.”
“No ATM card?”
“No cards at all. No checkbook was ever issued, either.”
“Western Union only? I never heard of that before. Are there any records?”
“Geographically, all over the place, literally. Forty states and counting in five years. Occasional deposits and plenty of nickel-and-dime withdrawals, all of them to Western Union offices in the boonies, in the cities, everywhere.”
“Like I said.”
“Anything you can do?”
“Already done it. They’re going to call me next time the customer calls them.”
“And then you’re going to call me?”
“Is there a frequency pattern?”
“It varies. Maximum interval recently has been a few weeks. Sometimes it’s every few days. Mondays are popular. Banks are closed on the weekend.”
“So I could get lucky today.”
“Sure you could,” the guy said. “Question is, am I going to get lucky too?”
“Not that lucky,” Froelich said.
The lounge manager watched Reacher step into his motel lobby. Then he ducked back into a windy side street and fired up his cell phone. Cupped his hand around it and spoke low and urgently, and convincingly, but respectfully, as was required.
“Because he’s dissing me,” he said, in answer to a question.
“Today would be good,” he said, in answer to another.
“Two at least,” he said, in answer to the final question. “This is a big guy.”
Reacher changed one of his four dollars for quarters at the motel desk and headed for the pay phone. Dialed his bank from memory and gave his password and arranged for five hundred bucks to be wired to Western Union in Atlantic City by close of business. Then he went to his room and bit off all the tags and put his new clothes on. Transferred all his pocket junk across and threw his summer gear in the trash and looked himself over in the long mirror behind the closet door. Grow a beard and get some sunglasses and I could walk all the way to the North Pole, he thought.
Froelich heard about the proposed wire transfer eleven minutes later. Closed her eyes for a second and clenched her hands in triumph and then reached behind her and pulled a map of the Eastern Seaboard off a shelf. Maybe three hours if the traffic cooperates. I might just make it. She grabbed her jacket and her purse and ran down to the garage.
Reacher wasted an hour in his room and then went out to test the insulating properties of his new coat. Field trial, they used to call it, way back when. He headed east toward the ocean, into the wind. Felt rather than saw somebody behind him. Just a characteristic little burr down in the small of his back. He slowed up and used a store window for a mirror. Caught a glimpse of movement fifty yards back. Too far away for details.
He walked on. The coat was pretty good, but he should have bought a hat to go with it. That was clear. The same buddy with the opinion on coats used to claim that half of total heat loss was through the top of the head, and that was certainly how it felt. The cold was blowing through his hair and making his eyes water. A military-issue watch cap would have been valuable, in November on the Jersey shore. He made a mental note to keep an eye out for surplus stores on his way back from the Western Union office. In his experience they often inhabited the same neighborhoods.
He reached the boardwalk and walked south, with the same itch still there in the small of his back. He turned suddenly and saw nothing. Walked back north to where he had started. The boards under his feet were in good shape. There was a notice claiming they were made from some special hardwood, the hardest timber the world’s forests had to offer. The feeling was still there in the small of his back. He turned and led his invisible shadows out onto the Central Pier. It was the original structure, preserved. It looked like he guessed it must have way back when it was built. It was deserted, which was no surprise considering the weather, and which added to the feeling of unreality. It was like an architectural photograph from a history book. But some of the little antique booths were open and selling things, including one selling modern coffee in plastic cups. He bought a twenty-ounce black regular, which took all his remaining cash, but warmed him through. He walked to the end of the pier as he drank it. Dropped the cup in the trash and stood and watched the gray ocean for a spell. Then he turned back and headed for the shore and saw two men walking toward him.
They were useful-sized guys, short but wide, dressed pretty much alike in blue peacoats and gray denim pants. They both had hats. Little knitted watch caps made from gray wool, jammed down over meaty heads. Clearly they knew how to dress for the climate. They had their hands in their pockets, so he couldn’t tell whether they had gloves to match. Their pockets were high on their coats, so their elbows were forced outward. They both wore heavy boots, the sort of things a steelworker or a stevedore might choose. They were both a little bowlegged, or maybe they were just attempting an intimidating swagger. They both had a little scar tissue around their brows. They looked like fairground scufflers or dockyard bruisers from fifty years ago. Reacher glanced back and saw nobody behind him, all the way to Ireland. So he just stopped walking. Didn’t worry about putting his back against the rail.
The two men walked on and stopped eight feet in front of him and faced him head-on. Reacher flexed his fingers by his side, to test how cold they were. Eight feet was an interesting choice of distance. It meant they were going to talk before they tangled. He flexed his toes and ran some muscle tension up through his calves, his thighs, his back, his shoulders. Moved his head side to side and then back a little, to loosen his neck. He breathed in through his nose. The wind was on his back. The guy on the left took his hands out of his pockets. No gloves. And either he had bad arthritis or he was holding rolls of quarters in both palms.
“We got a message for you,” he said.
Reacher glanced at the pier rail and the ocean beyond. The sea was gray and roiled. Probably freezing. Throwing them in would be close to homicide.
“From that club manager?” he asked.
“From his people, yeah.”
“He’s got people?”
“This is Atlantic City,” the guy said. “Stands to reason he’s got people.”
Reacher nodded. “So let me guess. I’m supposed to get out of town, skedaddle, beat it, get lost, never come back, never darken your door again, forget I was ever here.”
“You’re on the ball today.”
“I can read minds,” Reacher said. “I used to work a fairground booth. Right next to the bearded lady. Weren’t you guys there too? Three booths along? The World’s Ugliest Twins?”
The guy on the right took his hands out of his pockets. He had the same neuralgic pain in his knuckles, or else a couple more rolls of quarters. Reacher smiled. He liked rolls of quarters. Good old-fashioned technology. And they implied the absence of firearms. Nobody clutches rolls of coins if they’ve got a gun in their pocket.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” the guy on the right said.
“But you got to go,” the guy on the left said. “We don’t need people interfering in this town’s economic procedures.”
“So take the easy way out,” the guy on the right said. “Let us walk you to the bus depot. Or the old folk could wind up getting hurt, too. And not just financially.”
Reacher heard an absurd voice in his head: straight from his childhood, his mother saying please don’t fight when you’re wearing new clothes. Then he heard a boot-camp unarmed-combat instructor saying hit them fast, hit them hard, and hit them a lot. He flexed his shoulders inside his coat. Suddenly felt very grateful to the woman in the store for making him take the bigger size. He gazed at the two guys, exactly nothing in his eyes except a little amusement and a lot of absolute self-confidence. He moved a little to his left, and they rotated with him. He moved a little closer to them, tightening the triangle. He raised his hand and smoothed his hair where the wind was disturbing it.
“Better just to walk away now,” he said.
They didn’t, like he knew they wouldn’t. They responded to the challenge by crowding in toward him, imperceptibly, just a fractional muscle movement that eased their body weight forward rather than backward. They need to be laid up for a week, he thought. Cheekbones, probably. A sharp blow, depressed fractures, maybe temporary loss of consciousness, bad headaches. Nothing too severe. He waited until the wind gusted again and raised his right hand and swept his hair back behind his left ear. Then he kept his hand there, with his elbow poised high, like a thought had just struck him.
“Can you guys swim?” he asked.
It would have taken superhuman self-control not to glance at the ocean. They weren’t superhuman. They turned their heads like robots. He clubbed the right-hand guy in the face with his raised elbow and cocked it again and hit the left-hand guy as his head snapped back toward the sound of his buddy’s bones breaking. They went down on the boards together and their rolls of quarters split open and coins rolled everywhere and pirouetted small silver circles and collided and fell over, heads and tails. Reacher coughed in the bitter cold and stood still and replayed it in his head: two guys, two seconds, two blows, game over. You’ve still got the good stuff. He breathed hard and wiped cold sweat from his forehead. Then he walked away. Stepped off the pier onto the boardwalk and went looking for Western Union.
He had looked at the address in the motel phone book, but he didn’t need it. You could find a Western Union office by feel. By intuition. It was a simple algorithm: stand on a street corner and ask yourself, is it more likely to be left or right now? Then you turned left or right as appropriate, and pretty soon you were in the right neighborhood, and pretty soon you found it. This one had a two-year-old Chevy Suburban parked on a fireplug right outside the door. The truck was black with smoked windows, and it was immaculately clean and shiny. It had three short UHF antennas on the roof. There was a woman alone in the driver’s seat. He glanced at her once, and then again. She was fair-haired and looked relaxed and alert all at the same time. Something about the way her arm was resting against the window. And she was cute, no doubt about that. Some kind of magnetism about her. He glanced away and went inside the office and claimed his cash. Folded it into his pocket and came back out and found the woman on the sidewalk, standing right in front of him, looking straight at him. At his face, like she was checking off similarities and differences against a mental image. It was a process he recognized. He had been looked at like that once or twice before.
“Jack Reacher?” she said.
He double-checked his memory, because he didn’t want to be wrong, although he didn’t think he was. Short fair hair, great eyes looking right at him, some kind of a quiet confidence in the way she held herself. She had qualities he would remember. He was sure of that. But he didn’t remember them. Therefore he had never seen her before.
“You knew my brother,” he said.
She looked surprised, and a little gratified. And temporarily lost for words.
“I could tell,” he said. “People look at me like that, they’re thinking about how we look a lot alike, but also a lot different.”
She said nothing.
“Been nice meeting you,” he said, and moved away.
“Wait,” she called.
He turned back.
“Can we talk?” she said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
He nodded. “We could talk in the car. I’m freezing my ass off out here.”
She was still for a second longer, with her eyes locked on his face. Then she moved suddenly and opened the passenger door.
“Please,” she said. He climbed in and she walked around the hood and climbed in on her side. Started the engine to run the heater, but didn’t go anywhere.
“I knew your brother very well,” she said. “We dated, Joe and I. More than dated, really. We were pretty serious for a time. Before he died.”
Reacher said nothing. The woman flushed.
“Well, obviously before he died,” she said. “Stupid thing to say.”
She went quiet.
“When?” Reacher asked.
“We were together two years. We broke up a year before it happened.”
“I’m M. E. Froelich,” she said.
She left an unspoken question hanging in the air: did he ever mention me? Reacher nodded again, trying to make it like the name meant something. But it didn’t. Never heard of you, he thought. But maybe I wish I had.
“Emmy?” he said. “Like the television thing?”
“M. E.,” she said. “I go by my initials.”
“What are they for?”
“I won’t tell you that.”
He paused a beat. “What did Joe call you?”
“He called me Froelich,” she said.
He nodded. “Yes, he would.”
“I still miss him,” she said.
“Me too, I guess,” Reacher said. “So is this about Joe, or is it about something else?”
She was still again, for another beat. Then she shook herself, a tiny subliminal quiver, and came back all business.
“Both,” she said. “Well, mainly something else, really.”
“Want to tell me what?”
“I want to hire you for something,” she said. “On a kind of posthumous recommendation from Joe. Because of what he used to say about you. He talked about you, time to time.”
Reacher nodded. “Hire me for what?”
Froelich paused again and came up with a tentative smile.
“I’ve rehearsed this line,” she said. “Couple of times.”
“So let me hear it.”
“I want to hire you to assassinate the Vice President of the United States.”
“Good line,” Reacher said. “Interesting proposition.”
“What’s your answer?” Froelich asked.
“No,” he said. “Right now I think that’s probably the safest all-around response.”
She smiled the tentative smile again and picked up her purse.
“Let me show you some ID,” she said.
He shook his head.
“Don’t need it,” he said. “You’re United States Secret Service.”
She looked at him. “You’re pretty quick.”
“It’s pretty clear,” he said.
He nodded. Touched his right elbow. It was bruised.
“Joe worked for them,” he said. “And knowing the way he was, he probably worked pretty hard, and he was a little shy, so anybody he dated was probably in the office, otherwise he would never have met them. Plus, who else except the government keeps two-year-old Suburbans this shiny? And parks next to hydrants? And who else but the Secret Service could track me this efficiently through my banking arrangements?”
“You’re pretty quick,” she said again.
“Thank you,” he said back. “But Joe didn’t have anything to do with Vice Presidents. He was in Financial Crimes, not the White House protection detail.”
She nodded. “We all start out in Financial Crimes. We pay our dues as anticounterfeiting grunts. And he ran anticounterfeiting. And you’re right, we met in the office. But he wouldn’t date me then. He said it wasn’t appropriate. But I was planning on transferring across to the protection detail as soon as I could anyway, and as soon as I did, we started going out.”
Then she went a little quiet again. Looked down at her purse.
“And?” Reacher said.
She looked up. “Something he said one night. I was kind of keen and ambitious back then, you know, starting a new job and all, and I was always trying to figure out if we were doing the best we could, and Joe and I were goofing around, and he said the only real way for us to test ourselves would be to hire some outsider to try to get to the target. To see if it was possible, you know. A security audit, he called it. I asked him, like who? And he said, my little brother would be the one. If anybody could do it, he could. He made you sound pretty scary.”
Reacher smiled. “That sounds like Joe. A typical harebrained scheme.”
“For a smart guy, Joe could be very dumb sometimes.”
“Why is it dumb?”
“Because if you hire some outsider, all you need to do is watch for him coming. Makes it way too easy.”
“No, his idea was the person would come in anonymously and unannounced. Like now, absolutely nobody knows about you except me.”
Reacher nodded. “OK, maybe he wasn’t so dumb.”
“He felt it was the only way. You know, however hard we work, we’re always thinking inside the box. He felt we should be prepared to test ourselves against some random challenge from the outside.”
“And he nominated me?”
“He said you’d be ideal.”
“So why wait so long to try it? Whenever this conversation was, it had to be at least six years ago. Didn’t take you six years to find me.”
“It was eight years ago,” Froelich said. “Right at the start of our relationship, just after I got the transfer. And it only took me one day to find you.”
“So you’re pretty quick, too,” Reacher said. “But why wait eight years?”
“Because now I’m in charge. I was promoted head of the Vice President’s detail four months ago. And I’m still keen and ambitious, and I still want to know that we’re doing it right. So I decided to follow Joe’s advice, now that it’s my call. I decided to try a security audit. And you were recommended, so to speak. All those years ago, by somebody I trusted very much. So I’m here to ask you if you’ll do it.”
“You want to get a cup of coffee?”
She looked surprised, like coffee wasn’t on the agenda.
“This is urgent business,” she said.
“Nothing’s too urgent for coffee,” he said. “That’s been my experience. Drive me back to my motel and I’ll take you to the downstairs lounge. Coffee’s OK, and it’s a very dark room. Just right for a conversation like this.”
The government Suburban had a DVD-based navigation system built into the dash, and Reacher watched her fire it up and pick the motel’s street address off a long list of potential Atlantic City destinations.
“I could have told you where it is,” he said.
“I’m used to this thing,” she said. “It talks to me.”
“I wasn’t going to use hand signals,” he said.
She smiled again and pulled out into the traffic. There wasn’t much. Evening gloom was falling. The wind was still blowing. The casinos might do OK, but the boardwalk and the piers and the beaches weren’t going to see much business for the next six months. He sat still next to her in the warmth from the heater and thought about her with his dead brother for a moment. Then he just watched her drive. She was pretty good at it. She parked outside the motel door and he led her inside and down a half-flight of stairs to the lounge. It smelled stale and sticky, but it was warm and there was a flask of coffee on the machine behind the bar. He pointed at it, and then at himself and Froelich, and the barman got busy. Then he walked to a corner booth and slid in across the vinyl with his back to the wall and the whole room in sight. Old habits. Froelich clearly had the same habits because she did the same thing, so they ended up close together and side by side. Their shoulders were almost touching.
“You’re very similar to him,” she said.
“In some ways,” he said. “Not in others. Like, I’m still alive.”
“You weren’t at his funeral.”
“It came at an inopportune time.”
“You sound just the same.”
“Brothers often do.”
The barman brought the coffee, on a beer-stained cork tray. Two cups, black, little plastic pots of fake milk, little paper packets of sugar. Two cheap little spoons, pressed out of stainless steel.
“People liked him,” Froelich said.
“He was OK, I guess.”
“Is that all?”
“That’s a compliment, one brother to another.”
He lifted his cup and tipped the milk and the sugar and the spoon off his saucer.
“You drink it black,” Froelich said. “Just like Joe.”
Reacher nodded. “Thing I can’t get my head around is I was always the kid brother, but now I’m three years older than he ever got to be.”
Froelich looked away. “I know. He just stopped being there, but the world carried on anyway. It should have changed, just a little bit.”
She sipped her coffee. Black, no sugar. Just like Joe.
“Nobody ever think of doing it, apart from him?” Reacher asked. “Using an outsider for a security audit?”
“Secret Service is a relatively old organization.”
“So I’m going to ask you an obvious question.”
She nodded. “President Lincoln signed us into existence just after lunch on April fourteenth, 1865. Then he went to the theater that same night and got assassinated.”
“From our perspective, now. But back then we were only supposed to protect the currency. Then McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and they figured they should have somebody looking out for the President full-time, and we got the job.”
“Because there was no FBI until the 1930s.”
She shook her head. “Actually there was an early incarnation called the Office of the Chief Examiner, founded in 1908. It became the FBI in 1935.”
“That sounds like the sort of pedantic stuff Joe would know.”
“I think it was him who told me.”
“He would. He loved all that historical stuff.”
He saw her make an effort not to go quiet again.
“So what was your obvious question?” she said.
“You use an outsider for the very first time in a hundred and one years, got to be because of something more than you’re a perfectionist.”
She started to answer, and then she stopped. She paused a beat. He saw her decide to lie. He could sense it, in the angle of her shoulder.
“I’m under big pressure,” she said. “You know, professionally. There are a lot of people waiting for me to screw up. I need to be sure.”
He said nothing. Waited for the embellishments. Liars always embellish.
“I wasn’t an easy choice,” she said. “It’s still rare for a woman to head up a team. There’s a gender thing going on, same as anywhere else, I guess, same as always. Some of my colleagues are a little Neanderthal.”
He nodded. Said nothing.
“It’s always on my mind,” she said. “I’ve got to slam-dunk the whole thing.”
“Which Vice President?” he asked. “The new one or the old one?”
“The new one,” she said. “Brook Armstrong. The Vice President-elect, strictly speaking. I was assigned to lead his team back when he joined the ticket, and we want continuity, so it’s a little bit like an election for us, too. If our guy wins, we stay on the job. If our guy loses, we’re back to being footsoldiers.”
Reacher smiled. “So did you vote for him?”
She didn’t answer.
“What did Joe say about me?” he asked.
“He said you’d relish the challenge. You’d beat your brains out to find a way of getting it done. He said you had a lot of ingenuity and you’d find three or four ways of doing it and we’d learn a lot from you.”
“And you said?”
“This was eight years ago, don’t forget. I was kind of full of myself, I guess. I said no way would you even get close.”
“And he said?”
“He said plenty of people had made that same mistake.”
Reacher shrugged. “I was in the Army eight years ago. I was probably ten thousand miles away, up to my eyes in bullshit.”
She nodded. “Joe knew that. It was kind of theoretical.”
He looked at her. “But now it’s not theoretical, apparently. Eight years later you’re going ahead with it. And I’m still wondering why.”
“Like I said, now it’s my call. And I’m under big-time pressure to perform well.”
He said nothing.
“Would you consider doing it?” Froelich asked.
“I don’t know much about Armstrong. Never heard much about him before.”
She nodded. “Nobody has. He was a surprise choice. Junior senator from North Dakota, standard-issue family man, wife, grown-up daughter, cares long-distance for his sick old mother, never made any kind of national impact. But he’s an OK guy, for a politician. Better than most. I like him a lot, so far.”
Reacher nodded. Said nothing.
“We would pay you, obviously,” Froelich said. “That’s not a problem. You know, a professional fee, as long as it’s reasonable.”
“I’m not very interested in money,” Reacher said. “I don’t need a job.”
“You could volunteer.”
“I was a soldier. Soldiers never volunteer for anything.”
“That’s not what Joe said about you. He said you did all kinds of stuff.”
“I don’t like to be employed.”
“Well, if you want to do it for free we certainly wouldn’t object.”
He was quiet for a beat. “There would be expenses, probably, if a person did this sort of a thing properly.”
“We’d reimburse them, naturally. Whatever the person needed. All official and aboveboard, afterward.”
He looked down at the table. “Exactly what would you want the person to do?”
“I want you, not a person. Just to act the part of an assassin. To scrutinize things from an outside perspective. Find the holes. Prove to me if he’s vulnerable, with times, dates, places. I could start you off with some schedule information, if you want.”
“You offer that to all assassins? If you’re going to do this you should do it for real, don’t you think?”
“OK,” she said.
“You still think nobody could get close?”
She considered her answer carefully, maybe ten seconds. “On balance, yes, I do. We work very hard. I think we’ve got everything covered.”
“So you think Joe was wrong back then?”
She didn’t answer.
“Why did you break up?” he asked.
She glanced away for a second and shook her head. “That’s private.”
“How old are you?”
“So eight years ago you were twenty-seven.”
She smiled. “Joe was nearly thirty-six. An older man. I celebrated his birthday with him. And his thirty-seventh.”
Reacher moved sideways a little and looked at her again. Joe had good taste, he thought. Close up, she looked good. Smelled good. Perfect skin, great eyes, long lashes. Good cheekbones, a small straight nose. She looked lithe and strong. She was attractive, no doubt about it. He wondered what it would be like to hold her, kiss her. Go to bed with her. He pictured Joe wondering the same thing, the first time she walked into the office he ran. And he eventually found out. Way to go, Joe.
“I guess I forgot to send a birthday card,” he said. “Either time.”
“I don’t think he minded.”
“We weren’t very close,” he said. “I don’t really understand why not.”
“He liked you,” she said. “He made that clear. Talked about you, time to time. I think he was quite proud of you, in his own way.”
Reacher said nothing.
“So will you help me out?” she asked.
“What was he like? As a boss?”
“He was terrific. He was a superstar, professionally.”
“What about as a boyfriend?”
“He was pretty good at that, too.”
Reacher said nothing. There was a long silence.
“Where have you been since you left the service?” Froelich asked. “You haven’t left much of a paper trail.”
“That was the plan,” Reacher said. “I keep myself to myself.”
Questions in her eyes.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not radioactive.”
“I know,” she said. “Because I checked. But I’m kind of curious, now that I’ve met you. You were just a name before.”
He glanced down at the table, trying to look at himself as a third party, described secondhand in occasional bits and pieces by a brother. It was an interesting perspective.
“Will you help me out?” she asked again.
She unbuttoned her coat, because of the warmth of the room. She was wearing a pure white blouse under the coat. She moved a little closer, and half-turned to face him. They were as close as lovers on a lazy afternoon.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“It’ll be dangerous,” she said. “I have to warn you that nobody will know you’re out there except me. That’s a big problem if you’re spotted anywhere. Maybe it’s a bad idea. Maybe I shouldn’t be asking.”
“I wouldn’t be spotted anywhere,” Reacher said.
She smiled. “That’s exactly what Joe told me you’d say, eight years ago.”
He said nothing.
“It’s very important,” she said. “And urgent.”
“You want to tell me why it’s important?”
“I’ve already told you why.”
“Want to tell me why it’s urgent?”
She said nothing.
“I don’t think this is theoretical at all,” he said.
She said nothing.
“I think you’ve got a situation,” he said.
She said nothing.
“I think you know somebody is out there,” he said. “An active threat.”
She looked away. “I can’t comment on that.”
“I was in the Army,” he said. “I’ve heard answers like that before.”
“It’s just a security audit,” she said. “Will you do it for me?”
He was quiet for a long time.
“There would be two conditions,” he said.
She turned back and looked at him. “Which are?”
“One, I get to work somewhere cold.”
“Because I just spent a hundred and eighty-nine dollars on warm clothes.”
She smiled, briefly. “Everywhere he’s going should be cold enough for you in the middle of November.”
“OK,” he said. He dug in his pocket and slid her a matchbook and pointed to the name and address printed on it. “And there’s an old couple working a week in this particular club and they’re worried about getting ripped off for their wages. Musicians. They should be OK, but I need to be sure. I want you to talk to the cops here.”
“Friends of yours?”
“When’s payday supposed to be?”
“Friday night, after the last set. Midnight, maybe. They need to pick up their money and get their stuff to their car. They’ll be heading to New York.”
“I’ll ask one of our agents to check in with them every day. Better than the cops, I think. We’ve got a field office here. Big-time money laundering in Atlantic City. It’s the casinos. So you’ll do it?”
Reacher went quiet again and thought about his brother. He’s back to haunt me, he thought. I knew he would be, one day. His coffee cup was empty but still warm. He lifted it off the saucer and tilted it and watched the sludge in the bottom flow toward him, slow and brown, like river silt.
“When does it need to be done?” he asked.
At that exact moment less than a hundred and thirty miles away in a warehouse behind Baltimore’s Inner Harbor cash was finally exchanged for two weapons and matching ammunition. A lot of cash. Good weapons. Special ammunition. The planning for the second attempt had started with an objective analysis of the first attempt’s failure. As realistic professionals they were reluctant to blame the whole debacle on inadequate hardware, but they agreed that better firepower couldn’t hurt. So they had researched their needs and located a supplier. He had what they wanted. The price was right. They negotiated a guarantee. It was their usual type of arrangement. They told the guy that if there was a problem with the merchandise they would come back and shoot him through the spinal cord, low down, put him in a wheelchair.
Getting their hands on the guns was the last preparatory step. Now they were ready to go fully operational.
Vice President-elect Brook Armstrong had six main tasks in the ten weeks between election and inauguration. Sixth and least important was the continuation of his duties as junior senator from North Dakota until his term officially ended. There were nearly six hundred and fifty thousand people in the state and any one of them might want attention at any time, but Armstrong assumed they all understood they were in limbo until his successor took over. Equally, Congress wasn’t doing much of anything until January. So his senatorial duties didn’t occupy much of his attention.
Fifth task was to ease his successor into place back home. He had scheduled two rallies in the state so he could hand the new guy on to his own tame media contacts. It had to be a visual thing, shoulder to shoulder, plenty of grip-and-grin for the cameras, Armstrong taking a metaphoric step backward, the new guy taking a metaphoric step forward. The first rally was planned for the twentieth of November, the other four days later. Both would be irksome, but party loyalty demanded it.
Fourth task was to learn some things. He would be a member of the National Security Council, for instance. He would be exposed to stuff a junior senator from North Dakota couldn’t be expected to know. A CIA staffer had been assigned as his personal tutor, and there were Pentagon people coming in, and Foreign Service people. It was all kept as fluid as possible, but there was a lot of work to be fitted around everything else.
And everything else was increasingly urgent. The third task was where it started to get important. There were some tens of thousands of contributors who had supported the campaign nationally. The really big donors would be taken care of in other ways, but the individual thousand-dollar-and-up supporters needed to share the success, too. So the party had scheduled a number of big receptions in D.C. where they could all mill around and feel important and at the center of things. Their local committees would invite them to fly in and dress up and rub shoulders. They would be told it wasn’t officially certain yet whether it would be the new President or the new Vice President hosting them. In practice three-quarters of the duty was already scheduled to fall to Armstrong.
The second task was where it started to get really important. Second task was to stroke Wall Street. A change of administration was a sensitive thing, financially. No real reason why there should be anything but smooth continuity, but temporary nerves and jitters could snowball fast, and market instability could cripple a new presidency from the get-go. So a lot of effort went into investor reassurance. The President-elect handled most of it himself, with the crucial players getting extensive personal face time in D.C., but Armstrong was slated to handle the second-division people up in New York. There were five separate trips planned during the ten-week period.
But Armstrong’s first and most important task of all was to run the transition team. A new administration needs a roster of nearly eight thousand people, and about eight hundred of them need confirmation by the Senate, of which about eighty are really key players. Armstrong’s job was to participate in their selection, and then use his Senate connections to grease their way through the upcoming confirmation process. The transition operation was based in the official space on G Street, but it made sense for Armstrong to lead it from his old Senate office. All in all, it wasn’t fun. It was grunt work, but that’s the difference between being first and second on the ticket.
So the third week after the election went like this: Armstrong spent the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday inside the Beltway, working with the transition team. His wife was taking a well-earned post-election break at home in North Dakota, so he was temporarily living alone in his Georgetown row house. Froelich packed his protection detail with her best agents and kept them all on high alert.
He had four agents camping out with him in the house and four Metro cops permanently stationed outside in cars, two in front and two in the alley behind. A Secret Service limo picked him up every morning and drove him to the Senate offices, with a second car following. The gun car, it was called. There was the usual efficient transfer across the sidewalks at both ends. Then three agents stayed with him throughout the day. His personal detail, three tall men, dark suits, white shirts, quiet ties, sunglasses even in November. They kept him inside a tight unobtrusive triangle of protection, always unsmiling, eyes always roving, physical placement always subtly adjusting. Sometimes he could hear faint sounds from their radio earpieces. They wore microphones on their wrists and carried automatic weapons under their jackets. He thought the whole experience was impressive, but he knew he was in no real danger inside the office building. There were D.C. cops outside, the Hill’s own security inside, permanent metal detectors on all the street doors, and all the people he saw were either elected members or their staffers, who had been security-cleared many times over.
But Froelich wasn’t as sanguine as Armstrong was. She watched for Reacher in Georgetown and on the Hill, and saw no sign of him. He wasn’t there. Neither was anybody else worth worrying about. It should have relaxed her, but it didn’t.
The first scheduled reception for mid-level donors was held on the Thursday evening, in the ballroom of a big chain hotel. The whole building was swept by dogs during the afternoon, and key interior positions were occupied by Metro cops who would stay put until Armstrong finally left many hours later. Froelich put two Secret Service agents on the door, six in the lobby, and eight in the ballroom itself. Another four secured the loading dock, which is where Armstrong would enter. Discreet video cameras covered the whole of the lobby and the whole of the ballroom and each was connected to its own recorder. The recorders were all slaved to a master timecode generator, so there would be a permanent real-time record of the whole event.
The guest list was a thousand people long. November weather meant they couldn’t line up on the sidewalk and the tenor of the event meant security had to be pleasantly unobtrusive, so the standard winter protocol applied, which was to get the guests in off the street and into the lobby immediately through a temporary metal detector placed inside the frame of the entrance door. Then they milled around inside the lobby and eventually made their way to the ballroom door. Once there, their printed invitations were checked and they were asked for photo ID. The invitations were laid facedown on a glass sheet for a moment, and then handed back as souvenirs. Under the glass sheet was a video camera working to the same timecode as the others, so names and faces were permanently tied together in the visual record. Finally, they passed through a second metal detector and onward into the ballroom. Froelich’s crew were serious but good-humored, and made it seem more like they were protecting the guests themselves from some thrilling unspecified danger, rather than protecting Armstrong from them.
Froelich spent her time staring at the video monitors, looking for faces that didn’t fit. She saw none, but she kept on worrying anyway. She saw no sign of Reacher. She wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or annoyed about that. Was he doing it or not? She thought about cheating and issuing his description to her team. Then she thought better of it. Win or lose, I need to know, she thought.
Armstrong’s two-car convoy entered the loading dock a half hour later, by which time the guests had drunk a couple of glasses of cheap sparkling wine and eaten as many soggy canapés as they wanted. His personal three-man detail brought him in through a rear passageway and kept to a ten-foot radius for the duration. His appearance was timed to last two hours, which gave him an average of a little over seven seconds per guest. On a rope line seven seconds would be an eternity, but this situation was different, primarily in the handshaking method. A campaigning politician learns very quickly to fumble a handshake and grip the back of the recipient’s hand, not the palm. It creates a breathless so-much-support-here-I’ve-got-to-be-quick type of drama, and better still it means it’s strictly the pol’s choice when he lets go, not the supporter’s. But in an event of this nature, Armstrong couldn’t use that tactic. So he had to shake properly and work fast to keep to seven seconds each. Some guests were content with brevity and others hung on a little longer, gushing their congratulations like maybe he hadn’t experienced any before. There were some men who went for the two-handed forearm grip. Some put their arms around his shoulders for private photographs. Some were disappointed that his wife wasn’t there. Some weren’t. There was one woman in particular who took his hand in a firm grip and held on for ten or twelve seconds, even pulling him nice and close and whispering something in his ear. She was surprisingly strong and nearly pulled him off balance. He didn’t really hear what she whispered. Maybe her room number. But she was slim and pretty, with dark hair and a great smile, so he wasn’t too upset about it. He just smiled back gratefully and moved on. His Secret Service detail didn’t bat an eye.
He worked a complete circle around the room, eating nothing, drinking nothing, and made it back out of the rear door after two hours and eleven minutes. His personal detail put him back in his car and drove him home. The sidewalk crossing was completely uneventful and another eight minutes later his house was locked down for the night and secure. Back at the hotel the rest of the security detail withdrew unnoticed and the thousand guests left over the next hour or so.
Froelich drove straight back to her office and called Stuyvesant at home just before midnight. He answered right away and sounded like he had been holding his breath and waiting for the phone to ring.
“Secure,” she said.
“OK,” he replied. “Any problems?”
“None that I saw.”
“You should review the video anyway. Look for faces.”
“I plan to.”
“Happy about tomorrow?”
“I’m not happy about anything.”
“Your outsider working yet?”
“Waste of time. Three full days and he’s nowhere to be seen.”
“What did I tell you? It wasn’t necessary.”
There was nothing to accomplish in D.C. on the Friday morning so Armstrong stayed home and had his CIA guy come in for two hours’ teaching. Then his detail rehearsed the full motorcade exfiltration. They used an armored Cadillac with two escort Suburbans flanked by two cop cars and a motorcycle escort. They drove him to Andrews Air Force Base for a midday flight to New York City. As a courtesy the defeated incumbents had allowed him the use of Air Force Two, although technically it couldn’t use that call sign until it had a real inaugurated Vice President in it, so for the moment it was just a comfortable private airplane. It flew into La Guardia and three cars from the Secret Service’s New York Field Office picked the party up and drove them south to Wall Street, with an NYPD motorcycle escort riding ahead of them.
Froelich was already in position inside the Stock Exchange. The New York Field Office had plenty of experience working with the NYPD and she was comfortable that the building was adequately secure. Armstrong’s reassurance meetings were held in a back office and lasted two hours, so she relaxed until the photo call. The transition team’s media handlers wanted news pictures on the sidewalk in front of the building’s pillars, sometime after the closing bell. She had no chance whatsoever of persuading them otherwise, because they desperately needed the positive exposure. But she was profoundly unhappy about her guy standing still in the open air for any period of time. She had agents video the photographers for the record and check their press credentials twice and search every camera bag and every pocket of every vest. She checked in by radio with the local NYPD lieutenant and confirmed that the perimeter was definitively secured to a thousand feet on the ground and five hundred vertically. Then she allowed Armstrong out with the assorted brokers and bankers and they posed for five whole agonizing minutes. The photographers crouched on the sidewalk right at Armstrong’s feet so they could get group head-and-shoulders shots with the New York Stock Exchange lintel inscription floating overhead. Too much proximity, Froelich thought. Armstrong and the financial guys stared optimistically and resolutely into the middle distance, endlessly. Then, mercifully, it was over. Armstrong gave his patented “I’d love to stay” wave and backed away into the building. The financiers followed him and the photographers dispersed. Froelich relaxed again. Next up was a routine road trip back to Air Force Two and a flight to North Dakota for the first of Armstrong’s handover rallies the next day, which meant she had maybe fourteen hours without major pressure.
Her cell phone rang in the car as they got close to La Guardia. It was her senior colleague from the Treasury side of the organization, at his desk in D.C.
“That bank account we’re tracking?” he said. “The customer just called in again. He’s wiring twenty grand to Western Union in Chicago.”
“No, cashier’s check.”
“A Western Union cashier’s check? For twenty grand? He’s paying somebody for something. Goods or services. Got to be.”
Her colleague made no reply, and she clicked her phone off and just held it in her hand for a second. Chicago? Armstrong wasn’t going anywhere near Chicago.
Air Force Two landed in Bismarck and Armstrong went home to join his wife and spend the night in his own bed in the family house in the lake country south of the city. It was a big old place with an apartment above the garage block that the Secret Service took over as its own. Froelich withdrew Mrs. Armstrong’s personal detail to give the couple some privacy. She gave all the personal agents the rest of the night off and tasked four more to stake out the house, two in front, two behind. State troopers made up the numbers, parked in cars on a three-hundred-yard radius. She walked the whole area herself as a final check, and her cell phone rang as she came back into the driveway.
“Froelich?” Reacher said.
“How did you get this number?”
“I was a military cop. I can get numbers.”
“Where are you?”
“Don’t forget those musicians, OK? In Atlantic City? Tonight’s the night.”
Then the phone went dead. She walked up to the apartment above the garage and idled some time away. She called the Atlantic City office at one in the morning and was told that the old couple had been paid the right money at the right time and escorted to their car and all the way out to I-95, where they had turned north. She clicked off her phone and sat for a spell in a window seat, just thinking. It was a quiet night, very dark. Very lonely. Cold. Distant dogs barked occasionally. No moon, no stars. She hated nights like this. The family-house situations were always the trickiest. Eventually anybody got thoroughly sick of being guarded, and even though Armstrong was still amused by the novelty she could tell he was ready for some down time. And certainly his wife was. So she had nobody at all in the interior and was relying exclusively on perimeter defense. She knew she should be doing more, but she had no real option, at least not until they explained the extent of the present danger to Armstrong himself, which they hadn’t yet done, because the Secret Service never does.
Saturday dawned bright and cold in North Dakota, and preparations began immediately after breakfast. The rally was scheduled for one o’clock on the grounds of a church community center on the south side of the city. Froelich had been surprised that it was an outdoors event, but Armstrong had told her that it would be heavy overcoat weather, nothing more. He told her that North Dakotans usually didn’t retreat indoors until well after Thanksgiving. At which point she was almost overcome by an irrational desire to cancel the whole event. But she knew the transition team would oppose her, and she didn’t want to fight losing battles this early. So she said nothing. Then she almost proposed Armstrong wear a Kevlar vest under his heavy overcoat, but eventually she decided against it. Poor guy’s got four years of this, maybe eight, she thought. He’s not even inaugurated yet. Too early. Later, she wished she’d gone with her first instinct.
The church community center’s grounds were about the size of a soccer field and were bordered to the north by the church itself, which was a handsome white clapboard structure traditional in every way. The other three sides were well fenced and two of them backed onto established housing subdivisions, with the third fronting onto the street. There was a wide gateway that opened into a small parking lot. Froelich banned parking for the day and put two agents and a local cop car on the gate, with twelve more cops on foot on the grass just inside the perimeter. She put two cop cars in each of the surrounding streets and had the church itself searched by the local police canine unit and then closed and locked. She doubled the personal detail to six agents, because Armstrong’s wife was accompanying him. She told the detail to stick close to the couple at all times. Armstrong didn’t argue with that. Being seen in the center of a prowling pack of six tough guys looked very high-level. His successor-designate would be happy about it, too. Some of that D.C. power-elite status might rub off on him.
The Armstrongs made it a rule never to eat at public events. It was too easy to look like idiots, greasy fingers, trying to talk while chewing. So they had an early lunch at home and drove up in convoy and got right to the business at hand. It was easy enough. Even relaxing, in a way. Local politics was not Armstrong’s problem anymore. Wouldn’t be much of a problem for his successor either, to be truthful. He had a handsome newly minted plurality and was basking in a lot of reflected glow. So the afternoon turned out to be not much more than a pleasant stroll around a pleasant piece of real estate. His wife was beautiful, his successor stayed at his side throughout, there were no awkward questions from the press, all four network affiliates and CNN were there, all the local papers had sent photographers, and stringers from The Washington Post and The New York Times showed up, too. All in all it went so well he began to wish they hadn’t bothered to schedule the follow-up event. It really wasn’t necessary.
Froelich watched the faces. She watched the perimeters. She watched the crowd, straining to sense any alteration in the herd behavior that might indicate tension or uneasiness or sudden panic. She saw nothing. Saw no sign of Reacher, either.
Armstrong stayed thirty minutes longer than anticipated, because the weak fall sun bathed the field in gold, and there was no breeze, and he was having a good time, and there was nothing scheduled for the evening except a quiet dinner with key members of the state legislature. So his wife was escorted home and his personal detail herded him back toward the cars and drove him north into the city of Bismarck itself. There was a hotel adjacent to the restaurant and Froelich had arranged rooms for the dead time before the meal. Armstrong napped for an hour and then showered and dressed. The meal was going well when his chief of staff fielded a call. The outgoing President and Vice President were formally summoning the President-elect and the Vice President-elect to a one-day transition conference at the Naval Support Facility in Thurmont, starting early the next morning. It was a conventional invitation, because inevitably there was business to discuss. And it was delivered in the traditional way, last-minute and pompous, because the lame ducks wanted to push the world around one last time. But Froelich was delighted, because the unofficial name for the Naval Support Facility in Thurmont is Camp David, and there is no safer place in the world than that particular wooded clearing in the Maryland mountains. She decided they should all fly back to Andrews immediately and take Marine helicopters straight out to the compound. If they spent all night and all day there she would be able to relax completely for twenty-four hours.
But late on the Sunday morning a Navy steward found her at breakfast in the mess hall and plugged a telephone into a baseboard socket near her chair. Nobody uses cordless or cellular phones at Camp David. Too vulnerable to electronic eavesdropping.
“Call transferred from your main office, ma’am,” the steward said.
There was empty silence for a second, and then a voice.
“We should get together,” Reacher said.
“Can’t tell you on the phone.”
“Where have you been?”
“Here and there.”
“Where are you now?”
“In a room at the hotel you used for the reception Thursday.”
“You got something urgent for me?”
“Already? It’s only been five days. You said ten.”
“Five was enough.”
Froelich cupped the phone. “What’s the conclusion?”
Then she found herself holding her breath.
“It’s impossible,” Reacher said.
She breathed out and smiled. “Told you so.”
“No, your job is impossible. You should get over here, right now.”
She drove back to D.C. in her Suburban and argued with herself the whole way. If the news is really bad, when do I involve Stuyvesant? Now? Later? In the end she pulled over on Dupont Circle and called him at home and asked him the question direct.
“I’ll get involved when I need to,” he said. “Who did you use?”
“Joe Reacher’s brother.”
“Our Joe Reacher? I didn’t know he had a brother.”
“Well, he did.”
“What’s he like?”
“Just like Joe, maybe a little rougher.”
“Older or younger?”
“Both,” Froelich said. “He started out younger, and now he’s older.”
Stuyvesant went quiet for a moment.
“Is he as smart as Joe?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Froelich said.
Stuyvesant went quiet again. “So call me when you need to. But sooner rather than later, OK? And don’t say anything to anybody else.”
She ended the call and threaded back into the Sunday traffic and drove the last mile and parked outside the hotel. The desk was expecting her and sent her straight up to 1201, twelfth floor. She followed a waiter through the door. He was carrying a tray with a pot of coffee and two upside-down cups on saucers. No milk, no sugar, no spoons, and a single pink rose in a narrow china vase. The room was standard-issue city hotel. Two queen beds, flowery prints at the window, bland lithographs on the walls, a table, two chairs, a desk with a complicated phone, a credenza with a television, a connecting door to the next room. Reacher was sitting on the nearer bed. He was wearing a black nylon warm-up jacket with a black T-shirt and black jeans and black shoes. He had an earpiece in his ear and a pretty good fake Secret Service pin in the collar of the jacket. He was clean shaven and his hair had been cut very short and was neatly combed.
“What have you got for me?” she asked.
“Later,” he said.
The waiter put the tray on the table and backed silently out of the room. Froelich watched the door click shut behind him and turned back to Reacher. Paused a beat.
“You look just like one of us,” she said.
“You owe me lots of money,” he said.
He smiled. “Most of that. They told you about it?”
She nodded. “But why a cashier’s check? That puzzled me.”
“It won’t, soon.”
He stood up and stepped across to the table. Righted the cups and picked up the pot and poured the coffee.
“You timed the room service well,” she said.
He smiled again. “I knew where you were, I knew you’d be driving back. It’s Sunday, no traffic. Easy enough to derive an ETA.”
“So what have you got to tell me?”
“That you’re good,” he said. “That you’re really, really good. That I don’t think anybody else could do this better than you.”
She went quiet. “But?”
“But you’re not good enough. You need to face that whoever it is out there could walk right in and get the job done.”
“I never said there’s anybody out there.”
He said nothing.
“Just give me the information, Reacher.”
“Three and a half,” he said.
“Three and a half what? Out of ten?”
“No, Armstrong’s dead, three and a half times over.”
She stared at him. “Already?”
“That’s how I score it,” he said.
“What do you mean, a half?”
“Three definites and one possible.”
She stopped halfway to the table and just stood there, bewildered.
“In five days?” she said. “How? What aren’t we doing?”
“Have some coffee,” he said.
She moved toward the table like an automaton. He handed her a cup. She took it and backed away to the bed. The cup rattled in the saucer.
“Two main approaches,” Reacher said. “Like in the movies, John Malkovich or Edward Fox. You’ve seen those movies?”
She nodded blankly. “We have a guy monitoring the movies. In the Office of Protection Research. He analyzes all the assassination movies. John Malkovich made In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood.”
“And Rene Russo,” Reacher said. “She was pretty good.”
“Edward Fox was in The Day of the Jackal, way back.”
Reacher nodded. “John Malkovich was looking to take out the President of the United States, and Edward Fox was looking to take out the President of France. Two competent assassins, working solo. But there was a fundamental difference between them. John Malkovich knew all along he wasn’t going to survive the mission. He knew he’d die a second after the President. But Edward Fox aimed to get away with it.”
“He didn’t, though.”
“It was a movie, Froelich. Had to end that way. He could have gotten away with it, easy as anything.”
“It gives us two strategies to consider. A close-up suicide mission, or a clean long-distance job.”
“We know all that. I told you, we have a person working on it. We get transcripts, analyses, memos, position papers. We talk to the screenwriters sometimes, if there’s new stuff. We want to know where they get their ideas from.”
She shrugged and sipped her coffee and he saw her trawl back through her memory, like she had all the transcripts and all the memos and all the position papers stashed away in a mental filing cabinet.
“The Day of the Jackal impressed us, I think,” she said. “Edward Fox played a pro shooter who had a rifle built so it could be disguised as a crutch for a handicapped veteran. He used the disguise to get into a nearby building some hours before a public appearance and planned a long-range head shot from a high-floor window. He was using a silencer, so he could get away afterward. Could have worked, in theory. But the story was set a long time ago. Before I was born. Early sixties, I think. General de Gaulle, after the Algerian crisis, wasn’t it? We enforce far wider perimeters now. The movie was a factor in that, I guess. Plus our own problems in the early sixties, of course.”
“And In the Line of Fire?” Reacher asked.
“John Malkovich played a renegade CIA operative,” she said. “He manufactured a plastic pistol in his basement so he could beat the metal detectors and conned his way into a campaign rally and intended to shoot the President from very close range. Whereupon, as you say, we would have taken him down immediately.”
“But old Clint jumped into the path of the bullet,” Reacher said. “Good movie, I thought.”
“Implausible, we thought,” Froelich answered. “Two main faults. First, the idea that you can build a working pistol from hobbyist material is absurd. We look at stuff like that all the time. His gun would have exploded, blown his hand off at the wrist. The bullet would have just fallen out of the wreckage onto the floor. And second, he spent about a hundred thousand dollars along the way. Lots and lots of travel, phony offices for mail drops, plus a fifty-thousand-dollar donation to the party that got him into the campaign rally in the first place. Our assessment was a maniac personality like that wouldn’t have big bucks to spend. We dismissed it.”
“It was only a movie,” Reacher said. “But it was illustrative.”
“Of the idea of getting into a rally and attacking the target from close quarters, as opposed to the old idea of going for long-distance safety.”
Froelich paused. Then she smiled, a little warily at first, like a grave danger might be receding into the distance.
“Is this all you’ve got?” she said. “Ideas? You had me worried.”
“Like the rally here on Thursday night,” Reacher said. “A thousand guests. Time and place announced in advance. Advertised, even.”
“You found the transition’s website?”
Reacher nodded. “It was very useful. Lots of information.”
“We vet it all.”
“But it still told me every place Armstrong’s going to be,” Reacher said. “And when. And in what kind of a context. Like the rally right here, Thursday night. With the thousand guests.”
“What about them?”
“One of them was a dark-haired woman who got hold of Armstrong’s hand and pulled him a little off-balance.”
She stared at him. “You were there?”
He shook his head. “No, but I heard about it.”
He ignored the question. “Did you see it?”
“Only on video,” she said. “Afterward.”
“That woman could have killed Armstrong. That was the first opportunity. Up to that point you were doing real well. You were scoring A-plus during the government stuff around the Capitol.”
She smiled again, a little dismissively. “Could have? You’re wasting my time, Reacher. I wanted better than could have. I mean, anything could happen. A bolt of lightning could hit the building. A meteorite, even. The universe could stop expanding and time could reverse. That woman was an invited guest. She was a party contributor. She passed through two metal detectors and she was ID-checked at the door.”
“Like John Malkovich.”
“We’ve been through that.”
“Suppose she was a martial-arts expert. Maybe military-trained in black ops. She could have broken Armstrong’s neck like you could break a pencil.”
“Suppose she was armed.”
“She wasn’t. She passed through two metal detectors.”
Reacher put his hand in the pocket of his jacket and came out with a slim brown object.
“Ever seen one of these?” he asked.
It looked like a penknife, maybe three and a half inches long. A curved handle. He clicked a button and a speckled brown blade snapped outward.
“This is entirely ceramic,” he said. “Same basic stuff as a bathroom tile. Harder than anything except a diamond. Certainly harder than steel, and sharper than steel. And it doesn’t trigger a metal detector. That woman could have been carrying this thing. She could have slit Armstrong open from his belly button to his chin with it. Or cut his throat. Or stuck it in his eye.”
He passed the weapon over. Froelich took it and studied it.
“Made by a firm called Böker,” Reacher said. “In Solingen, Germany. They’re expensive, but they’re relatively available.”
Froelich shrugged. “OK, so you bought a knife. Doesn’t prove anything.”
“That knife was in the ballroom Thursday night. It was clutched in that woman’s left hand, in her pocket, with the blade open, all the time she was shaking Armstrong’s hand and pulling him close. She got his belly within three inches of it.”
Froelich stared at him. “Are you serious? Who was she?”
“She was a party supporter called Elizabeth Wright, from Elizabeth, New Jersey, as it happens. She gave the campaign four thousand bucks, a grand each in her name, her husband’s, and her two kids’. She stuffed envelopes for a month, put a big sign in her front yard, and operated a phone tree on Election Day.”
“So why would she carry a knife?”
“Well, actually, she didn’t.”
He stood up and walked to the connecting door. Pulled his half open and knocked hard on the inner half.
“OK, Neagley,” he called.
The inner door opened and a woman walked in from the next room. She was somewhere in her late thirties, medium height and slim, dressed in blue jeans and a soft gray sweatshirt. She had dark hair. Dark eyes. A great smile. The way she moved and the tendons in her wrists spoke of serious gym time.
“You’re the woman on the video,” Froelich said.
Reacher smiled. “Frances Neagley, meet M. E. Froelich. M. E. Froelich, meet Frances Neagley.”
“Emmy?” Frances Neagley said. “Like the television thing?”
“Initials,” Reacher said.
Froelich stared at him. “Who is she?”
“The best Master Sergeant I ever worked with. Beyond expert-qualified on every kind of close-quarters combat you can think of. Scares the hell out of me, certainly. She got cut loose around the same time I did. Works as a security consultant in Chicago.”
“Chicago,” Froelich repeated. “That’s why the check went there.”
Reacher nodded. “She funded everything, because I don’t have a credit card or a checkbook. As you already know, probably.”
“So what happened to Elizabeth Wright from New Jersey?”
“I bought these clothes,” Reacher said. “Or rather, you bought them for me. And the shoes. Sunglasses, too. My version of Secret Service fatigues. I went to the barber. Shaved every day. I wanted to look plausible. Then I wanted a lone woman from New Jersey, so I met a couple of Newark flights at the airport here on Thursday. Watched the crowd and latched onto Ms. Wright and told her I was a Secret Service agent and there was a big security snafu going on and she should come with me.”
“How did you know she was headed to the rally?”
“I didn’t. I just looked at all the women coming out of baggage claim and tried to judge by how they looked and what they were carrying. Wasn’t easy. Elizabeth Wright was the sixth woman I approached.”
“And she believed you?”
“I had impressive ID. I bought this radio earpiece from Radio Shack, two bucks. Little electrical cord disappearing down the back of my neck, see? I had a rented Town Car, black. I looked the part, believe me. She believed me. She was quite excited about the whole thing, really. I brought her back to this room and guarded her all evening while Neagley took over. I kept listening to my earpiece and talking into my watch.”
Froelich switched her gaze across to Neagley.
“We wanted New Jersey for a reason,” Neagley said. “Their driver’s licenses are the easiest to forge, you know that? I had a laptop and a color printer with me. I’d just gotten through making Reacher’s Secret Service ID for him. No idea if it was anything like the real thing, but it sure looked good. So I made up a Jersey license with my picture and her name and address on it, printed it out, laminated it with a thing we bought from Staples for sixty bucks, sandpapered the edges clean, scuffed it around a little bit, and shoved it in my bag. Then I dressed up some and took Ms. Wright’s party invitation with me and headed downstairs. I got into the ballroom OK. With the knife in my pocket.”
“I hung around, then I got hold of your guy. Held on for a spell.”
Froelich looked straight at her. “How would you have done it?”
“I had hold of his right hand in my right. I pulled him close, he rotated slightly, I had a clear shot at the right side of his neck. Three-and-a-half-inch blade, I’d have stuck it through his carotid artery. Then jerked it around some. He’d have bled to death inside thirty seconds. I was one arm movement away from doing it. Your guys were ten feet away. They’d have plugged me afterward for sure, but they couldn’t have stopped me from getting it done.”
Froelich was pale and silent. Neagley looked away.
“Without the knife would have been harder,” she said. “But not impossible. Breaking his neck would have been tricky because he’s got some muscle up there. I’d have had to do a quick two-step to get his weight moving, and if your guys were fast enough they might have stopped me halfway. So I guess I’d have gone with a blow to his larynx, hard enough to crush it. A jab with my left elbow would have done the trick. I’d have been dead before him, probably, but he’d have suffocated right afterward, unless you’ve got people that could do an emergency tracheotomy on the ballroom floor within a minute or so, which I guess you don’t have.”
“No,” Froelich said. “We don’t have.”
Then she fell silent again.
“Sorry to ruin your day,” Neagley said. “But hey, you wanted to know this stuff, right? No point doing a security audit and not telling you the outcome.”
Froelich nodded. “What did you whisper to him?”
“I said, I’ve got a knife. Just for the hell of it. But very quietly. If anybody had challenged me I was going to claim I’d said, where’s your wife? Like I was coming on to him. I imagine that happens, time to time.”
Froelich nodded again.
“It does,” she said. “Time to time. What else?”
“Well, he’s safe in his house,” Neagley said.
“Every day,” Reacher said. “We’ve been on the ground in Georgetown since Tuesday night.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“That was the plan.”
“How did you know where he lives?”
“We followed your limos.”
Froelich said nothing.
“Good limos,” Reacher said. “Slick tactics.”
“Friday morning was especially good,” Neagley said.
“But the rest of Friday was pretty bad,” Reacher said. “Lack of coordination produced a major communications error.”
“Your D.C. people had video of the ballroom but clearly your New York people never saw it, because as well as being the woman in the party dress Thursday night Neagley was also one of the photographers outside the Stock Exchange.”
“Some North Dakota paper has a website,” Neagley said. “Like all of them, with a graphic of their masthead. I downloaded it and modified it into a press pass. Laminated it and put brass eyelets in it and slung it around my neck with a nylon cord. Trawled the secondhand stores in lower Manhattan for battered old photo gear. Kept a camera up in front of my face the whole time so Armstrong wouldn’t recognize me.”
“You should operate an access list,” Reacher said. “Control it, somehow.”
“We can’t,” Froelich said. “It’s a constitutional thing. The First Amendment guarantees journalistic access, any old time they want it. But they were all searched.”
“I wasn’t carrying,” Neagley said. “I was just breaching your security for the hell of it. But I could have been carrying, that’s for damn sure. I could have gotten a bazooka past that kind of a search.”
Reacher stood up and stepped to the credenza. Pulled open a drawer and took out a stack of photographs. They were commercial one-hour six-by-four-inch color prints. He held up the first picture. It was a low-angle shot of Armstrong standing outside the Stock Exchange with the carved lintel inscription floating like a halo over his head.
“Neagley’s,” Reacher said. “Good picture, I thought. Maybe we should sell it to a magazine, defray some of the twenty grand.”
He stepped back to the bed and sat down and passed the photograph to Froelich. She took it and stared at it.
“Point is I was four feet away,” Neagley said. “I could have gotten to him if I’d wanted to. A John Malkovich situation again, but what the hell.”
Froelich nodded blankly. Reacher dealt the next print, like a playing card. It was a grainy telephoto picture clearly taken from a great distance, looking down from way above street level. It showed Armstrong outside the Stock Exchange, tiny in the center of the frame. There was a crude gunsight drawn around his head with a ballpoint pen.
“This is the half,” Reacher said. “I was on the sixtieth floor of an office building three hundred yards away. Inside the police perimeter, but higher than they were checking.”
“With a rifle?”
He shook his head. “With a piece of wood the same size and shape as a rifle. And another camera, obviously. And a big lens. But I played it out for real. I wanted to see if it was possible. I figured people wouldn’t like to see a rifle-shaped package, so I got a big square box from a computer monitor and put the wood in diagonally, top corner to bottom corner. Then I just wheeled it into the elevator on a hand truck, pretended it was real heavy. I saw a few cops. I was wearing these clothes without the fake pin or the earpiece. I guess they thought I was a delivery driver or something. Friday after the closing bell, the district was getting quiet enough to be convenient. I found a window in an empty conference room. It wouldn’t open, so I guess I’d have had to cut out a circle of glass. But I could have taken a shot, just like I took the picture. And I’d have been Edward Fox. I could have gotten clean away.”
Froelich nodded, reluctantly.
“Why only a half?” she asked. “Looks like you had him fair and square.”
“Not in Manhattan,” Reacher said. “I was about nine hundred feet away and six hundred feet up. That’s an eleven-hundred-foot shot, give or take. Not a problem for me ordinarily, but the wind currents and the thermals around those towers turn it into a lottery. They’re always changing, second to second. Swirling, up and down and side to side. They make it so you can’t guarantee a hit. That’s the good news, really. No competent rifleman would try a distance shot in Manhattan. Only an idiot would, and an idiot’s going to miss anyway.”
Froelich nodded again, a little relieved.
“OK,” she said.
So she’s not worried about an idiot, Reacher thought. Must be a professional.
“So,” he said. “Call it a total score of three, if you want, and forget the half. Don’t worry about New York at all. It was tenuous.”
“But Bismarck wasn’t tenuous,” Neagley said. “We got there about midnight. Commercial flights, through Chicago.”
“I called you from a mile away,” Reacher said. “About the musicians.”
He dealt the next two photographs.
“Infrared film,” he said. “In the dark.”
The first picture showed the back of the Armstrong family house. The colors were washed out and distorted, because of the infrared photography. But it was a fairly close shot. Every detail was clearly visible. Doors, windows. Froelich could even see one of her agents, standing in the yard.
“Where were you?” she asked.
“On the neighbor’s property,” Reacher said. “Maybe fifty feet away. Simple night maneuver, infiltration in the dark. Standard infantry techniques, quiet and stealthy. Couple of dogs barked some, but we got around them. The state troopers in the cars didn’t see a thing.”
Neagley pointed to the second picture. It showed the front of the house. Same colors, same detail, same distance.
“I was across the street, at the front,” she said. “Behind somebody’s garage.”
Reacher sat forward on the bed. “Plan would have been to have an M16 each, with the grenade launcher on it. Plus some other full-auto long guns. Maybe even M60 machine guns on tripods. We certainly had enough time to set them up. We’d have put phosphorous grenades into the building with the M16s, simultaneously front and back, one each, ground floor, and either Armstrong would burn up in bed or we’d shoot him down as he ran out the door or jumped out the window. We’d have timed it for maybe four in the morning. Shock would have been total. Confusion would have been tremendous. We could have taken your agents out in the melee, easy as anything. We could have chewed the whole house to splinters. We’d have probably exfiltrated OK too, and then it would have boiled down to a standard manhunt situation, which wouldn’t have been ideal out there in the boonies, but we’d probably have made it, with a bit of luck. Edward Fox again.”
There was silence.
“I don’t believe it,” Froelich said. She stared at the pictures. “This can’t be Friday night. This was some other night. You weren’t really there.”
Reacher said nothing.
“Were you?” she asked.
“Well, check this out,” Reacher said. He handed her another photograph. It was a telephoto shot. It showed her sitting in the apartment window above the garage, staring out into the darkness, holding her cell phone. Her heat signature was picked up in strange reds and oranges and purples. But it was her. No doubt about it. Like she was close enough to touch.
“I was calling New Jersey,” she said, quietly. “Your musician friends got away OK.”
“Good,” Reacher said. “Thanks for arranging it.”
She stared at the three infrared pictures, one after the other, and said nothing.
“So the ballroom and the family house were definites,” Reacher said. “Two-zip for the bad guys. But the next day was the real clincher. Yesterday. That rally at the church.”
He passed the last photo across. It was regular daylight film, taken from a high angle. It showed Armstrong in his heavy overcoat walking across the community center lawns. The late golden sun threw a long shadow out behind him. He was surrounded by a loose knot of people, but his head was clearly visible. It had another crude gunsight inked around it.
“I was in the church tower,” Reacher said.
“The church was locked.”
“At eight o’clock in the morning. I’d been in there since five.”
“It was searched.”
“I was up where the bells were. At the top of a wooden ladder, behind a trapdoor. I put pepper on the ladder. Your dogs lost interest and stayed on the first floor.”
“It was a local unit.”
“They were sloppy.”
“I thought about canceling the event.”
“You should have.”
“Then I thought about asking him to wear a vest.”
“Wouldn’t have mattered. I would have aimed at his head. It was a beautiful day, Froelich. Clear sky, sunny, no wind at all. Cool, dense air. True air. I was a couple hundred feet away. I could have shot his eyes out.”
She went quiet.
“John Malkovich or Edward Fox?” she asked.
“I’d have hit Armstrong and then as many other people as I could, three or four seconds. Cops mostly, I guess, but women and children too. I’d have aimed to wound them, not kill them. In the stomach, probably. More effective that way. People flopping around and bleeding all over the place, it would have created mass panic. Enough to get away, probably. I’d have busted out of the church within ten seconds and gotten away into the surrounding subdivision fast enough. Neagley was standing by in a car. She’d have been rolling soon as she heard the shots. So I’d probably have been Edward Fox.”
Froelich stood up and walked to the window. Put her hands palms down on the sill and stared out at the weather.
“This is a disaster,” she said.
Reacher said nothing.
“I guess I didn’t anticipate your level of focus,” she said. “I didn’t know it was going to be all-out guerrilla warfare.”
Reacher shrugged. “Assassins aren’t necessarily going to be the gentlest people you’ll ever meet. And they’re the ones who make the rules here.”
Froelich nodded. “And I didn’t know you were going to get help, especially not from a woman.”
“I kind of warned you,” Reacher said. “I told you it couldn’t work if you were watching for me coming. You can’t expect assassins to call ahead with their plans.”
“I know,” she said. “But I was imagining a lone man, is all.”
“It’s always going to be a team,” Reacher said. “There are no lone men.”
He saw an ironic half smile reflected in the glass.
“So you don’t believe the Warren Report?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Neither do you,” he said. “No professional ever will.”
“I don’t feel like much of a professional today,” she said.
Neagley stood up and stepped over and perched on the sill, next to Froelich, her back against the glass.
“Context,” she said. “That’s what you’ve got to think about. It’s not so bad. Reacher and I were United States Army Criminal Investigation Division specialists. We were trained in all kinds of ways. Trained to think, mostly. Trained to be inventive. And to be ruthless, for sure, and self-confident. And tougher than the people we were responsible for, and some of them were plenty tough. So we’re very unusual. People as specialized as us, there’s not more than maybe ten thousand in the whole country.”
“Ten thousand is a lot,” Froelich said.
“Out of two hundred eighty-one million? And how many of them are currently the right age and available and motivated? It’s a statistically irrelevant fraction. So don’t sweat it. You’ve got an impossible job. You’re required to leave him vulnerable. Because he’s a politician. He’s got to do all this visible stuff. We would never have dreamed of letting anybody do what Armstrong does. Never in a million years. It would have been completely out of the question.”
Froelich turned around and faced the room. Swallowed once and nodded vaguely into the middle distance.
“Thanks,” she said. “For trying to make me feel better. But I’ve got some thinking to do, don’t I?”
“Perimeters,” Reacher said. “Keep the perimeters to a half-mile all around, keep the public away from him, and keep at least four agents literally within touching distance at all times. That’s all you can do.”
Froelich shook her head.
“Can’t do it,” she said. “It would be considered unreasonable. Undemocratic, even. And there are going to be hundreds of weeks like this one over the next three years. After three years it’ll start to get worse because they’ll be in their final year and they’ll be trying to get reelected and everything will have to be looser still. And about seven years from now Armstrong will start looking for the nomination in his own right. Seen how they do that? Crowd scenes all over the place from New Hampshire onward? Town meetings in shirtsleeves? Fund-raisers? It’s a complete nightmare.”
The room went quiet. Neagley peeled off the windowsill and walked across the room to the credenza. Took two thin files out of the drawer the photographs had been in. She held up the first.
“A written report,” she said. “Salient points and recommendations, from a professional perspective.”
“OK,” Froelich said.
Neagley held up the second file.
“And our expenses,” she said. “They’re all accounted for. Receipts and all. You should make the check payable to Reacher. It was his money.”
“OK,” Froelich said again. She took the files and clasped them to her chest, like they offered her protection from something.
“And there’s Elizabeth Wright from New Jersey,” Reacher said. “Don’t forget her. She needs to be taken care of. I told her that to make up for missing the reception you’d probably invite her to the Inauguration Ball.”
“OK,” Froelich said for the third time. “The Ball, whatever. I’ll speak to somebody about it.”
Then she just stood still.
“This is a disaster,” she said again.
“You’ve got an impossible job,” Reacher said. “Don’t beat up on yourself.”
She nodded. “Joe used to tell me the same thing. He said, in the circumstances, we should consider a ninety-five percent success rate a triumph.”
“Ninety-four percent,” Reacher said. “You’ve lost one President out of eighteen since you guys took over. Six percent failure rate. That’s not too bad.”
“Ninety-four, ninety-five,” she said. “Whatever, I guess he was right.”
“Joe was right about a lot of things, the way I recall it.”
“But we’ve never lost a Vice President,” she said. “Not yet.”
She put the files under one arm and stacked the photographs on the credenza and butted them around with her fingertips until they were neatly piled. Picked them up and put them in her bag. Then she glanced at each of the four walls in turn, like she was memorizing their exact details. A distracted little gesture. She nodded at nothing in particular and headed for the door.
“Got to go,” she said.
She walked out of the room and the door sucked shut behind her. There was silence for a spell. Then Neagley stood up straight at the end of one of the beds and clamped the cuffs of her sweatshirt in her palms and stretched her arms high above her head. She tilted her head back and yawned. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders. The hem of her shirt rode up and Reacher saw hard muscle above the waistband of her jeans. It was ridged like a turtle’s back.
“You still look good,” he said.
“So do you, in black.”
“Feels like a uniform,” he said. “Five years since I last wore one.”
Neagley finished stretching. Smoothed her hair and pulled the hem of her shirt back down into place.
“Are we done here?” she asked.
“Exhausted. We worked our butts off, ruining that poor woman’s day.”
“What did you think of her?”
“I liked her. And like I told her, I think she’s got an impossible job. And all in all, I think she’s pretty good at it. I doubt if anybody else could do it better. And I think she kind of knows that too, but it’s burning her up that she’s forced to settle for ninety-five percent instead of a hundred.”
“Who’s this guy Joe she was talking about?”
“An old boyfriend.”
“You knew him?”
“My brother. She dated him.”
“They broke up six years ago.”
“What’s he like?”
Reacher glanced at the floor. Didn’t correct the is to a was.
“Like a civilized version of me,” he said.
“So maybe she’ll want to date you, too. Civilized can be an overrated virtue. And collecting the complete set is always fun for a girl.”
Reacher said nothing. The room went quiet.
“I guess I’ll head home,” Neagley said. “Back to Chicago. Back to the real world. But I got to say, it was a pleasure working with you again.”
“No, really, I mean it.”
“So stick around. A buck gets ten she’ll be back inside an hour.”
Neagley smiled. “What, to ask you out?”
Reacher shook his head. “No, to tell us what her real problem is.”
Froelich walked across the sidewalk to her Suburban. Spilled the files onto the passenger seat. Started the engine and kept her foot hard on the brake. Pulled her phone from her bag and flipped it open. Entered Stuyvesant’s home number digit by digit and then paused with her finger resting on the call button. The phone waited patiently with the number displayed on the tiny green screen. She looked ahead through the windshield, fighting with herself. She looked down at the phone. Back out at the street. Her finger rested on the button. Then she flipped the phone shut and dropped it on top of the files. Pulled the transmission lever into drive and took off from the curb with a loud chirp from all four tires. Hung a left and a right and headed for her office.
The room-service guy came back to collect the coffee tray and left with it. Reacher took his jacket off and hung it in the closet. Pulled the T-shirt out of the waistband of his jeans.
“Did you vote in the election?” Neagley asked him.
He shook his head. “I’m not registered anywhere. Did you?”
“Sure,” she said. “I always vote.”
“Did you vote for Armstrong?”
“Nobody votes for Vice President. Except his family, maybe.”
“But did you vote for that ticket?”
She nodded. “Yes, I did. Would you have?”
“I guess so,” he said. “You ever hear anything about Armstrong before?”
“Not really,” she said. “I mean, I’m interested in politics, but I’m not one of those people who can name all hundred senators.”
“Would you run for office?”
“Not in a million years. I like a low profile, Reacher. I was a sergeant, and I always will be, inside. Never wanted to be an officer.”
“You had the potential.”
She shrugged and smiled, all at the same time. “Maybe I did. But what I didn’t have was the desire. And you know what? Sergeants have plenty of power. More than you guys ever realized.”
“Hey, I realized,” he said. “Believe me, I realized.”
“She’s not coming back, you know. We’re sitting here talking and wasting time and I’m missing all kinds of flights home, and she’s not coming back.”
“She’s coming back.”
Froelich parked in the garage and headed upstairs. Presidential protection was a 24/7 operation, but Sundays still felt different. People dressed different, the air was quieter, phone traffic was down. Some people spent the day at home. Like Stuyvesant, for instance. She closed her office door and sat at her desk and opened a drawer. Took out the things she needed and slipped them into a large brown envelope. Then she opened Reacher’s expenses file and copied the figure on the bottom line onto the top sheet of her yellow pad and switched her shredder on. Fed the whole file into it, sheet by sheet, and then followed it with the file of recommendations and all the six-by-four photographs, one by one. She fed the file folders themselves in and stirred the long curling shreds around in the output bin until they were hopelessly tangled. Then she switched the machine off again and picked up the envelope and headed back down to the garage.
Reacher saw her car from the hotel room window. It came around the corner and slowed. There was no traffic on the street. Late in the afternoon, on a November Sunday in D.C. The tourists were in their hotels, showering, getting ready for dinner. The natives were home, reading their newspapers, watching the NFL on television, paying bills, doing chores. The air was fogging with evening. Streetlights were sputtering to life. The black Suburban had its headlights on. It pulled a wide U across both lanes and slid into an area reserved for waiting taxis.
“She’s back,” Reacher said.
Neagley joined him at the window. “We can’t help her.”
“Maybe she isn’t looking for help.”
“Then why would she come back?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “A second opinion? Validation? Maybe she just wants to talk. You know, a problem shared is a problem halved.”
“Why talk to us?”
“Because we didn’t hire her and we can’t fire her. And we weren’t rivals for her position. You know how these organizations work.”
“Is she allowed to talk to us?”
“Didn’t you ever talk to somebody you shouldn’t have?”
Neagley made a face. “Occasionally. Like, I talked to you.”
“And I talked to you, which was worse, because you weren’t an officer.”
“But I had the potential.”
“That’s for damn sure,” he said, looking down. “Now she’s just sitting there.”
“She’s on the phone. She’s calling somebody.”
The room phone rang.
“Us, evidently,” Reacher said.
He picked up the phone.
“We’re still here,” he said.
Then he listened for a moment.
“OK,” he said, and put the phone down.
“She coming up?” Neagley asked. He nodded and went back to the window in time to see Froelich climbing out of the car. She was holding an envelope. She skipped across the sidewalk and disappeared from sight. Two minutes later they heard the distant chime of the elevator arriving on their floor. Twenty seconds after that, a knock on the door. Reacher stepped over and opened up and Froelich walked in and stopped in the middle of the room. Glanced first at Neagley, and then at Reacher.
“Can we have a minute in private?” she asked him.
“Don’t need one,” he said. “The answer is yes.”
“You don’t know the question yet.”
“You trust me, because you trusted Joe and Joe trusted me, therefore that loop is closed. Now you want to know if I trust Neagley, so you can close that loop also, and the answer is yes, I trust her absolutely, therefore you can too.”
“OK,” Froelich said. “I guess that was the question.”
“So take your jacket off and make yourself at home. You want more coffee?”
Froelich slipped out of her jacket and dumped it on the bed. Stepped over to the table and laid the envelope down.
“More coffee would be fine,” she said.
Reacher dialed room service and asked for a large pot and three cups, three saucers, and absolutely nothing else.
“I only told you half the truth before,” Froelich said.
“I guessed,” Reacher said.
Froelich nodded apologetically and picked up the envelope. Opened the flap and pulled out a clear vinyl page protector. There was something in it.
“This is a copy of something that came in the mail,” she said.
She dropped it on the table and Reacher and Neagley inched their chairs closer to take a look. The page protector was a standard office product. The thing inside it was an eight-by-ten color photograph of a single sheet of white paper. It was shown lying on a wooden surface and had a wooden office ruler laid alongside it to indicate scale. It looked like a normal letter-sized sheet. Centered left to right on it, an inch or so above the middle, were five words: You are going to die. The words were crisp and bold, obviously printed from a computer.
The room stayed quiet.
“When did it come?” Reacher asked.
“The Monday after the election,” Froelich said. “First-class mail.”
“Addressed to Armstrong?”
Froelich nodded. “At the Senate. But he hasn’t seen it yet. We open all public mail addressed to protectees. We pass on whatever is appropriate. We didn’t think this was appropriate. What do you think of it?”
“Two things, I guess. First, it’s true.”
“Not if I can help it.”
“You discovered the secret of immortality? Everybody’s going to die, Froelich. I am, you are. Maybe when we’re a hundred, but we aren’t going to live forever. So technically it’s a statement of fact. An accurate prediction, as much as a threat.”
“Which raises a question,” Neagley said. “Is the sender smart enough to have phrased it that way on purpose?”
“What would be the purpose?”
“To avoid prosecution if you find him? Or her? To be able to say, hey, it wasn’t a threat, it was a statement of fact? Anything we can infer from the forensics about the sender’s intelligence?”
Froelich looked at her in surprise. And with a measure of respect.
“We’ll get to that,” she said. “And we’re pretty sure it’s a him, not a her.”
“We’ll get to that,” Froelich said again.
“But why are you worrying about it?” Reacher asked. “That’s my second reaction. Surely those guys get sackloads of threats in the mail.”
Froelich nodded. “Several thousand a year, typically. But most of them are sent to the President. It’s fairly unusual to get one directed specifically at the Vice President. And most of them are on old scraps of paper, written in crayon, bad spelling, crossings out. Defective, in some way. And this one isn’t defective. This one stood out from the start. So we looked at it pretty hard.”
“Where was it mailed?”
“Las Vegas,” Froelich said. “Which doesn’t really help us. In terms of Americans traveling inside America, Vegas has the biggest transient population there is.”
“You’re sure an American sent it?”
“It’s a percentage game. We’ve never had a written threat from a foreigner.”
“And you don’t think he’s a Vegas resident?”
“Very unlikely. We think he traveled there to mail it.”
“Because?” Neagley asked.
“Because of the forensics,” Froelich said. “They’re spectacular. They indicate a very careful and cautious guy.”
“Were you a specialist? In the military police?”
“She was a specialist in breaking people’s necks,” Reacher said. “But I guess she took an intelligent interest in the other stuff.”
“Ignore him,” Neagley said. “I spent six months training in the FBI labs.”
Froelich nodded. “We sent this to the FBI. Their facilities are better than ours.”
There was a knock at the door. Reacher stood up and walked over and put his eye to the peephole. The room-service guy, with the coffee. Reacher opened the door and took the tray from him. A large pot, three upside-down cups, three saucers, no milk or sugar or spoons, and a single pink rose in a thin china vase. He carried the tray back to the table and Froelich moved the photograph to give him room to put it down. Neagley righted the cups and started to pour.
“What did the FBI find?” she asked.
“The envelope was clean,” Froelich said. “Standard brown letter size, gummed flap, metal butterfly closure. The address was printed on a self-adhesive label, presumably by the same computer that printed the message. The message was inserted unfolded. The flap gum was wetted with faucet water. No saliva, no DNA. No fingerprints on the metal closure. There were five sets of prints on the envelope itself. Three of them were postal workers. Their prints are on file as government workers. It’s a condition of their employment. The fourth was the Senate mail handler who passed it on to us. And the fifth was our agent who opened it.”
Neagley nodded. “So forget the envelope. Except inasmuch as the faucet water was pretty thoughtful. This guy’s a reader, keeps up with the times.”
“What about the letter itself?” Reacher asked.
Froelich picked up the photograph and tilted it toward the room light.
“Very weird,” she said. “The FBI lab says the paper was made by the Georgia-Pacific company, their high-bright, twenty-four-pound heavyweight, smooth finish, acid-free laser stock, standard eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch letter size. Georgia-Pacific is the third-largest supplier into the office market. They sell hundreds of tons a week. So a single sheet is completely untraceable. But it’s a buck or two more expensive per ream than basic paper, so that might mean something. Or it might not.”
“What about the printing?”
“It’s a Hewlett-Packard laser. They can tell by the toner chemistry. Can’t tell which model, because all their black-and-white lasers use the same basic toner powder. The typeface is Times New Roman, from Microsoft Works 4.5 for Windows 95, fourteen point, printed bold.”
“They can narrow it down to a single computer program?”
Froelich nodded. “They’ve got a guy who specializes in that. Typefaces tend to change very subtly between different word processors. The software writers fiddle with the kerning, which is the spacing between individual letters, as opposed to the spacing between words. If you look long enough, you can kind of sense it. Then you can measure it and identify the program. But it doesn’t help us much. There must be a million zillion PCs out there with Works 4.5 bundled in.”
“No prints, I guess,” Neagley said.
“Well, this is where it gets weird,” Froelich answered. She moved the coffee tray an inch and laid the photograph flat. Pointed to the top edge. “Right here on the actual edge we’ve got microscopic traces of talcum dust.” Then she pointed to a spot an inch below the top edge. “And here we’ve got two definite smudges of talcum dust, one on the back, one on the front.”
“Latex gloves,” Neagley said.
“Exactly,” Froelich said. “Disposable latex gloves, like a doctor’s or a dentist’s. They come in boxes of fifty or a hundred pairs. Talcum powder inside the gloves, to help them slip on. But there’s always some loose talcum in the box, so it transfers from the outside of the glove, too. The dust on the top edge is baked, but the smudges aren’t.”
“OK,” Neagley said. “So the guy puts on his gloves, breaks open a new ream of paper, fans it out so it won’t jam, which puts talcum dust on the top edge where he flips it, then he loads the printer, prints out his message, whereby he bakes the dust.”
“Because a laser printer uses heat,” Froelich said. “The toner powder is attracted to the paper by an electrostatic charge in the shape of the required letters, and then a heater bakes it into place permanently. Somewhere around two hundred degrees, I think, momentarily.”
Neagley leaned close. “Then he lifts the paper out of the output tray by clamping it between his finger and thumb, which accounts for the smudges front and back near the top, which aren’t baked because it’s after the heat treatment. And you know what? This is a home office, not a work office.”
“The front and back finger-clamping thing means the paper is coming out of the printer vertically. Popping up, like a toaster. If it was feeding out flat the marks would be different. There would be a smear on the front where he slides it. Less of a mark on the back. And the only Hewlett-Packard lasers that feed the paper vertically are the little ones. Home-office things. I’ve got one myself. It’s too slow to use high-volume. And the toner cartridge only lasts twenty-five hundred pages. Strictly amateur. So this guy did this in his den at home.”
Froelich nodded. “Stands to reason, I guess. He’s going to look a little strange using latex gloves in front of other people in an office.”
Neagley smiled, like she was making progress. “OK, he’s in his den, he lifts the message out of his printer and slides it straight into the envelope and seals it with faucet water while he’s still got his gloves on. Hence none of his prints.”
Froelich’s face changed. “No, this is where it gets very weird.” She pointed to the photograph. Laid her fingernail on a spot an inch below the printed message, and a little ways to the right of center. “What might we expect to find here, if this were a regular letter, for instance?”
“A signature,” Reacher said.
“Exactly,” Froelich said. She kept her fingernail on the spot. “And what we’ve got here is a thumbprint. A big, clear, definite thumbprint. Obviously deliberate. Bold as anything, exactly vertical, clear as a bell. Way too big to be a woman’s. He’s signed the message with his thumb.”
Reacher pulled the photograph out from under Froelich’s finger and studied it.
“You’re tracing the print, obviously,” Neagley said.
“They won’t find anything,” Reacher said. “The guy must be completely confident his prints aren’t on file anywhere.”
“We’ve come up blank so far,” Froelich said.
“Which is very weird,” Reacher said. “He signs the note with his thumbprint, which he’s happy to do because his prints aren’t on file anywhere, but he goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure his prints don’t appear anywhere else on the letter or the envelope. Why?”
“Effect?” Neagley said. “Drama? Neatness?”
“But it explains the expensive paper,” Reacher said. “The smooth coating holds the print. Cheap paper would be too porous.”
“What did they use at the lab?” Neagley asked. “Iodine fuming? Ninhydrin?”
Froelich shook her head. “It came right up on the fluoroscope.”
Reacher was quiet for a spell, just looking at the photograph. Full dark had fallen outside the window. Shiny, damp, city dark.
“What else?” he said to Froelich. “Why are you so uptight?”
“Should she need something else?” Neagley asked him.
He nodded. You know how these organizations work, he had told her.
“There has to be something else,” he said. “I mean, OK, this is scary and challenging and intriguing, I guess, but she’s really panicking here.”
Froelich sighed and picked up her envelope and slid out a second item. It was identical to the first in almost every respect. A plastic page protector, with an eight-by-ten color photograph inside it. The photograph showed a sheet of white paper. There were eight words printed on it: Vice-President-elect Armstrong is going to die. The paper was lying on a different surface, and it had a different ruler next to it. The surface was gray laminate, and the ruler was clear plastic.
“It’s virtually identical,” Froelich said. “The forensics are the same, and it’s got the same thumbprint for a signature.”
“It showed up on my boss’s desk,” Froelich said. “One morning, it was just there. No envelope, no nothing. And absolutely no way of telling how it got there.”
Reacher stood up and moved to the window. Found the track cord and pulled the drapes closed. No real reason. It just felt like the appropriate thing to do.
“When did it show up?” he asked.
“Three days after the first one came in the mail,” Froelich said.
“Aimed at you,” Neagley said. “Rather than Armstrong himself. Why? To make sure you take the first one seriously?”
“We were already taking it seriously,” Froelich said.
“When does Armstrong leave Camp David?” Reacher asked.
“They’ll have dinner there tonight,” Froelich said. “Probably shoot the breeze for a spell. They’ll fly back after midnight, I guess.”
“Who’s your boss?”
“Guy called Stuyvesant,” Froelich said. “Like the cigarette.”
“You tell him about the last five days?”
Froelich shook her head. “I decided not to.”
“Wise,” Reacher said. “Exactly what do you want us to do?”
Froelich was quiet for a spell.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “I’ve asked myself that for six days, ever since I decided to find you. I asked myself, in a situation like this, what do I really want? And you know what? I really want to talk to somebody. Specifically, I really want to talk to Joe. Because there are complexities here, aren’t there? You can see that, right? And Joe would find a way through them. He was smart like that.”
“You want me to be Joe?” Reacher said.
“No, I want Joe to be still alive.”
Reacher nodded. “You and me both. But he ain’t.”
“So maybe you could be the next best thing.”
Then she was quiet again.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That didn’t come out very well.”
“Tell me about the Neanderthals,” Reacher said. “In your office.”
She nodded. “That was my first thought, too.”
“It’s a definite possibility,” he said. “Some guy gets all jealous and resentful, lays all this stuff on you and hopes you’ll crack up and look stupid.”
“My first thought,” she said again.
“Any likely candidates in particular?”
She shrugged. “On the surface, none of them. Below the surface, any of them. There are six guys on my old pay grade who got passed over when I got the promotion. Each one of them has got friends and allies and supporters in the grades below. Like networks inside networks. Could be anybody.”
She shook her head. “I can’t come up with a favorite. And all their prints are on file. Condition of employment for us too. And this period between the election and the inauguration is very busy. We’re stretched. Nobody’s had time for a weekend in Vegas.”
“Didn’t have to be a weekend. Could have been in and out in a single day.”
Froelich said nothing.
“What about discipline problems?” Reacher asked. “Anybody resent the way you’re leading the team? You had to yell at anybody yet? Anybody underperforming?”
She shook her head. “I’ve changed a few things. Spoken to a couple of people. But I’ve been tactful. And the thumbprint doesn’t match anybody anyway, whether I’ve spoken to them or not. So I think it’s a genuine threat from out there in the world.”
“Me too,” Neagley said. “But there’s some insider involvement, right? Like, who else could wander around your building and leave something on your boss’s desk?”
“I need you to come see the office,” she said.
They rode the short distance in the government Suburban. Reacher sprawled in the back and Neagley rode with Froelich in the front. The night air was damp, suspended somewhere between drizzle and evening mist. The roads were glossy with water and orange light. The tires hissed and the windshield wipers thumped back and forth. Reacher glimpsed the White House railings and the front of the Treasury Building before Froelich turned a corner and drove into a narrow alley and headed for a garage entrance straight ahead. There was a steep ramp and a guard in a glass booth and a bright wash of white light. There were low ceilings and thick concrete pillars. She parked the Suburban on the end of a row of six identical models. There were Lincoln Town Cars here and there, and Cadillacs of various vintages and sizes with awkward rebuilt frames around the windows where bulletproof glass had been installed. Every vehicle was black and shiny and the whole garage was painted glossy white, walls and ceiling and floor alike. The place looked like a monochrome photograph. There was a door with a small porthole of wired glass. Froelich led them through it and up a narrow mahogany staircase into a small first-floor lobby. There were marble pilasters and a single elevator door.
“You two shouldn’t really be here,” Froelich said. “So say nothing, stick close to me and walk fast, OK?”
Then she paused a beat. “But come look at something first.”
She led them through another inconspicuous door and around a corner into a vast dark hall that felt the size of a football field.
“The building’s main lobby,” she said. Her voice echoed in the marble emptiness. The light was dim. White stone looked gray in the gloom.
“Here,” she said.
The walls had giant raised panels carved out of marble, reeded at the edges in the classical style. The one they were standing under was engraved at the top: The United States Department Of The Treasury. The inscription ran laterally for eight or nine feet. Underneath it was another inscription: Roll Of Honor. Then starting in the top left corner of the panel was an engraved list of dates and names. Maybe three or four dozen of them. The next-to-last name on the list was J. Reacher, 1997. Last was M. B. Gordon, 1997. Then there was plenty of empty space. Maybe a column and a half.
“That’s Joe,” Froelich said. “Our tribute.”
Reacher looked up at his brother’s name. It was neatly chiseled. Each letter was maybe two inches high and was inlaid with gold leaf. The marble looked cold, and it was veined and flecked like marble everywhere. Then he caught a glimpse in his mind of Joe’s face, maybe twelve years old, maybe at the dinner table or the breakfast table, always a millisecond faster than anyone else to see a joke, always a millisecond slower to start a smile. Then a glimpse of him leaving home, which at that time was a service bungalow somewhere hot, his shirt wet with sweat, his kitbag on his shoulder, heading out to the flight line and a ten-thousand-mile journey to West Point. Then at the graveside at their mother’s funeral, which was the last time he had seen him alive. He’d met Molly Beth Gordon, too. About fifteen seconds before she died. She had been a bright, vivacious blond woman. Not so very different from Froelich herself.
“No, that’s not Joe,” he said. “Or Molly Beth. Those are just names.”
Neagley glanced at him and Froelich said nothing and led them back to the small lobby with the single elevator. They went up three floors to a different world. It was full of narrow corridors and low ceilings and businesslike adaptations. Acoustic tile overhead, halogen light, white linoleum and gray carpet on the floors, offices divided into cubicles with shoulder-high padded fabric panels on adjustable feet. Banks of phones, fax machines, piles of paper, computers everywhere. There was a literal hum of activity built from the whine of hard drives and cooling fans and the muted screech of modems and the soft ringing of phones. Inside the main door was a reception counter with a man in a suit sitting behind it. He had a phone cradled in his shoulder and was writing something on a message log and couldn’t manage more than a puzzled glance and a distracted nod of greeting.
“Duty officer,” Froelich said. “They work a three-shift system around the clock. This desk is always manned.”
“Is this the only way in?” Reacher asked.
“There are fire stairs way in back,” Froelich said. “But don’t get ahead of yourself. See the cameras?”
She pointed to the ceiling. There were miniature surveillance cameras everywhere there needed to be to cover every corridor.
“Take them into account,” she said.
She led them deeper into the complex, turning left and right until they ended up at what must have been the back of the floor. There was a long narrow corridor that opened out into a windowless square space. Against the side wall of the square was a secretarial station with room for one person, with a desk and file cabinets and shelves loaded with three-ring binders and piles of loose memos. There was a portrait of the current President on the wall and a furled Stars and Stripes in a corner. A coatrack next to the flag. Nothing else. Everything was tidy. Nothing was out of place. Behind the secretary’s desk was the fire exit. It was a stout door with an acetate plaque showing a green man running. Above the exit was a surveillance camera. It stared forward like an unblinking glass eye. Opposite the secretarial station was a single blank door. It was closed.
“Stuyvesant’s office,” Froelich said.
She opened the door and led them inside. Flicked a switch and bright halogen light filled the room. It was a reasonably small office. Smaller than the square anteroom outside it. There was a window, with white fabric blinds closed against the night.
“Does the window open?” Neagley asked.
“No,” Froelich said. “And it faces Pennsylvania Avenue, anyway. Some burglar climbs up three floors on a rope, somebody’s going to notice, believe me.”
The office was dominated by a huge desk with a gray composite top. It was completely empty. There was a leather chair pushed exactly square against it.
“Doesn’t he use a phone?” Reacher asked.
“Keeps it in the drawer,” Froelich said. “He likes the desktop clear.”
There were tall cabinets against the wall, faced with the same gray laminate as the desk. There were two visitor chairs made of leather. Apart from that, nothing. It was a serene space. It spoke of a tidy mind.
“OK,” Froelich said. “The mail threat came on the Monday in the week after the election. Then, on the Wednesday evening, Stuyvesant went home about seven-thirty. Left his desk clear. His secretary left a half hour later. Popped her head in the door just before she went, like she always does. She confirms that the desk was clear. And she’d notice, right? If there was a sheet of paper on the desk, it would stand out.”
Reacher nodded. The desktop looked like the foredeck of a battleship made ready for inspection by an admiral. A speck of dust would have stood out.
“Eight o’clock Thursday morning, the secretary comes in again,” Froelich said. “She walks straight to her own desk and starts work. Doesn’t open Stuyvesant’s door at all. Ten after eight, Stuyvesant himself shows up. He’s carrying a briefcase and wearing a raincoat. He takes off the raincoat and hangs it up on the coatrack. His secretary speaks to him and he sets his briefcase upright on her desk and confers with her about something. Then he opens his door and walks into his office. He’s not carrying anything. He’s left his briefcase on the secretary’s desk. About four or five seconds later he comes back out. Calls his secretary in. They both confirm that at that point, the sheet of paper was there on the desk.”
Neagley glanced around the office, at the door, at the desk, at the distance between the door and the desk.
“Is this just their testimony?” she asked. “Or do the surveillance cameras record to videotape?”
“Both,” Froelich said. “All the cameras record to separate tapes. I’ve looked at this one, and everything happens exactly as they describe it, coming and going.”
“So unless they’re in it together, neither of them put the paper there.”
Froelich nodded. “That’s the way I see it.”
“So who did?” Reacher asked. “What else does the tape show?”
“The cleaning crew,” Froelich said.
She led them back to her own office and took three video-cassettes out of her desk drawer. Stepped over to a bank of shelves, where a small Sony television with a built-in VCR nestled between a printer and a fax machine.
“These are copies,” she said. “The originals are locked away. The recorders work on timers, six hours on each tape. Six in the morning until noon, noon until six, six until midnight, midnight until six, and start again.”
She found the remote in a drawer and switched the television on. Put the first tape in the mechanism. It clicked and whirred and a dim picture settled on the screen.
“This is the Wednesday evening,” she said. “Six P.M. onward.”
The picture was gray and milky and the detail definition was soft, but the clarity was completely adequate. The camera showed the whole square area from behind the secretary’s head. She was at her desk, on the phone. She looked old. She had white hair. Stuyvesant’s door was on the right of the picture. It was closed. There was a date and time burned into the picture at the bottom left. Froelich hit fast wind and the motion sped up. The secretary’s white head moved with comical jerkiness. Her hand batted up and down as she finished calls and fielded new ones. Some person bustled into shot and delivered a stack of internal mail and turned and bustled away. The secretary sorted the mail with the speed of a machine. She opened every envelope and piled the contents neatly and took out a stamp and ink pad and stamped every new letter at the top.
“What’s she doing?” Reacher asked.
“Date of receipt,” Froelich said. “This whole operation runs on accurate paperwork. Always has.”
The secretary was using her left hand to curl each sheet back and her right to stamp the date. The tape’s fast motion made her look frantic. In the bottom corner of the picture the date held steady and the time unspooled just about fast enough to read. Reacher turned away from the screen and looked around Froelich’s office. It was a typical government space, pretty much the civilian equivalent of the offices he’d spent his time in, aggressively plain and expensively shoehorned into a fine old building. Tough gray nylon carpet, laminate furniture, IT wiring routed carefully in white plastic conduit. Foot-high piles of paper everywhere, reports and memoranda tacked to the walls. There was a glass-fronted cabinet with a yard of procedure manuals inside. There was no window in the room. But she still had a plant. It was in a plastic pot on the desk, pale and dry and struggling to survive. There were no photographs. No mementos. Nothing personal at all except a faint trace of her perfume in the air and the fabric of her chair.
“OK, this is where Stuyvesant goes home,” she said.
Reacher looked back at the screen and saw the time counter race through seven-thirty, and then seven-thirty-one. Stuyvesant stepped out of his office at triple speed. He was a tall man, wide across the shoulders, slightly stooped, graying at the temples. He was carrying a slim briefcase. The video made him move with absurd energy. He raced across to the coat rack and took down a black raincoat. Hurled it onto his shoulders and raced back to the secretary’s desk. Bent abruptly and said something and raced away again out of sight. Froelich pressed the fast wind button harder and the speed redoubled again. The secretary jerked and swayed in her seat. The time counter blurred. As the seven turned to an eight the secretary jumped up and Froelich slowed the tape back to triple speed in time to catch her opening Stuyvesant’s door for a second. She held on to the handle and leaned inside with one foot off the ground and turned immediately and closed the door. Rushed around the square space and collected her purse and an umbrella and a coat and disappeared into the gloom at the far end of the corridor. Froelich doubled the playback speed once again and the time counter unspooled faster but the picture remained entirely static. The stillness of a deserted office descended and held steady as time rushed by.
“When do the cleaners come in?” Reacher asked.
“Just before midnight,” Froelich said.
“They’re night workers. This is a round-the-clock operation.”
“And there’s nothing else visible before then?”
“Nothing at all.”
“So spool ahead. We get the picture.”
Froelich operated the buttons and shuttled between fast-forward with snow on the screen and regular-speed playback with a picture to check the timecode. At eleven-fifty P.M. she let the tape run. The counter clicked ahead, a second at a time. At eleven fifty-two there was motion at the far end of the corridor. A team of three people emerged from the gloom. There were two women and a man, all of them wearing dark overalls. They looked Hispanic. They were all short and compact, dark-haired, stoic. The man was pushing a cart. It had a black garbage bag locked into a hoop at the front, and trays stacked with cloths and spray bottles on shelves at the rear. One of the women was carrying a vacuum cleaner. It rode on her back like a pack. It had a long hose with a broad nozzle. The other woman was carrying a bucket in one hand and a mop in the other. The mop had a square foam pad on the head and a complicated hinge halfway up the handle, for squeezing excess water away. All three of them were wearing rubber gloves. The gloves looked pale on their hands. Maybe clear plastic, maybe light yellow. All three of them looked tired. Like night workers. But they looked neat and clean and professional. They had tidy haircuts and their expressions said: we know this ain’t the world’s most exciting job, but we’re going to do it properly. Froelich paused the tape and froze them as they approached Stuyvesant’s door.
“Who are they?” Reacher asked.
“Direct government employees,” Froelich said. “Most office cleaners in this city are contract people, minimum wage, no benefits, high-turnover nobodies. Same in any city. But we hire our own. The FBI, too. We need a high degree of reliability, obviously. We keep two crews at all times. They’re properly interviewed, they’re background-checked, and they don’t get in the door unless they’re good people. Then we pay them real well, and give them full health plans, and dental, and paid vacations, the whole nine yards. They’re department members, same as anybody else.”
“And they respond?”
She nodded. “They’re terrific, generally.”
“But you think this crew smuggled the letter in.”
“No other conclusion to come to.”
Reacher pointed at the screen. “So where is it now?”
“Could be in the garbage bag, in a stiff envelope. Could be in a page protector, taped underneath one of the trays or the shelves. Could be taped to the guy’s back, under his overalls.”
She hit play and the cleaners continued onward into Stuyvesant’s office. The door swung shut behind them. The camera stared forward blankly. The time counter ticked on, five minutes, seven, eight. Then the tape ran out.
“Midnight,” Froelich said.
She ejected the cassette and put the second tape in. Pressed play and the date changed to Thursday and the timer restarted at midnight exactly. It crawled onward, two minutes, four, six.
“They certainly do a thorough job,” Neagley said. “Our office cleaners would have done the whole building by now. A lick and a promise.”
“Stuyvesant likes a clean working environment,” Froelich said.
At seven minutes past midnight the door opened and the crew filed out.
“So now you figure the letter is there on the desk,” Reacher said.
Froelich nodded. The video showed the cleaners starting work around the secretarial station. They missed nothing. Everything was energetically dusted and wiped and polished. Every inch of carpet was vacuumed. Garbage was emptied into the black bag. It had bellied out to twice its size. The man looked a little disheveled by his efforts. He pushed the cart backward foot by foot and the women retreated with him. Sixteen minutes past midnight, they backed away into the gloom and left the picture still and quiet, as it had been before they came.
“That’s it,” Froelich said. “Nothing more for the next five hours and forty-four minutes. Then we change tapes again and find nothing at all from six A.M. until eight, when the secretary comes in, and then it goes down exactly as she and Stuyvesant claimed it did.”
“As one might expect,” said a voice from the door. “I think our word can be trusted. After all, I’ve been in government service for twenty-five years, and my secretary even longer than that, I believe.”
The guy at the door was Stuyvesant, no doubt about that. Reacher recognized him from his appearance on the tape. He was tall, broad-shouldered, over fifty, still in reasonable shape. A handsome face, tired eyes. He was wearing a suit and a tie, on a Sunday. Froelich was looking at him, worried. But he in turn was staring straight at Neagley.
“You’re the woman on the video,” he said. “In the ballroom, Thursday night.”
He was clearly thinking hard. Running conclusions through his head and then nodding imperceptibly to himself whenever they made sense. After a moment he moved his gaze from Neagley to Reacher and stepped right into the room.
“And you’re Joe Reacher’s brother,” he said. “You look just like him.”
“Jack Reacher,” he said, and offered his hand.
Stuyvesant took it.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. “Five years late, I know, but the Treasury Department still remembers your brother with affection.”
Reacher nodded again.
“This is Frances Neagley,” he said.
“Reacher brought her in to help with the audit,” Froelich said.
Stuyvesant smiled a brief smile.
“I gathered that,” he said. “Smart move. What were the results?”
The office went quiet.
“I apologize if I offended you, sir,” Froelich said. “You know, before. Talking about the tape like that. I was just explaining the situation.”
“What were the audit results?” Stuyvesant asked again.
She said nothing back.
“That bad?” Stuyvesant said to her. “Well, I certainly hope so. I knew Joe Reacher too. Not as well as you did, but we came into contact, time to time. He was impressive. I’m assuming his brother is at least half as smart. Ms. Neagley, probably smarter still. In which case they must have found ways through. Am I right?”
“Three definites,” Froelich said.
“The ballroom, obviously,” he said. “Probably the family house and that damn outdoors event in Bismarck too. Am I right?”
“Yes,” Froelich said.
“Extreme levels of performance,” Neagley said. “Unlikely to be duplicated.”
Stuyvesant held up his hand and cut her off.
“Let’s go to the conference room,” he said. “I want to talk about baseball.”
He led them through narrow winding corridors to a relatively spacious room in the heart of the complex. It had a long table in it with ten chairs, five to a side. No windows. The same gray synthetic carpet underfoot and the same white acoustic tile overhead. The same bright halogen light. There was a low cabinet against one wall. It had closed doors and three telephones on it. Two were white and one was red. Stuyvesant sat down and waved to the chairs on the other side of the table. Reacher glanced at a huge notice board full of memos labeled confidential.
“I’m going to be uncharacteristically frank,” Stuyvesant said. “Just temporarily, you understand, because I think we owe you an explanation, and because Froelich involved you with my initial approval, and because Joe Reacher’s brother is family, so to speak, and therefore his colleague is too.”
“We worked together in the military,” Neagley said.
Stuyvesant nodded, like that was an inference he had drawn long ago.
“Let’s talk about baseball,” he said. “You follow the game?”
They all waited.
“The Washington Senators had already gone when I hit town,” he said. “So I’ve had to make do with the Baltimore Orioles, which has been a mixed bag in terms of fun. But do you understand what’s unique about the game?”
“The length of the season,” Reacher said. “The win percentages.”
Stuyvesant smiled, like he was conferring praise.
“Maybe you’re better than half as smart,” he said. “The thing about baseball is that the regular season is one hundred sixty-two games long. Way, way longer than any other sport. Any other sport has about half as many games as baseball. Basketball, hockey, football, soccer, anything. Any other sport, the players can start out thinking they can win every single game all season long. It’s just about a realistic motivational goal. It’s even been achieved, here and there, now and then. But it’s impossible in baseball. The very best teams, the greatest champions, they all lose around a third of their games. They lose fifty or sixty times a year, at least. Imagine what that feels like, from a psychological perspective. You’re a superb athlete, you’re fanatically competitive, but you know for sure you’re going to lose repeatedly. You have to make mental adjustments, or you couldn’t cope with it. And presidential protection is exactly the same thing. That’s my point. We can’t win every day. So we get used to it.”
“You only lost once,” Neagley said. “Back in 1963.”
“No,” Stuyvesant said. “We lose repeatedly. But not every loss is significant. Just like baseball. Not every hit they get produces a run against you, not every defeat they inflict loses you the World Series. And with us, not every mistake kills our guy.”
“So what are you saying?” Neagley asked.
Stuyvesant sat forward. “I’m saying despite what your audit might have revealed you should still have considerable faith in us. Not every error costs us a run. Now, I completely understand that kind of so-what self-confidence must seem very offhand to an outsider. But you must understand we’re forced to think that way. Your audit showed up a few holes, and what we have to do now is judge whether it’s possible to fill them. Whether it’s reasonable. I’m going to leave that to Froelich’s own judgment. It’s her show. But what I’m suggesting is that you get rid of any sense of doubt you’re feeling about us. As private citizens. Any sense of our failure. Because we’re not failing. There are always going to be holes. Part of the job. This is a democracy. Get used to it.”
Then he sat back, like he was finished.
“What about this specific threat?” Reacher asked him.
Stuyvesant paused, and then he shook his head. His face had changed. The mood in the whole room had changed.
“That’s precisely where I stop being frank,” he said. “I told you it was a temporary indulgence. And it was a very serious lapse on Froelich’s part to reveal the existence of any threat at all. All I’m prepared to say is we intercept a lot of threats. Then we deal with them. How we deal with them is entirely confidential. Therefore I would ask you to understand you are now under an absolute obligation never to mention this situation to anybody after you leave here tonight. Or any aspect of our procedures. That obligation is rooted in federal statute. There are sanctions available to me.”
There was silence. Reacher said nothing. Neagley sat quiet. Froelich looked upset. Stuyvesant ignored her completely and gazed hard at Reacher and Neagley, at first hostile, and then suddenly pensive. He started thinking hard again. He stood up and walked over to the low cabinet with the telephones on it. Squatted down in front of it. Opened the doors and took out two yellow legal pads and two ballpoint pens. Walked back and dropped one of each in front of Reacher and one of each in front of Neagley. Circled around the head of the table again and sat back down in his chair.
“Write your full names,” he said. “All and any aliases, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, military ID numbers, and current addresses.”
“What for?” Reacher asked.
“Just do it,” Stuyvesant said.
Reacher paused and picked up his pen. Froelich looked at him, anxiously. Neagley glanced at him and shrugged and started writing on her pad. Reacher waited a beat and then followed her example. He was finished well before her. He had no middle name and no current address. Stuyvesant walked around behind them and scooped the pads off the table. Said nothing and walked straight out of the room with the pads held tight under his arm. The door slammed loudly behind him.
“I’m in trouble,” Froelich said. “And I’ve made trouble for you guys, too.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Reacher said. “He’s going to make us sign some kind of confidentiality agreement, is all. He’s gone to get them typed up, I guess.”
“But what’s he going to do to me?”
“Demote me? Fire me?”
“He authorized the audit. The audit was necessary because of the threats. The two things were connected. We’ll tell him we pushed you with questions.”
“He’ll demote me,” Froelich said. “He wasn’t happy about me running the audit in the first place. Told me it indicated a lack of self-confidence.”
“Bullshit,” Reacher said. “We did stuff like that all the time.”
“Audits build self-confidence,” Neagley said. “That was our experience. Better to know something for sure than just hope for the best.”
Froelich looked away. Didn’t reply. The room went quiet. They all waited, five minutes, then ten, then fifteen. Reacher stood up and stretched. Stepped over to the low cabinet and looked at the red phone. He picked it up and held it to his ear. There was no dial tone. He put it back and scanned the confidential memos on the notice board. The ceiling was low and he could feel heat on his head from the halogen lights. He sat down again and turned his chair and tilted it back and put his feet on the next one in line. Glanced at his watch. Stuyvesant had been gone twenty minutes.
“Hell is he doing?” he said. “Typing them himself?”
“Maybe he’s calling his agents,” Neagley said. “Maybe we’re all going to jail, to guarantee our everlasting silence forever.”
Reacher yawned and smiled. “We’ll give him ten more minutes. Then we’re leaving. We’ll all go out and get some dinner.”
Stuyvesant came back after five more. He walked into the room and closed the door. He was carrying no papers. He stepped over and sat down in his original seat and placed his hands flat on the table. Drummed a staccato little rhythm with his fingertips.
“OK,” he said. “Where were we? Reacher had a question, I think.”
Reacher took his feet off the chair and turned to face front.
“Did I?” he said.
Stuyvesant nodded. “You asked about this specific threat. Well, it’s either an inside job or it’s an outside job. It’s got to be one or the other, obviously.”
“We’re discussing this now?”
“Yes, we are,” Stuyvesant said.
“Why? What changed?”
Stuyvesant ignored the question. “If it’s an outside job, should we necessarily worry? Perhaps not, because that’s like baseball, too. If the Yankees come to town saying they’re going to beat the Orioles, does that mean it’s true? Boasting about it is not the same thing as actually doing it.”
“I’m asking for your input here,” Stuyvesant said.
“OK,” he said. “You think it is an outside threat?”
“No, I think it’s inside intimidation intended to damage Froelich’s career. Now ask me what I’m going to do about it.”
Reacher glanced at him. Glanced at his watch. Glanced at the wall. Twenty-five minutes, a Sunday evening, deep inside the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia triangle.
“I know what you’re going to do about it,” he said.
“You’re going to hire me and Neagley for an internal investigation.”
Reacher nodded. “If you’re worried about inside intimidation then you need an internal investigation. That’s clear. And you can’t use one of your own people, because you might hit on the bad guy by chance. And you don’t want to bring the FBI in, because that’s not how Washington works. Nobody washes their dirty linen in public. So you need some other outsider. And you’ve got two of them sitting right in front of you. They’re already involved, because Froelich just involved them. So either you terminate that involvement, or you choose to expand on it. You’d prefer to expand on it, because that way you don’t have to find fault with an excellent agent you just promoted. So can you use us? Of course you can. Who better than Joe Reacher’s little brother? Inside Treasury, Joe Reacher is practically a saint. So your ass is covered. And mine is too. Because of Joe I’ll get automatic credibility from the start. And I was a good investigator in the military. So was Neagley. You know that, because you just checked. My guess is you just spent twenty-five minutes talking to the Pentagon and the National Security Agency. That’s why you wanted those details. They ran us through their computers and we came out clean. More than clean, probably, because I’m sure our security clearances are still on file, and I’m sure they’re still way higher than you actually need them to be.”
Stuyvesant nodded. He looked satisfied.
“An excellent analysis,” he said. “You get the job, just as soon as I get hard copies of those clearances. They should be here in an hour or two.”
“You can do this?” Neagley said.
“I can do what I want,” Stuyvesant said. “Presidents tend to give a lot of authority to the people they hope will keep them alive.”
Silence in the room.
“Will I be a suspect?” Stuyvesant asked.
“No,” Reacher said.
“Maybe I should be. Maybe I should be your number-one suspect. Perhaps I felt forced to promote a woman because of contemporary pressures to do so, but I secretly resent it, so I’m working behind her back to panic her and thereby discredit her.”
Reacher said nothing.
“I could have found a friend or a relative who had never been fingerprinted. I could have placed the paper on my desk at seven-thirty Wednesday evening and instructed my secretary not to notice it. She’d have followed my orders. Or I could have instructed the cleaners to smuggle it in that night. They’d have followed my orders, too. But they’d have followed Froelich’s orders equally. She should be your number-two suspect, probably. Maybe she has a friend or a relative with no prints on file either, and maybe she’s setting this whole thing up in order to deal with it spectacularly and earn some enhanced credibility.”
“Except I’m not setting it up,” Froelich said.
“Neither of you is a suspect,” Reacher said.
“Why not?” Stuyvesant asked.
“Because Froelich came to me voluntarily, and she knew something about me from my brother. You hired us directly after seeing our military records. Neither of you would have done those things if you had something to hide. Too much risk.”
“Maybe we think we’re smarter than you are. An internal investigation that missed us would be the best cover there is.”
Reacher shook his head. “Neither of you is that dumb.”
“Good,” Stuyvesant replied. He looked satisfied. “So let’s agree it’s a jealous rival elsewhere in the department. Let’s assume he conspired with the cleaners.”
“Or she,” Froelich said.
“Where are the cleaners now?” Reacher asked.
“Suspended,” Stuyvesant said. “At home, on full pay. They live together. One of the women is the man’s wife and the other woman is his sister-in-law. The other crew is working overtime to make up, and costing me a fortune.”
“What’s their story?”
“They know nothing about anything. They didn’t bring in any sheet of paper, they never saw it, it wasn’t there when they were there.”
“But you don’t believe them.”
Stuyvesant was quiet for a long moment. He fiddled with his shirt cuffs and then laid his hands flat on the table again.
“They’re trusted employees,” he said. “They’re very nervous about being under suspicion. Very upset. Frightened, even. But they’re also calm. Like we won’t be able to prove anything, because they didn’t do anything. They’re a little puzzled. They passed a lie-detector test. All three of them.”
“So you do believe them.”
Stuyvesant shook his head. “I can’t believe them. How can I? You saw the tapes. Who else put the damn thing there? A ghost?”
“So what’s your opinion?”
“I think somebody they knew inside the building asked them to do it, and explained it away as a routine test procedure, like a war game or a secret mission, said there was no harm in it, and coached them through what would happen afterward in terms of the video and the questioning and the lie detector. I think that might give a person enough composure to pass the polygraph. If they were convinced they weren’t in the wrong and there would be no adverse consequences. If they were convinced they were really helping the department somehow.”
“Have you pursued that with them yet?”
Stuyvesant shook his head.
“That’ll be your job,” he said. “I’m not good at interrogation.”
Reacher said nothing.
He left as suddenly as he had arrived. Just upped and walked out of the room. The door swung shut behind him and left Reacher and Neagley and Froelich sitting together at the table in the bright light and the silence.
“You won’t be popular,” Froelich said. “Internal investigators never are.”
“I’m not interested in being popular,” Reacher said.
“I’ve already got a job,” Neagley said.
“Take some vacation time,” Reacher said. “Stick around, be unpopular with me.”
“Will I get paid?”
“I’m sure there’ll be a fee,” Froelich said.
Neagley shrugged. “OK, I guess my partners could see this as a prestige thing. You know, government work? I could go back to the hotel, make some calls, see if they can cope without me for a spell.”
“You want to get that dinner first?” Froelich asked.
Neagley shook her head. “No, I’ll eat in my room. You two get dinner.”
They wound their way back through the corridors to Froelich’s office and she called a driver for Neagley. Then she escorted her down to the garage and came back upstairs to find Reacher sitting quiet at her desk.
“Are you two having a relationship?” she asked.
“You and Neagley.”
“What kind of a question is that?”
“She was weird about dinner.”
He shook his head. “No, we’re not having a relationship.”
“Did you ever? You seem awful close.”
“She obviously likes you, and you obviously like her. And she’s cute.”
He nodded. “I do like her. And she is cute. But we never had a relationship.”
“Why not? It just never happened. You know what I mean?”
“I’m not sure what it’s got to do with you, anyway. You’re my brother’s ex, not mine. I don’t even know your name.”
“M. E.,” she said.
“Martha Enid?” he said. “Mildred Eliza?”
“Let’s go,” she said. “Dinner, my place.”
“Restaurants are impossible here on Sunday night. And I can’t afford them anyway. And I’ve still got some of Joe’s things. Maybe you should have them.”
She lived in a small warm row house in an unglamorous neighborhood across the Anacostia River near Bolling Air Force Base. It was one of those city homes where you close the drapes and concentrate on the inside. There was street parking and a wooden front door with a small foyer behind it that led directly into a living room. It was a comfortable space. Wood floors, a rug, old-fashioned furniture. A small television set with a big cable box wired to it. Some books on a shelf, a small music system with a yard of CDs propped against it. The heaters were turned up high so Reacher peeled off his black jacket and dumped it on the back of a chair.
“I don’t want it to be an insider,” Froelich said.
“Better that than a real outside threat.”
She nodded and moved toward the back of the room where an arch opened into an eat-in kitchen. She looked around, a little vague, like she was wondering what all the machines and cabinets were for.
“We could send out for Chinese food,” Reacher called.
She took off her jacket and folded it in half and laid it on a stool.
“Maybe we should,” she said.
She had a white blouse on and without the jacket it looked softer and more feminine. The kitchen was lit with regular bulbs turned low and they were kinder to her skin than the bright office halogen had been. He looked at her and saw what Joe must have seen, eight years previously. She found a take-out menu in a drawer and dialed a number and called in an order. Hot and sour soup and General Tso’s chicken, times two.
“That OK?” she asked.
“Don’t tell me,” he said. “It’s what Joe liked.”
“I’ve still got some of his things,” she said. “You should come see them.”
She walked ahead of him back to the foyer and up the stairs. There was a guest room at the front of the house. It had a deep closet with a single door. A light bulb came on automatically when she opened it. The closet was full of miscellaneous junk, but the hanging rail had a long line of suits and shirts still wrapped in the dry cleaner’s plastic. The plastic had turned a little yellow and brittle with age.
“These are his,” Froelich said.
“He left them here?” Reacher asked.
She touched the shoulder of one of the suits through the plastic.
“I figured he’d come back for them,” she said. “But he didn’t, the whole year. I guess he didn’t need them.”
“He must have had a lot of suits.”
“Couple dozen, I guess,” she said.
“How can a person have twenty-four suits?”
“He was a dresser,” she said. “You must remember that.”
He stood still. The way he remembered it, Joe had lived in one pair of shorts and one T-shirt. In the winters he wore khakis. When it was very cold he added a worn-out leather pilot’s jacket. That was it. At their mother’s funeral he wore a very formal black suit, which Reacher had assumed was rented. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe working in Washington had changed his approach.
“You should have them,” Froelich said. “They’re your property, anyway. You were his next of kin, I guess.”
“I guess I was,” he said.
“There’s a box, too,” she said. “Stuff he left around and never came back for.”
He followed her gaze to the closet floor and saw a cardboard box sitting underneath the hanging rail. The flaps were folded over each other.
“Tell me about Molly Beth Gordon,” he said.
“What about her?”
“After they died I kind of inferred they’d had a thing going.”
She shook her head. “They were close. No doubt about that. But they worked together. She was his assistant. He wouldn’t date people in the office.”
“Why did you break up?” he asked.
The doorbell rang downstairs. It sounded loud in the Sunday hush.
“The food,” Froelich said.
They went down and ate together at the kitchen table, silently. It felt curiously intimate, but also distant. Like sitting next to a stranger on a long plane ride. You feel connected, but also not connected.
“You can stay here tonight,” she said. “If you like.”
“I didn’t check out of the hotel.”
She nodded. “So check out tomorrow. Then base yourself here.”
“What about Neagley?”
Silence for a beat.
“Her, too, if she wants. There’s another bedroom on the third floor.”
“OK,” he said.
They finished the meal and he put the containers in the trash and rinsed the plates. She set the dishwasher going. Then her phone rang. She stepped through to the living room to answer it. Talked for a long moment and then hung up and came back.
“That was Stuyvesant,” she said. “He’s giving you the formal go-ahead.”
He nodded. “So call Neagley and tell her to get her ass in gear.”
“Get a problem, solve a problem,” he said. “That’s my way. Tell her to be out front of the hotel in thirty minutes.”
“Where are you going to start?”
“With the video,” he said. “I want to watch the tapes again. And I want to meet with the guy who runs that part of the operation.”
Thirty minutes later they scooped Neagley off the sidewalk in front of the hotel. She had changed into a black suit with a short jacket. The pants were cut tight. They looked pretty good from the back, in Reacher’s opinion. He saw Froelich arrive at the same conclusion. But she said nothing. Just drove, five minutes, and then they were back in the Secret Service offices. Froelich headed straight for her desk and left Reacher and Neagley with the agent who ran the video surveillance. He was a small thin nervous guy in Sunday clothes who had come in at short notice to meet with them. He looked a little dazed about it. He led them to a closet-sized equipment room full of racks of recorders. One wall was a floor-to-ceiling shelving unit with hundreds of VHS tapes stacked neatly in black plastic boxes. The recorders themselves were plain gray industrial units. The whole tiny space was full of neat wiring and procedural memos tacked to the walls and soft noise from small motors turning and the smell of warm circuit boards and the green glow of LED numbers ticking over relentlessly.
“System really looks after itself,” the guy said. “There are four recorders slaved to each camera, six hours to a tape, so we change all the tapes once a day, file them away, keep them three months, and then reuse them.”
“Where are the originals from the night in question?” Reacher asked.
“Right here,” the guy said. He fiddled in his pocket and came out with a bunch of small brass keys on a ring. Squatted down in the limited space and opened a low cupboard. Took out three boxes.
“These are the three I copied for Froelich,” he said, on his knees.
“Some place where we can look at them?”
“They’re no different than the copies.”
“Copying causes detail loss,” Reacher said. “First rule, start with the originals.”
“OK,” the guy said. “You can look at them right here, I guess.”
He stood up awkwardly and pushed and pulled some equipment around on a bench and angled a small monitor outward and switched on a stand-alone player. A blank gray square appeared on the screen.
“No remotes on these things,” he said. “You have to use the buttons.”
He stacked the three tape boxes in the correct time sequence.
“Got chairs?” Reacher asked.
The guy ducked out and came back dragging two typist’s chairs. They tangled in the doorway and he had trouble fitting them both in front of the narrow bench. Then he glanced around like he was unhappy about leaving strangers alone in his little domain.
“I guess I’ll wait in the foyer,” he said. “Call me when you’re through.”
“What’s your name?” Neagley asked.
“Nendick,” the guy said, shyly.
“OK, Nendick,” she said. “We’ll be sure to call you.”
He left the room and Reacher put the third tape in the machine.
“You know what?” Neagley said. “That guy didn’t sneak a peek at my ass.”
“Guys usually do when I’m wearing these pants.”
Reacher kept his gaze firmly on the blank video screen.
“Maybe he’s gay,” he said.
“He was wearing a wedding band.”
“Then maybe he tries hard to avoid inappropriate feelings. Or maybe he’s tired.”
“Or maybe I’m getting old,” she said.
He hit fast rewind. The motor whirred.
“Third tape,” he said. “Thursday morning. We’ll do this backward.”
The player spooled fast. He watched the counter and hit play and the picture came up with an empty office with the timecode burned in over it showing the relevant Thursday’s date and the time at seven fifty-five A.M. He hit forward scan and then froze the picture when the secretary entered the frame at exactly eight o’clock in the morning. He settled in his chair and hit play and the secretary walked into the square area and took off her coat and hung it on the rack. Walked within three feet of Stuyvesant’s door and bent down behind her desk.
“Stowing her purse,” Neagley said. “On the floor in the footwell.”
The secretary was a woman of maybe sixty. For a moment she was face-on to the camera. She was a matronly figure. Stern, but kindly. She sat down heavily and hitched her chair in and opened a book on the desk.
“Checking the diary,” Neagley said.
The secretary stayed firmly in her chair, busy with the diary. Then she started in on a tall stack of memos. She filed some of them in a drawer and used her rubber stamp on others and moved them right to left across her desk.
“You ever see so much paperwork?” Reacher said. “Worse than the Army.”
The secretary broke off from her memo stack twice, to answer the phone. But she didn’t move from her chair. Reacher fast-forwarded until Stuyvesant himself swept into view at ten past eight. He was wearing a dark raincoat, maybe black or charcoal. He was carrying a slim briefcase. He took off his coat and hung it on the rack. Advanced into the square area and the secretary’s head moved like she was speaking to him. He set his briefcase on her desk at an exact angle and adjusted its position. Bent to confer with her. Nodded once and straightened up and stepped to his door without his briefcase and disappeared into his office. The timer ticked off four seconds. Then he was back out in the doorway, calling to his secretary.
“He found it,” Reacher said.
“The briefcase thing is weird,” Neagley said. “Why would he leave it?”
“Maybe he had an early meeting,” Reacher said. “Maybe he left it out there because he knew he was leaving again right away.”
He fast-forwarded through the next hour. People ducked in and out of the office. Froelich made two trips. Then a forensic team arrived and left twenty minutes later with the letter in a plastic evidence bag. He hit reverse scan. The whole morning’s activity unfolded again, backward. The forensic team left and then arrived, Froelich came out and in twice, Stuyvesant arrived and left, and then his secretary did the same.
“Now for the boring part,” Reacher said. “Hours and hours of nothing.”
The picture settled to a steady shot of an empty area with the timer rushing backward. Absolutely nothing happened. The level of detail coming off the original tape was better than the copy, but there wasn’t much in it. It was gray and milky. OK for a surveillance situation, but it wouldn’t have won any technical awards.
“You know what?” Reacher said. “I was a cop for thirteen years, and I never found anything significant on a surveillance tape. Not even once.”
“Me neither,” Neagley said. “The hours I spent like this.”
At six A.M. the tape jammed to a stop and Reacher ejected it and fast wound the second tape to the far end and started the patient backward search again. The timer sped through five o’clock and headed fast toward four. Nothing happened. The office just sat there, still and gray and empty.
“Why are we doing this tonight?” Neagley asked.
“Because I’m an impatient guy,” Reacher said.
“You want to score one for the military, don’t you? You want to show these civilians how the real pros work.”
“Nothing left to prove,” Reacher said. “We already scored three and a half.”
He bent closer to the screen. Fought to keep his eyes focused. Four o’clock in the morning. Nothing was happening. Nobody was delivering any letters.
“Or maybe there’s another reason we’re doing this tonight,” Neagley said. “Maybe you’re trying to outpoint your brother.”
“Don’t need to. I know exactly how we compared. And it doesn’t matter to me what anybody else thinks about it.”
“What happened to him?”
“I gathered that, belatedly. But how?”
“He was killed. In the line of duty. Just after I left the Army. Down in Georgia, south of Atlanta. Clandestine rendezvous with an informer from a counterfeiting operation. They were ambushed. He was shot in the head, twice.”
“They get the guys who did it?”
“Not really. I got them instead.”
“What did you do?”
“What do you think?”
“It was a father-and-son team. I drowned the son in a swimming pool. I burned the father to death in a fire. After shooting him in the chest with a hollow-point.44.”
“That ought to do it.”
“Moral of the story, don’t mess with me or mine. I just wish they’d known that ahead of time.”
“I exfiltrated fast. Stayed out of circulation. Had to miss the funeral.”
“The guy he was meeting with got it, too. Bled to death under a highway ramp. There was a woman, as well. From Joe’s office. His assistant, Molly Beth Gordon. They knifed her at the Atlanta airport.”
“I saw her name. On the roll of honor.”
Reacher was quiet a beat. The video sped backward. Three in the morning, then two-fifty-something. Then two-forty. Nothing happening.
“The whole thing was a can of worms,” he said. “It was his own fault, really.”
“It was a stretch for him. I mean, would you get ambushed at a rendezvous?”
“I’d do all the usual stuff,” Neagley said. “You know, arrive three hours early, stake it out, surveil, block the approaches.”
“But Joe didn’t do any of that. He was out of his depth. Thing about Joe, he looked tough. He was six-six, two-fifty, built like a brick outhouse. Hands like shovels, face like a catcher’s mitt. We were clones, physically, the two of us. But we had different brains. Deep down, he was a cerebral guy. Kind of pure. Naive, even. He never thought dirty. Everything was a game of chess with him. He gets a call, he sets up a meet, he drives down there. Like he’s moving his knight or his bishop around. He just didn’t expect somebody to come along and blow the whole chessboard away.”
Neagley said nothing. The tape sped on backward. Nothing was happening on it. The square office area just sat there, dim and steady.
“Afterward I was angry he was so careless,” Reacher said. “But then I figured I couldn’t blame him for that. To be careless, first of all you’ve got to know what you’re supposed to be careful about. And he just didn’t. He didn’t know. He didn’t see stuff like that. Didn’t think that way.”
“So I guess I was angry I didn’t do it for him.”
“Could you have?”
He shook his head. “I hadn’t seen him for seven years. I had no idea where he was. He had no idea where I was. But somebody like me should have done it for him. He should have asked for help.”
“No, too naive. That’s the bottom line.”
“Could he have reacted? At the scene?”
Reacher made a face. “They were pretty good, I guess. Semiproficient, by our standards. There must have been some chance. But it would have been a split-second thing, purely instinctive. And Joe’s instincts were all buried under the cerebral stuff. He probably stopped to think. He always did. Just enough to make him come out timid.”
“Naive and timid,” Neagley said. “They don’t share that opinion around here.”
“Around here he must have looked like a wild man. Everything’s comparative.”
Neagley shifted in her chair and watched the screen.
“Stand by,” she said. “The witching hour approaches.”
The timer spun back through half past midnight. The office was undisturbed. Then at sixteen minutes past midnight the cleaning crew rushed backward out of the gloom of the exit corridor. Reacher watched them at high speed until they reversed into Stuyvesant’s office at seven minutes past. Then he ran the tape forward at normal speed and watched them come out again and clean the secretarial station.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“They look pretty normal,” Neagley said.
“If they’d just left the letter in there, would they look so composed?”
They weren’t hurrying. They weren’t furtive or anxious or stressed or excited. They weren’t glancing backward at Stuyvesant’s door. They were just cleaning, efficiently and speedily. He reversed the tape again and sped back through seven minutes past midnight and onward until it jammed to a stop at midnight exactly. He ejected it and inserted the first tape. Wound to the far end and scanned backward until they first entered the picture just before eleven fifty-two. Ran the tape forward and watched them walk into shot and froze the tape when they were all clearly visible.
“So where would it be?” he asked.
“Like Froelich speculated,” Neagley said. “Could be anywhere.”
He nodded. She was right. Between the three of them and the cleaning cart, they could have concealed a dozen letters.
“Do they look worried?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Run the tape. See how they move.”
He let them walk onward. They headed straight for Stuyvesant’s door and disappeared from view inside, eleven fifty-two exactly.
“Show me again,” Neagley said.
He ran the segment again. Neagley leaned back and half-closed her eyes.
“Their energy level is a little different than when they came out,” she said.
She nodded. “A little slower? Like they’re hesitant?”
“Or like they’re dreading having to do something bad in there?”
He ran it again.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Kind of hard to interpret. And it’s no kind of evidence, that’s for sure. Just a subjective feeling.”
He ran it again. There was no real overt difference. Maybe they looked a little less wired going in than coming out. Or more tired. But then, they spent fifteen minutes in there. And it was a relatively small office. Already quite clean and neat. Maybe it was their habit to take a ten-minute rest in there, out of sight of the camera. Cleaners weren’t dumb. Maybe they put their feet on the desk, not a letter.
“I don’t know,” Neagley said again.
“Inconclusive?” Reacher said.
“Naturally. But who else have we got?”
“Nobody at all.”
He hit fast rewind and stared at nothing until he found eight o’clock in the evening. The secretary got up from her desk, put her head around Stuyvesant’s door, and went home. He wound back to seven thirty-one and watched Stuyvesant himself leave.
“OK,” he said. “The cleaners did it. On their own initiative?”
“I seriously doubt it.”
“So who told them to?”
They stopped in the foyer and found Nendick and sent him back to tidy up his equipment room. Then they went in search of Froelich and found her deep in a stack of paperwork at her desk, on the phone, coordinating Brook Armstrong’s return from Camp David.
“We need to speak with the cleaners,” Reacher said.
“Now?” Froelich said.
“No better time. Late-night interrogation always works best.”
She looked blank. “OK, I’ll drive you, I guess.”
“Better that you’re not there,” Neagley said.
“We’re military. We’ll probably want to slap them around some.”
Froelich stared at her. “You can’t do that. They’re department members, no different than me.”
“She’s kidding,” Reacher said. “But they’re going to feel better talking to us if there’s nobody else from the department around.”
“OK, I’ll wait outside. But I’m going with you.”
She finished up her phone calls and tidied up her paperwork and then led them back to the elevator and down to the garage. They climbed into the Suburban and Reacher closed his eyes for twenty minutes as she drove. He was tired. He had been working hard for six days straight. Then the car came to a stop and he opened his eyes again in a mean neighborhood full of ten-year-old sedans and hurricane fencing. There was orange glow from streetlights here and there. Patched blacktop and scrawny weeds in the sidewalks. The thump of a loud car stereo blocks away.
“This is it,” Froelich said. “Number 2301.”
Number 2301 was the left-hand half of a two-family house. It was a low clapboard structure with paired front doors in the center and symmetrical windows left and right. There was a low wire fence defining a front yard. The yard had a lawn that was partly dead. No bushes or flowers or shrubs. But it was neat enough. No trash. The steps up to the door were swept clean.
“I’ll wait right here,” Froelich said.
Reacher and Neagley climbed out of the car. The night air was cold and the distant stereo was louder. They went in through the gate. Up a cracked concrete walk to the door. Reacher pressed the bell and heard it sound inside the house. They waited. Heard the slap of footsteps on what sounded like a bare floor, and then something metal being hauled out of the way. The door opened and a man stood there, holding the handle. He was the cleaner from the video, no doubt about it. They had looked at him forward and backward for hours. He was not young, not old. Not short, not tall. Just a completely average guy. He was wearing cotton pants and a Redskins sweatshirt. His skin was dark and his cheekbones were high and flat. His hair was black and glossy, with an old-fashioned cut still crisp and neat around the edges.
“Yes?” he said.
“We need to talk about the thing at the office,” Reacher said.
The guy didn’t ask any questions. Didn’t ask for ID. Just glanced at Reacher’s face and stepped backward and over the thing he had moved to get the door open. It was a child’s seesaw made out of brightly colored curved metal tubes. It had little seats at each end, like you might see on a child’s tricycle, and plastic horses’ heads with little handlebars coming out of the sides below the ears.
“Can’t leave it outside at night,” the guy said. “It would be stolen.”
Neagley and Reacher climbed over it into a narrow hallway. There were more toys neatly packed onto shelves. Bright grade-school paintings visible on the front of the refrigerator in the kitchen. The smell of cooking. There was a living room off the hallway with two silent, scared women in it. They were wearing Sunday dresses, which were very different from their work overalls.
“We need to know your names,” Neagley said.
Her voice was halfway between warm friendliness and the cold knell of doom. Reacher smiled to himself. That was Neagley’s way. He remembered it well. Nobody ever argued with her. It was one of her strengths.
“Julio,” the man said.
“Anita,” the first woman said. Reacher assumed she was Julio’s wife, by the way she glanced at him before answering.
“Maria,” the second woman said. “I’m Anita’s sister.”
There was a small sofa and two armchairs. Anita and Maria squeezed up to let Julio sit with them on the sofa. Reacher took that as an invitation and sat down in one of the armchairs. Neagley took the other. It put the two of them at a symmetrical angle, like the sofa was a television screen and they were sitting down to watch it.
“We think you guys put the letter in the office,” Neagley said.
There was no reply. No reaction at all. No expression on the three faces. Just some kind of silent blank stoicism.
“Did you?” Neagley asked.
“The kids in bed?” Reacher asked.
“They’re not here,” Anita said.
“Are they yours or Maria’s?”
“Boys or girls?”
“Where are they?”
She paused a beat. “With cousins.”
“Because we work nights.”
“Not for much longer,” Neagley said. “You won’t be working at all, unless you tell somebody something.”
“No more health insurance, no more benefits.”
“You might even go to jail.”
Silence in the room.
“Whatever happens to us will happen,” Julio said.
“Did somebody ask you to put it there? Somebody you know in the office?”
Absolutely no response.
“Somebody you know outside the office?”
“We didn’t do anything with any letter.”
“So what did you do?” Reacher asked.
“We cleaned. That’s what we’re there for.”
“You were in there an awful long time.”
Julio looked at his wife, like he was puzzled.
“We saw the tape,” Reacher said.
“We know about the cameras,” Julio said.
“You follow the same routine every night?”
“We have to.”
“Spend that long in there every night?”
Julio shrugged. “I guess so.”
“You rest up in there?”
“No, we clean.”
“Same every night?”
“Everything’s the same every night. Unless somebody’s spilled some coffee or left a lot of trash around or something. That might slow us up some.”
“Was there something like that in Stuyvesant’s office that night?”
“No,” Julio said. “Stuyvesant is a clean guy.”
“You spent some big amount of time in there.”
“No more than usual.”
“You got an exact routine?”
“I guess so. We vacuum, wipe things off, empty the trash, put things neat, move on to the next office.”
Silence in the room. Just the faint thump of the far-off car stereo, much attenuated by the walls and the windows.
“OK,” Neagley said. “Listen up, guys. The tape shows you going in there. Afterward, there was a letter on the desk. We think you put it there because somebody asked you to. Maybe they told you it was a joke or a trick. Maybe they told you it was OK to do it. And it was OK. There’s no harm done. But we need to know who asked you. Because this is part of the game, too, us trying to find out. And now you’ve got to tell us, otherwise the game is over and we have to figure you put it there off of your own bat. And that’s not OK. That’s real bad. That’s making a threat against the Vice President-elect of the United States. And you can go to prison for that.”
No reaction. Another long silence.
“Are we going to get fired?” Maria asked.
“Aren’t you listening?” Neagley said. “You’re going to jail, unless you tell us who it was.”
Maria’s face went still, like a stone. And Anita’s, and Julio’s. Still faces, blank eyes, stoic miserable expressions straight from a thousand years of peasant experience: sooner or later, the harvest always fails.
“Let’s go,” Reacher said.
They stood up and stepped through to the hallway. Climbed over the seesaw and let themselves out into the night. Made it back to the Suburban in time to see Froelich snapping her cell phone shut. There was panic in her eyes.
“What?” Reacher asked.
“We got another one,” she said. “Ten minutes ago. And it’s worse.”
It was waiting for them in the center of the long table in the conference room. A small crowd of people had gathered around it. The halogen spots in the ceiling lit it perfectly. There was a brown nine-by-twelve envelope with a metal closure and a torn flap. And a single sheet of white letter-size paper. On it were printed ten words: The day upon which Armstrong will die is fast approaching. The message was split into two lines, exactly centered between the margins and set slightly above the middle of the paper. There was nothing else visible. People stared at it in silence. The guy in the suit from the reception desk pushed backward through the crowd and spoke to Froelich.
“I handled the envelope,” he said. “I didn’t touch the letter. Just spilled it out.”
“How did it arrive?” she asked.
“The garage guard took a bathroom break. Came back and found it on the ledge inside his booth. He brought it straight up to me. So I guess his prints are on the envelope too.”
“Half hour ago.”
“How does the garage guard work his breaks?” Reacher asked.
The room went quiet. People turned toward the new voice. The desk guy started in with a fierce who-the-hell-are-you look. But then he saw Froelich’s face and shrugged and answered obediently.
“He locks the barrier down,” he said. “That’s how. Runs to the bathroom, runs back. Maybe two or three times a shift. He’s down there eight hours at a stretch.”
Froelich nodded. “Nobody’s blaming him. Anybody call a forensic team yet?”
“We waited for you.”
“OK, leave it on the table, nobody touch it, and seal this room tight.”
“Is there a camera in the garage?” Reacher asked.
“Yes, there is.”
“So get Nendick to bring us tonight’s tape, right now.”
Neagley craned over the table. “Rather florid wording, don’t you think? And ‘fast’ definitely takes the prediction defense away, I would say. Turns the whole thing into an overt threat.”
“You got that right,” she said slowly. “If this is somebody’s idea of a game or a joke, it just turned very serious very suddenly.”
She said it loud and clear and Reacher caught her purpose fast enough to watch the faces in the room. There was absolutely no reaction on any of them. Froelich checked her watch.
“Armstrong’s in the air,” she said. “On his way home to Georgetown.”
Then she was quiet for a beat.
“Call out an extra team,” she said. “Half to Andrews, half to Armstrong’s house. And put an extra vehicle in the convoy. And take an indirect route back.”
There was a split second of hesitation and then people started moving with the practiced efficiency of an elite team readying itself for action. Reacher watched them carefully, and he liked what he saw. Then he and Neagley followed Froelich back to her office. She called an FBI number and asked for a forensic team, urgent. Listened to the reply and hung up.
“Not that there’s much doubt about what they’ll find,” she said, to nobody in particular. Then Nendick knocked and came in, carrying two videotapes.
“Two cameras,” he said. “One is inside the booth, high up, looking down and sideways, supposed to ID individual drivers in their cars. The other is outside, looking straight up the alley, supposed to pick up approaching vehicles.”
He put both cassettes on the desk and went back out. Froelich picked up the first tape and scooted her chair over to her television set. Put the tape in and pressed play. It was the sideways view from inside the booth. The angle was high, but it was about right to catch a driver framed in a car window. She wound back thirty-five minutes. Pressed play again. The guard was shown sitting on his stool with the back of his left shoulder in shot. Doing nothing. She fast-wound forward until he stood up. He touched a couple of buttons and disappeared. Nothing happened for thirty seconds. Then an arm snaked into view from the extreme right edge of the picture. Just an arm, in a heavy soft sleeve. A tweed overcoat, maybe. The hand on the end of it was gloved in leather. There was an envelope in the hand. It was pushed through the half-closed sliding window and dropped onto the ledge. Then the arm disappeared.
“He knew about the camera,” Froelich said.
“Clearly,” Neagley said. “He was a yard shy of the booth, stretching out.”
“But did he know about the other camera?” Reacher asked.
Froelich ejected the first tape and inserted the second. Wound backward thirty-five minutes. Pressed play. The view was straight up the alley. The quality was poor. There were pools of light from outdoor spotlights and the contrast with areas of darkness was vivid. The shadows lacked detail. The angle was high and tight. The top of the picture cut off well before the street end of the alley. The bottom of the shot stopped maybe six feet in front of the booth. But the width was good. Very good. Both walls of the alley were clearly in view. There was no way of approaching the garage entrance without passing through the camera’s field of vision.
The tape ran. Nothing happened. They watched the timecode counter until it reached a point twenty seconds before the arm had appeared. Then they watched the screen. A figure appeared at the top. Definitely male. No doubt about it. There was no mistaking the shoulders or the walk. He was wearing a heavy tweed overcoat, maybe gray or dark brown. Dark pants, heavy shoes, a muffler around his neck. And a hat on his head. A wide-brimmed hat, dark in color, tilted way down in front. He walked with his chin tucked down. The video picked up a perfect view of the crown of his hat, all the way down the alley.
“He knew about the second camera,” Reacher said.
The tape ran on. The guy walked fast, but purposefully, not hurrying, not running, not out of control. He had the envelope in his right hand, holding it flat against his body. He disappeared out of the bottom of the shot and reappeared three seconds later. Without the envelope. He walked at the same purposeful pace all the way back up the alley and out of shot at the top of the screen.
Froelich froze the tape. “Description?”
“Impossible,” Neagley said. “Male, a little short and squat. Right-handed, probably. No visible limp. Apart from that we don’t know diddly. We saw nothing.”
“Maybe not too squat,” Reacher said. “The angle foreshortens things a little.”
“He had inside knowledge,” Froelich said. “He knew about the cameras and the bathroom breaks. So he’s one of us.”
“Not necessarily,” Reacher said. “He could be an outsider who staked you out. The exterior camera must be visible if you’re looking for it. And he could assume the interior camera. Most places have them. And a couple of nights’ surveillance would teach him the bathroom break procedure. But you know what? Insider or outsider, we drove right past him. We must have. When we went out to see the cleaners. Because even if he’s an insider, he needed to time the bathroom break exactly right. So he needed to be watching. He must have been across the street for a couple of hours, looking down the alley. Maybe with binoculars.”
The office went quiet.
“I didn’t see anybody,” Froelich said.
“Me neither,” Neagley said.
“I had my eyes closed,” Reacher said.
“We wouldn’t have seen him,” Froelich said. “He hears a vehicle coming up the ramp, he ducks out of sight, surely.”
“I guess so,” Reacher said. “But we were real close to him, temporarily.”
“Shit,” Froelich said.
“Yeah, shit,” Neagley echoed.
“So what do we do?” Froelich asked.
“Nothing,” Reacher said. “Nothing we can do. This was more than forty minutes ago. If he’s an insider, he’s back home by now. Maybe tucked up in bed. If he’s an outsider, he’s already on I-95 or something, west or north or south, maybe thirty miles away. We can’t call the troopers in four states and ask them to look for a right-handed man in a car who doesn’t limp, no better description than that.”
“They could look for an overcoat and a hat on the backseat or in the trunk.”
“It’s November, Froelich. Everybody’s got a hat and a coat with them.”
“So what do we do?” she asked again.
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Concentrate on Armstrong, just in case this whole thing is for real. Keep him wrapped up tight. Like Stuyvesant said, threatening isn’t necessarily the same thing as succeeding.”
“What’s his schedule?” Neagley asked.
“Home tonight, the Hill tomorrow,” Froelich said.
“So you’ll be OK. You scored perfect around the Capitol. If Reacher and I couldn’t get to him there, no squat guy in an overcoat is going to. Assuming a squat guy in an overcoat wants to, instead of just shaking you up for the fun of it.”
“Like Stuyvesant said, take a deep breath and tough it out. Be confident.”
“Doesn’t feel good. I need to know who this guy is.”
“We’ll find out who he is, sooner or later. Until then, if you can’t attack at one end you have to defend at the other.”
“She’s right,” Reacher said. “Concentrate on Armstrong, just in case.”
Froelich nodded vaguely and took the tape out of the machine and put the first one back in. Restarted it and stared at the screen until the garage guard came back from his bathroom break and noticed the envelope and picked it up and hurried out of shot with it.
“Doesn’t feel good,” she said again.
An FBI forensic crew came by an hour later and photographed the sheet of paper on the conference room table. They used an office ruler for a scale reference and then used a pair of sterile plastic tweezers to lift the paper and the envelope into separate evidence bags. Froelich signed a form to keep the chain of evidence intact and they took both items away for examination. Then she got on the phone for twenty minutes and tracked Armstrong all the way out of the Marine helicopter at Andrews and all the way home.
“OK, we’re secure,” she said. “For now.”
Neagley yawned and stretched. “So take a break. Be ready for a hard week.”
“I feel stupid,” Froelich said. “I don’t know if this is a game or for real.”
“You feel too much,” Neagley said.
Froelich looked at the ceiling. “What would Joe do now?”
Reacher paused and smiled. “Go to the store and buy a suit, probably.”
“He’d close his eyes for a minute and work it all out like it was a chess puzzle. He read Karl Marx, you know that? He said Marx had this trick of explaining everything with one single question, which was, who benefits?”
“Let’s say it is an insider doing this. Karl Marx would say, OK, the insider plans to benefit from it. Joe would ask, OK, how does he plan to benefit from it?”
“By making me look bad in front of Stuyvesant.”
“And getting you demoted or fired or whatever, because that rewards him in some way. That would be his aim. But that would be his only aim. Situation like that, there’s no serious threat against Armstrong. That’s an important point. And then Joe would say, OK, suppose it’s not an insider, suppose it’s an outsider. How does he plan to benefit?”
“By assassinating Armstrong.”
“Which gratifies him in some other way. So Joe would say what you’ve got to do is proceed as if it’s an outsider, and proceed very calmly and without panicking, and above all successfully. That’s two birds with one stone. If you’re calm, you deny the insider his benefit. If you’re successful, you deny the outsider his benefit.”
Froelich nodded, frustrated. “But which is it? What did the cleaners tell you?”
“Nothing,” Reacher said. “My read is somebody they know persuaded them to smuggle it in, but they aren’t admitting to anything.”
“I’ll tell Armstrong to stay home tomorrow.”
Reacher shook his head. “You can’t. You do that, you’ll be seeing shadows every day and he’ll be in hiding for the next four years. Just stay calm and tough it out.”
“Easy to say.”
“Easy to do. Just take a deep breath.”
Froelich was still and silent for a spell. Then she nodded.
“OK,” she said. “I’ll get you a driver. Be back here at nine in the morning. There’ll be another strategy meeting. Exactly a week after the last one.”
The morning was damp and very cold, like nature wanted to be done with fall and get started with winter. Exhaust fumes drifted down the streets in low white clouds and pedestrians hurried by on the sidewalks with their faces ducked deep into scarves. Neagley and Reacher met at eight-forty at the cab line outside the hotel and found a Secret Service Town Car waiting for them. It was double-parked with the engine running and the driver standing next to it. He was maybe thirty years old, dressed in a dark overcoat and gloves, and he was up on his toes, scanning the crowd anxiously. He was breathing hard and his breath was pluming in the air.
“He looks worried,” Neagley said.
The inside of the car was hot. The driver didn’t speak once during the journey. Didn’t even say his name. Just bulled through the morning traffic and squealed into the underground garage. Led them at a fast walk into the interior lobby and into the elevator. Up three floors and across to the reception desk. It was manned by a different guy. He pointed down the corridor toward the conference room.
“Started without you,” he said. “You better hurry.”
The conference room was empty apart from Froelich and Stuyvesant sitting face-to-face across the width of the table. They were both still and silent. Both pale. On the polished wood between them lay two photographs. One was the official FBI crime scene eight-by-ten of the previous day’s ten-word message: The day upon which Armstrong will die is fast approaching. The other was a hasty Polaroid of another sheet of paper. Reacher stepped close and bent to look.
“Shit,” he said.
The Polaroid showed a single sheet of letter-sized paper, exactly like the first three in every detail. It followed the same format, a printed message neatly centered near the middle of the page. Nine words: A demonstration of your vulnerability will be staged today.
“When did it come?” he asked.
“This morning,” Froelich said. “In the mail. Addressed to Armstrong at his office. But we’re bringing all his mail through here now.”
“Where is it from?”
“Orlando, Florida, postmarked Friday.”
“Another popular tourist destination,” Stuyvesant said.
Reacher nodded. “Forensics on yesterday’s?”
“Just got a heads-up by phone,” Froelich said. “Everything’s identical, thumbprint and all. I’m sure this one will be the same. They’re working on it now.”
Reacher stared at the pictures. The thumbprints were completely invisible, but he felt he could just about see them there, like they were glowing in the dark.
“I had the cleaners arrested,” Stuyvesant said.
“Gut call?” Stuyvesant said. “Joke or real?”
“Real,” Neagley said. “I think.”
“Doesn’t matter yet,” Reacher said. “Because nothing’s happened yet. But we act like it’s for real until we know otherwise.”
Stuyvesant nodded. “That was Froelich’s recommendation. She quoted Karl Marx at me. The Communist Manifesto.”
“Das Kapital, actually,” Reacher said. He picked up the Polaroid and looked at it again. The focus was a little soft and the paper was very white from the strobe, but there was no mistaking what the message meant.
“Two questions,” he said. “First, how secure are his movements today?”
“As good as it gets,” Froelich said. “I’ve doubled his detail. He’s scheduled to leave home at eleven. I’m using the armored stretch again instead of the Town Car. Full motorcade. We’re using awnings across the sidewalks at both ends. He won’t see open air at any point. We’ll tell him it’s another rehearsal procedure.”
“He still doesn’t know about this yet?”
“No,” Froelich said.
“Standard practice,” Stuyvesant said. “We don’t tell them.”
“Thousands of threats a year,” Neagley said.
Stuyvesant nodded. “Exactly. Most of them are background noise. We wait until we’re absolutely sure. And even then, we don’t always make a big point out of it. They’ve got better things to do. It’s our job to worry.”
“OK, second question,” Reacher said. “Where’s his wife? And he has a grown-up kid, right? We have to assume that messing with his family would be a pretty good demonstration of his vulnerability.”
Froelich nodded. “His wife is back here in D.C. She came in from North Dakota yesterday. As long as she stays in or near the house she’s OK. His daughter is doing graduate work in Antarctica. Meteorology, or something. She’s in a hut surrounded by a hundred thousand square miles of ice. Better protection than we could give her.”
Reacher put the Polaroid back down on the table.
“Are you confident?” he asked. “About today?”
“I’m nervous as hell.”
“I’m as confident as I can be.”
“I want Neagley and me on the ground, observing.”
“Think we’re going to screw up?”
“No, but I think you’re going to have your hands full. If the guy’s in the neighborhood, you might be too busy to spot him. And he’ll have to be in the neighborhood if he’s for real and he wants to stage a demonstration of something.”
“OK,” Stuyvesant said. “You and Ms. Neagley, on the ground, observing.”
Froelich drove them to Georgetown in her Suburban. They arrived just before ten o’clock. They got out three blocks short of Armstrong’s house and Froelich drove on. It was a cold day, but a watery sun was trying its best. Neagley stood still and glanced around, all four directions.
“Deployment?” she asked.
“Circles, on a three-block radius. You go clockwise and I’ll go counterclockwise. Then you stay south and I’ll stay north. Meet back at the house after he’s gone.”
Neagley nodded and walked away west. Reacher went east into the weak morning sun. He wasn’t especially familiar with Georgetown. Apart from short periods during the previous week spent watching Armstrong’s house he had explored it only once, briefly, just after he left the service. He was familiar with the college feel and the coffee shops and the smart houses. But he didn’t know it like a cop knows his beat. A cop depends on a sense of inappropriateness. What doesn’t fit? What’s out of the ordinary? What’s the wrong type of face or the wrong type of car for the neighborhood? Impossible to answer those questions without long habituation to a place. And maybe impossible to answer them at all in a place like Georgetown. Everybody who lives there comes from somewhere else. They’re there for a reason, to study at the university or to work in the government. It’s a transient place. It has a temporary, shifting population. You graduate, you leave. You get voted out, you go someplace else. You get rich, you move to Chevy Chase. You go broke, you go sleep in a park.
So just about everybody he saw was suspicious. He could have made a case against any of them. Who belonged? An old Porsche with a blown muffler rumbled past him. Oklahoma plates. An unshaven driver. Who was he? A brand new Mercury Sable was parked nose-to-tail with a rusted-out Rabbit. The Sable was red and almost certainly a rental. Who was using it? Some guy just in for the day for a special purpose? He detoured next to it and glanced in through the windows at the rear seat. No overcoat, no hat. No open ream of Georgia-Pacific office paper. No box of latex medical gloves. And who owned the Rabbit? A graduate student? Or some backwoods anarchist with a Hewlett-Packard printer at home?
There were people on the sidewalks. Maybe four or five of them visible at any one time in any one direction. Young, old, white, black, brown. Men, women, young people carrying backpacks full of books. Some of them hurrying, some of them strolling. Some of them obviously on their way to the market, some of them obviously on their way back. Some of them looking like they had no particular place to go. He watched them all in the corner of his eye, but nothing special jumped out at him.
Time to time he checked upper-story windows as he walked. There were a lot of them. It was good rifle territory. A warren of houses, back gates, narrow alleys. But a rifle would be no good against an armored stretch limo. The guy would need an antitank missile for that. Of which there were plenty to choose from. The AT-4 would be favorite. It was a three-foot disposable fiberglass tube that fired a six-and-a-half pound projectile through eleven inches of armor. Then the BASE principle took over. Behind Armor Secondary Effect. The entrance hole stayed small and tight, so the explosive event stayed confined to the interior of the vehicle. Armstrong would be reduced to little floating carbon pieces not much bigger than charred wedding confetti. Reacher glanced up at the windows. He doubted that a limo would have much armor plate in the roof, anyway. He made a mental note to ask Froelich about it. And to ask if she often rode in the same car as her charge.
He turned a corner and came out at the top of Armstrong’s street. Looked up at the high windows again. A mere demonstration wouldn’t require an actual missile. A rifle would be functionally ineffective, but it would make a point. A couple of chips in the limo’s bulletproof glass would serve some kind of notice. A paintball gun would do the trick. A couple of red splatters on the rear window would be a message. But the upper-floor windows were quiet as far as the eye could see. They were clean and neat and draped and closed against the cold. The houses themselves were quiet and calm, serene and prosperous.
There was a small crowd of onlookers watching the Secret Service team erect an awning between Armstrong’s house and the curb. It was like a long narrow white tent. Heavy white canvas, completely opaque. The house end fitted flat against the brick around Armstrong’s front door. The curb end had a radius like a jetway at an airport. It would hug the profile of the limo. The limo’s door would open right inside it. Armstrong would pass from the safety of his house straight into the armored car without ever being visible to an observer.
Reacher walked a circle around the group of curious people. They looked unthreatening. Neighbors, mostly, he guessed. Dressed like they weren’t going far. He moved back up the street and continued the search for open upper-story windows. That would be inappropriate, because of the weather. But there weren’t any. He looked for people loitering. There were plenty of those. There was a block where every second storefront was a coffee shop, and there were people passing time in every one of them. Sipping espresso, reading papers, talking on cell phones, writing in cramped notebooks, playing with electronic organizers.
He picked a coffee shop that gave him a good view south down the street and a marginal view east and west and bought a tall regular, black, and took a table. Sat down to wait and watch. At ten fifty-five a black Suburban came up the street and parked tight against the curb just north of the tent. It was followed by a black Cadillac stretch that parked tight against the tent’s opening. Behind that was a black Town Car. All three vehicles looked very heavy. All three had reinforced window frames and one-way glass. Four agents spilled out of the lead Suburban and took up stations on the sidewalk, two of them north of the house and two of them south. Two Metro Police cruisers snuffled up the street and the first stopped right in the center of the road well ahead of the Secret Service convoy and the second hung back well behind it. They lit up their light bars to hold the traffic. There wasn’t much. A blue Chevy Malibu and a gold Lexus SUV waited to get by. Reacher had seen neither vehicle before. Neither had been out cruising the area. He looked at the tent and tried to guess when Armstrong was passing through it. Impossible. He was still gazing at the house end when he heard the faint thump of an armored door closing and the four agents stepped back to their Suburban and the whole convoy took off. The lead cop car leapt forward and the Suburban and the Cadillac and the Town Car fell in behind it and moved fast up the street. The second police cruiser brought up the rear. All five vehicles turned east right in front of Reacher’s coffee shop. Tires squealed on the pavement. The cars accelerated. He watched them disappear. Then he turned back and watched the small crowd in the street disperse. The whole neighborhood went quiet and still.
They watched the motorcade drive away from a vantage point about eighty yards from where Reacher was sitting. Their surveillance confirmed what they already knew. Professional pride prevented them from writing off his commute to work as actually impossible, but as a viable opportunity it was going to be way down on their list. Way, way down. Right there at the bottom. Which made it all the more fortunate that the transition website offered so many other tempting choices.
They walked a circuitous route through the streets and made it back to their rented red Sable without incident.
Reacher finished his last mouthful of coffee and walked down toward Armstrong’s house. He stepped off the sidewalk where the tent blocked it. It was a white canvas tunnel leading directly to Armstrong’s front door. The door was closed. He walked on and stepped back on the sidewalk and met Neagley coming up from the opposite direction.
“OK?” he asked her.
“Opportunities,” she said. “Didn’t see anybody about to exploit any of them.”
“I like the tent and the armored car.”
Reacher nodded. “Takes rifles out of the equation.”
“Not entirely,” Neagley said. “A.50 sniper rifle would get through the armor. With the Browning AP round, or the API.”
He made a face. Either bullet was a formidable proposition. The standard armor-piercing item just blasted through steel plate, and the alternative armor-piercing incendiary burned its way through. But in the end he shook his head.
“No chance to aim,” he said. “First you’d have to wait until the car was rolling, to be sure he was in it. Then you’re putting a bullet into a large moving vehicle with dark windows. Hundred-to-one you’d hit Armstrong himself inside.”
“So you’d need an AT- 4.”
“What I thought.”
“Either with the high-explosive against the car, or else you could use it to put a phosphorous bomb into the house.”
“I’d use an upper-floor window in a house behind Armstrong’s. Across the alley, in back. Their defense is mostly concentrated on the front.”
“How would you get in?”
“Phony utility guy, water company, electric company. Anybody who could get in carrying a big toolbox.”
Reacher nodded. Said nothing.
“It’s going to be a hell of a four years,” Neagley said.
Then there was the hiss of tires and the sound of a big engine behind them and they turned to see Froelich easing up in her Suburban. She stopped alongside them, twenty yards short of Armstrong’s house. Gestured them into the vehicle. Neagley got in the front and Reacher sprawled in the back.
“See anybody?” Froelich asked.
“Lots of people,” Reacher said. “Wouldn’t buy a cheap watch from any of them.”
Froelich took her foot off the brake and let the engine’s idle speed crawl the car along the road. She kept it tight in the gutter and stopped it again when the nearside rear door was exactly level with the end of the tent. Lifted her hand from the wheel and spoke into the microphone wired to her wrist.
“One, ready,” she said.
Reacher looked to his right down the length of the canvas tunnel and saw the front door open and a man step out. It was Brook Armstrong. No doubt about it. His photograph had been all over the papers for five solid months and Reacher had spent four whole days watching his every move. He was wearing a khaki raincoat and carrying a leather briefcase. He walked through the tent, not fast, not slow. An agent in a suit watched him from the door.
“The convoy was a decoy,” Froelich said. “We do it that way, time to time.”
“Fooled me,” Reacher said.
“Don’t tell him this isn’t a rehearsal,” Froelich said. “Remember he’s not aware of anything yet.”
Reacher sat up straight and moved over to make room. Armstrong opened the door and climbed in beside him.
“Morning, M. E.,” he said.
“Morning, sir,” she replied. “These are associates of mine, Jack Reacher and Frances Neagley.”
Neagley half-turned and Armstrong threaded a long arm over the seat to shake her hand.
“I know you,” he said. “I met you at the party on Thursday evening. You’re a contributor, aren’t you?”
“She’s a security person, actually,” Froelich said. “We had a little cloak-and-dagger stuff going there. An efficiency analysis.”
“I was impressed,” Neagley said.
“Excellent,” Armstrong said to her. “Believe me, ma’am, I’m very grateful for the care everybody takes of me. Way more than I deserve. Really.”
He was magnificent, Reacher thought. His voice and his face and his eyes spoke of nothing but boundless fascination with Neagley alone. Like he would rather talk to her than do anything else in the whole world. And he had one hell of a visual memory, to place one face in a thousand from four days ago. That was clear. A born politician. He turned and shook Reacher’s hand and lit up the car with a smile of genuine pleasure.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Reacher,” he said.
“Pleasure’s all mine,” Reacher said. Then he found himself smiling back. He liked the guy, immediately. He had charm to burn. There was charisma coming off him like heat. And even if you discounted ninety-nine percent of it as political bullshit you could still like the fragment that was left. You could like it a lot.
“You in security too?” Armstrong asked him.
“Adviser,” Reacher said.
“Well, you guys do a hell of a great job. Glad to have you aboard.”
There was a tiny sound from Froelich’s earpiece and she took off down the street and made her way toward Wisconsin Avenue. Merged into the traffic stream and headed south and east for the center of town. The sun had disappeared again and the city looked gray through the deep tint in the windows. Armstrong made a little sound like a happy sigh and looked out at it, like he was still thrilled with it. Under the raincoat he was immaculate in a suit and a broadcloth shirt and a silk tie. He looked larger than life. Reacher had five years and three inches and fifty pounds on him but felt small and dull and shabby in comparison. But the guy also looked real. Very genuine. You could forget the suit and the tie and picture him in a torn old plaid jacket, out there splitting logs in his yard. He looked like a very serious politician, but a fun guy, too. He was tall and wired with energy. Blue eyes, plain features, unruly hair flecked with gold. He looked fit. Not with the kind of polish a gym gives you, but like he was just born strong. He had good hands. A slim gold wedding ring and no others. Cracked, untidy nails.
“Ex-military, am I right?” he asked.
“Me?” Neagley said.
“Both of you, I should think. You’re both a little wary. He’s checking me out and you’re checking the windows, especially at the lights. I recognize the signs. My dad was military.”
Armstrong smiled. “You didn’t read my campaign bios? He planned on a career, but he was invalided out before I was born and started a lumber business. Never lost the look, though. He always walked the walk, that’s for sure.”
Froelich came off M Street and headed parallel with Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Executive Office Building, past the front of the White House. Armstrong craned to look out at it. Smiled, with the laugh lines deepening around his eyes.
“Unbelievable, isn’t it?” he said. “Out of everybody who’s surprised I’m going to be a part of that, I’m the most surprised of all, believe me.”
Froelich drove straight past her own office in the Treasury Building and headed for the Capitol dome in the distance.
“Wasn’t there a Reacher at Treasury?” Armstrong asked.
Hell of a memory for names, too, Reacher thought.
“My elder brother,” he said.
“Small world,” Armstrong said.
Froelich made it onto Constitution Avenue and drove past the side of the Capitol. Made a left onto First Street and headed for a white tent leading to a side door in the Senate Offices. There were two Secret Service Town Cars flanking the tent. Four agents out on the sidewalks, looking cautious and cold. Froelich drove straight for the tent and eased to a stop tight against the curb. Checked her position and rolled forward a foot to put Armstrong’s door right inside the canvas shelter. Reacher saw a group of three agents waiting inside the tunnel. One of them stepped forward and opened the Suburban’s door. Armstrong raised his eyebrows, like he was bemused by all the attention.
“Good meeting you both,” he said. “And thanks, M.E.”
Then he stepped out into the canvas gloom and shut the door and the agents surrounded him and walked him down the length of the tent toward the building. Reacher glimpsed uniformed Capitol security people waiting inside. Armstrong stepped through the door and it closed solidly behind him. Froelich pulled away from the curb and eased around the parked cars and headed north in the direction of Union Station.
“OK,” she said, like she was very relieved. “So far so good.”
“You took a chance there,” Reacher said.
“Two in two hundred eighty-one million,” Neagley said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Could have been one of us who sent the letters.”
Froelich smiled. “My guess is it wasn’t. What did you think of him?”
“I liked him,” Reacher said. “I really did.”
“Me too,” Neagley said. “I’ve liked him since Thursday. So now what?”
“He’s in there all day for meetings. Lunch in the dining room. We’ll take him home around seven o’clock. His wife is home. So we’ll rent them a video or something. Keep them locked up tight all evening.”
“We need intelligence,” Reacher said. “We don’t know what exact form this demonstration might take. Or where it will be. Could be anything from graffiti upward. We don’t want to let it pass us by without noticing. If it happens at all.”
Froelich nodded. “We’ll check at midnight. Assuming we get to midnight.”
“And I want Neagley to interview the cleaners again. We get what we need from them, we can put our minds at rest.”
“I’d like to do that,” Froelich said.
They dropped Neagley at the Federal lockup and then drove back to Froelich’s office. Written FBI forensic reports were in on the latest two messages. They were identical to the first two in every respect. But there was a supplementary report from a Bureau chemist. He had detected something unusual about the thumbprints.
“Squalene,” Froelich said. “You ever heard of that?”
Reacher shook his head.
“It’s an acyclic hydrocarbon. A type of oil. There are traces of it present in the thumbprints. Slightly more on the third and fourth than the first and second.”
“Prints always have oils. That’s how they get made.”
“But usually it’s regular human finger oil. This stuff is different. C-thirty-H-fifty. It’s a fish oil. Shark-liver oil, basically.”
She passed the paper across her desk. It was covered in complicated stuff about organic chemistry. Squalene was a natural oil used as an old-fashioned lubricant for delicate machinery, like clockwork watches. There was an addendum at the bottom which said that when hydrogenated, squalene with an e becomes squalane with an a.
“What’s hydrogenated?” Reacher asked.
“You add water?” Froelich said. “Like hydroelectric power?”
He shrugged and she pulled a dictionary off the shelf and flicked through to H.
“No,” she said. “It means you add extra hydrogen atoms to the molecule.”
“Well, that makes everything clear as mud. I scored pretty low in chemistry.”
“It means this guy could be a shark fisherman.”
“Or he guts fish for a living,” Reacher said. “Or he works in a fish store. Or he’s an antique watchmaker with his hands dirty from lubricating something.”
Froelich opened a drawer and flipped through a file and pulled a single sheet. Passed it across. It was a life-size fluoroscope photograph of a thumbprint.
“This our guy?” Reacher asked.
Froelich nodded. It was a very clear print. Maybe the clearest print Reacher had ever seen. All the ridges and whorls were exactly delineated. It was bold and astonishingly provocative. And it was big. Very big. The pad of the thumb measured nearly an inch and a half across. Reacher pressed his own thumb alongside it. His thumb was smaller, and he didn’t have the most delicate hands in the world.
“That’s not a watchmaker’s thumb,” Froelich said.
Reacher nodded slowly. The guy must have hands like bunches of bananas. And rough skin, to print with that degree of clarity.
“Manual worker,” he said.
“Shark fisherman,” Froelich said. “Where do they catch a lot of sharks?”
“Orlando’s in Florida.”
Her phone rang. She picked it up and her face fell. She looked up at the ceiling and pressed the phone into her shoulder.
“Armstrong needs to go over to the Department of Labor,” she said. “And he wants to walk.”
It was exactly two miles from the Treasury Building to the Senate Offices and Froelich drove the whole way one-handed while she talked on her phone. The weather was gray and the traffic was heavy and the trip was slow. She parked at the mouth of the white tent on First Street and killed the motor and snapped her phone closed all at the same time.
“Can’t the Labor guys come over here?” Reacher asked.
She shook her head. “It’s a political thing. There are going to be changes over there and it’s more polite if Armstrong makes the effort himself.”
“Why does he want to walk?”
“Because he’s an outdoors type. He likes fresh air. And he’s stubborn.”
“Where does he have to go, exactly?”
She pointed due west. “Less than half a mile that way. Call it six or seven hundred yards across Capitol Plaza.”
“Did he call them or did they call him?”
“He called them. It’s going to leak so he’s trying to preempt the bad news.”
“Can you stop him going?”
“Theoretically,” she said. “But I really don’t want to. That’s not the sort of argument I want to have right now.”
Reacher turned and looked down the street behind them. Nothing there except gray weather and speeding cars on Constitution Avenue.
“So let him do it,” he said. “He called them. Nobody’s luring him out into the open. It’s not a trick.”
She glanced ahead through the windshield. Then she turned and stared past him, through his side window, down the length of the tent. Flipped her phone open and spoke to people in her office again. She used abbreviations and a torrent of jargon he couldn’t follow. Finished the call and closed her phone.
“We’ll bring a Metro traffic chopper in,” she said. “Keep it low enough to be obvious. He’ll have to pass the Armenian Embassy, so we’ll put some extra cops there. They’ll blend in. I’ll follow him in the car on D Street fifty yards behind. I want you out ahead of him with your eyes wide open.”
“When are we doing this?”
“Within ten minutes. Go up the street and left.”
“OK,” he said. She restarted the car and rolled forward so he could step onto the sidewalk clear of the tent. He got out and zipped his jacket and walked away into the cold. Up First Street and left onto C Street. There was traffic on Delaware Avenue ahead of him and beyond it he could see Capitol Plaza. There were low bare trees and open brown lawns. Paths made from crushed sandstone. A fountain in the center. A pool to the right. To the left and farther on, some kind of an obelisk memorial to somebody.
He dodged cars and ran across Delaware. Walked on into the plaza. Grit crunched under his shoes. It was very cold. His soles were thin. It felt like there were ice crystals mixed in with the crushed stone underfoot. He stopped just short of the fountain. Looked around. Perimeters were good. To the north was open ground and then a semicircle of state flags and some other monument and the bulk of Union Station. To the south was nothing except for the Capitol Building itself far away across Constitution Avenue. Ahead to the west was a building he assumed was the Department of Labor. He looped around the fountain with his eyes focused on the middle distance and saw nothing that worried him. Poor cover, no close windows. There were people in the park, but no assassin hangs around all day just in case somebody’s schedule changes unexpectedly.
He walked on. C Street restarted on the far side of the plaza, just about opposite the obelisk. It was more of an upright slab, really. There was a sign pointing toward it: Taft Memorial. C Street crossed New Jersey Avenue and then Louisiana Avenue. There were crosswalks. Fast traffic. Armstrong was going to spend some time standing still waiting for lights. The Armenian Embassy was ahead on the left. A police cruiser was pulling up in front of it. It parked on the curb and four cops got out. He heard a distant helicopter. Turned around and saw it low in the north and west, skirting the prohibited airspace around the White House. The Department of Labor was dead ahead. There were plenty of convenient side doors.
He crossed C Street to the north sidewalk. Strolled back fifty yards to where he could see into the plaza. Waited. The helicopter was stationary in the air, low enough to be obvious, high enough not to be deafening. He saw Froelich’s Suburban come around the corner, tiny in the distance. It pulled over and waited at the curb. He watched people. Most of them were hurrying. It was too cold for loitering. He saw a group of men way on the far side of the fountain. Six guys in dark overcoats surrounded a seventh in a khaki raincoat. They walked in the center of the sandstone path. The two agents on point were alert. The others crowded tight, like a moving huddle. They passed the fountain and headed for New Jersey Avenue. Waited at the light. Armstrong was bareheaded. The wind blew his hair. Cars streamed past. Nobody paid attention. Drivers and pedestrians occupied different worlds, based on relative time and space. Froelich kept her distance. Her Suburban idled along in the gutter fifty yards back. The light changed and Armstrong and his team walked on. So far, so good. The operation was working well.
Then it wasn’t.
First the wind pushed the police helicopter slightly off station. Then Armstrong and his team were halfway across the narrow triangular spit of land between New Jersey Avenue and Louisiana Avenue when a lone pedestrian did a perfect double take from ten yards away. He was a middle-aged guy, lean from neglect, bearded, long-haired, unkempt. He was wearing a belted raincoat greasy with age. He stood completely still for a split second and then launched himself toward Armstrong with his legs taking long bouncing strides and his arms windmilling uselessly and his mouth wide open in a snarl. The two nearest agents jumped forward to intercept him and the other four pulled back and crowded around Armstrong himself. They jostled and maneuvered until they had all six bodies between the crazy guy and Armstrong. Which left Armstrong totally vulnerable from the opposite direction.
Reacher thought decoy and spun around. Nothing there. Nothing anywhere. Just the cityscape, still and cold and indifferent. He checked windows for movement. He looked for the flash of sun on glass. Nothing. Nothing at all. He looked at cars on the avenues. All of them oblivious and moving fast. None of them slowing. He turned back and saw the crazy guy on the ground with two agents holding him down and two more with guns covering him. He saw Froelich’s Suburban speeding up and taking the corner fast. She stopped hard on the curb and two agents bundled Armstrong straight across the sidewalk and into the backseat.
But the Suburban didn’t go anywhere. It just sat there with traffic spilling around it. The helicopter drifted back on station and lost a little altitude and came down for a closer look. Its noise beat the air. Nothing happened. Then Armstrong got back out of the car. The two agents got out with him and walked him over to the crazy guy on the ground. Armstrong squatted down. Rested his elbows on his knees. It looked like he was talking. Froelich left her motor running and joined him on the sidewalk. Raised her hand and spoke into her wrist microphone. After a long moment a Metro cruiser came around the corner and pulled up behind the Suburban. Armstrong stood up straight and watched the two agents with the guns put the guy in the back of the cop car. The cop car drove away and Froelich went back to her Suburban and Armstrong regrouped with his escort and walked on toward the Department of Labor. The helicopter drifted above them. As they finally crossed Louisiana Avenue one way Reacher crossed it the other and jogged down to Froelich in her car. She was sitting in the driver’s seat with her head turned to watch Armstrong walk away. Reacher tapped on the window and she whirled around in surprise. Saw who it was and buzzed the glass down.
“You OK?” he asked her.
She turned back again to watch Armstrong. “I must be nuts.”
“Who was the guy?”
“Just some street person. We’ll follow it up, but I can tell you right now it’s not connected. No way. If that guy had sent the messages we’d still be smelling the bourbon on the paper. Armstrong wanted to talk to him. Said he felt sorry for him. And then he insisted on sticking with the walkabout. He’s nuts. And I’m nuts for allowing it.”
“Is he going to walk back?”
“Probably. I need it to rain, Reacher. Why doesn’t it ever rain when you want it to? A real downpour an hour from now would help me out.”
He glanced up at the sky. It was gray and cold, but all the clouds were high and unthreatening. It wasn’t going to rain.
“You should tell him,” he said.
She shook her head and turned to face front. “We just don’t do that.”
“Then you should get one of his staff to call him back in a hurry. Like something’s real urgent. Then he’d have to ride.”
She shook her head again. “He’s running the transition. He sets the pace. Nothing’s urgent unless he says it is.”
“So tell him it’s another rehearsal. A new tactic or something.”
Froelich glanced across at him. “I guess I could do that. It’s still the pregame period. We’re entitled to rehearse with him. Maybe.”
“Try it,” he said. “The walk back is more dangerous than the walk there. There’ll be a couple hours for somebody to find out he’s going to do it.”
“Get in,” she said. “You look cold.”
He walked around the Suburban’s hood and climbed in on the passenger side. Unzipped his jacket and held it open to allow the warm air from the heater to funnel up inside it. They sat and watched until Armstrong and his minders disappeared inside the Labor building. Froelich immediately called her office. Left instructions that she was to be informed before Armstrong moved again. Then she put the car in gear and took off south and west toward the East Wing of the National Gallery. She made a left and drove past the Capitol Building’s reflecting pool. Then a right onto Independence Avenue.
“Where are we going?” Reacher asked.
“Nowhere in particular,” she said. “I’m just killing time. And trying to decide if I should resign today or keep on beating my brains out.”
She drove past all the museums and made a left onto Fourteenth Street. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing rose up on their right, between them and the Tidal Basin. It was a big gray building. She pulled up at the curb opposite its main entrance. Kept the engine running and her foot on the brake. Gazed up at one of the high office windows.
“Joe spent time in there,” she said. “Back when they were designing the new hundred-dollar bill. He figured if he was going to have to protect it, he should have some input on it. A long time ago, now.”
Her head was tilted up. Reacher could see the curve of her throat. He could see the way it met the opening of her shirt. He said nothing.
“I used to meet him here sometimes,” she said. “Or on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. We’d walk around the Basin, late in the evening. In spring or summer.”
Reacher looked ahead to his right. The memorial crouched low among the bare trees and was reflected perfectly in the still water.
“I loved him, you know,” Froelich said.
Reacher said nothing. Just looked at her hand resting on the wheel. And her wrist. It was slim. The skin was perfect. There was a trace of a faded summer tan.
“And you’re very like him,” she said.
“Where did he live?”
She glanced at him. “Don’t you know?”
“I don’t think he ever told me.”
Silence in the idling car.
“He had an apartment in the Watergate,” she said.
She nodded. “It was very bare. Like it was only temporary.”
“It would be. Reachers don’t own property. I don’t think we ever have.”
“Your mother’s family did. They had estates in France.”
“You don’t know that either?”
He shrugged. “I know they were French, obviously. Not sure I ever heard about their real-estate situation.”
Froelich eased her foot off the brake and glanced in the mirror and gunned the motor and rejoined the traffic stream.
“You guys had a weird idea of family,” she said. “That’s for damn sure.”
“Seemed normal at the time,” he said. “We thought every family was like that.”
Her cell phone rang. A low electronic trill in the quiet of the car. She flipped it open. Listened for a moment and said OK and closed it up.
“Neagley,” she said. “She’s finished with the cleaners.”
“She get anything?”
“Didn’t say. She’s meeting us back at the office.”
She looped around south of the Mall and drove north on Fourteenth Street. Her phone rang again. She fumbled it open one-handed and listened as she drove. Said nothing and snapped it shut. Glanced at the traffic ahead on the street.
“Armstrong’s ready to get back,” she said. “I’m going to go try and make him ride with me. I’ll drop you in the garage.”
She drove down the ramp and stopped long enough for Reacher to jump out. Then she turned around in the crowded space and headed back up to the street. Reacher found the door with the wired glass porthole and walked up the stairs to the lobby with the single elevator. Rode it to the third floor and found Neagley waiting in the reception area. She was sitting upright on a leather chair.
“Stuyvesant around?” Reacher asked her.
She shook her head. “He went next door. To the White House.”
“I want to go look at that camera.”
They walked together past the counter toward the rear of the floor and came out in the square area outside Stuyvesant’s office. His secretary was at her desk with her purse open. She had a tiny tortoiseshell mirror and a stick of lip gloss in her hands. The pose made her look human. Efficient, for sure, but like an amiable old soul, too. She saw them coming and put her cosmetic equipment away fast, like she was embarrassed to be caught with it. Reacher looked over her head at the surveillance camera. Neagley looked at Stuyvesant’s door. Then she glanced at the secretary.
“Do you remember the morning the message showed up in there?” she asked.
“Of course I do,” the secretary said.
“Why did Mr. Stuyvesant leave his briefcase out here?”
The secretary thought for a moment. “Because it was a Thursday.”
“What happens on a Thursday? Does he have an early meeting?”
“No, his wife goes to Baltimore, Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“How is that connected?”
“She volunteers at a hospital there.”
Neagley looked straight at her. “How does that affect her husband’s briefcase?”
“She drives,” the secretary said. “She takes their car. They only have one. No department vehicle either, because Mr. Stuyvesant isn’t operational anymore. So he has to come to work on the Metro.”
Neagley looked blank. “The subway?”
The secretary nodded. “He has a special briefcase for Tuesdays and Thursdays because he’s forced to place it on the floor of the subway car. He won’t do that with his regular briefcase, because he thinks it gets dirty.”
Neagley stood still. Reacher thought back to the videotapes, Stuyvesant leaving late on Wednesday evening, returning early on Thursday morning.
“I didn’t notice a difference,” he said. “Looked like the same case to me.”
The secretary nodded in agreement.
“They’re identical items,” she said. “Same make, same vintage. He doesn’t like for people to realize. But one is for his automobile and the other is for the subway car.”
“He hates dirt. I think he’s afraid of it. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he won’t take his subway-car briefcase into his office at all. He leaves it out here all day and I have to bring him things from it. If it’s been raining he leaves his shoes out here, too. Like his office was a Japanese temple.”
Neagley glanced at Reacher. Made a face.
“It’s a harmless eccentricity,” the secretary said. Then she lowered her voice, as if she might be overheard all the way from the White House. “And absolutely unnecessary, in my opinion. The D.C. Metro is famous for being the cleanest subway in the world.”
“OK,” Neagley said. “But weird.”
“It’s harmless,” the secretary said again.
Reacher lost interest and stepped behind her and looked at the fire door. It had a brushed-steel push bar at waist height, like the city construction codes no doubt required it to have. He put his fingers on it and it clicked back with silky precision. He pushed a little harder and it folded up against the painted wood and the door swung back. It was a heavy fireproof item and there were three large steel hinges carrying its weight. He stepped through to a small square stairwell. There were concrete stairs, newer than the stone fabric of the building. They ran up to the higher floors and down toward street level. They had steel handrails. There were dim emergency lights behind glass in wire cages. Clearly a narrow space had been appropriated in the back of the building during the modernization and dedicated to a full-bore fire escape system.
There was a regular knob on the back of the door that operated the same latch as the push bar. It had a keyhole, but it wasn’t locked. It turned easily. Makes sense, he thought. The building was secure as a whole. They didn’t need for every floor to be isolated as well. He let the door close behind him and waited in the gloom on the stairwell for a second. Turned the knob again and reopened the door and stepped back into the brightness of the secretarial area, one pace. Twisted and looked up at the surveillance camera. It was right there above his head, set so it would pick him up sometime during his second step. He inched forward and let the door close behind him. Checked the camera again. It would be seeing him by now. And he still had more than eight feet to go before he reached Stuyvesant’s door.
“The cleaners put the message there,” the secretary said. “There’s no other possible explanation.”
Then her phone rang and she excused herself politely and answered it. Reacher and Neagley walked back through the maze of corridors and found Froelich’s office. It was quiet and dark and empty. Neagley flicked the halogen lights on and sat down at the desk. There was no other chair, so Reacher sat on the floor with his legs straight out and his back propped against the side of a file cabinet.
“Tell me about the cleaners,” he said.
Neagley drummed a rhythm on the desk with her fingers. The click of her nails alternated with little papery thumps from the pads of her fingers.
“They’re all lawyered up,” she said. “The department sent them attorneys, one each. They’re all Mirandized, too. Their human rights are fully protected. Wonderful, isn’t it? The civilian world?”
“Terrific. What did they say?”
“Nothing much. They clammed up tight. Stubborn as hell. But worried as hell, too. They’re looking at a rock and a hard place. Obviously very frightened about revealing who told them to put the paper there, and equally frightened about losing their jobs and maybe going to jail. They can’t win. It wasn’t attractive.”
“You mention Stuyvesant’s name?”
“Loud and clear. They know his name, obviously, but I’m not sure they know who he is, specifically. They’re night workers. All they see is a bunch of offices. They don’t see people. They didn’t react to his name at all. They didn’t really react to anything. Just sat there, scared to death, looking at their lawyers, saying nothing.”
“You’re slipping. People used to eat out of your hand, the way I recall it.”
She nodded. “I told you, I’m getting old. I couldn’t get a handle on them anywhere. The lawyers wouldn’t let me, really. The civilian justice system is very off-putting. I never felt so disconnected.”
Reacher said nothing. Checked his watch. “So what now?” Neagley asked.
“We wait,” he said.
The wait went slowly. Froelich came back after an hour and a half and reported that Armstrong was safely back in his own office. She had persuaded him to come with her in the car. She told him she understood that he preferred to walk, but she made the point that her team needed operational fine-tuning and there was no better time to do it than right now. She pushed it to the point where a refusal would have seemed like a prima-donna pain in the ass, and Armstrong wasn’t like that, so he climbed into the Suburban quite happily. The transfer through the tent at the Senate Offices had worked without incident.
“Now make some calls,” Reacher said. “See if anything’s happened that we need to know about.”
She checked with the D.C. cops first. There was the usual list of urban crimes and misdemeanors, but it would have been a stretch to categorize any of them as a demonstration of Armstrong’s vulnerability. She transferred to the precinct holding the crazy guy and took a long verbal report on his status. Hung up and shook her head.
“Not connected,” she said. “They know him. IQ below eighty, alcoholic, sleeps on the street, barely literate, and his prints don’t match. He’s got a record a yard long for jumping on anybody he’s ever seen in the newspapers he sleeps under. Some kind of a bipolar problem. I suggest we forget all about him.”
“OK,” Reacher said.
Then she opened up the National Crime Information Center database and looked at recent entries. They were flooding in from all over the country at a rate faster than one every second. Faster than she could read them.
“Hopeless,” she said. “We’ll have to wait until midnight.”
“Or one o’clock,” Neagley said. “It might happen on Central time, out there in Bismarck. They might shoot up his house. Or throw a rock through the window.”
So Froelich called the cops in Bismarck and asked for immediate notification of anything that could be even remotely connected to an interest in Armstrong. Then she made the same request to the North Dakota State Police and the FBI nationwide.
“Maybe it won’t happen,” she said.
Reacher looked away. You better hope it does, he thought.
Around seven o’clock in the evening the office complex began to quiet down. Most of the people visible in the corridors were drifting one way only, toward the front exit. They were wearing raincoats and carrying bags and briefcases.
“Did you check out of the hotel?” Froelich asked.
“Yes,” Reacher said.
“No,” Neagley said. “I make a terrible houseguest.”
Froelich paused a beat, a little taken aback. But Reacher wasn’t surprised. Neagley was a very solitary person. Always had been. She kept herself to herself. He didn’t know why.
“OK,” Froelich said. “But we should take some time out. Rest up and regroup later. I’ll drop you guys off and then go try to get Armstrong home safely.”
They rode together down to the garage and Froelich fired up her Suburban and drove Neagley to the hotel. Reacher walked with her as far as the bell captain’s stand and reclaimed his Atlantic City clothes. They were packed with his old shoes and his toothbrush and his razor, folded up inside a black garbage bag he had taken from a maid’s cart. It didn’t impress the bellboy. But he carried it out to the Suburban anyway and Reacher took it from him and gave him a dollar. Then he climbed back in alongside Froelich and she drove on. It was cold and dark and damp and the traffic was bad. There was congestion everywhere. Long lines of red brake lights streamed ahead of them, long lines of bright white headlights streamed toward them. They drove south across the Eleventh Street Bridge and fought through a maze of streets to Froelich’s house. She double-parked with the motor running and fiddled behind the steering wheel and took her door key off its ring. Handed it to him.
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” she said. “Make yourself at home.”
He took his bag and got out and watched her drive off. She made a right to loop back north over a different bridge and disappeared from sight. He crossed the sidewalk and unlocked her front door. The house was dark and warm. It had her perfume in it. He closed the door behind him and fumbled for a light switch. A low-wattage bulb came on inside a yellow shade on a lamp on a small chest of drawers. It gave a soft, muted light. He put the key down next to it and dropped his bag at the foot of the stairs and stepped into the living room. Switched on the light. Walked on into the kitchen. Looked around.
There were basement stairs behind a door. He stood still for a second with his ritual curiosity nagging at him. It was an ingrained reflex, like breathing. But was it polite to search your host’s house? Just out of habit? Of course not. But he couldn’t resist. He walked down the stairs, switching lights on as he went. The basement itself was a dark space walled with smooth old concrete. It had a furnace and a water softener in it. A washing machine and an electric dryer. Shelving units. Old suitcases. Plenty of miscellaneous junk stacked all around, but nothing of any great significance. He walked back up. Turned off the lights. Opposite the head of the stairs was an enclosed space right next to the kitchen. It was larger than a closet, smaller than a room. Maybe a pantry, originally. It had been fitted out as a tiny home office. There was a rolling chair and a desk and shelves, all of them a few years old. They looked like chain-store versions of real office furniture, with plenty of wear and tear on them. Maybe they were secondhand. There was a computer, fairly old. An inkjet printer connected to it with a fat cable. He moved back into the kitchen.
He looked at all the usual places women hide things in kitchens and found five hundred dollars in mixed bills inside an earthenware casserole on a high shelf inside a cupboard. Emergency cash. Maybe an old Y2K precaution that she decided to stick with afterward. He found an M9 Beretta nine-millimeter sidearm in a drawer, carefully hidden under a stack of place mats. It was old and scratched and stained with dried oil in random patches. Probably Army surplus, redistributed to another government department. Last-generation Secret Service issue, without a doubt. It was unloaded. The magazine was missing. He opened the next drawer to the left and put his hand on four spares laid out in a line under an oven glove. They were all loaded with standard jacketed cartridges. Good news and bad news. The layout was smart. Pick up the gun with your right hand, access the magazines with your left. Sound ergonomics. But storing magazines full of bullets was a bad idea. Leave them long enough, the spring in the magazine learns its compressed shape and won’t function right. More jams are caused by tired magazine springs than any other single reason. Better to keep the gun with a single shell locked in the chamber and all the other bullets loose. You can fire once right-handed while you thumb loose shells into an empty magazine with your left. Slower than the ideal, but a lot better than pulling the trigger and hearing nothing at all except a dull click.
He closed the kitchen drawers and moved back into the living room. Nothing there, except a hollowed-out book on the shelves, and it was empty. He turned on the TV, and it worked. He had once known a guy who hid things inside a gutted TV set. The guy’s quarters had been searched eight times before anybody thought to check that everything was exactly as it seemed.
There was nothing in the hallway. Nothing taped under the drawers in the little chest. Nothing in the bathrooms. Nothing of significance in the bedrooms except a shoe box under Froelich’s bed. It was full of letters addressed in Joe’s handwriting. He put them back without reading them. Went back downstairs and carried his garbage bag up to the guest room. Decided to wait an hour and then eat alone if she wasn’t back. He would send for the hot and sour and the General Tso’s again. It had been pretty good. He put his bathroom items next to the sink. Hung his Atlantic City clothes in the closet next to Joe’s abandoned suits. He looked at them and stood still for a long moment and then selected one at random and pulled it off the rail.
The plastic wrap tore as he stripped it away. It was stiff and brittle. The label inside the suit coat had a single Italian word embroidered in fancy script. Not a brand he recognized. The material was some kind of fine wool. It was very dark gray and had a faint sheen to it. The lining was acetate made to look like dark red silk. Maybe it was silk. There was no vent in the back. He laid it on the bed and put the pants next to it. The pants were very plain. No pleats, no cuffs.
He went back to the closet and took out a shirt. Lifted the plastic off it. It was pure white broadcloth. No buttons on the collar. A small label inside the neckband with two names in copperplate script, too obscure to read. Somebody amp; Somebody. Either an exclusive London shirtmaker, or some sweatshop faking it. The fabric was hefty. Not thick like fatigues, but there was some weight to it.
He unlaced his shoes. Took off his jacket and jeans and folded them over a chair. Followed it with his T-shirt and his underwear. Stepped into the bathroom and set the shower running. Stepped into the stall. There was soap and shampoo in there. The soap was dried rock-hard and the shampoo bottle was stuck shut with old suds. Clearly Froelich didn’t have frequent houseguests. He soaked the bottle under the stream of hot water and forced it open. Washed his hair and soaped his body. Leaned out and grabbed his razor and shaved carefully. Rinsed all over and got out and dripped on the floor and searched for a towel. He found one in a cupboard. It was thick and new. Too new to be any good at drying. It just slid the water around on his skin. He did his best with it and then wrapped it around his waist and combed his hair with his fingers.
He stepped back into the bedroom and picked up Joe’s shirt. Hesitated a second, and then put it on. Flipped the collar up and buttoned it at the neck. Buttoned it down the front. Opened the closet door and checked the fit in the mirror. It was perfect, more or less. Could have been tailored for him. He buttoned the cuffs. Sleeve length was excellent. He twisted left and right. Caught sight of a shelf behind the rail. The space where the suit and the shirt had been let him see it. There were neckties neatly rolled and placed side by side. Tissue-paper packages from a laundry, sealed with sticky labels. He opened one and found a pile of clean white boxers. Opened another and found black socks folded together in pairs.
He moved back to the bed and dressed in his brother’s clothes. Selected a dark maroon tie with a discreet pattern. British, like it represented a regimental association or one of those expensive high schools. He put it on and cracked the shirt collar down over it. Put on a pair of boxers and a pair of socks. Stepped into the suit pants. Shrugged into the jacket. He put his new shoes on and used the discarded tissue paper to scrub the scuffs off them. Stood up straight and walked back to the mirror. The suit fit very well. It was maybe a fraction long in the arms and legs, because he was a fraction shorter than Joe had been. And it was maybe a fraction tight, because he was a little heavier. But overall he looked very impressive in it. Like a completely different person. Older. More authoritative. More serious. More like Joe.
He bent down and picked up the cardboard box. It was heavy. Then he heard a sound down in the hallway. Somebody out on the step, knocking on the front door. He put the box back on the closet floor and headed down the stairs. Opened up. It was Froelich. She was standing in the evening mist with her hand raised ready to knock again. Light from the street behind her put her face in shadow.
“I gave you my key,” she said.
He stepped back and she stepped in. Looked up and froze. She fumbled behind her back and pushed the door shut and leaned hard up against it. Just stared at him. Something in her eyes. Shock, fear, panic, loss, he didn’t know.
“What?” he said.
“I thought you were Joe,” she said. “Just for a second.”
Her eyes filled with tears and she laid her head back against the wood of the door. She blinked against the tears and looked at him again and started crying hard. He stood still for a second and then stepped forward and took her in his arms. She dropped her purse and burrowed into his chest.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I tried on his suit.”
She said nothing. Just cried.
“Stupid, I guess,” he said.
She moved her head, but he couldn’t tell if she was saying yes, it was or no, it wasn’t. She locked her arms around his body and just held on. He put one hand low on her back and used the other to smooth her hair. He held her like that for minutes. She fought the tears and then gulped twice and pulled away. Swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Not your fault,” she said.
He said nothing.
“You looked so real. I bought him that tie.”
“I should have thought,” Reacher said.
She ducked down to her purse and came back with a tissue. Blew her nose and smoothed her hair.
“Oh, God,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be OK.”
He said nothing.
“You looked so good, is all,” she said. “Just standing there.”
She was staring at him quite openly. Then she reached out and straightened his tie. Touched a spot on his shirt where her tears had dampened it. Ran her fingers behind the lapels of his jacket. Stepped forward on tiptoe and locked her hands behind his neck and kissed him on the mouth.
“So good,” she said, and kissed him again, hard.
He held still for a second and then kissed her back. Hard. Her mouth was cool. Her tongue was swift. She tasted faintly of lipstick. Her teeth were small and smooth. He could smell perfume on her skin and in her hair. He put one hand low on her side and the other behind her head. He could feel her breasts against his chest. Her ribs, yielding slightly under his hand. Her hair, between his fingers. Her hand was cold and urgent on the back of his neck. Her fingers were raking upward into the stubble from his haircut. He could feel her nails on his skin. He slid his hand up her back. Then she stopped moving. Held still. Pulled away. She was breathing heavily. Her eyes were closed. She touched the back of her hand to her mouth.
“We shouldn’t do this,” she said.
He looked at her.
“Probably not,” he said.
She opened her eyes. Said nothing.
“So what should we do?” he asked.
She moved sideways and stepped into her living room.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Eat dinner, I guess. Did you wait?”
He followed her into the room.
“Yes,” he said. “I waited.”
“You’re very like him,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“Do you understand what I mean?”
He nodded. “What you saw in him you see in me, a little bit.”
“But are you like him?”
He knew exactly what she was asking. Did you see things the same? Did you share tastes? Were you attracted to the same women?
“Like I told you,” he said. “There are similarities. And there are differences.”
“That’s no answer.”
“He’s dead,” Reacher said. “That’s an answer.”
“And if he wasn’t?”
“Then a lot of things would be different.”
“Suppose I’d never known him. Suppose I’d gotten your name some other way.”
“Then I might not be here at all.”
“Suppose you were anyway.”
He looked at her. Took a deep breath, and held it, and let it out.
“Then I doubt if we’d be standing here talking about dinner,” he said.
“Maybe you wouldn’t be a substitute,” she said. “Maybe you’d be the real thing and Joe was the substitute.”
He said nothing.
“This is too weird,” she said. “We can’t do this.”
“No,” he said. “We can’t.”
“It was a long time ago,” she said. “Six years.”
“Is Armstrong OK?”
“Yes,” she said. “He’s OK.”
Reacher said nothing.
“We broke up, remember?” she said. “A year before he died. It’s not like I’m his tragic widow or something.”
Reacher said nothing.
“And it’s not like you’re really his grieving brother either,” she said. “You hardly knew him.”
“Mad at me about that?”
She nodded. “He was a lonely man. He needed somebody. So I’m a little mad about it.”
“Not half as much as I am.”
She said nothing in reply. Just moved her wrist and checked her watch. It was a strange gesture, so he checked his, too. The second hand hit nine-thirty exactly. Her cell phone rang inside her open purse out in the hallway. It was loud in the silence.
“My people checking in,” she said. “From Armstrong’s house.”
She stepped back to the hallway and bent down and answered the call. Hung up without comment.
“All quiet,” she said. “I told them to call every hour.”
He nodded. She looked anywhere but straight at him. The moment was gone.
“Chinese again?” she asked.
“Suits me,” he said. “Same order.”
She called it in from the kitchen phone and disappeared upstairs to take a shower. He waited in the living room and took the food from the delivery guy when he eventually showed up with it. She came down again and they ate across from each other at the kitchen table. She brewed coffee and they drank two cups each slowly, not talking. Her cell phone rang again at exactly ten-thirty. She had it next to her at the table and answered it immediately. Just a short message.
“All quiet,” she said. “So far, so good.”
“Stop worrying,” he said. “It would take an air strike to get him in his house.”
She smiled suddenly. “Remember Harry Truman?”
“My favorite president,” Reacher said. “From what I know about him.”
“Ours, too,” she said. “From what we know about him. One time around 1950 the White House residence was being renovated and he was living in Blair House across Pennsylvania Avenue. Two men came to kill him. One was taken out by the cops on the street, but the other made it to the door. Our people had to pull Truman off the assassin. He said he was going to take his gun away and stick it up his ass.”
“Truman was like that.”
“You bet he was. You should hear some of the old stories.”
“Would Armstrong be like that?”
“Maybe. Depends how the moment struck him, I guess. He’s pretty gentle physically, but he’s not a coward. And I’ve seen him very angry.”
“And he looks tough enough.”
Froelich nodded. Checked her watch. “We should get back to the office now. See if anything’s happened anyplace else. You call Neagley while I clear up here. Tell her to be ready to roll in twenty minutes.”
They were back in the office before eleven-fifteen. The message logs were blank. Nothing of significance from the D.C. police department. Nothing from North Dakota, nothing from the FBI. Updates were still streaming into the National Crime Information Center’s database. Froelich started combing through the day’s reports. She found nothing of interest. Her cell phone rang at eleven-thirty. All was quiet and peaceful in Georgetown. She turned back to the computer. Nothing doing. Time ticked around to midnight. Monday finished and Tuesday started. Stuyvesant showed up again. He just appeared in the doorway like he had before. Said nothing. The only chair in the room was Froelich’s own. Stuyvesant leaned against the door frame. Reacher sat on the floor. Neagley perched on a file cabinet.
Froelich waited ten minutes and called the D.C. cops. They had nothing to report. She called the Hoover Building and the FBI told her nothing significant had happened before midnight in the East. She turned back to the computer screen. Called out occasional incoming stories but neither Stuyvesant nor Reacher nor Neagley could twist them into any kind of a connection with a potential threat to Armstrong. The clock moved on to one in the morning. Midnight, Central time. She called the police department in Bismarck. They had nothing for her. She called the North Dakota State Police. Nothing at all. She tried the FBI again. Nothing reported from their field offices in the last sixty minutes. She put the phone down and scooted her chair back from her desk. Breathed out.
“Well, that’s it,” she said. “Nothing happened.”
“Excellent,” Stuyvesant said.
“No,” Reacher said. “Not excellent. Not excellent at all. It’s the worst possible news we could have gotten.”
Stuyvesant led them straight back toward the conference room. Neagley walked next to Reacher, close by his shoulder in the narrow corridors.
“Great suit,” she whispered.
“First one I ever wore,” he whispered back. “We on the same page with this?”
“On the same page and out of a job, probably,” she said. “That is, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking.”
They turned a corner. Walked on. Stuyvesant stopped and shepherded them into the conference room and came in after them and hit the lights and closed the door. Reacher and Neagley sat together on one side of the long table and Stuyvesant sat next to Froelich on the other, like he foresaw an adversarial element to the conversation.
“Explain,” he said.
Silence for a second.
“This is definitely not an inside job,” Neagley said.
Reacher nodded. “Although we were fooling ourselves by ever thinking it was entirely one thing or the other. It was always both. But it was useful shorthand. The real question was where the balance lay. Was it fundamentally an inside job with trivial help from the outside? Or was it basically an outside job with trivial help from the inside?”
“The trivial help being what?” Stuyvesant asked.
“A potential insider needed a thumbprint that wasn’t his. A potential outsider needed a way to get the second message inside this building.”
“And you’ve concluded that it’s the outsider?”
Reacher nodded again. “Which is absolutely the worst news we could have gotten. Because whereas an insider messing around is merely a pain in the ass, an outsider is truly dangerous.”
Stuyvesant looked away. “Who?”
“No idea,” Reacher said. “Just some outsider with a loose one-time connection to an insider, sufficient to get the message in and nothing more.”
“The insider being one of the cleaners.”
“Or all of them,” Froelich said.
“I assume so, yes,” Reacher said.
“You sure about this?”
“How?” Stuyvesant asked.
“Lots of reasons,” he said. “Some of them small, one of them big.”
“Explain,” Stuyvesant said again.
“I look for simplicity,” Reacher said.
Stuyvesant nodded. “So do I. I hear hoofbeats, I think horses, not zebras. But the simple explanation here is an insider trying to get under Froelich’s skin.”
“Not really,” Reacher said. “The chosen method is way too complex for that. They’d be doing all the usual stuff instead. The easy stuff. I’m sure we’ve all seen it before. Mysterious communications failures, computer crashes, bogus alarm calls to nonexistent addresses in the bad part of town, she arrives, calls in for backup, nobody shows, she gets scared, she panics on the radio, a recording gets made and starts to circulate. Any law enforcement department has got a stack of examples a yard high.”
“Including the military police?”
“Sure. Especially with women officers.”
Stuyvesant shook his head.
“No,” he said. “That’s conjecture. I’m asking how you know.”
“I know because nothing happened today.”
“Explain,” Stuyvesant said for the third time.
“This is a smart opponent,” Reacher said. “He’s bright and he’s confident. He’s in command. But he threatened something and he didn’t deliver.”
“So? He failed, is all.”
“No,” Reacher said. “He didn’t even try. Because he didn’t know he had to. Because he didn’t know his letter arrived today.”
Silence in the room.
“He expected it to arrive tomorrow,” Reacher said. “It was mailed on Friday. Friday to Monday is pretty fast for the U.S. mail. It was a fluke. He banked on Friday to Tuesday.”
“He’s an outsider,” Reacher said. “He’s got no direct connection to the department and therefore he’s unaware his threat showed up a day early, or he’d have delivered today for sure. Because he’s an arrogant son of a bitch, and he wouldn’t have wanted to let himself down. Count on it. So he’s out there somewhere, waiting to deliver on his threat tomorrow, which is exactly when he expected he’d have to all along.”
“Great,” Froelich said. “There’ll be another contributor reception tomorrow.”
Stuyvesant was quiet for a beat.
“So what do you suggest?” he asked.
“We have to cancel,” Froelich said.
“No, I meant long-term strategy,” Stuyvesant said. “And we can’t cancel anything. We can’t just give up and say we can’t protect our principal.”
“You have to tough it out,” Reacher said. “It’ll only be a demonstration. Designed to torment you. My guess is it’ll specifically avoid Armstrong altogether. It’ll penetrate somewhere he has been or will be some other time.”
“Like where?” Froelich asked.
“His house, maybe,” Reacher said. “Either here or in Bismarck. His office. Somewhere. It’ll be theatrical, like these damn messages. It’ll be some spectacular thing in a place Armstrong just was or is heading for next. Because right now this whole thing is a contest, and the guy promised a demonstration, and I think he’ll keep his word, but I’m betting the next move will be parallel somehow. Otherwise why phrase the message the way he did? Why talk about a demonstration? Why not just go ahead and say, Armstrong, you’re going to die today?”
Froelich made no reply.
“We have to identify this guy,” Stuyvesant said. “What do we know about him?”
Silence in the room.
“Well, we know we’re fooling ourselves again,” Reacher said. “Or else still speaking in shorthand. Because it’s not a him. It’s them. It’s a team. It always is. It’s two people.”
“That’s a guess,” Stuyvesant said.
“You wish,” Reacher said back. “It’s provable.”
“It bothered me way back that there was the thumbprint on the letter along with clear evidence of latex gloves. Why would he swing both ways? Either his prints are on file or they aren’t. But it’s two people. The thumbprint guy has never been printed. The gloves guy has been. It’s two people, working together.”
Stuyvesant looked very tired. It was nearly two o’clock in the morning.
“You don’t really need us anymore,” Neagley said. “This isn’t an internal investigation now. This is out there in the world.”
“No,” Stuyvesant said. “It’s still internal as long as there’s something to get from the cleaners. They must have met with these people. They must know who they are.”
Neagley shrugged. “You gave them lawyers. You made it very difficult.”
“They had to have counsel, for God’s sake,” Stuyvesant said. “They were arrested. That’s the law. It’s their Sixth Amendment right.”
“I guess it is,” Neagley said. “So tell me, is there a law for when the Vice President gets killed before his inauguration?”
“Yes, there is,” Froelich said quietly. “The Twentieth Amendment. Congress chooses another one.”
Neagley nodded. “Well, I sure hope they’ve got their short list ready.”
Silence in the room.
“You should bring in the FBI,” Reacher said.
“I will,” Stuyvesant replied. “When we’ve got names. Not before.”
“They’ve already seen the letters.”
“Only in the labs. Their left hand doesn’t know what their right hand is doing.”
“You need their help.”
“And I’ll ask for it. Soon as we’ve gotten names, I’m going to give them to the Bureau on a silver platter. But I’m not going to tell them where they came from. I’m not going to tell them we were internally compromised. And I’m sure as hell not bringing them in while we still are internally compromised.”
“Is it that big of a deal?”
“Are you kidding? CIA had a problem with that Ames guy, remember? The Bureau got hold of it and they laughed up their sleeves for years. Then they had their own problems with that Hanssen guy, and they didn’t look so smart after all. This is the big leagues, Reacher. Right now the Secret Service is number one, by a very healthy margin. We’ve only recorded one defeat in our entire history, and that was almost forty years ago. So we’re not about to take a dive down the league table just for the fun of it.”
Reacher said nothing.
“And don’t get all superior with me,” Stuyvesant said. “Don’t tell me the Army reacted any different. I don’t recall you guys running to the Bureau for assistance. I don’t recall your embarrassing little secrets all over the Washington Post.”
Reacher nodded. Most of the Army’s embarrassments were cremated. Or six feet under. Or sitting in a stockade somewhere, too scared even to open their mouths. Or back home, too scared to tell their own mothers why. He had arranged some of those circumstances himself.
“So we’ll take it a step at a time,” Stuyvesant said. “Prove these guys are outsiders. Get their names from the cleaners. Lawyers or no lawyers.”
Froelich shook her head. “First priority is getting Armstrong to midnight alive.”
“It’s only going to be a demonstration,” Reacher said.
“I heard you before,” she said. “But it’s my call. And you’re just guessing. All we’ve got is nine words on a piece of paper. And your interpretation might be plain wrong. I mean, what better demonstration would there be than actually doing it? Really getting to him would demonstrate his vulnerability, wouldn’t it? I mean, what better way is there of demonstrating it?”
Neagley nodded. “And it would be a way of hedging their bets, also. An attempt that fails could be passed off as a demonstration, maybe. You know, to save face.”
“If you’re right to begin with,” Stuyvesant said.
Reacher said nothing. The meeting came to an end a couple of minutes later. Stuyvesant made Froelich run through Armstrong’s schedule for the day. It was an amalgam of familiar parts. First, intelligence briefings from the CIA at home, like on Friday morning. Then afternoon transition meetings on the Hill, the same as most days. Then the evening reception at the same hotel as Thursday. Stuyvesant noted it all down and went home just before two-thirty in the morning. Left Froelich on her own at the long table in the bright light and the silence, opposite Reacher and Neagley.
“Advice?” she said.
“Go home and sleep,” Reacher said.
“And then do exactly what you’ve been doing,” Neagley said. “He’s OK in his house. He’s OK in his office. Keep the tents in place and the transfers are OK too.”
“What about the hotel reception?”
“Keep it short and take a lot of care.”
Froelich nodded. “All I can do, I guess.”
“Are you good at your job?” Neagley asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m pretty good.”
“No, you’re not,” Reacher said. “You’re the best. The absolute best there has ever been. You’re so damn good it’s unbelievable.”
“That’s how you’ve got to think,” Neagley said. “Pump yourself up. Get to the point where it’s impossible to think that these jerky guys with their silly notes are going to get within a million miles of you.”
Froelich smiled, briefly. “Is this military-style training?”
“For me it was,” Neagley said. “Reacher was born thinking that way.”
Froelich smiled again.
“OK,” she said. “Home and sleep. Big day tomorrow.”
Washington, D.C., is quiet and empty in the middle of the night and it took just two minutes to reach Neagley’s hotel and only another ten to get back to Froelich’s house. Her street was crowded with parked cars. They looked like they were asleep, dark and still and inert and heavily dewed with cold mist. The Suburban was more than eighteen feet long and they had to go two whole blocks before they found a space big enough for it. They locked it up and walked back together in the chill. Made it to the house and opened the door and stepped inside. The lights were still on. The heating was still running hard. Froelich paused in the hallway.
“Are we OK?” she asked. “About earlier?”
“We’re fine,” he said.
“I just don’t want us to get our signals mixed.”
“I don’t think they’re mixed.”
“I’m sorry I disagreed with you,” she said. “About the demonstration.”
“It’s your call,” he said. “Only you can make it.”
“I had other boyfriends,” she said. “You know, after.”
He said nothing.
“And Joe had other girlfriends,” she said. “He wasn’t all that shy, really.”
“But he left his stuff here.”
“Does that matter?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Got to mean something.”
“He’s dead, Reacher. Nothing can affect him now.”
She was quiet for a second.
“I’m going to make tea,” she said. “You want some?”
He shook his head. “I’m going to bed.”
She stepped into the living room on her way to the kitchen and he walked upstairs. Closed the guest room door quietly behind him and opened up the closet. Stripped off Joe’s suit and put it back on the wire dry-cleaner’s hanger. Hung it on the rail. Took off the tie and rolled it and put it back on the shelf. Took off the shirt and dropped it on the closet floor. He didn’t need to save it. There were four more on the rail, and he didn’t expect to be around longer than four more days. He peeled off the socks and dropped them on top of the shirt. Walked into the bathroom wearing only his boxers.
He took his time in there and when he came out Froelich was standing in the guest room doorway. Wearing a nightgown. It was white cotton. Longer than a T-shirt, but not a whole lot longer. The hallway light behind her made it transparent. Her hair was tousled. Without shoes she looked smaller. Without makeup she looked younger. She had great legs. A wonderful shape. She looked soft and firm, all at the same time.
“He broke up with me,” she said. “It was his choice, not mine.”
“He met somebody he preferred.”
“Doesn’t matter who. Nobody you ever heard of. Just somebody.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“Denial, I guess,” she said. “Trying to protect myself, maybe. And trying to protect his memory in front of his brother.”
“He wasn’t nice about it?”
“How did it happen?”
“He just told me one day.”
“And walked out?”
“We weren’t really living together. He spent time here, I spent time there, but we always kept separate places. His stuff is still here because I wouldn’t let him come back to get it. I wouldn’t let him in the door. I was hurt and angry with him.”
“I guess you would be.”
She shrugged. The hem of her nightgown rode up an inch on her thigh.
“No, it was silly of me,” she said. “I mean, it’s not like things like that never happen, is it? It was just a relationship that started and then finished. Hardly unique in human history. Hardly unique in my history. And half the times it was me who did the walking away.”
“Why are you telling me?”
“You know why,” she said.
He nodded. Didn’t speak.
“So you can start with a blank slate,” she said. “How you react to me can be about you and me, not about you and me and Joe. He took himself out of the picture. It was his choice. So it’s none of his business, even if he was still around.”
He nodded again.
“But how blank is your slate?” he asked.
“He was a great guy,” she said. “I loved him once. But you’re not him. You’re a separate person. I know that. I’m not looking to get him back. I don’t want a ghost.”
She took one step into the room.
“That’s good,” he said. “Because I’m not like him. Hardly at all. You need to be real clear about that from the start.”
“I’m clear about it,” she said. “The start of what?”
She took another step into the room and then stood still.
“The start of whatever,” he said. “But the end will turn out the same, you know. You need to be real clear about that, too. I’ll leave, just like he did. I always do.”
She came closer. They were a yard apart.
“Soon?” she asked.
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”
“I’ll take my chances,” she said. “Nothing lasts forever.”
“Doesn’t feel right,” he said.
She glanced at his face. “What doesn’t?”
“I’m standing here wearing your ex-lover’s clothes.”
“Not many of them,” she said. “And it’s a situation that can be easily remedied.”
“Is it?” he said. “Want to show me how?”
He stepped forward again and she put her hands on his waist. Slipped her fingers under the elastic waistband of his boxers and remedied the situation. Stepped back a little and raised her arms above her head. Her nightgown slipped off very easily. Fell to the floor. They barely made it to the bed.
They got three hours’ sleep and woke up at seven when her alarm started ringing in her own room. It sounded far away and faint through the guest room wall. He was on his back and she was curled under his arm. Her thigh was hooked over his. Her head was resting against his shoulder. Her hair touched his face. He felt comfortable in that position. And warm. Warm and comfortable. And tired. Warm and comfortable and tired enough that he wanted to ignore the noise and stay put. But she struggled free and sat up in the bed, dazed and sleepy.
“Good morning,” he said.
There was gray light from the window. She smiled and yawned and pulled her elbows back and stretched. The clock in the next room kept on making noise. Then it went into a new mode and got louder. He slid his hand flat against her stomach. Moved it up to her breasts. She yawned again and smiled again and twisted around and ducked her head and nuzzled into his neck.
“Good morning to you too,” she said.
The alarm blared on through the wall. It clearly had a feature that made it get more and more urgent if it was ignored. He pulled her down on top of him. Smoothed her hair away from her face and kissed her. The distant clock started chirping and howling like a cop car. He was glad he wasn’t in the same room with it.
“Got to get up,” she said.
“We will,” he said. “Soon.”
He held her. She stopped struggling. They made love breathlessly, like the alarm clock was spurring them on. It sounded like they were in a nuclear bunker with missile sirens ticking off the last moments of their lives. They finished, panting, and she heaved herself out of bed and ran through to her own room and shut the noise off. The silence was deafening. He lay back on the pillow and looked up at the ceiling. An oblique bar of gray light from the window showed some imperfections in the plaster. She came back, naked, walking slowly.
“Come back to bed,” he said.
“Can’t,” she said. “Got to go to work.”
“He’ll be OK for a spell. And if he isn’t, they can always get another one. That Twentieth Amendment thing. They’ll be lining up around the block.”
“And I’ll be lining up for a new job. Maybe flipping burgers.”
“You ever done that?”
“What, flipped burgers?”
“Been out of work.”
She shook her head. “Never.”
He smiled. “I haven’t really worked for five years.”
She smiled back. “I know. I checked the computers. But you’re working today. So get your ass out of bed.”
She gave him a fine view of her own ass as she walked away to her own bathroom. He lay still for a second longer with Dawn Penn’s old song coming back at him: you don’t love me, yes I know now. He shook it out of his head and threw back the covers and stood up and stretched. One arm up to the ceiling, then the other. He arched his back. Pointed his toes and stretched his legs. That was the whole of his fitness routine. He walked to the guest bathroom and went for the full twenty-two minute ablution sequence. Teeth, shave, hair, shower. He dressed in another of Joe’s old suits. This one was pure black, same brand, same tailoring details. He paired it with another fresh shirt, same Somebody amp; Somebody label, same pure white cotton. Clean boxers, clean socks. A dark blue silk tie with tiny silver parachutes all over it. There was a British manufacturer’s label on it. Maybe it was from the Royal Air Force in England. He checked himself in the mirror and then ruined the look by putting his new Atlantic City coat over the suit. It was coarse and clumsy in comparison and the colors didn’t match, but he figured to be spending some time out in the cold today, and it didn’t seem that Joe had left any overcoats behind. He must have skipped out in summer.
He met Froelich at the bottom of the stairs. She was in a feminine version of his own outfit, a black pant suit with an open-necked white blouse. But her coat was better. It was dark gray wool, very formal. She was putting her earpiece in. It had a curly wire that straightened after six inches to run down her back.
“Want to help?” she said. She pulled her elbows back in the same gesture she had used when she woke up. It pushed her jacket collar off the back of her neck. He dropped the wire down between her jacket and her blouse. The tiny plug on the end acted like a counterweight and took it all the way to her waist. She pulled her coat and her jacket aside and he found a black radio unit clipped to her belt in the small of her back. The microphone lead was already plugged in and threaded up her back and down her left sleeve. He plugged the earpiece in. She let her jacket and her coat fall back into place and he saw her gun in a holster clipped to her belt near her left hip, butt forward for easy access by her right hand. It was a big, boxy SIG-Sauer P226, which he was happy about. Altogether a better proposition than the previous-issue Beretta in her kitchen drawer.
“OK,” she said. Then she took a deep breath. Checked her watch. Reacher did the same thing. It was nearly a quarter to eight.
“Sixteen hours and sixteen minutes to go,” she said. “Call Neagley and tell her we’re on our way.”
He used her mobile as they walked back to her Suburban. The morning was damp and cold, exactly the same as the night had been except now there was some grudging gray light in the sky. The Suburban’s windows were all misted over with dew. But it started on the first turn of the key and the heater worked fast and the interior was warm and comfortable by the time Neagley climbed on board outside the hotel.
Armstrong slipped a leather jacket over his sweater and stepped out of his back door. The wind caught his hair and he zipped the coat as he walked to his gate. Two paces before he got there he was picked up in the scope. The scope was a Hensoldt 1.5-6×42 BL originally supplied with a SIG SSG 3000 sniper rifle, but it had been adapted by the Baltimore gunsmith to fit its new home, which was on top of a Vaime Mk2. Vaime was a word registered by Oy Vaimennin Metalli Ab, which was a Finnish weapons specialist that correctly figured it needed a simplified name if it was going to sell its excellent products in the West. And the Mk2 was an excellent product. It was a silenced sniper rifle that used a low-powered version of the standard 7.62 millimeter NATO round. Low-powered, because the bullet had to fly at subsonic speeds to preserve the silence that the built-in suppressor created. And because of the low power and the suppressor’s complex exhaust gas management scheme there was very little recoil. Almost none at all. Just the gentlest little kick imaginable. It was a fine rifle. With a good scope like the Hensoldt it was a guaranteed killer at any range up to two hundred yards. And the man with his eye to the scope was only a hundred and twenty-six yards from Armstrong’s back gate. He knew that for an exact fact, because he had just checked the distance with a laser range finder. He was exposed to the weather, but he was adequately prepared. He knew how to do this. He was wearing a dark green down coat and a black hat made of synthetic fleece. He had gloves made from the same material, with the right-hand fingertips cut off for control. He was lying down out of the wind, which kept his eyes clear of tears. He anticipated absolutely no problems at all.
The way a man goes through a gate works like this: he stops walking momentarily. He stands still. He has to, whichever way the gate hinges. If it hinges toward him, he reaches out for the latch and flips it open and pulls the gate and kind of stands on tiptoe and arches his legs so the gate can swing past them. If it hinges away from him, he stands still while he finds the latch and pushes it open. That’s faster, but there’s still a moment where there’s no real forward motion at all. And this particular gate opened toward the house. That fact was clearly visible through the Hensoldt. There was going to be a two-second window of perfect opportunity.
Armstrong reached the gate. Stopped walking. One hundred and twenty-six yards away the man with his eye to the scope nudged the rifle a fraction left until the target was exactly centered. Held his breath. Eased his finger back. Took up the slack in the trigger. Then he squeezed it all the way. The rifle coughed loudly and kicked gently. The bullet took a hair over four-tenths of a second to travel the hundred and twenty-six yards. It hit Armstrong with a wet thump high on the forehead. It penetrated his skull and followed a downward angle through his frontal lobe, through his central ventricles, through his cerebellum. It shattered his first vertebra and exited at the base of his neck through soft tissue near the top of his spinal cord. It flew on and struck the ground eleven feet farther back and buried itself deep in the earth.
Armstrong was clinically dead before he hit the ground. The bullet’s path caused massive brain trauma and its kinetic energy pulsed outward through brain tissue and was reflected back by the inside of the skull bones like a big wave in a small swimming pool. The resulting damage was catastrophic. All brain function ceased before gravity dropped the body.
One hundred and twenty-six yards away the man with his eye to the scope lay perfectly still for a second. Then he cradled the rifle flat against his torso and rolled away until it was safe to stand. He racked the rifle’s bolt and caught the hot shell case in his gloved hand and dropped it into his pocket. Moved backward into cover and then walked away, completely shielded from view.
Neagley was uncharacteristically quiet in the car. Maybe she was worried about the day ahead. Maybe she could sense the altered chemistry. Reacher didn’t know, and either way he wasn’t in a hurry to find out. He just sat quiet while Froelich battled the traffic. She looped northwest and used the Whitney Young bridge across the river and drove past the RFK football stadium. Then she took Massachusetts Avenue and stayed away from the congestion around the government part of town. But Mass. Ave. was slow itself, and it was nearly nine o’clock before they arrived in Armstrong’s Georgetown street. She parked behind another Suburban near the mouth of the tent. An agent stepped off the sidewalk and rounded the hood to talk with her.
“The spook just got here,” he said. “They’ll be into Spying 101 by now.”
“Should be 201 by now, surely,” Froelich said. “He’s been doing it long enough.”
“No, CIA stuff is awful complicated,” the guy said. “For plain folks, anyway.”
Froelich smiled and the guy walked away. Took up station again on the sidewalk. Froelich buzzed her window up and half-turned to face Reacher and Neagley equally.
“Foot patrol?” she said.
“Why I wore my coat,” Reacher said.
“Four eyes are better than two,” Neagley said.
They got out together and left Froelich in the warmth of the car. The street side of the house was quiet and well covered so they walked north and turned right to get a view of the back. There were cop cars top and bottom of the alley. Nothing was happening. Everything was buttoned up tight against the cold. They walked onward to the next street. There were cop cars there, too.
“Waste of time,” Neagley said. “Nobody’s going to get him in his house. I assume the police would notice somebody hauling in an artillery piece.”
“So let’s get breakfast,” Reacher said. They walked back to the cross street and found a doughnut shop. Bought coffee and crullers and perched on stools in front of a long counter built inside the store window. The window was misted with condensation. Neagley used a napkin and wiped crescent shapes to see through.
“Different tie,” she said.
He glanced down at it.
“Different suit,” she said.
“You like it?”
“I would if we still lived in the 1990s,” she said.
He said nothing. She smiled.
“So,” she said.
“Ms. Froelich collected the set.”
“You could tell?”
“Free will on my part,” Reacher said.
Neagley smiled again. “I didn’t think she raped you.”
“You going to be all judgmental now?”
“Hey, your call. She’s a nice lady. But so am I. And you never come on to me.”
“You ever wanted me to?”
“That’s the point. I like my interest to be welcome.”
“Which must limit your options some.”
“Some,” he said. “But not completely.”
“Apparently not,” Neagley said.
“Hell no. Be my guest. Why do you think I stayed on in the hotel? I didn’t want to get in her way, is all.”
“Her way? Was it that obvious?”
“Oh please,” Neagley said.
Reacher sipped his coffee. Ate a cruller. He was hungry and it tasted great. Iced hard on the outside, light in the middle. He ate another and sucked his fingertips clean. Felt the caffeine and the sugar hit his bloodstream.
“So who are these guys?” Neagley asked. “You got any feelings?”
“Some,” Reacher said. “I’d have to concentrate hard to line them up. Not worth starting with that until we know if we’re staying on the job.”
“We won’t be,” Neagley said. “Our job ends with the cleaners. And that’s a waste of time in itself. No way will they have a name for us. Or if they do, it’ll be phony. Best we’ll get is a description. Which is bound to be useless.”
Reacher nodded. Finished his coffee.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Once around the block for form’s sake.”
They walked as slowly as they could bear to in the cold. Nothing was happening. Everything was quiet. There were cop cars or Secret Service vehicles on every street. Their exhaust fumes clouded white and drifted in the still air. Apart from that absolutely nothing was moving. They turned corners and came up on Armstrong’s street from the south. The white tent was ahead of them on the right. Froelich was out of her car, waving to them urgently. They hurried up the sidewalk to meet her.
“Change of plan,” she said. “There was a problem on the Hill. He cut the CIA thing short and headed up there.”
“He left already?” Reacher asked.
Froelich nodded. “He’s rolling now.”
Then she paused and listened to a voice in her earpiece.
“He’s arriving,” she said.
She lifted her wrist and spoke into her microphone.
“Situation report, over,” she said, and listened again.
There was a wait. Thirty seconds. Forty.
“OK, he’s inside,” she said. “Secure.”
“So what now?” Reacher said.
Froelich shrugged. “Now we wait. That’s what this job is. It’s about waiting.”
They drove back to the office and waited the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon. Froelich received regular situation reports. Reacher built up a pretty good picture of how things were organized. Metro cops were stationed outside the Senate Office buildings in cars. Secret Service agents held the sidewalk. Inside the street doors were members of the Capitol’s own police force, one officer manning each metal detector, plenty more patrolling the hallways. Mingled in with them were more Secret Service. The transition business itself took place in upstairs offices with pairs of agents outside every door. Armstrong’s personal detail stayed with him at all times. The radio reports spoke of a fairly static day. There was a lot of sitting around and talking going on. Plenty of deals being made. That was clear. Reacher recalled the phrase smoke-filled rooms, except he guessed nobody was allowed to smoke anymore.
At four o’clock they drove over to Neagley’s hotel, which was being used again for the contributor function. Start time was scheduled for seven in the evening, which gave them three hours to secure the building. Froelich had a preplanned protocol that involved a squeeze search starting in the kitchen loading bay and the penthouse suites simultaneously. Metro cops with dogs were accompanied by Secret Service people and worked patiently, floor by floor. As each floor was cleared three cops took up permanent station, one at each end of the bedroom corridor and one covering the elevator bank and the fire stairs. The two search teams met on the ninth floor at six o’clock, by which time temporary metal detectors were in place inside the lobby and at the ballroom door. The cameras were set up and recording.
“Ask for two forms of ID this time,” Neagley said. “Driver’s license and a credit card, maybe.”
“Don’t worry,” Froelich said. “I plan to.”
Reacher stood in the ballroom doorway and glanced around the room. It was a vast space, but a thousand people were going to crowd it out to the point of discomfort.
Armstrong took the elevator down from his office and turned a tight left in the lobby. Pushed through an unmarked door that led to a rear exit. He was wearing a raincoat and carrying a briefcase. The corridor behind the unmarked door was a plain narrow space that smelled of janitorial supplies. Some kind of strong detergent cleaner. He had to squeeze past two stacks of cartons. One of the stacks was neat and new, made up from recent deliveries. The other was unsteady and ragged, made up of empty boxes waiting for the trash collector. He turned his body sideways to get past the second pile. Held his briefcase out behind him and led with his right forearm. He pushed open the exit door and stepped out into the cold.
There was a small square internal courtyard, partly open on the north side. It was an unglamorous space. Tin trunking for the building’s ventilation system was clipped to the walls above head height. There were red-painted pipes and brass-collared valves at shin level, feeding the fire sprinklers. There was a line of three trash containers painted dark blue. They were large steel boxes the size of automobiles. Armstrong had to walk past them to get to the back street. He got past the first one. He got past the second one. Then a quiet voice called to him.
“Hey,” it said. He turned and saw a man cramped into the small space between the second and the third containers. He registered a dark coat and a hat and some kind of brutal weapon. It was short and fat and black. It came up and coughed.
It was a Heckler amp; Koch MP5SD6 silenced submachine gun, set to fire three-round bursts. It used standard nine-millimeter Parabellums. No need for low-powered versions, because the SD6’s barrel has thirty holes in it to bleed gas and reduce muzzle velocity to subsonic speeds. It fires at a cyclic rate of eight hundred rounds per minute, so that each three-round burst was complete in a fraction over a fifth of a second. The first burst hit Armstrong in the center of his chest. The second hit him in the center of his face.
The basic H amp;K MP5 has a lot of advantages, including extreme reliability and extreme accuracy. The silenced version works even better because the weight of the integral suppressor mitigates the natural tendency that any submachine gun has toward muzzle climb during operation. Its sole drawback is the vigor with which it spits out its empty cartridge cases. They come out of the side almost as fast as the bullets come out of the front. They travel a long way. Not really a problem in its intended arenas of operation, which are confined to the necessary operations of the world’s elite military and paramilitary units. But it was a problem in this situation. It meant the shooter had to leave six empty shell cases behind as he stuffed the gun under his coat and stepped over Armstrong’s body and walked out of the small courtyard and away to his vehicle.
By six-forty there were almost seven hundred guests in the hotel lobby. They formed a long loose line from the street door to the coat check to the ballroom entrance. There was loud excited conversation in the air, and the heady stink of mingling perfumes. There were new dresses and white tuxedos and dark suits and bright ties. There were clutch purses and small cameras in leather cases. Patent shoes and high heels and the flash of diamonds. Fresh perms and bare shoulders and a lot of animation.
Reacher watched it all, leaning on a pillar near the elevators. He could see three agents through the glass on the street. Two at the door, operating a metal detector. They had its sensitivity set high, because it was beeping at every fourth or fifth guest. The agents were searching purses and patting down pockets. They were smiling conspiratorially as they did so. Nobody minded. There were eight agents roaming the lobby, faces straight, eyes always moving. There were three agents at the ballroom door. They were checking ID and inspecting invitations. Their metal detector was just as sensitive. Some people were searched for a second time. There was already music in the ballroom, audible in waves as the crowd noise peaked and died.
Neagley was triangulated across the lobby on the second step of the mezzanine staircase. Her gaze moved like radar, back and forth across the sea of people. Every third sweep she would lock eyes with Reacher and give a tiny shake of her head. Reacher could see Froelich moving randomly. She looked good. Her black suit was elegant enough for evening, but she wouldn’t be mistaken for a guest. She was full of authority. Time to time she would talk to one of her agents face-to-face. Other times she would talk to her wrist. He got to the point where he could tell exactly when she was hearing messages in her earpiece. Her movements lost a little focus as she concentrated on what she was being told.
By seven o’clock most of the guests were safely in the ballroom. There was a small gaggle of latecomers lining up for the first metal detector and a corresponding number waiting at the ballroom door. Guests who had bought an overnight package at the hotel were drifting out of the elevators in couples or foursomes. Neagley was now isolated on the mezzanine staircase. Froelich had sent her agents into the ballroom one by one as the lobby crowd thinned out. They joined the eight already in there. She wanted all sixteen prowling around by the time the action started. Plus the three on the personal detail, and two on the ballroom door, and two on the street door. Plus cops in the kitchen, cops in the loading bay, cops on all seventeen floors, cops on the street.
“How much is all this costing?” Reacher asked her.
“You don’t want to know,” she said. “You really don’t.”
Neagley came down off the staircase and joined them by the pillar.
“Is he here yet?” she asked.
Froelich shook her head. “We’re compressing his exposure time. He’s arriving late and leaving early.”
Then she stiffened and listened to her earpiece. Put her finger on it to cut out the background noise. She raised her other wrist and spoke into the microphone.
“Copy, out,” she said. She was pale.
“What?” Reacher asked.
She ignored him. Spun around and called to the last remaining agent free in the lobby. Told him he was acting on-site team leader for the rest of the night. Spoke into her microphone and repeated that information to all the agents on the local net. Told them to double their vigilance, halve their perimeters, and further compress exposure time wherever possible.
“What?” Reacher asked again.
“Back to base,” Froelich said. “Now. That was Stuyvesant. Seems like we’ve got a real big problem.”
She used the red strobes behind the Suburban’s grille and barged through the evening traffic like it was life and death. She lit up the siren at every light. Pushed through and accelerated hard into gaps. Didn’t talk at all. Reacher sat completely still in the front passenger seat and Neagley leaned forward from the back with her eyes locked on the road ahead. The three-ton vehicle bucked and swayed. The tires fought for grip on the slick pavement. They made it back to the garage inside four minutes. They were in the elevator thirty seconds later. In Stuyvesant’s office less than one minute after that. He was sitting motionless behind his immaculate desk. Slumped in his chair like he had taken a punch to the stomach. He was holding a sheaf of papers. The light shone through them and showed the kind of random coded headings you get by printing from a database. There were two blocks of dense text under the headings. His secretary was standing next to him, handing him more paper, sheet by sheet. She was white in the face. She left the room without saying a single word. Closed the door, which intensified the silence.
“What?” Reacher said.
Stuyvesant glanced up at him. “Now I know.”
“That this is an outside job. For sure. Without any possible doubt.”
“You predicted theatrical,” Stuyvesant said. “Or spectacular. Those were your predictions. To which we might add dramatic, or incredible, or whatever.”
“What was it?”
“Do you know what the homicide rate is, nationally?”
Reacher shrugged. “High, I guess.”
“Almost twenty thousand every year.”
“That’s about fifty-four homicides every day.”
Reacher did the math in his head.
“Nearer fifty-five,” he said. “Except in leap years.”
“Want to hear about two of today’s?” Stuyvesant asked.
“Who?” Froelich asked.
“Small sugar beet farm in Minnesota,” Stuyvesant said. “The farmer walks out his back gate this morning and gets shot in the head. For no apparent reason. Then this afternoon there’s a small strip mall outside of Boulder, Colorado. A CPA’s office in one of the upstairs rooms. The guy comes down and walks out of the rear entrance and gets killed with a machine gun in the service yard. Again, no apparent reason.”
“The farmer’s name was Bruce Armstrong. The accountant’s was Brian Armstrong. Both of them were white men about Brook Armstrong’s age, about his height, about his weight, similar appearance, same color eyes and hair.”
“Are they family? Are they related?”
“No,” Stuyvesant said. “Not in any way. Not to each other, not to the VP. So therefore I’m asking myself, what are the odds? That two random men whose last name is Armstrong and whose first names both begin with BR are going to get senselessly killed the same day we’re facing a serious threat against our guy? And I’m thinking, the answer is about a trillion billion to one.”
Silence in the office.
“The demonstration,” Reacher said.
“Yes,” Stuyvesant said. “That was the demonstration. Cold-blooded murder. Two innocent men. So I agree with you. These are not insiders having a joke.”
Neagley and Froelich made it to Stuyvesant’s visitor chairs and just sat down without being asked. Reacher leaned on a tall file cabinet and stared out the window. The blinds were still open, but it was full dark outside. Washington’s orange nighttime glow was the only thing he could see.
“How were you notified?” he asked. “Did they call in and claim responsibility?”
Stuyvesant shook his head. “FBI alerted us. They’ve got software that scans the NCIC reports. Armstrong is one of the names that they flag up.”
“So now they’re involved anyway.”
Stuyvesant shook his head again. “They passed on some information, is all. They don’t understand its significance.”
The room stayed quiet. Just four people breathing, lost in somber thoughts.
“We got any details from the scenes?” Neagley asked.
“Some,” Stuyvesant said. “The first guy was a single shot to the head. Killed him instantly. They can’t find the bullet. The guy’s wife didn’t hear anything.”
“Where was she?”
“About twenty feet away in the kitchen. Doors and windows shut because of the weather. But you’d expect her to hear something. She hears hunters all the time.”
“How big was the hole in his head?” Reacher asked.
“Bigger than a.22,” Stuyvesant said. “If that’s what you’re thinking.”
Reacher nodded. The only handgun inaudible from twenty feet would be a silenced.22. Anything bigger than that, you’d probably hear something, suppressor or no suppressor, windows or no windows.
“So it was a rifle,” he said.
“Trajectory looks like it,” Stuyvesant said. “Medical examiner figures the bullet was traveling downward. It went through his head front to back, high to low.”
“So it was either a very distant rifle or a silenced rifle. And I don’t like either one. Distant rifle means somebody’s a great shooter, silenced rifle means somebody owns a bunch of exotic weapons.”
“What about the second guy?” Neagley asked.
“It was less than eight hours later,” Stuyvesant said. “But more than eight hundred miles away. So most likely the team split up for the day.”
“Coming through in bits and pieces. First impression from the locals is the weapon was some kind of machine gun. But again, nobody heard anything.”
“A silenced machine gun?” Reacher said. “Are they sure?”
“No question it was a machine gun,” Stuyvesant said. “The corpse was all chewed up. Two bursts, head and chest. Hell of a mess.”
“Hell of a demonstration,” Froelich said.
Reacher stared through the window. There was light fog in the air.
“But what exactly does it demonstrate?” he said.
“That these are not very nice people.”
He nodded. “But not very much more than that, does it? It doesn’t really demonstrate Armstrong’s vulnerability as such, not if they weren’t connected to him in any way. Are we sure they weren’t related? Like very distant cousins or something? At least the farmer? Minnesota is next to North Dakota, right?”
Stuyvesant shook his head.
“My first thought, obviously,” he said. “But I double-checked. First, the VP isn’t from North Dakota originally. He moved in from Oregon. Plus we have the complete text of his FBI background check from when he was nominated. It’s pretty exhaustive. And he doesn’t have any living relatives that anybody’s aware of except an elder sister who lives in California. His wife has got a bunch of cousins but none of them are called Armstrong and most of them are younger. Kids, basically.”
“OK,” Reacher said. Kids. He had a flash in his mind of a seesaw, and stuffed toys and lurid paintings stuck to a refrigerator with magnets. Cousins.
“It’s weird,” he said. “Killing two random unconnected lookalikes called Armstrong is dramatic enough, I guess, but it doesn’t show any great ingenuity. Doesn’t prove anything. Doesn’t make us worried about our security here.”
“Makes us sad for them,” Froelich said. “And their families.”
“No doubt,” Reacher said. “But two hicks in the sticks going down doesn’t really make us sweat, does it? It’s not like we were protecting them as well. Doesn’t make us doubt ourselves. I really thought it would be something more personal. More intriguing. Like some equivalent of the letter showing up on your desk.”
“You sound disappointed,” Stuyvesant said.
“I am disappointed. I thought they might come close enough to give us a chance at them. But they stayed away. They’re cowards.”
“Cowards are bullies,” Reacher said. “Bullies are cowards.”
Neagley glanced at him. Knew him well enough to sense when to push.
“So?” she asked.
“So we need to go back and rethink a couple of things. Information is stacking up fast and we’re not processing it. Like, now we know these guys are outsiders. Now we know this is not a genteel inside game.”
“So?” Neagley asked again.
“And what happened in Minnesota and Colorado shows us these guys are prepared to do just about anything at all.”
“The cleaners. What do we know about them?”
“That they’re involved. That they’re scared. That they’re not saying anything.”
“Correct,” Reacher said. “But why are they scared? Why aren’t they saying anything? Way back we thought they might be playing some cute game with an insider. But they’re not doing that. Because these guys aren’t insiders. And they’re not cute people. And this isn’t a game.”
“So they’re being coerced in some serious way. They’re being scared and silenced. By some serious people.”
“You tell me. How do you scare somebody without leaving a mark on them?”
“You threaten something plausible. Serious harm in the future, maybe.”
Reacher nodded. “To them, or to somebody they care about. To the point where they’re paralyzed with terror.”
“Where have you heard the word cousins before?”
“All over the place. I’ve got cousins.”
Neagley glanced at the window.
“The cleaners,” she said. “Their kids are with cousins. They told us.”
“But they were a little hesitant about telling us, remember?”
Reacher nodded. “They paused a second and looked at each other first.”
“Maybe their kids aren’t with cousins.”
“Why would they lie?”
Reacher looked at her. “Is there a better way to coerce somebody than taking their kids away as insurance?”
They moved fast, but Stuyvesant made sure they moved properly. He called the cleaners’ lawyers and told them he needed the answer to just one question: the name and address of the children’s baby-sitters. He told them a quick answer would be much better than a delay. He got the quick answer. The lawyers called back within a quarter of an hour. The name was Gálvez and the address was a house a mile from the cleaners’ own.
Then Froelich motioned for quiet and got on the radio net and asked for a complete situation update from the hotel. She spoke to her acting on-site leader and four other key positions. There were no problems. Everything was calm. Armstrong was working the room. Perimeters were tight. She instructed that all agents should accompany Armstrong through the loading bay at the function’s conclusion. She asked for a human wall, all the way to the limo.
“And make it soon,” she said. “Compress the exposure.”
Then they squeezed into the single elevator and rode down to the garage. Climbed into Froelich’s Suburban for the drive Reacher had slept through first time around. This time he stayed awake as Froelich raced through traffic to the cheap part of town. They passed right by the cleaners’ house. Threaded another mile through dark streets made narrow by parked cars and came to a stop outside a tall thin two-family house. It was ringed by a wire fence and had trash cans chained to the gatepost. It was boxed in on one side by a package store and on the other by a long line of identical houses. There was a sagging twenty-year-old Cadillac parked at the curb. Yellow sodium lighting was cutting through the fog.
“So what do we do?” Stuyvesant said.
Reacher looked through the window. “We go talk with these people. But we don’t want a mob scene. They’re scared already. We don’t want to panic them. They might think the bad guys are back. So Neagley should go first.”
Stuyvesant was about to offer an objection but Neagley slid straight out of the car and headed for the gate. Reacher watched her turn a fast circle on the sidewalk before going in, to read the surroundings. Watched her glance left and right as she walked up the path. Nobody was around. Too cold. She reached the door. Searched for a bell. Couldn’t find one, so she rapped on the wood with her knuckles.
There was a one-minute wait and then the door opened and was stopped short by a chain. A bar of warm light flooded out. There was a one-minute conversation. The door eased forward to release the chain. The bar of light narrowed and widened again. Neagley turned and waved. Froelich and Stuyvesant and Reacher climbed out of the Suburban and walked up the path. There was a small dark guy standing in the doorway, waiting for them, smiling shyly.
“This is Mr. Gálvez,” Neagley said. They introduced themselves and Gálvez backed into the hallway and made a follow-me gesture with the whole of his arm, like a butler. He was a small guy dressed in suit pants and a patterned sweater. He had a fresh haircut and an open expression. They followed him inside. The house was small and clearly overcrowded, but it was very clean. There was a line of seven children’s coats hung neatly on a row of pegs inside the door. Some of them were small, some of them were a little bigger. There were seven school backpacks lined up on the floor underneath them. Seven pairs of shoes. There were toys neatly piled here and there. Three women visible in the kitchen. Shy children peering out from behind their skirts. More easing their heads around the living room door. They kept moving. Kept appearing and disappearing in random sequences. They all looked the same. Reacher couldn’t get an accurate count. There were dark eyes everywhere, open wide.
Stuyvesant seemed a little out of his depth, like he didn’t know how to broach the subject. Reacher squeezed past him and moved ahead toward the kitchen. Stopped in the doorway. There were seven school lunch boxes lined up on a counter. The lids were up, like they were ready for assembly-line loading first thing in the morning. He moved back to the hallway. Squeezed past Neagley and looked at the little coats. They were all colorful nylon items, like small versions of the things he had browsed in the Atlantic City store. He lifted one off its peg. It had a white patch inside the collar. Somebody had used a laundry marker and written J. Gálvez on it in careful script. He put it back and checked the other six. Each was labeled with a surname and a single initial. Total of five Gálvez and two Alvárez.
Nobody was speaking. Stuyvesant looked awkward. Reacher caught Mr. Gálvez’s eye and nodded him through to the living room. Two children scuttled out as they stepped in.
“You got five kids?” Reacher asked.
Gálvez nodded. “I’m a lucky man.”
“So who do the two Alvárez coats belong to?”
“My wife’s cousin Julio’s children.”
“Julio and Anita’s?”
Gálvez nodded. Said nothing.
“I need to see them,” Reacher said.
“They’re not here.”
Reacher glanced away.
“Where are they?” he asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” Gálvez said. “At work, I guess. They work nights. For the federal government.”
Reacher glanced back. “No, I mean their kids. Not them. I need to see their kids.”
Gálvez looked at him, puzzled. “See their kids?”
“To check they’re OK.”
“You just saw them. In the kitchen.”
“I need to see which ones they are exactly.”
“We’re not taking money,” Gálvez said. “Except for their food.”
Reacher nodded. “This isn’t about licenses or anything. We don’t care about that stuff. We just need to see their kids are OK.”
Gálvez still looked puzzled. But he called out a long rapid sentence in Spanish and two small children separated themselves from the group in the kitchen and threaded between Stuyvesant and Froelich and trotted into the room. They stopped near the doorway and stood perfectly still, side by side. Two little girls, very beautiful, huge dark eyes, soft black hair, serious expressions. Maybe five and seven years old. Maybe four and six. Maybe three and five. Reacher had no idea.
“Hey, kids,” he said. “Show me your coats.”
They did exactly what they were told, like kids sometimes do. He followed them out to the hallway and watched as they stood up on tiptoe and touched the two little jackets he knew were marked Alvárez.
“OK,” he said. “Now go get a cookie or something.”
They scuttled back to the kitchen. He watched them go. Stood still and quiet for a second and then stepped back to the living room. Got close to Gálvez and lowered his voice again.
“Anybody else been inquiring about them?” he asked.
Gálvez just shook his head.
“You sure?” Reacher asked. “Nobody watching them, no strangers around?”
Gálvez shook his head again.
“We can fix it,” Reacher said. “If you’re worried about anything, you should go ahead and tell us right now. We’ll take care of it.”
Gálvez just looked blank. Reacher watched his eyes. He had spent his career watching eyes, and these two were innocent. A little disconcerted, a little puzzled, but the guy wasn’t hiding anything. He had no secrets.
“OK,” he said. “We’re sorry to have interrupted your evening.”
He kept very quiet on the drive back to the office.
They used the conference room again. It seemed to be the only facility with seating for more than three. Neagley let Froelich put herself next to Reacher. She sat with Stuyvesant on the opposite side of the table. Froelich got on the radio net and heard that Armstrong was about to leave the hotel. He was cutting the evening short. Nobody seemed to mind. It worked both ways. Spend a lot of time with them, and they’re naturally thrilled about it. Rush it through, and they’re equally delighted such a busy and important guy found any time at all for them. Froelich listened to her earpiece and tracked him all the way out of the ballroom, through the kitchens, into the loading bay, into the limo. Then she relaxed. All that was left was a high-speed convoy out to Georgetown and a transfer through the tent in the darkness. She fiddled behind her back and turned the earpiece volume down a little. Sat back and glanced at the others, questions in her eyes.
“Makes no sense to me,” Neagley said. “It implies there’s something they’re more worried about than their children.”
“Which would be what?” Froelich asked.
“Green cards? Are they legal?”
Stuyvesant nodded. “Of course they are. They’re United States Secret Service employees, same as anybody else in this building. Background-checked from here to hell and back. We snoop on their financial situation and everything. They were clean, far as we knew.”
Reacher let the talk drift into the background. He rubbed the back of his neck with the palm of his hand. The stubble from his haircut was growing out. It felt softer. He glanced at Neagley. Stared down at the carpet. It was gray nylon, ribbed, somewhere between fine and coarse. He could see individual hairy strands glittering in the halogen light. It was an immaculately clean carpet. He closed his eyes. Thought hard. Ran the surveillance video in his head all over again. Watched it like there was a screen inside his eyelids. It went like this: eight minutes before midnight, the cleaners enter the picture. They walk into Stuyvesant’s office. Seven minutes past midnight, they come out. They spend nine minutes cleaning the secretarial station. They shuffle off the way they had come at sixteen minutes past midnight. He ran it again, forward and then backward. Concentrated on every frame. Every movement. Then he opened his eyes. Everybody was staring at him like he had been ignoring their questions. He glanced at his watch. It was almost nine o’clock. He smiled. A wide, happy grin.
“I liked Mr. Gálvez,” he said. “He seemed really happy to be a father, didn’t he? All those lunch boxes lined up? I bet they get whole wheat bread. Fruit, too, probably. All kinds of good nutrition.”
They all looked at him.
“I was an Army kid,” he said. “I had a lunch box. Mine was an old ammunition case. We all had them. It was considered the thing back then, on the bases. I stenciled my name on it, with a real Army stencil. My mother hated it. Thought it was way too militaristic, for a kid. But she gave me good stuff to eat anyway.”
Neagley stared at him. “Reacher, we’ve got big problems here, two people are dead, and you’re talking about lunch boxes?”
He nodded. “Talking about lunch boxes, and thinking about haircuts. Mr. Gálvez had just been to the barber, you notice that?”
“And with the greatest possible respect, Neagley, I’m thinking about your ass.”
Froelich stared at him. Neagley blushed.
“Your point being?” she said.
“My point being, I don’t think there is anything more important to Julio and Anita than their children.”
“So why are they still clamming up?”
Froelich sat forward and pressed her finger on her earpiece. Listened for a second and raised her wrist.
“Copy,” she said. “Good work, everybody, out.”
Then she smiled.
“Armstrong’s home,” she said. “Secure.”
Reacher looked at his watch again. Nine o’clock exactly. He glanced across at Stuyvesant. “Can I see your office again? Right now?”
Stuyvesant looked blank, but he stood up and led the way out of the room. They followed the corridors and arrived at the rear of the floor. The secretarial station was quiet and deserted. Stuyvesant’s door was closed. He pushed it open and hit the lights.
There was a sheet of paper on the desk.
They all saw it. Stuyvesant stood completely still for a second and then walked across the floor and stared down at it. Swallowed. Breathed out. Picked it up.
“Fax from Boulder PD,” he said. “Preliminary ballistics. My secretary must have left it.”
He smiled with relief.
“Now check,” Reacher said. “Concentrate. Is this how your office usually looks?”
Stuyvesant held the fax and glanced around the room.
“Exactly,” he said.
“So this is how the cleaners see it every night?”
“Well, the desk is usually clear,” Stuyvesant said. “But otherwise, yes.”
“OK,” Reacher said. “Let’s go.”
They walked back to the conference room. Stuyvesant read the fax.
“They found six shell cases,” he said. “Nine millimeter Parabellums. Strange impact marks on the sides. They’ve sent a drawing.”
He slid the paper to Neagley. She read it through. Made a face. Slid it across to Reacher. He looked at the drawing and nodded.
“Heckler amp; Koch MP5,” he said. “It punches the empty brass out like nobody’s business. The guy had it set to bursts of three. Two bursts, six cases. They probably ended up twenty yards away.”
“Probably the SD6 version,” Neagley said. “If it was silenced. That’s a nice weapon. Quality submachine gun. Expensive. Rare, too.”
“Why did you want to see my office?” Stuyvesant asked.
“We’re wrong about the cleaners,” Reacher said.
The room went quiet.
“In what way?” Neagley asked.
“In every way,” Reacher said. “Every possible way we could be. What happened when we talked to them?”
“They stonewalled like crazy.”
He nodded. “That’s what I thought too. They went into some kind of a stoic silence. All of them. Almost like a trance. I interpreted that as a response to some kind of danger. Like they were really digging deep and defending against whatever hold somebody had over them. Like it was vitally important. Like they knew they couldn’t afford to say a single word. But you know what?”
“They just didn’t have a clue what we were talking about. Not the first idea. We were two crazy white people asking them impossible questions, is all. They were too polite and too inhibited to tell us to get lost. They just sat there patiently while we rambled on.”
“So what are you saying?”
“Think about what else we know. There’s a weird sequence of facts on the tape. They look a little tired going into Stuyvesant’s office, and a little less tired coming out. They look fairly neat going in, and a little disheveled coming out. They spend fifteen minutes in there, and only nine in the secretarial area.”
“So?” Stuyvesant asked.
Reacher smiled. “Your office is probably the world’s cleanest room. You could do surgery in there. You keep it that way deliberately. We know about the thing with the briefcase and the wet shoes, by the way.”
Froelich looked blank. Stuyvesant’s turn to blush.
“It’s tidy to the point of obsession,” Reacher said. “And yet the cleaners spent fifteen minutes in there. Why?”
“They were unpacking the letter,” Stuyvesant said. “Placing it in position.”
“No, they weren’t.”
“Was it just Maria on her own? Did Julio and Anita come out first?”
“So who put it there? My secretary?”
The room went quiet.
“Are you saying I did?” Stuyvesant asked.
Reacher shook his head. “All I’m doing is asking why the cleaners spent fifteen minutes in an office that was already very clean.”
“They were resting?” Neagley said.
Reacher shook his head again. Froelich smiled suddenly.
“Doing something to make themselves disheveled?” she said.
Reacher smiled back. “Like what?”
“Like having sex?”
Stuyvesant went pale.
“I sincerely hope not,” he said. “And there were three of them, anyway.”
“Threesomes aren’t unheard of,” Neagley said.
“They live together,” Stuyvesant said. “They want to do that, they can do it at home, can’t they?”
“It can be an erotic adventure,” Froelich said. “You know, making out at work.”
“Forget the sex,” Reacher said. “Think about the dishevelment. What exactly created that impression for us?”
Everybody shrugged. Stuyvesant was still pale. Reacher smiled.
“Something else on the tape,” he said. “Going in, the garbage bag is reasonably empty. Coming out, it’s much fuller. So was there a lot of trash in the office?”
“No,” Stuyvesant said, like he was offended. “I never leave trash in there.”
Froelich sat forward. “So what was in the bag?”
“Trash,” Reacher said.
“I don’t understand,” Froelich said.
“Fifteen minutes is a long time, people,” Reacher said. “They worked efficiently and thoroughly in the secretarial area and had it done in nine minutes. That’s a slightly bigger and slightly more cluttered area. Things all over the place. So compare the two areas, compare the complexity, assume they work just as hard everywhere, and tell me how long they should have spent in the office.”
Froelich shrugged. “Seven minutes? Eight? About that long?”
Neagley nodded. “I’d say nine minutes, tops.”
“I like it clean,” Stuyvesant said. “I leave instructions to that effect. I’d want them in there for ten minutes, at least.”
“But not fifteen,” Reacher said. “That’s excessive. And we asked them about it. We asked them, why so long in there? And what did they say?”
“They didn’t answer,” Neagley said. “Just looked puzzled.”
“Then we asked them whether they spent the same amount of time in there every night. And they said yes, they did.”
Stuyvesant looked to Neagley for confirmation. She nodded.
“OK,” Reacher said. “We’ve boiled it down. We’re looking at fifteen particular minutes. You’ve all seen the tapes. Now tell me how they spent that time.”
“Two possibilities,” Reacher said. “Either they didn’t, or they spent the time growing their hair.”
“What?” Froelich said.
“That’s what makes them look disheveled. Julio especially. His hair is a little longer coming out than going in.”
“How is that possible?”
“It’s possible because we weren’t looking at one night’s activities. We were looking at two separate nights spliced together. Two halves of two different nights.”
Silence in the room.
“Two tapes,” Reacher said. “The tape change at midnight is the key. The first tape is kosher. Has to be, because early on it shows Stuyvesant and his secretary going home. That was the real thing. The real Wednesday. The cleaners show up at eleven fifty-two. They look tired, because maybe that’s the first night in their shift pattern. Maybe they’ve been up all day doing normal daytime things. But it’s been a routine night at work so far. They’re on time. No spilled coffee anywhere, no huge amount of trash anywhere. The garbage bag is reasonably empty. My guess is they had the office finished in about nine minutes. Which is probably their normal speed. Which is reasonably fast. Which is why they were puzzled when we claimed it was slow. My guess is in reality they came out at maybe one minute past midnight and spent another nine minutes on the secretarial station and left the area at ten past midnight.”
“But?” Froelich asked.
“But after midnight we were looking at a different night altogether. Maybe from a couple of weeks ago, before the guy got his latest haircut. A night when they arrived in the area later, and therefore left the area later. Because of some earlier snafu in some other office. Maybe some big pile of trash that filled up their bag. They looked more energetic coming out because they were hurrying to catch up. And maybe it was a night in the middle of their work week and they’d adjusted to their pattern and slept properly. So we saw them go in on Wednesday and come out on a completely different night.”
“But the date was correct,” Froelich said. “It was definitely Thursday’s date.”
Reacher nodded. “Nendick planned it ahead of time.”
“Your tape guy,” Reacher said. “My guess is for a whole week he had that particular camera’s midnight-to-six tape set up to show that particular Thursday’s date. Maybe two whole weeks. Because he needed three options. Either the cleaners would be in and out before midnight, or in before midnight and out after midnight, or in and out after midnight. He had to wait to match his options. If they’d been in and out before midnight, he’d have given you a matching tape showing nothing at all between midnight and six. If they’d been in and out after midnight, that’s what you’d have seen. But the way it happened, he had to use one that showed them leaving only.”
“Nendick left the letter?” Stuyvesant asked.
Reacher nodded. “Nendick is the insider. Not the cleaners. What that particular camera really recorded that night was the cleaners leaving just after midnight and then sometime before six in the morning Nendick himself stepping in through the fire door with gloves on and the letter in his hand. Probably around five-thirty, I would guess, so he wouldn’t have to wait long before trashing the real tape and choosing his substitute.”
“But it showed me arriving in the morning. My secretary, too.”
“That was the third tape. There was another change at six A.M., back to the real thing. Only the middle tape was swapped.”
Silence in the room.
“He probably described the garage cameras for them too,” Reacher said. “For the Sunday night delivery.”
“How did you spot it?” Stuyvesant asked. “The hair?”
“Partly. It was Neagley’s ass, really. Nendick was so nervous around the tapes he didn’t pay attention to Neagley’s ass. She noticed. She told me that’s very unusual.”
Stuyvesant blushed again, like maybe he was able to vouch for that fact personally.
“So we should let the cleaners go,” Reacher said. “Then we should talk with Nendick. He’s the one who met with these guys.”
Stuyvesant nodded. “And been threatened by them, presumably.”
“I hope so,” Reacher said. “I hope he’s not involved of his own free will.”
Stuyvesant used his master key and entered the video recording room with the duty officer as a witness. They found that ten consecutive midnight-to-six tapes were missing prior to the Thursday in question. Nendick had entered them in a technical log as faulty recordings. Then they picked a dozen random tapes from the last three months and watched parts of them. They confirmed that the cleaners never spent more than nine minutes in his office. So Stuyvesant made a call and secured their immediate release.
Then there were three options: either call Nendick in on a pretext, or send agents out to arrest him, or drive themselves over to his house and get some questioning started before the Sixth Amendment kicked in and began to complicate things.
“We should go right now,” Reacher said. “Exploit the element of surprise.”
He was expecting resistance, but Stuyvesant just nodded blankly. He looked pale and tired. He looked like a man with problems. Like a man juggling a sense of betrayal and righteous anger against the standard Beltway instinct for concealment. And the instinct for concealment was going to be much stronger with a guy like Nendick than with the cleaners. Cleaners would be regarded as mere ciphers. Sooner or later somebody could spin it hey, cleaners, what can you do? But a guy like Nendick was different. A guy like that was a main component in an organization that should know better. So Stuyvesant booted up his secretary’s computer and found Nendick’s home address. It was in a suburb ten miles out in Virginia. It took twenty minutes to get there. He lived on a quiet winding street in a subdivision. The subdivision was old enough that the trees and the foundation plantings were mature but new enough that the whole place still looked smart and well kept. It was a medium-priced area. There were foreign cars on most of the driveways, but they weren’t this year’s models. They were clean, but a little tired. Nendick’s house was a long low ranch with a khaki roof and a brick chimney. It was dark except for the blue flicker of a television set in one of the windows.
Froelich swung straight onto the driveway and parked in front of the garage. They climbed out into the cold and walked to the front door. Stuyvesant put his thumb on the bell and left it there. Thirty seconds later a light came on in the hallway. It blazed orange in a fan-shaped window above the door. A yellow porch light came on over their heads. The door opened and Nendick just stood in his hallway and said nothing. He was wearing a suit, like he was just home from work. He looked slack with fear, like a new ordeal was about to be piled on top of an old one. Stuyvesant looked at him and paused and then stepped inside. Froelich followed him. Then Reacher. Then Neagley. She closed the door behind her and took up station in front of it like a sentry, feet apart, hands clasped easy in the small of her back.
Nendick still said nothing. Just stood there, slack and staring. Stuyvesant put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around. Pushed him toward the kitchen. He didn’t resist. Just stumbled limply toward the back of his house. Stuyvesant followed him and hit a switch and fluorescent tubes sputtered to life above the countertops.
“Sit,” he said, like he was talking to a dog.
Nendick stepped over and sat on a stool at his breakfast bar. Said nothing. Just wrapped his arms around himself like a man chilled by fever.
“Names,” Stuyvesant said.
Nendick said nothing. He worked at saying nothing. He stared forward at the far wall. One of the fluorescent lights was faulty. It was struggling to kick in. Its capacitor put an angry buzz into the silence. Nendick’s hands started shaking, so he tucked them up under his arms to keep them still and began to rock back and forth on the stool. It creaked gently under his weight. Reacher glanced away and looked around the kitchen. It was a pretty room. There were yellow check drapes at the window. The ceiling was painted to match. There were flowers in vases. They were all dead. There were dishes in the sink. A couple of weeks’ worth. Some of them were crusted.
Reacher stepped back to the hallway. Into the living room. The television was a huge thing a couple of years old. It was tuned to a commercial network. The program seemed to be made up of clips from police traffic surveillance videos several years out of date. The sound was low. Just a constant murmur suggesting extreme and sustained excitement. There was a remote control balanced carefully on the arm of a chair opposite the screen. There was a low mantel above the fireplace with a row of six photographs in brass frames. Nendick and a woman featured in all six of them. She was about his age, maybe just lively enough and attractive enough not to be called plain. The photographs followed the couple from their wedding day through a couple of vacations and some other unspecified events. There were no pictures of children. And this wasn’t a house where children lived. There were no toys anywhere. No mess. Everything was frilly and considered and matched and adult.
The remote on the arm of the chair was labeled Video, not TV. Reacher glanced at the screen and pressed play. The cop radio sound died instantly and the video machine clicked and whirred and a second later the picture went black and was replaced by an amateur video of a wedding. Nendick and his wife smiled into the camera from several years in the past. Their heads were close together. They looked happy. She was all in white. He was wearing a suit. They were on a lawn. A blustery day. Her hair was blowing and the sound track was dominated by wind noise. She had a nice smile. Bright eyes. She was saying something for posterity, but Reacher couldn’t hear the words.
He pressed stop and a nighttime car chase resumed. He stepped back into the kitchen. Nendick was still shaking and rocking. He still had his hands trapped up under his arms. He still wasn’t saying anything. Reacher glanced again at the dirty dishes and the dead flowers.
“We can get her back for you,” he said.
Nendick said nothing.
“Just tell us who, and we’ll go get her right now.”
“Sooner the better,” Reacher said. “Thing like this, we don’t want to have her wait any longer than she has to, do we?”
Nendick stared at the far wall with total concentration.
“When did they come for her?” Reacher asked. “Couple of weeks ago?”
Nendick said nothing. Made no sound at all. Neagley came in from the hallway. Drifted away into the half of the kitchen that was set up as a family room. There was a matching set of heavy furniture grouped along one wall, bookcase, credenza, bookcase.
“We can help you,” Reacher said. “But we need to know where to start.”
Nendick said nothing in reply. Nothing at all. Just stared and shook and rocked and hugged himself tight.
“Reacher,” Neagley called. Soft voice, with some kind of strain in it. He stepped away from Nendick and joined her at the credenza. She handed him something. It was an envelope. There was a Polaroid photograph in it. The photograph showed a woman sitting on a chair. Her face was white and panicked. Her eyes were wide. Her hair was dirty. It was Nendick’s wife, looking about a hundred years older than the pictures in the living room. She was holding up a copy of USA Today. The masthead was right under her chin. Neagley passed him another envelope. Another Polaroid in it. Same woman. Same pose. Same paper, but a different day.
“Proofs of life,” Reacher said.
Neagley nodded. “But look at this. What’s this proof of?”
She passed him another envelope. A padded brown mailer. Something soft and white in it. Underwear. One pair. Discolored. Slightly grimy.
“Great,” he said. Then she passed him a fourth envelope. Another padded brown mailer. Smaller. There was a box in it. It was a tiny neat cardboard thing like a jeweler might put a pair of earrings in. There was a pad of cotton wool in it. The cotton wool was browned with old blood, because lying on top of it was a fingertip. It had been clipped off at the first knuckle by something hard and sharp. Garden shears, maybe. It was probably from the little finger of the left hand, judging by the size and the curve. There was still paint on the nail. Reacher looked at it for a long moment. Nodded and handed it back to Neagley. Walked around and faced Nendick head on across the breakfast bar. Looked straight into his eyes. Gambled.
“Stuyvesant,” he called. “And Froelich. Go wait in the hallway.”
They stood still for a second, surprised. He glared hard at them. They shuffled obediently out of the room.
“Neagley,” he called. “Come over here with me.”
She walked around and stood quiet at his side. He leaned down and put his elbows on the counter. Put his face level with Nendick’s. Spoke soft.
“OK, they’re gone,” he said. “It’s just us now. And we’re not Secret Service. You know that, right? You never saw us before the other day. So you can trust us. We won’t screw up like they will. We come from a place where you’re not allowed to screw up. And we come from a place where they don’t have rules. So we can get her back. We know how to do this. We’ll get the bad guys and we’ll bring her back. Safe. Without fail, OK? That’s a promise. Me to you.”
Nendick leaned his head back and opened his mouth. His lips were dry. They were flecked with sticky foam. Then he closed his mouth. Tight. Clamped his jaw hard. So hard his lips were compressed into a bloodless thin line. He brought one shaking hand out from under his arm and put the thumb and forefinger together like he was holding something small. He drew the small imaginary thing sideways across his lips, slowly, like he was closing a zipper. He put his hand back under his arm. Shook. Stared at the wall. There was crazy fear in his eyes. Some kind of absolute, uncontrolled terror. He started rocking again. Started coughing. He was coughing and choking in his throat. He wouldn’t open his mouth. It was clamped tight. He was bucking and shaking on the stool. Clutching his sides. Gulping desperately inside his clamped mouth. His eyes were wild and staring. They were pools of horror. Then they rolled up inside his head and the whites showed and he pitched backward off the stool.
They did what they could at the scene, but it was useless. Nendick just lay on the kitchen floor, not moving, not really conscious, but not really unconscious either. He was in some kind of a fugue state. Like suspended animation. He was pale and damp with perspiration. His breathing was shallow. His pulse was weak. He was responsive to touch and light but nothing else. An hour later he was in a guarded room at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center with a tentative diagnosis of psychosis-induced catatonia.
“Paralyzed with fear, in layman’s language,” the doctor said. “It’s a genuine medical condition. We see it most often in superstitious populations, like Haiti, or parts of Louisiana. Voodoo country, in other words. The victims get cold sweats, pallor, loss of blood pressure, near-unconsciousness. Not the same thing as adrenaline-induced panic. It’s a neurogenic process. The heart slows, the large blood vessels in the abdomen take blood away from the brain, most voluntary function shuts down.”
“What kind of threat could do that to a person?” Froelich asked, quietly.
“One that the person sincerely believes,” the doctor answered. “That’s the key. The victim has to be convinced. My guess is his wife’s kidnappers described to him what they would do to her if he talked. Then your arrival triggered a crisis, because he was afraid he would talk. Maybe he even wanted to talk, but he knew he couldn’t afford to. I wouldn’t want to speculate about the exact nature of the threat against his wife.”
“Will he be OK?” Stuyvesant asked.
“Depends on the condition of his heart. If he tends toward heart disease he could be in serious trouble. The cardiac stress is truly enormous.”
“When can we talk to him?”
“No time soon. Depends on him, basically. He needs to come around.”
“It’s very important. He’s got critical information.”
The doctor shook his head.
“Could be days,” he said. “Could be never.”
They waited a long fruitless hour during which nothing changed. Nendick just lay there inert, surrounded by beeping machines. He breathed in and out, but that was all. So they gave it up and left him there and drove back to the office in the dark and the silence. Regrouped in the windowless conference room and faced the next big decision.
“Armstrong’s got to be told,” Neagley said. “They’ve staged their demonstration. No place to go now except stage the real thing.”
Stuyvesant shook his head. “We never tell them. It’s a rigid policy. Has been for a hundred and one years. We’re not going to change it now.”
“Then we should limit his exposure,” Froelich said.
“No,” Stuyvesant said. “That’s an admission of defeat in itself, and it’s a slippery slope. We pull out once, we’ll be pulling out forever, every single threat we get. And that must not happen. What must happen is that we defend him to the best of our ability. So we start planning, now. What are we defending against? What do we know?”
“That two men are already dead,” Froelich replied.
“Two men and one woman,” Reacher said. “Look at the statistics. Kidnapped is the same thing as dead, ninety-nine times in a hundred.”
“The photographs were proof of life,” Stuyvesant said.
“Until the poor guy delivered. Which he did almost two weeks ago.”
“He’s still delivering. He’s not talking. So I’m going to keep on hoping.”
Reacher said nothing.
“Know anything about her?” Neagley asked.
Stuyvesant shook his head. “Never met her. Don’t even know her name. I hardly know Nendick, either. He’s just some technical guy I sometimes see around.”
The room went quiet.
“FBI has got to be told as well,” Neagley said. “This isn’t just about Armstrong now. There’s a kidnap victim dead or in serious danger. That’s the Bureau’s jurisdiction, no question. Plus the interstate homicide. That’s their bag too.”
The room stayed very quiet. Stuyvesant sighed and looked around at each of the others, slowly and carefully, one at a time.
“Yes,” he said. “I agree. It’s gone too far. They need to know. God knows I don’t want to, but I’ll tell them. I’ll let us take the hit. I’ll hand everything over to them.”
There was silence. Nobody spoke. There was nothing to say. It was exactly the right thing to do, in the circumstances. Approval would have seemed sarcastic, and commiseration wasn’t appropriate. For the Nendick couple and two unrelated families called Armstrong, maybe, but not for Stuyvesant.
“Meanwhile we’ll focus on Armstrong,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”
“Tomorrow is North Dakota again,” Froelich said. “More open-air fun and games. Same place as before. Not very secure. We leave at ten.”
“Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. He’s serving turkey dinners in a homeless shelter here in D.C. He’ll be very exposed.”
There was a long moment of silence. Stuyvesant sighed again, heavily, and placed his hands palms down on the long wooden table.
“OK,” he said. “Be back in here at seven o’clock tomorrow morning. I’m sure the Bureau will be delighted to send over a liaison guy.”
Then he levered himself upright and left the room to head back to his office, where he would make the calls that would put a permanent asterisk next to his career.
“I feel helpless,” Froelich said. “I want to be more proactive.”
“Don’t like playing defense?” he asked.
They were in her bed, in her room. It was larger than the guest room. Prettier. And quieter, because it was at the back of the house. The ceiling was smoother. Although it would take angled sunlight to really test it. Which would happen at sunset instead of in the morning, because the window faced the other way. The bed was warm. The house was warm. It was like a cocoon of warmth in the cold gray city night.
“Defense is OK,” she said. “But attack is defense, isn’t it? In a situation like this? But we always let things come to us. Then we just run away from them. We’re too operational. We’re not investigative enough.”
“You have investigators,” he said. “Like the guy who watches the movies.”
She nodded against his shoulder. “The Office of Protection Research. It’s a strange role. Kind of academic, rather than specific. Strategic, rather than tactical.”
“So do it yourself. Try a few things.”
“We’re back to the original evidence, with Nendick crapping out. So we have to start over. You should concentrate on the thumbprint.”
“It’s not on file.”
“Files have glitches. Files get updated. Prints get added. You should try again, every few days. And you should widen the search. Try other countries. Try Interpol.”
“I doubt if these guys are foreign.”
“But maybe they’re Americans who traveled. Maybe they got in trouble in Canada or Europe. Or Mexico or South America.”
“Maybe,” she said.
“And you should check the thumbprint thing as an MO. You know, search the databases to see if anybody ever signed threatening letters with their thumb before. How far back do the archives go?”
“To the dawn of time.”
“So put a twenty-year limit on it. I guess way back at the dawn of time plenty of people signed things with their thumbs.”
She smiled, sleepily. He could feel it against his shoulder.
“Before they learned to write,” he said.
She didn’t reply. She was fast asleep, breathing slow, snuggled against his shoulder. He eased his position and felt a shallow dip on his side of the mattress. He wondered if Joe had made it. He lay quiet for a spell and then craned his arm up and switched out the light.
Seemed like about a minute and a half later they were up again and showered and back in the Secret Service conference room eating doughnuts and drinking coffee with an FBI liaison agent named Bannon. Reacher was in his Atlantic City coat and the third of Joe’s abandoned Italian suits and the third Somebody amp; Somebody shirt and a plain blue tie. Froelich was in another black pant suit. Neagley was in the same suit she had worn on Sunday evening. It was the one that showed off her figure. The one that Nendick had ignored. She was cycling through her wardrobe as fast as the hotel laundry would let her. Stuyvesant was immaculate in his usual Brooks Brothers. Maybe it was fresh on, maybe it wasn’t. There was no way to tell. All his suits were the same. He looked very tired. Actually they all looked very tired, and Reacher was a little worried about that. In his experience tiredness impaired operational efficiency as badly as a drink too many.
“We’ll sleep on the plane,” Froelich said. “We’ll tell the pilot to fly slow.”
Bannon was a guy of about forty. He was in a tweed sport coat and gray flannels and looked bluff and Irish and was tall and heavy. He had a red complexion that the winter morning hadn’t helped. But he was polite and cheerful and he had supplied the doughnuts and the coffee himself. Two different stores, each chosen for its respective quality. He had been well received. Twenty bucks’ worth of food and drink had broken a lot of interagency ice.
“No secrets either way,” he said. “That’s what we’re proposing. And no blame anywhere. But no bullshit, either. I think we got to face the fact that the Nendick woman is dead. We’ll look for her like she wasn’t, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves. So we’ve got three down already. Some evidence, but not a lot. We’re guessing Nendick has met with these guys, and we’re assuming they’ve certainly been to his house, if only to grab up his wife. So that’s a crime scene, and we’re going over it today, and we’ll share what we get. Nendick will help us if he ever wakes up. But assuming he won’t anytime soon, we’ll go at it from three different directions. First, the message stuff that went down here in D.C. Second, the scene in Minnesota. Third, the scene in Colorado.”
“Are your people in charge out there?” Froelich asked.
“Both places,” Bannon said. “Our ballistics people figure the Colorado weapon for a Heckler and Koch submachine gun called the MP5.”
“We already concluded that,” Neagley said. “And it was probably silenced, which makes it the MP5SD6.”
Bannon nodded. “You’re one of the ex-military, right? In which case you’ve seen MP5s before. As I have. They’re military and paramilitary weapons. Police and federal SWAT teams use them.”
Then he went quiet and looked around the assembled faces, like there was more to his point than he had actually articulated.
“What about Minnesota?” Neagley asked.
“We found the bullet,” Bannon said. “We swept the farmyard with a metal detector. It was buried about nine inches deep in the mud. Consistent with a shot from a small wooded hillside about a hundred and twenty yards away to the north. Maybe eighty feet of elevation.”
“What was the bullet?” Reacher asked.
“NATO 7.62 millimeter,” Bannon said.
Reacher nodded. “You test it?”
Bannon nodded. “Low power, weak charge.”
“Subsonic ammunition,” Reacher said. “In that caliber it has to be a Vaime Mk2 silenced sniper rifle.”
“Which is also a police and paramilitary weapon,” Bannon said. “Often supplied to antiterrorist units.”
He looked around the room again, like he was inviting a comment. Nobody made one. So he pitched it himself.
“You know what?” he said.
“Put a list of who buys Heckler amp; Koch MP5s in America side to side with a list of who buys Vaime Mk2s, and you see only one official purchaser on both lists.”
“The United States Secret Service.”
The room went quiet. Nobody spoke. There was a knock at the door. The duty officer. He stood there, framed in the doorway.
“Mail just arrived,” he said. “Something you need to see.”
They laid it on the conference room table. It was a familiar brown envelope, gummed flap, metal closure. A computer-printed self-adhesive address label. Brook Armstrong, United States Senate, Washington D.C. Clear black-on-white Times New Roman lettering. Bannon opened his briefcase and took out a pair of white cotton gloves. Pulled them on, right hand, left hand. Tightened them over his fingers.
“Got these from the lab,” he said. “Special circumstances. We don’t want to use latex. Don’t want to confuse the talcum traces.”
The gloves were clumsy. He had to slide the envelope to the edge of the table to pick it up. He held it with one hand and looked for something to open it with. Reacher took his ceramic knife out of his pocket and snapped it open. Offered it handle-first. Bannon took it and eased the tip of the blade under the corner of the flap. Moved the envelope backward and the knife forward. The blade cut the paper like it was cutting air. He handed the knife back to Reacher and pressed on the sides of the envelope so it made a mouth. Glanced inside. Turned the envelope over and tipped something out.
It was a single sheet of letter-size paper. Heavyweight white stock. It landed and skidded an inch on the polished wood and settled flat. It had a question printed over two lines, centered between the margins, a little higher than halfway up the sheet. Five words, in the familiar severe typeface: Did you like the demonstration? The last word was the only word on the second line. That isolation gave it some kind of extra emphasis.
Bannon turned the envelope over and checked the postmark.
“Vegas again,” he said. “Saturday. They’re real confident, aren’t they? They’re asking if he liked the demonstration three days before they staged it.”
“We have to move out now,” Froelich said. “Lift-off at ten. I want Reacher and Neagley with me. They’ve been there before. They know the ground.”
Stuyvesant raised his hand. A vague gesture. Either OK or whatever or don’t bother me, Reacher couldn’t tell.
“I want twice-daily meetings,” Bannon said. “In here, seven every morning and maybe ten at night?”
“If we’re in town,” Froelich said. She headed for the door. Reacher and Neagley followed her out of the room. Reacher caught her and nudged her elbow and steered her left instead of right, down the corridor toward her office.
“Do the database search,” he whispered.
She glanced at her watch. “It’s way too slow.”
“So start it now and let it compile all day.”
“Won’t Bannon do it?”
“Probably. But double-checking never hurt anybody.”
She paused. Then she turned and headed for the interior of the floor. Lit up her office and turned on her computer. The NCIC database had a complex search protocol. She entered her password and clicked the cursor into the box and typed thumbprint.
“Be more specific,” Reacher said. “That’s going to give you ten zillion plain-vanilla fingerprint cases.”
She tabbed backward and typed thumbprint+document+ letter+signature.
“OK?” she said.
He shrugged. “I was born before these things were invented.”
“It’s a start,” Neagley said. “We can refine it later if we need to.”
So Froelich clicked on search and the hard disk chattered and the inquiry box disappeared from the screen.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Moving a threatened Vice President-elect from the District of Columbia to the great state of North Dakota was a complicated undertaking. It required eight separate Secret Service vehicles, four police cars, a total of twenty agents, and an airplane. Staging the local political rally itself required twelve agents, forty local police officers, four State Police vehicles, and two local canine units. Froelich spent a total of four hours on the radio in order to coordinate the whole operation.
She left her own Suburban in the garage and used a stretched Town Car with a driver so she could be free to concentrate on giving orders. Reacher and Neagley sat with her in the back and they drove out to Georgetown and parked near Armstrong’s house. Thirty minutes later they were joined by the gun car and two Suburbans. Fifteen minutes after that, an armored Cadillac stretch showed up and parked with its passenger door tight against the tent. Then two Metro cruisers sealed the street, top and bottom. Their light bars were flashing. All vehicles were using full headlights. The sky was dark gray and a light rain was falling. Everybody kept their engines idling to power their heaters and exhaust fumes were drifting and pooling near the curbs.
They waited. Froelich talked to the personal detail in the house and the Air Force ground crew at Andrews. She talked to the cops in their cars. She listened to traffic reports from a radio news helicopter. The city was jammed because of the weather. The Metro traffic division was recommending a long loop right around the Beltway. Andrews reported that the mechanics had signed off on the plane and the pilots were aboard. The personal detail reported that Armstrong had finished his morning coffee.
“Move him,” she said.
The transfer inside the tent was invisible, but she heard it happen in her earpiece. The limo moved away from the curb and a Suburban jumped ahead of it and formed up behind the lead cop. The gun car came next, then Froelich’s stretch, then the second Suburban, then the trail cop. The convoy moved out and straight up Wisconsin Avenue, through Bethesda, traveling directly away from Andrews. But then it turned right and swung onto the Beltway and settled in for a fast clockwise loop. By then Froelich was patched through to Bismarck and was checking the arrival arrangements. Local ETA was one o’clock and she wanted plans in place so she could sleep on the flight.
The convoy used the north gate into Andrews and swept right onto the tarmac. Armstrong’s limo stopped with its passenger door twenty feet from the bottom of the steps up to the plane. The plane was a Gulfstream twinjet painted in the Air Force’s ceremonial blue United States of America livery. Its engines were whining loudly and blowing rain across the ground in thin waves. The Suburbans spilled agents and Armstrong slid out of his limo and ran the twenty feet through the drizzle. His personal detail followed, and then Froelich and Neagley and Reacher. A waiting press van contributed two reporters. A second three-man team of agents brought up the rear. Ground crew wheeled the stairs away and a steward closed the airplane door.
Inside it was nothing like the Air Force One Reacher had seen in the movies. It was more like the kind of bus a small-time rock band would ride in, a plain little vehicle customized with twelve better-than-stock seats. Eight of them were arranged in two groups of four with tables between each facing pair, and there were four facing ahead in a row straight across the front. The seats were leather and the tables were wood, but they looked out of place in the utilitarian fuselage. There was clearly a pecking order about who sat where. People crowded the aisle until Armstrong chose his place. He went for a backward-facing window seat in the port-side foursome. The two reporters sat down opposite. Maybe they had arranged an interview to kill the downtime. Froelich and the personal detail took the other foursome. The backup agents and Neagley took the front row. Reacher was left with no choice. The one seat that remained put him directly across the aisle from Froelich, but it also put him right next to Armstrong.
He stuffed his coat into the overhead bin and slid into the seat. Armstrong glanced at him like he was already an old friend. The reporters checked him out. He could feel their inquiring gaze. They were looking at his suit. He could see them thinking: too upmarket for an agent. So who is this guy? An aide? An appointee? He buckled his seat belt like sitting next to Vice Presidents-elect was something he did every four years, regular as clockwork. Armstrong did nothing to disabuse his audience. Just sat there, poised, waiting for the first question.
The engine noise built and the plane moved out to the runway. By the time it took off and leveled out almost everybody except those at Reacher’s table was fast asleep. They all just shut down like professionals do when they’re faced with a window between periods of intense activity. Froelich was accustomed to sleeping on planes. That was clear. Her head was tucked down on her shoulder and her arms were folded neatly in her lap. She looked good. The three agents around her sprawled a little less decorously. They were big guys. Wide necks, broad shoulders, thick wrists. One of them had his foot shoved out in the aisle. It looked to be about size fourteen. He assumed Neagley was asleep behind him. She could sleep anywhere. He had once seen her sleep in a tree, on a long stakeout. He found the button and laid his chair back a fraction and got comfortable. But then the reporters started talking. To Armstrong, but about him.
“Can we get a name, sir, for the record?” one of them said.
Armstrong shook his head.
“I’m afraid identities need to remain confidential at this point,” he said.
“But we can assume we’re still in the national security arena here?”
Armstrong smiled. Almost winked.
“I can’t stop you assuming things,” he said.
The reporters wrote something down. Started a conversation about foreign relations, with heavy emphasis on military resources and spending. Reacher ignored it all and tried to drift off. Came around again when he heard a repeated question and felt eyes on him. One of the reporters was looking in his direction.
“But you do still support the doctrine of overwhelming force?” the other guy was asking Armstrong.
Armstrong glanced at Reacher. “Would you wish to comment on that?”
Reacher yawned. “Yes, I still support overwhelming force. That’s for sure. I support it big time. Always have, believe me.”
The reporters both wrote it down. Armstrong nodded wisely. Reacher laid his chair back a little more and went to sleep.
He woke up on the descent into Bismarck. Everybody around him was already awake. Froelich was talking quietly to her agents, giving them their standard operational instructions. Neagley was listening along with the three guys in her row. He glanced out Armstrong’s window and saw brilliant blue sky and no clouds. The earth was tan and dormant, ten thousand feet below. He could see the Missouri River winding north to south through an endless sequence of bright blue lakes. He could see the narrow ribbon of I-94 running east to west. The brown urban smudge of Bismarck where they met.
“We’re leaving the perimeter to the local cops,” Froelich was saying. “We’ve got forty of them on duty, maybe more. Plus state troopers in cars. Our job is to stick close together. We’ll be in and out quick. We’re arriving after the event has started and we’re leaving before it finishes.”
“Leave them wanting more,” Armstrong said, to nobody in particular.
“Works in show business,” one of the reporters said. The plane yawed and tilted and settled into a long shallow glide path. Seat backs came upright and belts were ratcheted tight. The reporters stowed their notebooks. They were staying on the plane. No attraction in open-air local politics for important foreign-relations journalists. Froelich glanced across at Reacher and smiled. But there was worry in her eyes.
The plane put down gently and taxied over to a corner of the tarmac where a five-car motorcade waited. There was a State Police cruiser at each end and three identical stretched Town Cars sandwiched between. A small knot of ground crew standing by with a rolling staircase. Armstrong traveled with his detail in the center limo. The backup crew took the one behind it. Froelich and Reacher and Neagley took the one in front. The air was freezing, but the sky was bright. The sun was blinding.
“You’ll be freelancing,” Froelich said. “Wherever you feel you need to be.”
There was no traffic. It felt like empty country. There was a short fast trip over smooth concrete roads and suddenly Reacher saw the familiar church tower in the distance, and the low surrounding huddle of houses. There were cars parked solid along the side of the approach road all the way up to a State Police roadblock a hundred yards from the community center entrance. The motorcade eased past it and headed for the parking lot. The fences were decorated with bunting and there was a large crowd already assembled, maybe three hundred people. The church tower loomed over all of them, tall and square and solid and blinding white in the winter sun.
“I hope this time they checked every inch of it,” Froelich said.
The five cars swept onto the gravel and crunched to a stop. The backup agents were out first. They fanned out in front of Armstrong’s car, checking the faces in the crowd, waiting until Froelich heard the all-clear from the local police commander on her radio. She got it and instantly relayed it to the backup leader. He acknowledged immediately and stepped to Armstrong’s door and opened it ceremoniously. Reacher was impressed. It was like a ballet. Five seconds, serene, dignified, unhurried, no apparent hesitation at all, but there had already been three-way radio communication and visual confirmation of security. This was a slick operation.
Armstrong stepped out of his car into the cold. He was already smiling a perfect local-boy-embarrassed-by-all-the-fuss smile and stretching out his hand to greet his successor at the head of the reception line. He was bareheaded. His personal detail moved in so close they were almost jostling him. The backup agents got close, too, maneuvering themselves so they kept the tallest two of the three between Armstrong and the church. Their faces were completely expressionless. Their coats were open and their eyes were always moving.
“That damn church,” Froelich said. “It’s like a shooting gallery.”
“We should go check it again,” Reacher said. “Ourselves, just to be sure. Have him circulate counterclockwise until we do.”
“That takes him nearer the church.”
“He’s safer nearer the church. Makes the downward angle too steep. There are wooden louvers up there around the bells. The field of fire starts about forty feet out from the base of the tower. Closer than that, he’s in a blind spot.”
Froelich raised her wrist and spoke to her lead agent. Seconds later they saw him ease Armstrong to his right, into a wide counterclockwise loop around the field. The new senator tagged along. The crowd changed direction and moved with them.
“Now find the guy with the church keys,” Reacher said.
Froelich spoke to the local police captain. Listened to his response in her ear.
“The church warden will meet us there,” she said. “Five minutes.”
They got out of the car and walked across the gravel to the church gate. The air was very cold. Armstrong’s head was visible among a sea of people. The sun was catching his hair. He was well out in the field, thirty feet from the tower. The new senator was at his side. Six agents close by. The crowd was moving with them, slowly changing its shape like an evolving creature. There were dark overcoats everywhere. Women’s hats, mufflers, sunglasses. The grass was brown and dead from night frosts.
Froelich stiffened. Cupped her hand over her ear. Raised the other hand and spoke into her wrist microphone.
“Keep him close to the church,” she said.
Then she dropped her hands and opened her coat. Loosened her gun in its holster.
“State cops on the far perimeter just called in,” she said. “They’re worried about some guy on foot.”
“Where?” Reacher asked.
“In the subdivision.”
“Didn’t get one.”
“How many cops on the field?”
“Forty plus, all around the edge.”
“Get them facing outward. Backs to the crowd. All eyes on the near perimeter.”
Froelich spoke to the police captain on the radio and issued the order. Her own eyes were everywhere.
“I got to go,” she said.
Reacher turned to Neagley.
“Check the streets,” he said. “All the access points we found before.”
Neagley nodded and moved out toward the entrance drive. Long fast strides, halfway between walking and running.
“You found access points?” Froelich asked.
“Like a sieve.”
Froelich raised her wrist. “Move now, move now. Bring him tight against the tower wall. Cover on all three sides. Stand by with the cars. Now, people.”
She listened to the response. Nodded. Armstrong was coming close to the tower on the other side, maybe a hundred feet away from them, out of their line of sight.
“You go,” Reacher said. “I’ll check the church.”
She raised her wrist.
“Now keep him there,” she said. “I’m coming by.”
She headed straight back toward the field without another word. Reacher was left alone at the church gate. He stepped through and headed onward toward the building itself. Waited at the door. It was a huge thing, carved oak, maybe four inches thick. It had iron bands and hinges. Big black nail heads. Above it the tower rose seventy feet vertically into the sky. There was a flag and a lightning rod and a weather vane on the top. The weather vane was not moving. The flag was limp. The air was completely still. Cold, dense air, no breeze at all. The sort of air that takes a bullet and wraps around it and holds it lovingly, straight and true.
A minute later there was the noise of shoes on the gravel and he looked back at the gate and saw the church warden approaching. He was a small man in a black surplice that reached his feet. He had a cashmere coat over it. A fur hat with earflaps tied under his chin. Thick eyeglasses in gold frames. A huge wire hoop in his hand with a huge iron key hanging off it. It was so big it looked like a prop for a comic movie about medieval jails. He held it out and Reacher took it from him.
“That’s the original key,” the warden said. “From 1870.”
“I’ll bring it back to you,” Reacher said. “Go wait for me on the field.”
“I can wait right here,” the guy said.
“On the field,” Reacher said again. “Better that way.”
The guy’s eyes were wide and magnified behind his glasses. He turned around and walked back the way he had come. Reacher hefted the big old key in his hand. Stepped to the door and lined it up with the hole. Put it in the lock. Turned it hard. Nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. He paused. Tried the handle.
The door was not locked.
It swung open six inches with a squeal from the old iron hinges. He remembered the noise. It had sounded much louder when he opened the door at five in the morning. Now it was lost in the low-level hubbub coming from three hundred people on the field.
He pushed the door all the way open. Paused again and then stepped quietly through into the gloom inside. The building was a simple wooden structure with a vaulted roof. The walls were painted a faded parchment white. The pews were worn and polished to a shine. There was stained glass in the windows. At one end there was an altar and a high lectern with steps leading up to it. Some doors to small rooms beyond. Vestries, maybe. He wasn’t sure of the terminology.
He closed the door and locked it from the inside. Hid the key inside a wooden chest full of hymnals. Crept the length of the center aisle and stood still and listened. He could hear nothing. The air smelled of old wood and dusty fabrics and candle wax and cold. He crept on and checked the small rooms behind the altar. There were three of them, all small, all with bare wooden floors. All of them empty except for piles of old books and church garments.
He crept back. Through the door into the base of the tower. There was a square area with three bell ropes hanging down in the center. The ropes had yard-long faded embroidered sleeves sewn over the raw ends. The sides of the square area were defined by a steep narrow staircase that wound upward into the gloom. He stood at the bottom and listened hard. Heard nothing. Eased himself up. After three consecutive right-angle turns the stairs ended on a ledge. Then there was a wooden ladder bolted to the inside of the tower wall. It ran upward twenty feet to a trapdoor in the ceiling. The ceiling was boarded solid except for three precise nine-inch holes for the bell ropes. If anybody was up there, he could see and hear through the holes. Reacher knew that. He had heard the dogs pattering around below him, five days ago.
He paused at the foot of the ladder. Stood as quiet as possible. Took the ceramic knife out of his coat pocket and shrugged the coat and suit jacket off and left them piled on the ledge. Stepped onto the ladder. It creaked loudly under his weight. He eased upward to the next rung. The ladder creaked again.
He stopped. Took one hand away from the rung it was gripping and stared at the palm. Pepper. The pepper he had used five days ago was still on the ladder. It was smeared and smudged on the rungs, maybe by his previous descent five days ago, maybe by some new ascent undertaken today by the cops. Or by somebody else. He paused. Eased up another rung. The ladder creaked again.
He paused again. Assess and evaluate. He was on a noisy ladder eighteen feet below a trapdoor. Above the trapdoor was an uncertain situation. He was unarmed, except for a knife with a blade three and a half inches long. He took a breath. Opened the knife and held it between his teeth. Reached up and grasped the side rails of the ladder as far above his head as he could stretch. Catapulted himself upward. He made the remaining eighteen feet in three or four seconds. At the top he kept one foot and one hand on the ladder and swung his body out into open space. Stabilized himself with his fingertips spread on the ceiling above. Felt for movement.
There was none. He reached out and poked the trapdoor upward an inch and let it fall closed. Put his fingertips back on the ceiling. No movement up there. No tremor, no vibration. He waited thirty seconds. Still nothing. He swung back onto the ladder and pushed the trapdoor all the way open and swarmed up into the bell chamber.
He saw the bells, hanging mute in their cradles. Three of them, with iron wheels above, driven by the ropes. The bells were small and black and cast from iron. Nothing like the giant bronze masterpieces that grace the ancient cathedrals of Europe. They were just plain rural artifacts from plain rural history. Sunlight came through the louvers and threw bars of cold light across them. The rest of the chamber was empty. There was nothing up there. It looked exactly as he had left it.
Except it didn’t.
The dust was disturbed. There were scuffs and unexplained marks on the floor. Heels and toes, knees and elbows. They weren’t his from five days ago. He was sure of that. And there was a faint smell in the air, right at the edge of his consciousness. It was the smell of sweat and tension and gun oil and machined steel and new brass cartridge cases. He turned a slow circle and the smell was gone like it had never been there at all. He stood still and put his fingertips against the iron bells, willing them to give up their secret stored vibrations.
Sound came through the louvers, as well as sunlight. He could hear people clustered near the base of the tower seventy feet below. He stepped over and squinted down. The louvers were weathered wooden slats spaced apart and set into a frame at angles of maybe thirty degrees. The fringe of the crowd was visible. The bulk of it was not. He could see cops on the perimeter of the field, thirty yards apart, standing easy and facing the fences. He could see the community center building. He could see the motorcade waiting patiently in the lot, with the engines running and exhaust vapor clouding white in the cold. He could see the surrounding houses. He could see a lot of things. It was a good firing position. Limited field, but it only takes one shot.
He glanced upward. Saw another trapdoor in the bell chamber ceiling, and another ladder leading up to it. Next to the ladder there were heavy copper grounding straps coming down from the lightning rod. They were green with age. He had ignored the ceiling on his previous visit. He had experienced no desire to climb through and wait eight hours out in the cold. But for somebody looking for an unlimited field of fire on a sunny afternoon the trapdoor would be attractive. It was there for changing the flag, he guessed. The lightning rod and the weather vane might have been there since 1870, but the flag hadn’t. It had added a lot of stars since 1870.
He put the knife back between his teeth and started up the new ladder. It was a twelve-foot climb. The wood creaked and gave under his weight. He made it halfway and stopped. His hands were on the side rails. His face was near the upper rungs. They were ancient and dusty. Except for random patches, where they were rubbed perfectly clean. There were two ways to climb a ladder. Either you hold the side rails, or you touch each rung with an overhand grip. He rehearsed in his mind how the grip pattern would go. There would be contact, left and right on alternate rungs. He arched his body outward and looked down. Craned his neck and looked up. He could see clean patches in that exact pattern, to the left and right on alternate rungs. Somebody had climbed the ladder. Recently. Maybe within a day or two. Maybe within an hour or two. Maybe the church warden, hanging a laundered flag. Maybe not.
He hung motionless. Chatter from the crowd drifted up to him through the louvers. He was up above the bells. The maker had soldered his initials on top of each of them where the iron narrowed at the neck. AHB was written there three times over in shaky lines of melted tin.
He eased upward. Placed his fingertips as before on the wood above his head. But these were thick balks of timber, probably faced with lead on the outside surface. They were as solid as stone. A guy could be dancing a jig up above and he would never feel it. He eased up two more rungs. Hunched his shoulders and stepped up another rung until he was crouched at the top of the ladder with the trapdoor pressing down on his back. He knew it would be heavy. It was probably as thick as the roof itself and weatherproofed with lead. Some kind of a lip arrangement on it to stop rain leaking through. He twisted around to look at the hinges. They were iron. A little rusted. Maybe a little stiff.
He took a long wet breath around the knife handle and snapped his legs straight and exploded up through the trap. It crashed back and he scrambled up and out onto the roof into the blinding daylight. Grabbed the knife from his mouth and rolled away. His face grazed the roof. It was lead, pitted and dulled and grayed by more than a hundred and thirty winters. He snapped upright and spun a full circle on his knees.
There was nobody up there.
It was like a shallow lead-lined box, open to the sky at the top. The walls were about three feet high. The floor was raised in the center to anchor the flagpole and the weather vane post and the lightning rod. Up close, they were huge. The lead was applied in sheets, carefully beaten and soldered at the joints. There were shaped funnels in the corners to drain rainwater and snowmelt away.
He crawled on his hands and knees to the edge. He didn’t want to stand. He guessed the agents below were trained to watch for random movement taking place in high vantage points above them. He eased his head over the parapet. Shivered in the frigid air. He saw Armstrong directly below. The new senator was standing next to him. The six agents were surrounding them in a perfect circle. Then he saw movement in the corner of his eye. A hundred yards away across the field cops were running. They were gathering at a point near the back corner of the enclosure. They were glancing down at something and spinning away and hunching into their radio microphones. He looked directly down again and saw Froelich forcing her way out through the crowd. She had her index finger pressed onto her earpiece. She was moving fast. Heading toward the cops.
He crawled back again and clambered down through the trapdoor. Slammed it shut above his head and climbed down the ladder. Through the next trapdoor and down the next ladder. He picked up his coat and jacket and ran down the narrow winding stairs. Past the embroidered ends of the bell ropes and through to the main body of the church.
The oak door was standing wide open.
The lid of the hymnal box was up and the key was in the door lock from the inside. He stepped over and stood a yard inside the building. Waited. Listened. Sprinted out into the cold and stopped again six feet down the path. Spun around. There was nobody waiting to ambush him. Nobody there at all. The area was quiet and deserted. He could hear noise far away on the field. He shrugged into his coat and headed toward it. Saw a man running toward him across the gravel, fast and urgent. He was wearing a long brown coat, some kind of heavy twill, halfway between a raincoat and an overcoat. It was flapping open behind him. Tweed jacket and flannel pants under it. Stout shoes. He had his hand raised like a greeting. A gold badge palmed in the hand. Some kind of a Bismarck detective. Maybe the police captain himself.
“Is the tower secure?” he shouted from twenty feet away.
“It’s empty,” Reacher shouted back. “What’s going on?”
The cop stopped where he was and bent over, panting, his hands on his knees.
“Don’t know yet,” he called. “Some big commotion.”
Then he stared beyond Reacher’s shoulder at the church.
“Damn it, you should have locked the door,” he called. “Can’t leave the damn thing open.”
He raced on toward the church. Reacher ran the other way, to the field. Met Neagley running in from the entrance road.
“What?” she shouted.
“It’s going down,” he shouted back.
They ran on together. Through the gate and into the field. Froelich was moving fast toward the cars. They changed direction and cut her off.
“Rifle hidden at the base of the fence,” she said.
“Someone’s been in the church,” Reacher said. He was out of breath. “In the tower. Probably right on the roof. Probably still around someplace.”
Froelich looked straight at him and stood completely still for a second. Then she raised her hand and spoke into the microphone on her wrist.
“Stand by to abort,” she said. “Emergency extraction on my count of three.”
Her voice was very calm.
“Stand by all vehicles. Main car and gun car to target on my count of three.”
She paused a single beat.
“One, two, three, abort now, abort now.”
Two things happened simultaneously. First there was a roar of engines from the motorcade and it split apart like a starburst. The lead cop car jumped forward and the rear cop car slewed backward and the first two stretch limos hauled through a tight turn and accelerated across the gravel and straight out onto the field. At the same time the personal detail jumped all over Armstrong and literally buried him from view. One agent took the lead and the other two took an elbow each and the backup three piled on and threw their arms up over Armstrong’s head from behind and drove him bodily forward through the crowd. It was like a football maneuver, full of speed and power. The crowd scattered in panic as the cars bumped across the grass one way and the agents rushed the other way to meet them. The cars skidded to a stop and the personal detail pushed Armstrong straight into the first and the backup crew piled into the second.
The lead cop had his lights and siren started already and was crawling forward down the exit road. The two loaded limos fishtailed on the grass and turned around on the field and headed back to the pavement. They rolled up straight behind the cop car and then all three vehicles accelerated hard and headed out while the third stretch headed straight for Froelich.
“We can get these guys,” Reacher said to her. “They’re right here, right now.”
She didn’t reply. Just grabbed him and Neagley by the arms and pulled them into the limo with her. It roared after the lead vehicles. The second cop fell in directly behind it and just twenty short seconds after the initial abort command the whole motorcade had formed up in a tight line and was screaming away from the scene at seventy miles an hour with every light flashing and every siren blaring.
Froelich slumped back in her seat.
“See?” she said. “We’re not proactive. Something happens, we run away.”
Froelich stood in the chill and spoke to Armstrong at the foot of the plane’s steps. It was a short conversation. She told him about the discovery of the concealed rifle and told him it was more than enough to justify the extraction. He didn’t argue. Didn’t ask any awkward leading questions. He seemed completely unaware of any larger picture. And he seemed completely unconcerned about his own safety. He was more anxious to calculate the public-relations consequences for his successor. He looked away and ran through the pluses and minuses in his head like politicians do and came back with a tentative smile. No damage done. Then he ran up the steps to the warmth inside the plane, ready to resume his agenda with the waiting journalists.
Reacher was faster with the seat selection second time around. He took a place in the forward-facing front row, next to Froelich and across the aisle from Neagley. Froelich used the taxi time doing the rounds of her team, quietly congratulating them on their performance. She spoke to each of them in turn, leaning close, talking, listening, finishing with discreet fist-to-fist contact like ballplayers after a vital hit. Reacher watched her. Good leader, he thought. She came back to her seat and buckled her belt. Smoothed her hair and pressed her fingertips hard into her temples like she was clearing her mind of past events and preparing to concentrate on the future.
“We should have stayed around,” Reacher said.
“The place is swarming with cops,” Froelich said. “FBI will join them. That’s their job. We focus on Armstrong. And I don’t like it any better than you do.”
“What was the rifle? Did you see it?”
She shook her head. “We’ll get a report. They said it was in a bag. Some kind of vinyl carrying case.”
“Hidden in the grass?”
She nodded. “Where it’s long at the base of the fence.”
“When was the church locked?”
“Last thing Sunday. More than sixty hours ago.”
“So I guess our guys picked the lock. It’s a crude old mechanism. The keyhole’s so big you can practically get your whole hand in there.”
“You sure you didn’t see them?”
Reacher shook his head. “But they saw me. They were in there with me. They saw where I hid the key. They let themselves out.”
“You probably saved Armstrong’s life. And my ass. Although I don’t understand their plan. They were in the church and their rifle was a hundred yards away?”
“Wait until we know what the rifle was. Then maybe we’ll understand.”
The plane turned at the end of the runway and accelerated immediately. Took off and climbed hard. The engine noise throttled back after five minutes and Reacher heard the journalists starting their foreign-relations conversation again. They didn’t ask any questions about the early return.
They touched down at Andrews at six-thirty local time. The city was quiet. The long Thanksgiving weekend had already started, halfway through the afternoon. The motorcade headed straight in on Branch Avenue and drove through the heart of the capital and out again to Georgetown. Armstrong was shepherded into his house through the white tent. Then the cars turned listlessly and headed back to base. Stuyvesant wasn’t around. Reacher and Neagley followed Froelich to her desk and she accessed her NCIC search results. They were hopeless. There was a small proud rubric at the top of the screen that claimed the software had compiled for five hours and twenty-three minutes and come up with no less than 243,791 matches. Anything that ever mentioned any two of a thumbprint or a document or a letter or a signature was neatly listed. The sequence began exactly twenty years ago and averaged more than thirty entries for each of the 7,305 days since. Froelich sampled the first dozen reports and then skipped ahead to random interim dates. There was nothing even remotely useful.
“We need to refine the parameters,” Neagley said. She squatted next to Froelich and moved the keyboard closer. Cleared the screen and called up the inquiry box and typed thumbprint-as-signature. Reached for the mouse and clicked on search. The hard drive chattered and the inquiry box disappeared. The phone rang and Froelich picked it up. Listened for a moment and put it down.
“Stuyvesant’s back,” she said. “He’s got the preliminary FBI report on the rifle. He wants us in the conference room.”
“We came close to losing today,” Stuyvesant said.
He was at the head of the table with sheets of faxed paper spread out in front of him. They were covered in dense type, a little blurred from transmission. Reacher could see the cover sheet’s heading, upside down. There was a small seal on the left, and U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation on the right.
“First factor is the unlocked door,” Stuyvesant said. “The FBI’s guess is the lock was picked early this morning. They say a child could have done it with a bent knitting needle. We should have secured it with a temporary lock of our own.”
“Couldn’t do it,” Froelich said. “It’s a landmark building. Can’t be touched.”
“Then we should have changed the venue.”
“I looked for alternatives first time around. Every other place was worse.”
“You should have had an agent on the roof,” Neagley said.
“No budget,” Stuyvesant said. “Until after the inauguration.”
“If you get that far,” Neagley said.
“What was the rifle?” Reacher asked, in the silence.
Stuyvesant squared the paper in front of him. “Your guess?”
“Something disposable,” Reacher said. “Something they weren’t actually planning on using. In my experience something that gets found that easily is supposed to get found that easily.”
Stuyvesant nodded. “It was barely a rifle at all. It was an ancient.22 varmint gun. Badly maintained, rusty, probably hadn’t been used in a generation. It was not loaded and there was no ammunition with it.”
“Of course not.”
“Decoy,” he said.
“The unlocked door is persuasive,” Stuyvesant said. “What did you do when you went in, for instance?”
“I locked it again behind me.”
“I like it that way, for surveillance.”
“But if you were going to be shooting?”
“Then I would have left it open, especially if I didn’t have the key.”
“So I could get out fast, afterward.”
Stuyvesant nodded. “The unlocked door means they were in there to shoot. My take is they were waiting in there with the MP5 or the Vaime Mk2. Maybe both weapons. They imagined the junk gun would be spotted far away at the fence, the bulk of the police presence would move somewhat toward it, we would move Armstrong toward the motorcade, whereupon they would have a clear shot at him.”
“Sounds right to me,” Reacher said. “But I didn’t actually see anybody in there.”
“Plenty of places to hide in a country church,” Stuyvesant said. “Did you check the crypt?”
“Plenty of places,” Stuyvesant said again.
“I sensed somebody.”
“Yes,” Stuyvesant said. “They were in there. That’s for sure.”
There was silence for a beat.
“Any unexplained attendees?” Froelich asked.
Stuyvesant shook his head. “It was pure chaos. Cops running everywhere, the crowd scattering. By the time order was restored at least twenty people had left. It’s understandable. You’re in a crowd on an open field, somebody finds a gun, you run like hell. Why wouldn’t you?”
“What about the man on foot in the subdivision?”
“Just a guy in a coat,” Stuyvesant said. “State cop couldn’t really come up with anything more than that. Probably just a civilian out walking. Probably nobody. My guess is our guys were already in the church by that time.”
“Something must have aroused the trooper’s suspicions,” Neagley said.
Stuyvesant shrugged. “You know how it is. How does a North Dakota State Trooper react around the Secret Service? He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Somebody looks suspicious, he’s got to call it in even if he can’t articulate exactly why afterward. And we can’t moan at him for it. I’d rather he erred on the side of caution. Don’t want to make him afraid to be vigilant.”
“So we’ve still got nothing,” Froelich said.
“We’ve still got Armstrong,” Stuyvesant said. “And Armstrong’s still got a pulse. So go eat dinner and be back here at ten for the FBI meeting.”
First they went back to Froelich’s office to check on Neagley’s NCIC search. It was done. In fact it had been done before they even stepped away from the desk. The rubric at the top of the screen said the search had lasted nine-hundredths of a second and come up with zero matches. Froelich called up the inquiry box again and typed thumbprint on letter. Clicked on search and watched the screen. It redrew immediately and came up with no matches in eight-hundredths of a second.
“Getting nowhere even faster now,” she said.
She tried thumbprint on message. Same result, no matches in eight-hundredths of a second. She tried thumbprint on threat. Identical result, identical eight-hundredths of a second. She sighed with frustration.
“Let me have a go,” Reacher said. She got up and he sat down in her chair and typed a short letter signed with a big thumbprint.
“Idiot,” Neagley said.
He clicked the mouse. The screen redrew instantly and reported that within the seven-hundredths of a second it had spent looking the software had detected no matches.
“But it was a new speed record,” Reacher said, and smiled.
Neagley laughed, and the mood of frustration eased a little. He typed thumbprint and squalene and hit search again. A tenth of a second later the search came back blank.
“Slowing down,” he said.
He tried squalene on its own. No match, eight-hundredths of a second.
He typed squalane with an a. No match, eight-hundredths of a second.
“Forget it,” he said. “Let’s go eat.”
“Wait,” Neagley said. “Let me try again. This is like an Olympic event.”
She nudged him out of the chair. Typed single unexplained thumbprint. Hit search. No match, six-hundredths of a second. She smiled.
“Six hundredths,” she said. “Folks, we have a new world record.”
“Way to go,” Reacher said.
She typed solo unexplained thumbprint. Hit search.
“This is kind of fun,” she said.
No match, six-hundredths of a second.
“Tied for first place,” Froelich said. “My turn again.”
She took Neagley’s place at the keyboard and thought for a long moment.
“OK, here we go,” she said. “This one either wins me the gold medal, or it’ll keep us here all night long.”
She typed a single word: thumb. Hit search. The inquiry box disappeared and the screen paused for a whole second and came back with a single entry. A single short paragraph. It was a police report from Sacramento in California. An emergency room doctor from a city hospital had notified the local police department five weeks ago that he had treated a man who had severed his thumb in a carpentry accident. But the doctor was convinced by the nature of the wound that it had been deliberate albeit amateur surgery. The cops had followed up and the victim had assured them it had indeed been an accident with a power saw. Case closed, report filed.
“Weird stuff in this system,” Froelich said.
“Let’s go eat,” Reacher said again.
“Maybe we should try vegetarian,” Neagley said.
They drove out to Dupont Circle and ate at an Armenian restaurant. Reacher had lamb and Froelich and Neagley stuck to various chickpea concoctions. They had baklava for dessert and three small cups each of strong muddy coffee. They talked a lot, but about nothing. Nobody wanted to talk about Armstrong, or Nendick, or his wife, or men capable of frightening a person to the point of death and then shooting down two innocent civilians who happened to share a name. Froelich didn’t want to talk about Joe in front of Reacher, Neagley didn’t want to talk about Reacher in front of Froelich. So they talked about politics, like everybody else in the restaurant and probably everybody else in the city. But talking about politics in late November was pretty much impossible without mentioning the new administration, which led back toward Armstrong, so they generalized it away again toward personal views and beliefs. That needed background information, and before long Froelich was asking Neagley about her life and career.
Reacher tuned it out. He knew she wouldn’t answer questions about her life. She never did. Never had. He had known her many years, and had discovered absolutely nothing about her background. He assumed there was some unhappiness there. It was pretty common among Army people. Some join because they need a job or want to learn a trade, some join because they want to shoot heavy weapons and blow things up. Some like Reacher himself join because it’s preordained. But most join because they’re looking for cohesion and trust and loyalty and camaraderie. They’re looking for the brothers and the sisters and the parents they haven’t got anyplace else.
So Neagley skipped her early life and ran through her service career for Froelich and Reacher ignored it and looked around the restaurant. It was busy. Lots of couples and families. He guessed people who were cooking big Thanksgiving meals tomorrow didn’t want to cook tonight. There were a couple of faces he almost recognized. Maybe they were politicians or television reporters. He tuned the conversation back in again when Neagley started talking about her new career in Chicago. It sounded pretty good. She was partnered with a bunch of people from law enforcement and the military. It was a big firm. They offered a whole range of services from computer security to kidnap protection for traveling executives overseas. If you had to live in one place and go to work every day, that was probably the way to do it. She sounded satisfied with her life.
They were about to order a fourth cup of coffee when Froelich’s cell phone rang. It was just after nine o’clock. The restaurant had gotten noisy and they missed it at first. Then they became aware of the low insistent trilling inside her purse. Froelich got the phone out and answered the call. Reacher watched her face. Saw puzzlement, and then a little concern.
“OK,” she said, and closed the phone. Looked across at Reacher. “Stuyvesant wants you back in the office, right now, immediately.”
“Me?” Reacher said. “Why?”
“He didn’t say.”
Stuyvesant was waiting for them behind one end of the reception counter just inside the main door. The duty officer was busy at the other end. Everything looked completely normal except for a telephone directly in front of Stuyvesant. It had been dragged up out of position and was sitting on the front part of the counter, facing outward, trailing its wire behind it. Stuyvesant was staring at it.
“We got a call,” he said.
“Who from?” Froelich asked.
“Didn’t get a name. Or a number. Caller ID was blocked. Male voice, no particular accent. He called the switchboard and asked to speak with the big guy. Something in the voice made the duty officer take it seriously, so he patched it through, thinking perhaps the big guy was me, you know, the boss. But it wasn’t. The caller didn’t want to speak with me. He wanted the big guy he’s been seeing around recently.”
“Me?” Reacher said.
“You’re the only big guy new on the scene.”
“Why would he want to speak with me?”
“We’re about to find out. He’s calling back at nine-thirty.”
Reacher glanced at his watch. Twenty-two minutes past.
“It’s them,” Froelich said. “They saw you in the church.”
“That’s my guess,” Stuyvesant said. “This is our first real contact. We’ve got a recorder set up. We’ll get a voice print. And we’ve got a trace on the line. You need to talk for as long as you can.”
Reacher glanced at Neagley. She looked at her watch. Shook her head.
“Not enough time now,” she said.
Reacher nodded. “Can we get a weather report for Chicago?”
“I could call Andrews,” Froelich said. “But why?”
“Just do it, OK?”
She stepped away to use another line. The Air Force meteorological people took four minutes to tell her Chicago was cold but clear and expected to stay that way. Reacher glanced at his watch again. Nine twenty-seven.
“OK,” he said.
“Remember, talk as long as you can,” Stuyvesant said. “They can’t explain you. They don’t know who you are. They’re worried about that.”
“Is the Thanksgiving thing on the website?” Reacher asked.
“Yes,” Froelich said.
“Yes,” she said again.
“What else is upcoming?” Reacher asked.
“Wall Street again in ten days,” Froelich said. “That’s all.”
“What about this weekend?”
“Back to North Dakota with his wife. Late tomorrow afternoon.”
“Is that on the website?”
Froelich shook her head.
“No, that’s completely private,” she said. “We haven’t announced it anywhere.”
“OK,” Reacher said again.
Then the phone rang, very loud in the silence.
“A little early,” Reacher said. “Somebody’s anxious.”
“Talk as long as you can,” Stuyvesant said. “Use their curiosity against them. Keep it going.”
Reacher picked up the phone.
“Hello,” he said.
“You won’t get that lucky again,” a voice said.
Reacher ignored it and listened hard to the background sounds.
“Hey,” the voice said. “I want to talk to you.”
“But I don’t want to talk to you, asshole,” Reacher said, and put the phone down.
Stuyvesant and Froelich just stared at him.
“Hell are you doing?” Stuyvesant asked.
“I wasn’t feeling very talkative,” Reacher said.
“I told you to talk as long as you could.”
Reacher shrugged. “You wanted it done different, you should have done it yourself. You could have pretended to be me. Talked to your heart’s content.”
“That was deliberate sabotage.”
“No, it wasn’t. It was a move in a game.”
“This isn’t a damn game.”
“That’s exactly what it is.”
“We needed information.”
“Get real,” Reacher said. “You were never going to get information.”
Stuyvesant was silent.
“I want a cup of coffee,” Reacher said. “You dragged us out of the restaurant before we were finished.”
“We’re staying here,” Stuyvesant said. “They might call back.”
“They won’t,” Reacher said.
They waited five minutes at the reception counter and then gave it up and took plastic cups of coffee with them to the conference room. Neagley was keeping herself to herself. Froelich was very quiet. Stuyvesant was very angry.
“Explain,” he said.
Reacher sat down alone at one end of the table. Neagley occupied neutral territory halfway down one side. Froelich and Stuyvesant sat together at the far end.
“These guys use faucet water to seal their envelopes,” Reacher said.
“So?” Stuyvesant said.
“So there’s not one chance in a million they’re going to make a traceable call to the main office of the United States Secret Service, for God’s sake. They would have cut the call short. I didn’t want to let them have the satisfaction. They need to know if they’re tangling with me, then I take the upper hand, not them.”
“You blew it because you think you’re in a pissing contest?”
“I didn’t blow anything,” Reacher said. “We got all the information we were ever going to get.”
“We got absolutely nothing.”
“No, you got a voice print. The guy said thirteen words. All the vowel sounds, most of the consonants. You got the sibilant characteristics, and some of the fricatives.”
“We needed to know where they were, you idiot.”
“They were at a pay phone with caller ID blocked. Somewhere in the Midwest. Think about it, Stuyvesant. They were in Bismarck today with heavy weapons. Therefore they’re driving. They’re on a four-hundred-mile radius by now. They’re somewhere in one of about six huge states, in a bar or a country store, using the pay phone. And anybody smart enough to use faucet water to seal an envelope knows exactly how short to keep a phone call to make it untraceable.”
“You don’t know they’re driving.”
“No,” Reacher said. “You’re quite right. I don’t know for sure. There is a slight possibility that they were frustrated about today’s outcome. Annoyed, even. And they know from the website that there’s another chance tomorrow, right here. And then nothing much for a spell. So it’s possible they ditched their weapons and aimed to fly in tonight. In which case they might be at O’Hare right now, waiting for a connection. It might have been worthwhile putting some cops in place to see who’s using the pay phones. But I only had eight minutes. If you had thought about it earlier it might have been practical. You had a whole half hour. They gave you notice, for God’s sake. You could have arranged something easily. In which case I would have talked their damn ears off, to let the cops get a good look around. But you didn’t think about it. You didn’t arrange it. You didn’t arrange anything. So don’t talk to me about sabotage. Don’t be telling me I’m the one who blew something here.”
Stuyvesant looked down. Said nothing.
“Now ask him why he wanted the weather report,” Neagley said.
Stuyvesant said nothing.
“Why did you want the weather report?” Froelich asked.
“Because there might still have been time to get something together. If the weather was bad the night before Thanksgiving in Chicago the airport would be so backed up they’d be sitting around there for hours. In which case I would have provoked some kind of a call-back later, for after we got some cops in place. But the weather was OK. Therefore no delays, therefore no time.”
Stuyvesant said nothing.
“Accent?” Froelich asked, quietly. “Did the thirteen words you granted them give you a chance to pick anything out?”
“You made a recording,” Reacher said. “But nothing jumped out at me. Not foreign. Not Southern, not East Coast. Probably one of those other places where they don’t have much of an accent.”
The room was quiet for a long moment.
“I apologize,” Stuyvesant said. “You probably did the right thing.”
Reacher shook his head. Breathed out.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We’re clutching at straws here. Million to one we were ever going to get a location. It was a snap decision, really. Just a gut thing. If they’re puzzled about me, I want to keep them puzzled. Keep them guessing. And I wanted to make them mad at me. I wanted to take some focus off Armstrong. Better that they focus on me for a spell.”
“You want these people coming after you personally?”
“Better than have them coming after Armstrong personally.”
“Are you nuts? He’s got the Secret Service around him. You haven’t.”
Reacher smiled. “I’m not too worried about them.”
Froelich moved in her chair.
“So this is a pissing contest,” she said. “God, you’re just like Joe, you know that?”
“Except I’m still alive,” Reacher said.
There was a knock at the door. The duty officer put his head into the room.
“Special Agent Bannon is here,” he said. “Ready for the evening meeting.”
Stuyvesant briefed Bannon privately in his office about the telephone communications. They came back into the conference room together at ten past ten. Bannon still looked more like a city cop than a federal agent. Donegal tweed, gray flannel, stout shoes, red face. Like a wise old high-mileage detective from Chicago or Boston or New York. He was carrying a thin file folder, and he was acting somber.
“Nendick is still unresponsive,” he said.
“He’s no better and no worse,” Bannon said. “They’re still worried about him.”
He sat heavily in the chair opposite Neagley’s. Opened his file folder and took out a thin stack of color photographs. Dealt them like cards around the table. Two each.
“Bruce Armstrong and Brian Armstrong,” he said. “Late of Minnesota and Colorado, respectively.”
The photographs were large inkjet prints done on glossy paper. Not faxes. The originals must have been borrowed from the families and then scanned and e-mailed. They were snapshots, basically, each blown up and then cropped down to a useful head-and-shoulders format in the local FBI lab, presumably. The results looked artificial. Two bluff open faces, two innocent smiles, two fond gazes directed toward something that should have been there in the shot with them. Their names were neatly written in ballpoint pen in the bottom border. By Bannon himself, maybe. Bruce Armstrong, Brian Armstrong.
They weren’t really similar to each other. And neither of them looked much like Brook Armstrong. Nobody would have had even a moment’s hesitation differentiating between the three of them. Not in the dark, not in a hurry. They were just three American men with fair hair and blue eyes, somewhere in their middle forties, that was all. But therefore, they were alike in another way. If you sliced and diced the human population of the world, you’d use up quite a few distinct divisions before you got around to separating the three of them out. Male or female, black or white, Asian or Caucasian or Mongoloid, tall or short, thin or fat or medium, young or old or middle-aged, dark or fair, blue eyes or brown eyes. You would have to make all those separate distinctions before you could say the three Armstrongs looked different from one another.
“What do you think?” Bannon asked.
“Close enough to make the point,” Reacher said.
“We agree,” Bannon said. “Two widows and five fatherless children between them. This is fun, isn’t it?”
Nobody replied to that.
“You got anything else for us?” Stuyvesant asked.
“We’re working hard,” Bannon said. “We’re running the thumbprint again. We’re trying every database in the known world. But we’re not optimistic. We canvassed Nendick’s neighbors. They didn’t get many visitors to the house. Seems like they socialized as a couple, mostly in a bar about ten miles from their place, out toward Dulles. It’s a cop bar. Seems like Nendick trades on his employment status. We’re trying to trace anybody he was seen talking to more than the average.”
“What about two weeks ago?” Stuyvesant said. “When the wife got taken away? Must have been some kind of commotion.”
Bannon shook his head. “There’s a fairly high daytime population in his street. Soccer moms all around. But it’s a dry hole. Nobody remembers anything. It could have happened at night, of course.”
“No, I think Nendick delivered her somewhere,” Reacher said. “I think they made him do it. Like a refinement of the torture. To underline his responsibility. To put an edge on the fear.”
“Possible,” Bannon said. “He’s afraid, that’s for damn sure.”
Reacher nodded. “I think these guys are real good at the cruel psychological nuances. I think that’s why some of the messages came here direct. Nothing worse for Armstrong than to hear from the people paid to protect him that he’s in big trouble.”
“Except he’s not hearing from them,” Neagley said.
Bannon made no comment on that. Stuyvesant paused a beat.
“Anything else?” he said.
“We’ve concluded you won’t get any more messages,” Bannon said. “They’ll strike at a time and place of their own choosing, and obviously they won’t tip you off as to where and when. Conversely if they try and fail, they won’t want you to have known about it ahead of time, otherwise they’d look ineffective.”
“Any feeling about where and when?”
“We’ll talk about that tomorrow morning. We’re working on a theory right now. I assume you’ll all be here tomorrow morning?”
“Why wouldn’t we be?”
“It’s Thanksgiving Day.”
“Armstrong’s working, so we’re working.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Being a nice guy at a homeless shelter.”
“Is that wise?”
Stuyvesant just shrugged.
“No choice,” Froelich said. “It’s in the Constitution that politicians have to serve turkey dinners on Thanksgiving Day in the worst part of town they can find.”
“Well, wait until we talk tomorrow morning,” Bannon said. “Maybe you’ll want to change his mind. Or amend the Constitution.”
Then he stood up and walked around the table and collected the photographs again, like they were precious to him.
Froelich dropped Neagley at the hotel and then she and Reacher drove home. She was quiet all the way. Conspicuously and aggressively silent. He stood it until they reached the bridge over the river and then he gave in.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Got to be something,” he said.
She didn’t answer. Just drove on and parked as near her place as she could get, which was two streets away. The neighborhood was quiet. It was late at night before a holiday. People were inside, cozy and relaxed. She shut off the engine, but didn’t get out of the car. Just sat there, looking straight ahead through the windshield, saying nothing.
“What?” he asked again.
“I don’t think I can stand it,” she said.
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” she said. “Just like you got Joe killed.”
“Excuse me?” he said.
“I didn’t get Joe killed.”
“He wasn’t cut out for that kind of stuff. But he went ahead and did it anyway. Because he was always comparing himself. He was driven to do it.”
“Who else? He was your brother. He followed your career.”
Reacher said nothing.
“Why do you people have to be like this?” she said.
“Us people?” he said back. “Like what?”
“You men,” she said. “You military people. Always charging headlong into stupidity.”
“Is that what I’m doing?”
“You know it is.”
“I’m not the one sworn to take a bullet for some worthless politician.”
“Neither am I. That’s just a figure of speech. And not all politicians are worthless.”
“So would you take a bullet for him? Or not?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“And I’m not charging headlong into anything.”
“Yes, you are. You’ve been challenged. And God forbid you should stay cool and just walk away.”
“You want me to walk away?” he said. “Or do you want to get this thing done?”
“You can’t do it by butting heads, like you were all rutting deer or something.”
“Why not? Sooner or later it’s us or them. That’s how it is. That’s how it always is. Why pretend any different?”
“Why look for trouble?”
“I’m not looking for trouble. I don’t see it as trouble.”
“Well, what the hell else is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
He paused a beat.
“You know any lawyers?” he asked.
“You heard,” he said.
“Lawyers? Are you kidding? In this town? It’s wall-to-wall lawyers.”
“OK, so picture a lawyer. Twenty years out of law school, lots of hands-on experience. Somebody asks him, can you write this slightly complex will for me? What does he say? What does he do? Does he start trembling with nerves? Does he think he’s been challenged? Is it a testosterone thing? No, he just says, sure, I can do that. And then he goes ahead and does it. Because it’s his job. Pure and simple.”
“This isn’t your job, Reacher.”
“Yes, it is, near as makes no difference. Uncle Sam paid me your tax dollars to do exactly this kind of stuff, thirteen straight years. And Uncle Sam sure as hell didn’t expect me to run away and get all psychological and conflicted about it.”
She stared forward through the windshield. It was misting fast, from their breath.
“There are hundreds of people on the other side of the Secret Service,” she said. “In Financial Crimes. Hundreds of them. I don’t know how many, exactly. Lots of them. Good people. We’re not really investigative, but they are. That’s all they are. That’s what they’re for. Joe could have picked any ten of them and sent them down to Georgia. He could have picked fifty of them. But he didn’t. He had to go himself. He had to go alone. Because he was challenged. He couldn’t back off. Because he was always comparing himself.”
“I agree he shouldn’t have done it,” Reacher said. “Like a doctor shouldn’t write a will. Like a lawyer shouldn’t do surgery.”
“But you made him.”
He shook his head.
“No, I didn’t make him,” he said.
She was silent.
“Two points, Froelich,” he said. “First, people shouldn’t have to choose their careers with one eye on what their brother might think. And second, the last time Joe and I had any significant contact I was sixteen years old. He was eighteen. He was leaving for West Point. I was a kid. The last thing on his mind was copying me. Are you nuts? And I never really saw him again after that. Funerals only, basically. Because whatever you think about me as a brother, he was no better. He paid no attention to me. Years would go by, I wouldn’t hear from him.”
“He followed your career. Your mother sent him stuff. He was comparing himself.”
“Our mother died seven years before he did. I barely had a career back then.”
“You won the Silver Star in Beirut right at the beginning.”
“I was in an explosion,” he said. “They gave me a medal because they couldn’t think what else to do. That’s what the Army is like. Joe knew that.”
“He was comparing himself,” she said.
Reacher moved in his seat. Watched small swirls of condensation form on the windshield glass.
“Maybe,” he said. “But not to me.”
“Our dad, possibly.”
She shrugged. “He never talked about him.”
“Well, there you go,” Reacher said. “Avoidance. Denial.”
“You think? What was special about your dad?”
Reacher looked away. Closed his eyes.
“He was a Marine,” he said. “Korea and Vietnam. Very compartmentalized guy. Gentle, shy, sweet, loving man, but a stone-cold killer, too. Harder than a nail. Next to him I look like Liberace.”
“Do you compare yourself with him?”
Reacher shook his head. Opened his eyes.
“No point,” he said. “Next to him I look like Liberace. Always will, no matter what. Which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing for the world.”
“Didn’t you like him?”
“He was OK. But he was a freak. No room for people like him anymore.”
“Joe shouldn’t have gone to Georgia,” she said.
“No argument about that,” he said. “No argument at all. But it was nobody’s fault except his own. He should have had more sense.”
“So should you.”
“I’ve got plenty of sense. Like for instance I joined the Military Police, not the Marine Corps. Like for instance I don’t feel compelled to rush around trying to design a new hundred dollar bill. I stick to what I know.”
“And you think you know how to take out these guys?”
“Like the garbage man knows how to take out the trash. It ain’t rocket science.”
“That sounds pretty arrogant.”
He shook his head. “Listen, I’m sick of justifying myself. It’s ridiculous. You know your neighbors? You know the people who live around here?”
“Not really,” she said.
He rubbed mist off the glass and pointed out his window with his thumb. “Maybe one of them is an old lady who knits sweaters. Are you going to walk up to her and say, oh my God, what’s with you? I can’t believe you actually have the temerity to know how to knit sweaters.”
“You’re equating armed combat with knitting sweaters?”
“I’m saying we’re all good at something. And that’s what I’m good at. Maybe it’s the only thing I’m good at. I’m not proud of it, and I’m not ashamed of it, either. It’s just there. I can’t help it. I’m genetically programmed to win, is all. Several consecutive generations.”
“Joe had the same genes.”
“No, he had the same parents. There’s a difference.”
“I hope your faith in yourself is justified.”
“It is. Especially now, with Neagley here. She makes me look like Liberace.”
Froelich looked away. Went quiet.
“What?” he said.
“She’s in love with you.”
Froelich looked straight at him. “How would you know?”
“She’s never been interested.”
Froelich just shook her head.
“I just talked to her about it,” he said. “The other day. She said she’s never been interested. She told me that, words of one syllable.”
“And you believed her?”
“Wasn’t I supposed to?”
Froelich said nothing. Reacher smiled, slowly.
“What, you think she is interested?” he asked.
“You smile just like Joe,” she answered. “A little shy, a little lopsided. It’s the most incredibly beautiful smile I ever saw.”
“You’re not exactly over him, are you?” he said. “At the risk of being the last to know. At the risk of stating the bloody obvious.”
She didn’t answer. Just got out of the car and started walking. He followed after her. It was cold and damp on the street. The night air was heavy. He could smell the river, and jet fuel from somewhere. They reached her house. She unlocked the door. They stepped inside.
There was a sheet of paper lying on the hallway floor.
It was the familiar high-white letter-size sheet. It was lying precisely aligned with the oak flooring strips. It was in the geometric center of the hallway, near the bottom of the stairs, exactly where Reacher had dumped his garbage bag of clothes two nights previously. It had a simple statement printed neatly on it, in the familiar Times New Roman computer script, fourteen point, bold. The statement was five words long, split between two lines in the center of the page: It’s going to happen soon. The three words It’s going to made up the first line on their own. The happen soon part was alone on the second line. It looked like a poem or a song lyric. Like it was divided up that way for a dramatic purpose, like there should be a pause between the lines, or a breath, or a drum roll, or a rim shot. It’s going to… bam!… happen soon. Reacher stared at it. The effect was hypnotic. Happen soon. Happen soon.
“Don’t touch it,” Froelich said.
“Wasn’t going to,” Reacher replied.
He ducked his head back out the door and checked the street. All the nearby cars were empty. All the nearby windows were closed and draped. No pedestrians. No loiterers in the dark. All was quiet. He came back inside and closed the door slowly and carefully, so as not to disturb the paper with a draft.
“How did they get it in here?” Froelich said.
“Through the door,” Reacher said. “Probably at the back.”
Froelich pulled the SIG Sauer from her holster and they walked through the living room together and into the kitchen. The door to the backyard was closed, but it was unlocked. Reacher opened it a foot. Scanned the outside surroundings and saw nothing at all. Eased the door back wide so the inside light fell onto the exterior surface. Leaned close and looked at the scratch plate around the keyhole.
“Marks,” he said. “Very small. They were pretty good.”
“They’re here in D.C.,” she said. “Right now. They’re not in some Midwest bar.”
She stared through the kitchen into the living room.
“The phone,” she said.
It was pulled out of position on the table next to the fireside chair.
“They used my phone,” she said.
“To call me, probably,” Reacher said.
He shook his head. “Gloves.”
“They’ve been in my house,” she said.
She moved away from the rear door and stopped at the kitchen counter. Glanced down at something and snatched open a drawer.
“They took my gun,” she said. “I had a backup gun in here.”
“I know,” Reacher said. “An old Beretta.”
She opened the drawer next to it.
“The magazines are gone too,” she said. “I had ammo in here.”
“I know,” Reacher said again. “Under an oven glove.”
“How do you know?”
“I checked, Monday night.”
“Why would you?”
“Habit,” he said. “Don’t take it personally.”
She stared at him and then opened the wall cupboard with the money stash in it. He saw her check the earthenware pot. She said nothing, so he assumed the cash was still there. He filed the observation away in the professional corner of his mind, as confirmation of a long-held belief: people don’t like searching above head height.
Then she stiffened. A new thought.
“They might still be in the house,” she said, quietly.
But she didn’t move. It was the first sign of fear he had ever seen from her.
“I’ll check,” he said. “Unless that’s an unhealthy response to a challenge.”
She just handed him her pistol. He turned out the kitchen light so he wouldn’t be silhouetted on the basement stairs and walked slowly down. Listened hard past the creaks and sighs of the house, and the hum and trickle of the heating system. Stood still in the dark and let his eyes adjust. There was nobody there. Nobody upstairs, either. Nobody hiding and waiting. People hiding and waiting give off human vibrations. Tiny hums and quivers. And he wasn’t feeling anything. The house was empty and undisturbed, apart from the displaced telephone and the missing Beretta and the message on the hallway floor. He came back to the kitchen and held out the SIG, butt-first.
“Secure,” he said.
“I better make some calls,” she said.
Special Agent Bannon showed up forty minutes later in a Bureau sedan with three members of his task force. Stuyvesant arrived five minutes after them in a department Suburban. They left both vehicles double-parked in the street with their strobes going. The neighboring houses were spattered with random bursts of light, blue and red and white. Stuyvesant stood still in the open doorway.
“We weren’t supposed to get any more messages,” he said.
Bannon was on his knees, looking at the sheet of paper.
“This is generic,” he said. “We predicted we wouldn’t get specificity. And we haven’t. The word soon is meaningless as to time and place. It’s just a taunt. We’re supposed to be impressed with how smart they are.”
“I was already impressed with how smart they are,” Stuyvesant said.
Bannon looked up at Froelich. “How long have you been out?”
“All day,” Froelich said. “We left at six-thirty this morning to meet with you.”
“Reacher’s staying here,” she said.
“Not anymore, he’s not,” Bannon said. “Neither of you is staying here. It’s too dangerous. We’re putting you in a secure location.”
Froelich said nothing.
“They’re in D.C. right now,” Bannon said. “Probably regrouping somewhere. Probably got in from North Dakota a couple hours after you did. They know where you live. And we need to work here. This is a crime scene.”
“This is my house,” Froelich said.
“It’s a crime scene,” Bannon said again. “They’ve been here. We’ll have to rip it up some. Better that you stay away until we put it back together.”
Froelich said nothing.
“Don’t argue,” Stuyvesant said. “I want you protected. We’ll put you in a motel. Couple of U.S. marshals outside the door, until this is over.”
“Neagley, too,” Reacher said.
Froelich glanced at him. Stuyvesant nodded.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I already sent somebody to pick her up.”
“Neighbors?” Bannon asked.
“Don’t really know them,” Froelich answered.
“They might have seen something,” Bannon said. He checked his watch. “They might still be up. At least I hope so. Dragging witnesses out of bed generally makes them very cranky.”
“So get what you need, people,” Stuyvesant called. “We’re leaving, right now.”
Reacher stood in Froelich’s guest room and had a strong feeling he would never come back to it. So he took his things from the bathroom and his garbage bag of Atlantic City clothes and all of Joe’s suits and shirts that were still clean. He stuffed clean socks and underwear into the pockets. Carried all the clothes in one hand and Joe’s cardboard box under the other arm. He came down the stairs and stepped out into the night air and it hit him that for the first time in more than five years he was leaving a place carrying baggage. He loaded it into the Suburban’s trunk and then walked around and climbed into the backseat. Sat still and waited for Froelich. She came out of her house carrying a small valise. Stuyvesant took it from her and stowed it and they climbed into the front together. Took off down the street. Froelich didn’t look back.
They drove due north and then turned west all the way through the tourist sites and out again on the other side. They stopped at a Georgetown motel about ten blocks shy of Armstrong’s street. There was an old-model Crown Vic parked outside, with a new Town Car next to it. The Town Car had a driver in it. The Crown Vic was empty. The motel itself was a small neat place with dark wood all over it. A discreet sign. It was hemmed in by three embassies with fenced grounds. The embassies belonged to new countries Reacher had never heard of, but their fences were OK. It was a very protected location. Only one way in, and a marshal in the lobby would take care of that. An extra marshal in the corridor would be icing on the cake.
Stuyvesant had booked three rooms. Neagley had already arrived. They found her in the lobby. She was buying soda from a machine and talking to a big guy in a cheap black suit and patrolman’s shoes. A U.S. marshal, without a doubt. The Crown Vic driver. Their vehicle budget must be smaller than the Secret Service’s, Reacher thought. As well as their clothing allowance.
Stuyvesant did the paperwork at the desk and came back with three key cards. Handed them around in an embarrassed little ceremony. Mentioned three room numbers. They were sequential. Then he scrabbled in his pocket and came out with the Suburban’s keys. Gave them to Froelich.
“I’ll ride back with the guy who brought Neagley over,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow, seven o’clock in the office, with Bannon, all of you.”
Then he turned and left. Neagley juggled her key card and her soda and a garment bag and went looking for her room. Froelich and Reacher followed behind her, with a key card each. There was another marshal at the head of the bedroom corridor. He was sitting awkwardly on a plain dining chair. He had it tilted back against the wall for comfort. Reacher squeezed his untidy luggage past him and stopped at his door. Froelich was already two rooms down, not looking in his direction.
He went inside and found a compact version of what he had seen a thousand times before. Just one bed, one chair, a table, a normal telephone, a smaller TV screen. But the rest was generic. Floral drapes, already closed. A floral bedspread, Scotchgarded until it was practically rigid. No-color bamboo-weave stuff on the walls. A cheap print over the bed, pretending to be a hand-colored architectural drawing of some part of some ancient Greek temple. He stowed his baggage and arranged his bathroom articles on the shelf above the sink. Checked his watch. Past midnight. Thanksgiving Day, already. He took off Joe’s jacket and dropped it on the table. Loosened his tie and yawned. There was a knock at the door. He opened up and found Froelich standing there.
“Come in,” he said.
“Just for a minute,” she said. He walked back and sat on the end of the bed, to let her take the chair. Her hair was a mess, like she had just run her fingers through it. She looked good like that. Younger, and vulnerable, somehow.
“I am over him,” she said.
“OK,” he said.
“But I can see how you might think I’m not.”
“OK,” he said again.
“So I think we should be apart tonight. I wouldn’t want you to be worried about why I was here. If I was here.”
“Whatever you want,” he said.
“It’s just that you’re so like him. It’s impossible not to be reminded. You can see that, can’t you? But you were never a substitute. I need you to know that.”
“Still think I got him killed?”
She looked away.
“Something got him killed,” she said. “Something on his mind, in his background. Something made him think he could beat somebody he couldn’t beat. Something made him think he was going to be OK when he wasn’t going to be OK. And the same thing could happen to you. You’re stupid if you don’t see that.”
He nodded. Said nothing. She stood up and walked past him. He caught her perfume as she went by.
“Call me if you need me,” he said.
She didn’t reply. He didn’t get up.
A half hour later there was another knock at the door and he opened it up expecting to find Froelich again. But it was Neagley. Still fully dressed, a little tired, but calm.
“You on your own?” she asked.
“Where is she?” Neagley asked.
“Business or lack of pleasure?”
“Confusion,” he said. “Half the time she wants me to be Joe, the other half she wants to blame me for getting him killed.”
“She’s still in love with him.”
“Six years after their relationship ended.”
“Is that normal?”
She shrugged. “You’re asking me? I guess some people carry a torch for a long time. He must have been quite a guy.”
“I didn’t really know him all that well.”
“Did you get him killed?”
“Of course not. I was a million miles away. Hadn’t spoken to him for seven years. I told you that.”
“So what’s her angle?”
“She says he was driven to be reckless because he was comparing himself to me.”
“And was he?”
“I doubt it.”
“You said you felt guilty afterward. You told me that too, when we were watching those surveillance tapes.”
“I think I said I felt angry, not guilty.”
“Angry, guilty, it’s all the same thing. Why feel guilty if it wasn’t your fault?”
“Now you’re saying it was my fault?”
“I’m just asking, what’s the guilt about?”
“He grew up under a false impression.”
He went quiet and moved deeper into the room. Neagley followed him. He lay down on the bed, arms outstretched, hands hanging off the edges. She sat down in the armchair, where Froelich had been.
“Tell me about the false impression,” she said.
“He was big, but he was studious,” Reacher said. “The schools we went to, being studious was like having ‘Kick my ass’ tattooed across your forehead. And he wasn’t all that tough, really, although he was big. So he got his ass kicked, regular as clockwork.”
“I was two years younger, but I was big and tough, and not very studious. So I started to look after him. Loyalty, I guess, and I liked fighting anyway. I was about six. I’d wade in anywhere. I learned a lot of stuff. Learned that style was the big thing. Look like you mean it, and people back off a lot. Sometimes they didn’t. I had eight-year-olds all over me the first year. Then I got better at it. I hurt people bad. I was a madman. It got to be a thing. We’d arrive in some new place and pretty quick people would know to lay off Joe, or the psycho would be coming after them.”
“Sounds like you were a lovely little boy.”
“It was the Army. Anyplace else they’d have sent me to reform school.”
“You’re saying Joe grew to rely on it.”
Reacher nodded. “It was like that for ten years, basically. It came and went, and it happened less as we got older. But more serious when it actually did. I think he internalized it. Ten years is a significant chunk of time when you’re growing up, internalizing things. I think it became part of his mind-set to ignore danger because the psycho always had his back. So I think Froelich’s right, in a way. He was reckless. Not because he was trying to compete, but because deep down he felt he could afford to be. Because I had always looked after him, like his mother had always fed him, like the Army had always housed him.”
“How old was he when he died?”
“That’s twenty years, Reacher. He had twenty years to adjust. We all adjust.”
“Do we? Sometimes I still feel like that same six-year-old. Everybody looking out of the corner of their eye at the psycho.”
“She been saying things?”
“I disconcert her, clearly.”
“Secret Service is a civilian organization. Paramilitary at best. Nearly as bad as regular citizens.”
He smiled. Said nothing.
“So, what’s the verdict?” Neagley asked. “You going to be walking around from now on thinking you killed your brother?”
“A little bit, maybe,” he said. “But I’ll get over it.”
She nodded. “You will. And you should. It wasn’t your fault. He was thirty-eight. He wasn’t waiting for his little brother to show up.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Something else Froelich said.”
“She wonders why we aren’t doing it?”
“You’re quick,” he said.
“I could sense it,” Neagley said. “She came across as a little concerned. A little jealous. Cold, even. But then, I’d just kicked her ass with the audit thing.”
“You sure had.”
“We’ve never even touched, you know that, you and me? We’ve never had any physical contact of any kind at all. You’ve never patted me on the back, never even shaken my hand.”
He looked at her, and thought back through fifteen years.
“Haven’t I?” he said. “Is that good or bad?”
“It’s good,” she said. “But don’t ask why.”
“OK,” he said.
“Reasons of my own. Don’t ask what they are. But I don’t like to be touched. And you never touched me. I always figured you could sense it. And I always appreciated that. It’s one of the reasons I always liked you so much.”
He said nothing.
“Even if you should have been in reform school,” she said.
“You probably should have been in there with me.”
“We’d have made a good team,” she said. “We are a good team. You should come back to Chicago with me.”
“I’m a wanderer,” he said.
“OK, I won’t push,” she said. “And look on the bright side with Froelich. Cut her some slack. She’s probably worth it. She’s a nice woman. Have some fun. You’re good together.”
“OK,” he said. “I guess.”
Neagley stood up and yawned.
“You OK?” he asked.
She nodded. “I’m fine.”
Then she put a kiss on the tips of her fingers and blew it to him from six feet away. Walked out of the room without saying another word.
He was tired, but he was agitated and the room was cold and the bed was lumpy and he couldn’t sleep. So he put his pants and shirt back on and walked to the closet and pulled out Joe’s box. He didn’t expect to find anything of interest in it. It would be abandoned stuff, that was all. Nobody leaves important things in a girlfriend’s house when he knows he’s going to skip out someday soon.
He put the box on the bed and pulled the flaps open. First thing he saw was a pair of shoes. They were packed heel-to-toe sideways across one end of the box. They were formal black shoes, good leather, reasonably heavy. They had proper stitched welts and toe caps. Thin laces in five holes. Imported, probably. But not Italian. They were too substantial. British, maybe. Like the Air Force tie.
He placed them on the bedcover. Put the heels six inches apart and the toes a little farther. The right heel was worn more than the left. The shoes were fairly old, fairly battered. He could see the whole shape of Joe’s feet in them. The whole shape of his body, towering above them, like he was standing right there wearing them, invisible. They were like a death mask.
There were three books in the box, packed edge-up. One was Du côté de chez Swann, which was the first volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. It was a French paperback with a characteristic severe plain cover. He leafed through it. He could manage the language, but the content passed over his head. The second book was a college text about statistical analysis. It was heavy and dense. He leafed through it and gave up on both the language and the content. Piled it on top of Proust on the bed.
He picked up the third book. Stared at it. He recognized it. He had bought it for Joe himself, a long time ago, for his thirtieth birthday. It was Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It was in English, but he had bought it in Paris at a used bookstore. He could even remember exactly what it had cost, which wasn’t very much. The Paris bookseller had relegated it to the foreign-language section, and it wasn’t a first edition or anything. It was just a nice-looking volume, and a great story.
He opened it to the flyleaf. He had written: Joe. Avoid both, OK? Happy Birthday. Jack. He had used the bookseller’s pen, and the ink had smudged. Now it had faded a little. Then he had written out an address label, because the bookseller had offered to mail it for him. The address was the Pentagon back then, because Joe was still in Military Intelligence when he was thirty. The bookseller had been very impressed. The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia, USA.
He leafed past the title page to the first line: At the beginning of July, during a spell of exceptionally hot weather, towards evening, a certain young man came down to the street from the room he was renting. Then he leafed ahead, looking for the ax murder itself, and a folded paper fell out of the book. It was there as a bookmark, he guessed, about halfway through, where Raskolnikov is arguing with Svidrigaïlov.
He unfolded the paper. It was Army issue. He could tell by the color and the texture. Dull cream, smooth surface. It was the start of a letter, in Joe’s familiar neat handwriting. The date was six weeks after his birthday. The text said: Dear Jack, thanks for the book. It got here eventually. I will treasure it always. I might even read it. But probably not soon, because things are getting pretty busy here. I’m thinking of jumping ship and going to Treasury. Somebody (you’d recognize the name) offered me a job, and
That was it. It ended abruptly, halfway down the page. He laid it unfolded next to the shoes. Put all three books back in the box. He looked at the shoes and the letter and listened hard inside his head like a whale listens for another whale across a thousand miles of freezing ocean. But he heard nothing. There was nothing there. Nothing at all. So he crammed the shoes back into the box and folded the letter and tossed it in on top. Closed the flaps again and carried the box across the room and balanced it on top of the trash can. Turned back to the bed and heard another knock at the door.
It was Froelich. She was wearing her suit pants and jacket. No shirt under the jacket. Probably nothing at all under the jacket. He guessed she had dressed quickly because she knew she had to walk near the marshal in the corridor.
“You’re still up,” she said.
“Come in,” he said.
She stepped into the room and waited until he closed the door.
“I’m not angry at you,” she said. “You didn’t get Joe killed. I don’t really think that. And I’m not angry at Joe for getting killed. That just happened.”
“You’re angry at something,” he said.
“I’m angry at him for leaving me,” she said.
He moved back into the room and sat on the end of the bed. This time, she sat right next to him.
“I’m over him,” she said. “Completely. I promise you. I have been for a long time. But I’m not over how he just walked out on me.”
Reacher said nothing.
“And therefore I’m angry at myself,” she said, quietly. “Because I wished him harm. Inside of me. I so wanted him to crash and burn afterward. And then he did. So I feel terribly guilty. And now I’m worried that you’re judging me.”
Reacher paused a beat.
“Nothing to judge,” he said. “Nothing to feel guilty about, either. Whatever you wished was understandable, and it had no influence on what happened. How could it?”
She was silent.
“He got in over his head,” Reacher said. “That’s all. He took a chance and got unlucky. You didn’t cause it. I didn’t cause it. It just happened.”
“Things happen for a reason.”
He shook his head.
“No, they don’t,” he said. “They really don’t. They just happen. It wasn’t your fault. You’re not responsible.”
“You’re not responsible,” he said again. “Nobody’s responsible. Except the guy who pulled the trigger.”
“I wished him harm,” she said. “I need you to forgive me.”
“Nothing to forgive.”
“I need you to say the words.”
“I can’t,” Reacher said. “And I won’t. You don’t need forgiving. It wasn’t your fault. Or mine. Or Joe’s, even. It just happened. Like things do.”
She was quiet for a long moment. Then she nodded, just slightly, and moved a little closer to him.
“OK,” she said.
“Are you wearing anything under that suit?” he asked.
“You knew I had a gun in the kitchen.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Why did you search my house?”
“Because I’ve got the gene that Joe didn’t have. Things don’t happen to me. I don’t get unlucky. You carrying a gun now?”
“No, I’m not,” she said.
There was silence for a beat.
“And there’s nothing under the suit,” she said.
“I need to confirm those things for myself,” he said. “It’s a caution thing. Purely genetic, you understand.”
He undid the first button on her jacket. Then the second. Slipped his hand inside. Her skin was warm and smooth.
They got a wake-up call from the motel desk at six o’clock in the morning. Stuyvesant must have arranged it last night, Reacher thought. I wish he’d forgotten. Froelich stirred at his side. Then her eyes snapped open and she sat up, wide awake.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said.
“I hope it will be,” she said. “I’ve got a feeling about today. I think it’s the day we win or lose.”
“I like that kind of a day.”
“Sure,” he said. “Losing is not an option, which means it’s the day we win.”
She pushed back the covers. The room had gone from too cold to too hot.
“Dress casual,” she said. “Suits don’t look right on a holiday at a soup kitchen. Will you tell Neagley?”
“You tell her. You’ll be passing her door. She won’t bite.”
“No,” he said.
She put her suit back on and left. He padded over to the closet and pulled out the bag full of his Atlantic City clothes. He spilled them on the bed and did his best to flatten out the wrinkles. Then he showered without shaving. She wanted me to look casual, he thought. He found Neagley in the lobby. She was wearing her jeans and her sweatshirt with a battered leather jacket over it. There was a buffet table with coffee and muffins. The U.S. marshals had already eaten most of them.
“You two kiss and make up?” Neagley asked.
“A little of each, I guess,” he said.
He took a cup and filled it with coffee. Selected a raisin bran muffin. Then Froelich showed up, newly showered and wearing black denim jeans with a black polo shirt and a black nylon jacket. They ate and drank whatever the marshals had left and then they walked out together to Stuyvesant’s Suburban. It was before seven in the morning on Thanksgiving Day and the city looked like it had been evacuated the night before. There was silence everywhere. It was cold, but the air was still and soft. The sun was up and the sky was pale blue. The stone buildings looked golden. The roads were completely empty. It took no time at all to reach the office. Stuyvesant was waiting for them in the conference room. His interpretation of casual was a pair of pressed gray pants and a pink sweater under a bright blue golf jacket. Reacher guessed all the labels said Brooks Brothers, and he guessed Mrs. Stuyvesant had gone to the Baltimore hospital as was usual on a Thursday, Thanksgiving Day or not. Bannon was sitting opposite Stuyvesant. He was in the same tweed and flannel. He would look like a cop whatever day it was. He looked like a guy without too many options in his closet.
“Let’s get to it,” Stuyvesant said. “We’ve got a big agenda.”
“First item,” Bannon said. “The FBI formally advises cancellation today. We know the bad guys are in the city and therefore it’s reasonable to assume there may be some kind of imminent hostile attempt.”
“Cancellation is out of the question,” Stuyvesant said. “Free turkey at a homeless shelter might sound trivial, but this is a town that runs on symbols. If Armstrong pulled out the political damage would be catastrophic.”
“OK, then we’re going to be there on the ground with you,” Bannon said. “Not to duplicate your role. We’ll stay strictly out of your way on all matters that concern Armstrong’s personal security. But if something does go down, the closer we are the luckier we’ll get.”
“Any specific information?” Froelich asked.
Bannon shook his head.
“None,” he said. “Just a feeling. But I would urge you to take it very seriously.”
“I’m taking everything very seriously,” Froelich said. “In fact, I’m changing the whole plan. I’m moving the event outdoors.”
“Outdoors?” Bannon said. “Isn’t that worse?”
“No,” Froelich said. “On balance, it’s better. It’s a long low room, basically. Kitchen at the back. It’s going to get very crowded. We’ve got no realistic chance of using metal detectors on the doors. It’s the end of November, and most of these people are going to be wearing five layers and carrying God knows what kind of metal stuff. We can’t search them. It would take forever and God knows how many diseases my people would catch. We can’t wear gloves to do it because that would be seen as insulting. So we have to concede there’s a fair chance that the bad guys could mingle in and get close, and we have to concede we’ve got no real way of stopping them.”
“So how does it help to be outdoors?”
“There’s a side yard. We’ll put the serving tables in a long line at right angles to the wall of the building. Pass stuff out through the kitchen window. Behind the serving table is the wall of the yard. We’ll put Armstrong and his wife and four agents in a line behind the serving table, backs to the wall. We’ll have the guests approach from the left, single file through a screen of more agents. They’ll get their food and walk on inside to sit down and eat it. The television people will like it better, too. Outside is always better for them. And there’ll be orderly movement. Left to right along the table. Turkey from Armstrong, stuffing from Mrs. Armstrong. Move along, sit down to eat. Easier to portray, visually.”
“Upside?” Stuyvesant asked.
“Extensive,” Froelich said. “Much better crowd security. Nobody can pull a weapon before they get near Armstrong, because they’re filtering through an agent screen the whole time until they’re right across the table from him. Whereupon if they wait to do it at that point, he’s got four agents right alongside him.”
“Limited. We’ll be screened on three sides by walls. But the yard is open at the front. There’s a block of five-story buildings directly across the street. Old warehousing. The windows are boarded, which is a huge bonus. But we’ll need to put an agent on every roof. So we’ll have to forget the budget.”
Stuyvesant nodded. “We can do that. Good plan.”
“The weather helped us for once,” Froelich said.
“Is this basically a conventional plan?” Bannon asked. “Like normal Secret Service thinking?”
“I don’t really want to comment on that,” Froelich said. “Secret Service doesn’t discuss procedure.”
“Work with me, ma’am,” Bannon said. “We’re all on the same side here.”
“You can tell him,” Stuyvesant said. “We’re already in hip-deep.”
“OK,” she said. “I guess it’s a conventional plan. Place like that, we’re pretty limited for options. Why are you asking?”
“Because we’ve done a lot of work on this,” Bannon said. “A lot of thinking.”
“And?” Stuyvesant said.
“We’re looking at four specific factors here. First, this all started seventeen days ago, correct?”
“And who’s hurting?” Bannon asked. “That’s the first question. Second, think about the demonstration homicides out in Minnesota and Colorado. How were you alerted? That’s the second question. Third, what were the weapons used out there? And fourth, how did the last message end up on Ms. Froelich’s hallway floor?”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying all four factors point in one single direction.”
“What’s the purpose behind the messages?”
“They’re threats,” Froelich said.
“Who are they threatening?”
“Armstrong, of course.”
“Are they? Some were addressed to you, and some were addressed to him. But has he seen any of them? Even the ones addressed directly to him? Does he even know anything about them?”
“We never tell our protectees. That’s policy, always has been.”
“So Armstrong’s not sweating, is he? Who’s sweating?”
“So are the messages really aimed at Armstrong, or are they really aimed at the United States Secret Service? In a real-world sense?”
Froelich said nothing.
“OK,” Bannon said. “Now think about Minnesota and Colorado. Hell of a demonstration. Not easy to stage. Whoever you are, shooting people down takes nerve and skill and care and thought and preparation. Not easy. Not something you undertake lightly. But they undertook it, because they had some kind of point to make. Then what did they do? How did they tip you off? How did they tell you where to look?”
“Exactly,” Bannon said. “They went to all that trouble, took all that risk, and then they sat back and did nothing at all. They just waited. And sure enough, the NCIC reports were filed by the local police departments, and the FBI computers scanned through NCIC like they’re programmed to do, and they spotted the word Armstrong like they’re programmed to do, and we called you with the good news.”
“So tell me, how many Joe Publics would know all that would happen? How many Joe Publics would sit back and take the risk that their little drama would go unconnected for a day or two until you read about it in the newspapers?”
“So what are you saying? Who are they?”
“What weapons did they use?”
“An H amp;K MP5SD6 and a Vaime Mk2,” Reacher said.
“Fairly esoteric weapons,” Bannon said. “And not legally available for sale to the public, because they’re silenced. Only government agencies can buy them. And only one government agency buys both of them.”
“Us,” Stuyvesant said, quietly.
“Yes, you,” Bannon said. “And finally, I looked for Ms. Froelich’s name in the phone book. And you know what? She’s not there. She’s unlisted. Certainly there was no boxed ad saying, ‘I’m a Secret Service crew chief and this is where I live.’ So how did these guys know where to deliver the last message?”
There was a long silence.
“They know me,” Froelich said, quietly.
Bannon nodded. “I’m sorry, folks, but as of now the FBI is looking for Secret Service people. Not current employees, because current employees would have been aware of the early arrival of the demonstration threat and would have acted a day sooner. So we’re focusing on recent ex-employees who still know the ropes. People who knew you wouldn’t tell Armstrong himself. People who knew Ms. Froelich. People who knew Nendick, too, and where to find him. Maybe people who left under a cloud and are carrying some kind of grudge. Against the Secret Service, not against Brook Armstrong. Because our theory is that Armstrong is a means, not an end. They’ll waste a Vice President-elect just to get at you, exactly like they wasted the other two Armstrongs.”
The room was silent.
“What would be the motive?” Froelich asked.
Bannon made a face. “Embittered ex-employees are walking, talking, living, breathing motives. We all know that. We’ve all suffered from it.”
“What about the thumbprint?” Stuyvesant said. “All our people are printed. Always have been.”
“Our assumption is that we’re talking about two guys. Our assessment is that the thumbprint guy is an unknown associate of somebody who used to work here, who is the latex gloves guy. So we’re saying they and them purely as a convenience. We’re not saying they both worked here. We’re not suggesting you’ve got two renegades.”
“Just one renegade.”
“That’s our theory,” Bannon said. “But saying they and them is useful and instructive, too, because they’re a team. We need to look at them as a single unit. Because they share information. Therefore what I’m saying is, only one of them worked here, but they both know your secrets.”
“This is a very big department,” Stuyvesant said. “Big turnover of people. Some quit. Some are fired. Some retire. Some get asked to.”
“We’re checking now,” Bannon said. “We’re getting personnel lists direct from Treasury. We’re going back five years.”
“You’ll get a long list.”
“We’ve got the manpower.”
“I’m real sorry, people,” Bannon said. “Nobody likes to hear their problem is close to home. But it’s the only conclusion there is. And it’s not good news for days like today. These people are here in town right now and they know exactly what you’re thinking and exactly what you’re doing. So my advice is to cancel. And if you’re not going to cancel, then my advice is to take a great deal of care.”
Stuyvesant nodded in the silence.
“We will,” he said. “You can count on that.”
“My people will be in place two hours in advance,” Bannon said.
“Ours will be in place an hour before that,” Froelich replied.
Bannon smiled a tight little smile and pushed back his chair and stood up.
“See you there,” he said.
He left the room and closed the door behind him, firmly, but quietly.
Stuyvesant checked his watch. “Well?”
They had sat quiet for a moment, and then strolled out to the reception area and got coffee. Then they regrouped in the conference room, in the same seats, each of them looking at the place Bannon had vacated like he was still there.
“Well?” Stuyvesant said again.
“Inevitable, I guess,” Stuyvesant said. “They can’t pin the thumbprint guy on us, but the other one is definitely one of ours. It’ll be all smiles over at the Hoover Building. They’ll be grinning from ear to ear. Laughing up their sleeves at us.”
“But does that make them wrong?” Neagley asked.
“No,” Froelich said. “These guys know where I live. So I think Bannon’s right.”
Stuyvesant flinched, like the umpire had called strike one.
“And you?” he said to Neagley.
“Worrying about DNA on envelopes sounds like insiders,” Neagley said. “But one thing bothers me. If they’re familiar with your procedures, then they didn’t interpret the Bismarck situation very well. They expected the cops would move toward the decoy rifle and Armstrong would move toward the cars, thereby traversing their field of fire. But that didn’t happen. Armstrong waited in the blind spot and the cars came to him.”
Froelich shook her head.
“No, I’m afraid their interpretation was correct,” she said. “Normally Armstrong would have been well out in the middle of the field, letting people get a good look at him. Right there in the center of things. We don’t usually make them skulk around the edges. It was a last-minute change to keep him near the church. Based on Reacher’s input. And normally there’s absolutely no way I would allow a rear-wheel-drive limo on the grass. Too easy to bog down and get stuck. That’s an article of faith. But I knew the ground was dry and hard. It was practically frozen. So I improvised. That maneuver would have struck an insider as completely off the wall. It would have been the very last thing they were expecting. They would have been totally surprised by it.”
Silence for a beat.
“Then Bannon’s theory is perfectly plausible,” Neagley said. “I’m very sorry.”
Stuyvesant nodded, slowly. Strike two.
“Reacher?” he said.
“Can’t argue with a word of it.”
Strike three. Stuyvesant’s head dropped, like his last hope was gone.
“But I don’t believe it,” Reacher said.
Stuyvesant’s head came up again.
“I’m glad they’re pursuing it,” Reacher said. “Because it needs to be pursued, I guess. We need to eliminate all possibilities. And they’ll go at it like crazy. If they’re right, they’ll take care of it for us, that’s for sure. So it’s one less thing for us to worry about. But I’m pretty sure they’re wasting their time.”
“Why?” Froelich asked.
“Because I’m pretty sure neither of these guys ever worked here.”
“So who are they?”
“I think they’re both outsiders. I think they’re between two and ten years older than Armstrong himself, both of them brought up and educated in remote rural areas where the schools were decent but the taxes were low.”
“Think of everything we know. Think of everything we’ve seen. Then think of the very smallest part of it. The very tiniest component.”
“Tell us,” Froelich said.
Stuyvesant checked his watch again. Shook his head.
“Not now,” he said. “We need to move. You can tell us later. But you’re sure?”
“They’re both outsiders,” Reacher said. “Guaranteed. It’s in the Constitution.”
Every city has a cusp, where the good part of town turns bad. Washington D.C. was no different. The border between desirable and undesirable ran in a ragged irregular loop, bulging outward here and there to accommodate reclaimed blocks, swooping inward in other areas to claim inroads of its own. It was pierced in some places by gentrified corridors. Elsewhere it worked gradually, shading imperceptibly over hundreds of yards down streets where you could buy thirty different blends of tea at one end and cash checks at the other for thirty percent of the proceeds.
The shelter selected for Armstrong’s appearance was halfway into the no-man’s-land north of Union Station. To the east were train tracks and switching yards. To the west was a highway running underground in a tunnel. All around were decayed buildings. Some of them were warehouses and some of them were apartments. Some of them were abandoned, some of them were not. The shelter itself was exactly what Froelich had described. It was a long low one-story building made of brick. It had large metal-framed windows evenly spaced in the walls. It had a yard next to it twice its own size. The yard was closed in on three sides by high brick walls. It was impossible to decipher the building’s original purpose. Maybe it had been a stable, back when Union Station’s freight had been hauled away by horses. Maybe later it was updated with new windows and used as a trucking depot after the horses faded away. Maybe it had served time as an office. It was impossible to tell.
It housed fifty homeless people every night. They were woken early every morning and given breakfast and turned out on the streets. Then the fifty cots were stacked and stored and the floor was washed and the air was misted with disinfectant. Metal tables and chairs were carried in and placed where the beds had been. Lunch was available every day, and dinner, and then the reverse conversion to a dormitory took place at nine every evening.
But this day was different. Thanksgiving Day was always different, and this year it was more different than usual. Wake-up call happened a little earlier and breakfast was served a little faster. The overnighters were shown the door a full half hour before normal, which was a double blow to them because cities are notoriously quiet on Thanksgiving Day and panhandling receipts are dismal. The floor was washed more thoroughly than usual and more disinfectant was sprayed into the air. The tables were positioned more exactly, the chairs were lined up more precisely, more volunteers were on hand, and all of them were wearing fresh white sweatshirts with the benefactor’s name brightly printed in red.
The first Secret Service agents to arrive were the line-of-sight team. They had a large-scale city surveyor’s map and a telescopic sight removed from a sniper rifle. One agent walked through every step that Armstrong was scheduled to take. Every separate pace he would stop and turn around and squint through the scope and call out every window and every rooftop he could see. Because if he could see a rooftop or a window, a potential marksman on that rooftop or in that window could see him. The agent with the map would identify the building concerned and check the scale and calculate the range. Anything under seven hundred feet he marked in black.
But it was a good location. The only available sniper nests were on the roofs of the abandoned five-story warehouses opposite. The guy with the map finished up with a straight line of just five black crosses, nothing more. He wrote checked with scope, clear daylight, 0845 hrs, all suspect locations recorded across the bottom of the map and signed his name and added the date. The agent with the scope countersigned and the map was rolled and stored in the back of a department Suburban, awaiting Froelich’s arrival.
Next on scene was a convoy of police vans with five separate canine units in them. One unit cleared the shelter. Two more entered the warehouses. The last two were explosives hunters who checked the surrounding streets in all directions on a four-hundred-yard radius. Beyond four hundred yards, the maze of streets meant there were too many potential access routes to check, and therefore too many to bomb with any realistic chance of success. As soon as a building or a street was pronounced safe a D.C. patrolman took up station on foot. The sky was still clear and the sun was still out. It gave an illusion of warmth. It kept grousing to a minimum.
By nine thirty the shelter was the epicenter of a quarter of a square mile of secure territory. D.C. cops held the perimeter on foot and in cars and there were better than fifty more loose in the interior. They made up the majority of the local population. The city was still quiet. Some of the shelter inhabitants were hanging around. There was nowhere productive to go, and they knew from experience that to be early in the lunch line was better than late. Politicians didn’t understand portion control, and pickings could be getting slim after the first thirty minutes.
Froelich arrived at ten o’clock exactly, driving her Suburban, Reacher and Neagley riding with her. Stuyvesant was right behind in a second Suburban. Behind him were four more trucks carrying five department sharpshooters and fifteen general-duty agents. Froelich parked on the sidewalk tight against the base of the warehouse wall. Normally she might have just blocked the street beyond the shelter entrance, but she didn’t want to reveal the direction of Armstrong’s intended approach to onlookers. He was actually scheduled to come in from the south, but that information and ten minutes with a map could predict his route all the way from Georgetown.
She assembled her people in the shelter’s yard and sent the sharpshooters to secure the warehouse roofs. They would be up there three hours before the event started, but that was normal. Generally they were the first to arrive and the last to leave. Stuyvesant pulled Reacher aside and asked him to go up there with them.
“Then come find me,” he said. “I want a firsthand report about how bad it is.”
So Reacher walked across the street with an agent called Crosetti and they ducked past a cop into a damp hallway full of trash and rat droppings. There were stairs winding up through a central shaft. Crosetti was in a Kevlar vest and was carrying a rifle in a hard case. But he was a fit guy. He was half a flight ahead of Reacher at the top.
The stairs came out inside a rooftop hutch. There was a wooden door that opened outward into the sunlight. The roof was flat. It was made of asphalt. There were pigeon corpses here and there. There were dirty skylights made of wired glass and small metal turrets on top of ventilation pipes. The roof was lipped with a low wall, set on top with eroded coping stones. Crosetti walked to the left edge, and then the right. Made visual contact with his colleagues on either side. Then he walked to the front to check the view. Reacher was already there.
The view was good and bad. Good in the conventional sense because the sun was shining and they were five floors up in a low-built part of town. Bad because the shelter’s yard was right there underneath them. It was like looking down into a shoe box from a distance of three feet up and three feet away. The back wall where Armstrong would be standing was dead ahead. It was made out of old brick and looked like the execution wall in some foreign prison. Hitting him would be easier than shooting a fish in a barrel.
“What’s the range?” Reacher asked.
“Your guess?” Crosetti said.
Reacher put his knees against the lip of the roof and glanced out and down.
“Ninety yards?” he said.
Crosetti unsnapped a pocket in his vest and took out a range finder.
“Laser,” he said. He switched it on and lined it up.
“Ninety-two to the wall,” he said. “Ninety-one to his head. That was a pretty good guess.”
“Slight thermal coming up off the concrete down there,” Crosetti said. “Nothing else, probably. No big deal.”
“Practically like standing right next to him,” Reacher said.
“Don’t worry,” Crosetti said. “As long as I’m up here nobody else can be. That’s the job today. We’re sentries, not shooters.”
“Where are you going to be?” Reacher asked.
Crosetti glanced all around his little piece of real estate and pointed.
“Over there, I guess,” he said. “Tight in the far corner. I’ll face parallel with the front wall. Slight turn to my left and I’m covering the yard. Slight turn to my right, I’m covering the head of the stairwell.”
“Good plan,” Reacher said. “You need anything?”
Crosetti shook his head.
“OK,” Reacher said. “I’ll leave you to it. Try to stay awake.”
Crosetti smiled. “I usually do.”
“Good,” Reacher said. “I like that in a sentry.”
He went back down five flights through the darkness and stepped out into the sun. Walked across the street and glanced up. Saw Crosetti nestled comfortably in the angle of the corner. His head and his knees were visible. So was his rifle barrel. It was jutting upward against the bright sky at a relaxed forty-five degrees. He waved. Crosetti waved back. He walked on and found Stuyvesant in the yard. He was hard to miss, given the color of his sweater and the brightness of the daylight.
“It’s OK up there,” Reacher said. “Hell of a firing platform, but as long as your guys hold it we’re safe enough.”
Stuyvesant nodded and turned around and scanned upward. All five warehouse roofs were visible from the yard. All five were occupied by sharpshooters. Five silhouetted heads, five silhouetted rifle barrels.
“Froelich is looking for you,” Stuyvesant said.
Nearer the building, staff and agents were hauling long trestle tables into place. The idea was to form a barrier with them. The right-hand end would be hard against the shelter’s wall. The left-hand end would be three feet from the yard wall opposite. There would be a pen six feet deep behind the line of tables. Armstrong and his wife would be in the pen with four agents. Directly behind them would be the execution wall. Up close it didn’t look so bad. The old bricks looked warmed by the sun. Rustic, even friendly. He turned his back on them and looked up at the warehouse roofs. Crosetti waved again. I’m still awake, the wave said.
“Reacher,” Froelich called.
He turned around and found her walking out of the shelter toward him. She was carrying a clipboard thick with paper. She was up on her toes, busy, in charge, in command. She looked magnificent. The black clothes emphasized her litheness and made her eyes blaze with blue. Dozens of agents and scores of cops swirled all around her, every one of them under her personal control.
“We’re doing fine here,” she said. “So I want you to take a stroll. Just check around. Neagley’s already out there. You know what to look for.”
“Feels good, doesn’t it?” he asked.
“Doing something really well,” he said. “Taking charge.”
“Think I’m doing well?”
“You’re the best,” he said. “This is tremendous. Armstrong’s a lucky man.”
“I hope,” she said.
“Believe it,” he said.
She smiled, quickly and shyly, and moved on, leafing through her paperwork. He turned the other way and walked back out to the street. Turned right and planned a route in his head that would keep him on a block-and-a-half radius.
There were cops on the corner and the beginnings of a ragged crowd of people waiting for the free lunch. There were two television trucks setting up fifty yards down the street from the shelter. Hydraulic masts were unfolding themselves and satellite dishes were rotating. Technicians were unrolling cable and shouldering cameras. He saw Bannon with six men and a woman he guessed were the FBI task force. They had just arrived. Bannon had a map unrolled on the hood of his car and his agents were clustered around looking at it. Reacher waved to Bannon and turned left and passed the end of an alley that led down behind the warehouses. He could hear a train on the tracks ahead of him. The mouth of the alley was manned by a D.C. cop, facing outward, standing easy. There was a police cruiser parked nearby. Another cop in it. Cops everywhere. The overtime bill was going to be something to see.
There were broken-down stores here and there, but they were all closed for the holiday. Some of the storefronts were churches, also closed. There were auto body shops nearer the railroad tracks, all shuttered and still. There was a pawnshop with a very old guy outside washing the windows. He was the only thing moving on the street. His store was tall and narrow and had concertina barriers inside the glass. The display space was crammed with junk of every description. There were clocks, coats, musical instruments, alarm radios, hats, record players, car stereos, binoculars, strings of Christmas lights. There was writing on the windows, offering to buy just about any article ever manufactured. If it didn’t grow in the ground or move by itself, this guy would give you money for it. He also offered services. He would cash checks, appraise jewelry, repair watches. There was a tray of watches on view. They were mostly old-fashioned wind-up items, with bulging crystals and big square luminescent figures and sculpted hands. Reacher glanced again at the sign: Watches Repaired. Then he glanced again at the old guy. He was up to his elbows in soap suds.
“You fix watches?” he asked.
“What have you got?” the old guy said. He had an accent. Russian, probably.
“A question,” Reacher said.
“I thought you had a watch to fix. That was my business, originally. Before quartz.”
“My watch is fine,” Reacher said. “Sorry.”
He pulled back his cuff to check the time. Quarter past eleven.
“Let me see that,” the old guy said.
Reacher extended his wrist.
“Bulova,” the old guy said. “American military issue before the Gulf War. A good watch. You buy it from a soldier?”
“No, I was a soldier.”
The old guy nodded. “So was I. In the Red Army. What’s the question?”
“You ever heard of squalene?”
“It’s a lubricant.”
“You use it?”
“Time to time. I don’t fix so many watches now. Not since quartz.”
“Where do you get it?”
“Are you kidding?”
“No,” Reacher said. “I’m asking a question.”
“You want to know where I get my squalene?”
“That’s what questions are for. They seek to elicit information.”
The old guy smiled. “I carry it around with me.”
“You’re looking at it.”
The old guy nodded. “And I’m looking at yours.”
“Your supply of squalene.”
“I haven’t got any squalene,” Reacher said. “It comes from sharks’ livers. Long time since I was next to a shark.”
The old man shook his head. “You see, the Soviet system was very frequently criticized, and believe me I’ve always been happy to tell the truth about it. But at least we had education. Especially in the natural sciences.”
“C-thirty H-fifty,” Reacher said. “It’s an acyclic hydrocarbon. Which when hydrogenated becomes squalane with an a.”
“You understand any of that?”
“No,” Reacher said. “Not really.”
“Squalene is an oil,” the old guy said. “It occurs naturally in only two places in the known biosphere. One is inside a shark’s liver. The other is as a sebaceous product on the skin around the human nose.”
Reacher touched his nose. “Same stuff? Sharks’ livers and people’s noses?”
The old guy nodded. “Identical molecular structure. So if I need squalene to lubricate a watch, I jus