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?"
"Or she. "
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. Sou
thern 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?"
"I might. "
"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. Lit
tle 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. "