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By Lee Child Killing Floor Die Trying Tripwire Running Blind Echo Burning Without Fail Persuader The Enemy One Shot The Hard Way Bad Luck and Trouble Nothing to Lose Gone Tomorrow 61 Hours Worth Dying For The Affair A Wanted Man Never Go Back Personal Make Me Night School No Middle Name The Midnight Line Past Tense Short Stories Second Son Deep Down High Heat Not a Drill Small Wars The Christmas Scorpion
LEE CHILD Delacorte Press | New York d
Past Tense a j a c k r e a c h e r n o v e l
Past Tense is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Copyright ? 2018 by Lee Child All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Delacorte Press and the House colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. Title page art from an original photograph by Freeimages.com/lucasrag library of congress cataloging-in-publication ? ? data Names: Child, Lee, author. Title: Past tense / Lee Child. Description: First edition. | New York: Delacorte Press, 2018. | Series: Jack reacher; 23 Identifiers: LCCN 2018022559 | ISBN 9780399593512 (Hardcover) | ISBN 9780399593529 (Ebook) Subjects: LCSH: Reacher, Jack (Fictitious character)''Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Suspense. | FICTION / Action & Adventure. | FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General. | GSAFD: Suspense fiction. | Mystery fiction. Classification: LCC PS3553.H4838 P37 2018 | DDC 813/.54''dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018022559 Printed in the United States of America on acid-'free paper randomhousebooks.com 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 First Edition Book design by Virginia Norey
In Memoriam John Reginald Grant, 1924''2016 Norman Steven Shiren, 1925''2017 Audrey Grant, 1926''2017
Chapter 1 Jack Reacher caught the last of the summer sun in a small town on the coast of Maine, and then, like the birds in the sky above him, he began his long migration south. But not, he thought, straight down the coast. Not like the orioles and the buntings and the phoebes and the warblers and the ruby-'throated hummingbirds. Instead he decided on a diagonal route, south and west, from the top right-'hand corner of the country to the bottom left, maybe through Syracuse, and Cincinnati, and St. Louis, and Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque, and onward all the way to San Diego. Which for an army guy like Reacher was a little too full of Navy people, but which was otherwise a fine spot to start the winter. It would be an epic road trip, and one he hadn't made in years. He was looking forward to it. He didn't get far. He walked inland a mile or so and came to a county road and stuck out his thumb. He was a tall man, more than six feet five in his shoes, heavily built, all bone and muscle, not particularly good looking,
never very well dressed, usually a little unkempt. Not an overwhelmingly appealing proposition. As always most drivers slowed and took a look and then kept on going. The first car prepared to take a chance on him came along after forty minutes. It was a year-'old Subaru wagon, driven by a lean middle-'aged guy in pleated chino pants and a crisp khaki shirt. Dressed by his wife, Reacher thought. The guy had a wedding ring. But under the fine fabrics was a workingman's body. A thick neck and large red knuckles. The slightly surprised and somewhat reluctant boss of something, Reacher thought. The kind of guy who starts out digging post holes and ends up owning a fencing company. Which turned out to be a good guess. Initial conversation established the guy had started out with nothing to his name but his daddy's old framing hammer, and had ended up owning a construction company, responsible for forty working people, and the hopes and dreams of a whole bunch of clients. He finished his story with a little facial shrug, part Yankee modesty, part genuine perplexity. As in, how did that happen? Attention to detail, Reacher thought. This was a very organized guy, full of notions and nostrums and maxims and cast-'iron beliefs, one of which was that at the end of summer it was better to stay away from both Route One and I-'95, and in fact to get out of Maine altogether as fast as possible, which meant soon and sideways, on Route Two, straight west into New Hampshire. To a place just south of Berlin, where the guy knew a bunch of back roads that would get them down to Boston faster than any other way. Which was where the guy was going, for a meeting about marble countertops. Reacher was happy. Nothing wrong with Boston as a starting point. Nothing at all. From there it was a straight shot to Syracuse. After which Cincinnati was easy, via Rochester and Buffalo and Cleveland. Maybe even via Akron, Ohio. Reacher had been in worse places. Mostly in the service. They didn't get to Boston. The guy got a call on his cell, after fifty-'some minutes heading south on the aforementioned New Hampshire back roads. Which
Te n s e 5 were exactly as advertised. Reacher had to admit the guy's plan was solid. There was no traffic at all. No jams, no delays. They were bowling along, doing sixty miles an hour, dead easy. Until the phone rang. It was hooked up to the car radio, and a name came up on the navigation screen, with a thumbnail photograph as a visual aid, in this case of a red-'faced man wearing a hard hat and carrying a clipboard. Some kind of a foreman on a job site. The guy at the wheel touched a button and phone hiss filled the car, from all the speakers, like surround sound. The guy at the wheel spoke to the windshield pillar and said, 'This better be good news.' It wasn't. It was something to do with an inspector from a municipal buildings department, and a metal flue liner above a fireplace in an entrance lobby, which was properly insulated, exactly up to code, except that couldn't be proved visually without tearing down the stonework, which was by that point already three stories high, nearly done, with the masons booked on a new job starting the next week, or alternatively without ripping out the custom walnut millwork in the dining room on the other side of the chimney, or the millwork in the closet above, which was rosewood and even more complicated, but the inspector was being a hardass about it and needed to see for himself. The guy at the wheel glanced at Reacher and said, 'Which inspector is it'? The guy on the phone said, 'The new one.' 'Does he know he gets a turkey at Thanksgiving'? 'I told him we're all on the same side here.' The guy at the wheel glanced at Reacher again, as if seeking permission, or offering an apology, or both, and then he faced front again and said, 'Did you offer him money'? 'Five hundred. He wouldn't take it.' Then the cell signal ran out. The sound went garbled, like a robot drowning in a swimming pool, and then it went dead. The screen said it was searching.
The car rolled on. Reacher said, 'Why would a person want a fireplace in an entrance lobby'? The guy at the wheel said, 'It's welcoming.' 'I think historically it was designed to repel. It was defensive. Like the campfire burning in the mouth of the cave. It was intended to keep predators at bay.' 'I have to go back,' the guy said. 'I'm sorry.' He slowed the car and pulled over on the gravel. All alone, on the back roads. No other traffic. The screen said it was still searching for a signal. 'I'm going to have to let you out here,' the guy said. 'Is that OK'? 'No problem,' Reacher said. 'You got me part of the way. For which I thank you very much.' 'You're welcome.' 'Whose is the rosewood closet'? 'His.' 'Cut a big hole in it and show the inspector. Then give the client five commonsense reasons why he should install a wall safe. Because this is a guy who wants a wall safe. Maybe he doesn't know it yet, but a guy who wants a fireplace in his entrance lobby wants a wall safe in his bedroom closet. That's for damn sure. Human nature. You'll make a profit. You can charge him for the time it takes to cut the hole.' 'Are you in this business, too'? 'I was a military cop.' The guy said, 'Huh.' Reacher opened the door and climbed out, and closed the door again behind him, and walked far enough away to give the guy space to swing the Subaru around, gravel shoulder to gravel shoulder, across the whole width of the road, and then to take off back the way he had come. All of which the guy did, with a brief gesture Reacher took to be a rueful good-'luck wave. Then he got smaller and smaller in the distance, and Reacher turned back and continued walking, south, the way he was headed. Wherever possible he liked to maintain forward
Te n s e 7 momentum. The road he was on was a two-'lane, wide enough, well maintained, curved here and there, a little up and down. But no kind of a problem for a modern car. The Subaru had been doing sixty. Yet there was no traffic. None at all. Nothing coming, either way. Total silence. Just a sigh of wind in the trees, and the faint buzz of heat coming up off the blacktop. Reacher walked on. Two miles later the road he was on curved gently left, and a new road of equal size and appearance split off to the right. Not exactly a turn. More like an equal choice. A classic Y-'shaped junction. Twitch the wheel left, or twitch the wheel right. Your call. Both options ran out of sight through trees so mighty in places they made a tunnel. There was a road sign. A tilted arrow to the left was labeled Portsmouth, and a tilted arrow to the right was labeled Laconia. But the right-'hand option was written in smaller writing, and it had a smaller arrow, as if Laconia was less important than Portsmouth. A mere byway, despite its road being the same size. Laconia, New Hampshire. A name Reacher knew. He had seen it on all kinds of historic family paperwork, and he had heard it mentioned from time to time. It was his late father's place of birth, and where he was raised, until he escaped at age seventeen to join the Marines. Such was the vague family legend. Escaped from what had not been specified. But he never went back. Not once. Reacher himself had been born more than fifteen years later, by which time Laconia was a dead detail of the long-'ago past, as remote as the Dakota Territory, where it was said some earlier ancestor had lived and worked. No one in the family ever went to either place. No visits. The grandparents died young and were rarely mentioned. There were apparently no aunts or uncles or cousins or any other kind of distant relatives. Which was statistically unlikely, and suggested a rift of some kind. But no one other than his father
had any real information, and no one ever made any real attempt to get any from him. Certain things were not discussed in Marine families. Much later as a captain in the army Reacher's brother Joe was posted north and said something about maybe trying to find the old family homestead, but nothing ever came of it. Probably Reacher himself had said the same kind of thing, from time to time. He had never been there, either. Left or right. His call. Portsmouth was better. It had highways and traffic and buses. It was a straight shot to Boston. San Diego beckoned. The Northeast was about to get cold. But what was one extra day? He stepped right, and chose the fork in the road that led to Laconia. At that same late-'afternoon moment, nearly thirty miles away, heading south on a different back road, was a worn-'out Honda Civic, driven by a twenty-'five-'year-'old man named Shorty Fleck. Next to him in the passenger seat was a twenty-'five-'year-'old woman named Patty Sundstrom. They were boyfriend and girlfriend, both born and raised in Saint Leonard, which was a small faraway town in New Brunswick, Canada. Not much happened there. The biggest news in living memory was ten years previously, when a truck carrying twelve million bees overturned on a curve. The local paper reported with pride that the accident was the first of its kind in New Brunswick. Patty worked in a sawmill. She was the granddaughter of a guy from Minnesota who had slipped north half a century earlier, to beat the draft for Vietnam. Shorty was a potato farmer. His family had been in Canada forever. And he wasn't particularly short. Maybe he had been once, as a kid. But now he figured he was what any eyewitness would call an average-'looking guy. They were trying to make it non-'stop from Saint Leonard to New York City. Which by any standard was a hardcore drive. But they saw
Te n s e 9 a big advantage in doing it. They had something to sell in the city, and saving a night in a hotel would maximize their profit. They had planned out their route, looping west to avoid the summer people heading home from the beaches, using back roads, Patty's blunt finger on a map, her gaze ranging ahead for turns and signs. They had timed it out on paper, and figured it was a feasible course of action. Except they had gotten a later start than they would have liked, due a little bit to general disorganization, but mostly due to the Honda's aging battery not liking the newly crisp autumnal temperatures blowing in from the direction of Prince Edward Island. The delay put them in a long line at the U.S. border, and then the Honda started over? heating, and needed nursing along below fifty miles an hour for an extended spell. They were tired. And hungry, and thirsty, and in need of the bathroom, and late, and behind schedule. And frustrated. The Honda was overheating again. The needle was kissing the red. There was a grinding noise under the hood. Maybe the oil was low. No way of telling. All the dashboard lights had been on continuously for the last two and a half years. Shorty asked, 'What's up ahead'? Patty said, 'Nothing.' Her fingertip was on a wandering red line, which was labeled with a three-'digit number, and which was shown running north to south through a jagged shape shaded pale green. A forested area. Which matched what was out the window. The trees crowded in, still and dark, laden down with heavy end-'of-'summer leaves. The map showed tiny red spider-'web lines here and there, like the veins in an old lady's leg, which were presumably all tracks to somewhere, but nowhere big. Nowhere likely to have a mechanic or a lube shop or radiator water. The best bet was about thirty minutes ahead, some ways east of south, a town with its name printed not too small and semi-'bold, which meant it had to have at least a gas station. It was called Laconia. She said, 'Can we make another twenty miles''
10 Now the needle was all the way in the red. 'Maybe,' Shorty said. 'If we walk the last nineteen of them.' He slowed the car and rolled along on a whisker of gas, which generated less new heat inside the engine, but which also put less airflow through the radiator vanes, so the old heat couldn't get away so fast, so in the short term the temperature needle kept on climbing. Patty rubbed her fingertip forward on the map, keeping pace with her estimate of their speed. There was a spider-'web vein coming up on the right. A thin track, curling through the green ink to somewhere about an inch away. Without the rush of air from her leaky window she could hear the noises from the engine. Clunking, knocking, grinding. Getting worse. Then up ahead on the right she saw the mouth of a narrow road. The spider-'web vein, right on time. But more like a tunnel than a road. It was dark inside. The trees met overhead. At the entrance on a frost-'heaved post was nailed a board, on which were screwed ornate plastic letters, and an arrow pointing into the tunnel. The letters spelled the word Motel. 'Should we'? she asked. The car answered. The temperature needle was jammed against the stop. Shorty could feel the heat in his shins. The whole engine bay was baking. For a second he wondered what would happen if they kept on going instead. People talked about automobile engines blowing up and melting down. Which were figures of speech, surely. There would be no actual puddles of molten metal. No actual explosions would take place. It would just conk out, peacefully. Or seize up. It would coast gently to a stop. But in the middle of nowhere, with no passing traffic and no cell signal. 'No choice,' he said, and braked and steered and turned in to the tunnel. Up close they saw the plastic letters on the sign had been painted gold, with a narrow brush and a steady hand, like a promise, like the motel was a high-'class place. There was a second sign, identical, facing drivers coming the other way.
Te n s e 11 'OK'? Shorty said. The air felt cold in the tunnel. Easily ten degrees colder than the main drag. Last fall's leaf litter and last winter's mud were mashed together on the shoulders. 'OK'? Shorty asked again. They drove over a wire laid across the road. A fat rubbery thing, not much smaller than a garden hose. Like they had at gas stations, to ding a bell in the kiosk, to get the pump jockey out to help you. Patty didn't answer. Shorty said, 'How bad can it be? It's marked on the map.' 'The track is marked.' 'The sign was nice.' 'I agree,' Patty said. 'It was.' They drove on.
Chapter 2 The trees cooled and freshened the air, so Reacher was happy to keep up a steady four miles an hour, which for his length of leg was exactly eighty-'eight beats a minute, which was exactly the tempo of a whole bunch of great music, so it was easy time to pass. He did thirty minutes, two miles, seven classic tracks in his head, and then he heard real sounds behind him, and turned around to see an ancient pick-'up coming crabwise toward him, as if each of the wheels wanted to go in a different direction. Reacher stuck out his thumb. The truck stopped. An old guy with a long white beard leaned across inside and wound down the passenger window. He said, 'I'm going to Laconia.' 'Me, too,' Reacher said. 'Well, OK.' Reacher got in, and wound the window back up. The old guy pulled out and wobbled back up to speed. He said, 'I guess this is the part where you tell me I need new tires.' 'It's a possibility,' Reacher said.
Te n s e 13 'But at my age I try to avoid large capital expenditures. Why invest in the future? Do I even have one'? 'That argument is more circular than your tires.' 'Actually the frame is bent. I was in a wreck.' 'When'? 'Close on twenty-'three years ago.' 'So this is normal to you now.' 'Keeps me awake.' 'How do you know where to point the steering wheel'? 'You get used to it. Like sailing a boat. Why are you going to Laconia'? 'I was passing by,' Reacher said. 'My father was born there. I want to see it.' 'What's your last name'? 'Reacher.' The old guy shook his head. He said, 'I never knew anyone in Laconia named Reacher.' The reason for the previous Y-'shaped fork in the road turned out to be a lake, wide enough to make north-'south drivers pick a side, right bank or left bank. Reacher and the old guy squirmed and shuddered along the right bank, which was mechanically stressful, but visually beautiful, because the view was stunning and the sun was less than an hour from setting. Then came the town of Laconia itself. It was a bigger place than Reacher expected. Fifteen or twenty thousand people. A county seat. Solid and prosperous. There were brick buildings and neat old-'fashioned streets. The low red sun made them look like they were in an old-'time movie. The squirming pick-'up truck wobbled to a stop at a downtown corner. The old guy said, 'This is Laconia.' Reacher said, 'How much has it changed'? 'Around here, not much.' 'I grew up thinking it was smaller than this.'
14 'Most people remember things bigger.' Reacher thanked the guy for the ride, and got out, and watched the truck squeal away, each tire insisting the other three were wrong. Then he turned away and walked random blocks, getting a sense for what might be where, in particular two specific destinations for start of business the next day, and two for immediate attention that evening, the first being a place to eat, and the second being a place to sleep. Both were available, in a historic-'downtown kind of way. Healthy food, no place more than two tables wide. No hotels in town, but plenty of inns and plenty of bed and breakfasts. He ate at a narrow bistro, because a waitress smiled at him through the window, after a moment of embarrassment when she brought his order. Which was some kind of salad with roast beef in it, which was the menu choice he felt would be most nutritious. But when it came it was tiny. He asked for a second order, and a bigger plate. At first the waitress misunderstood. She thought there was something wrong with the first order. Or the size of the plate. Or both. Then she caught on. He was hungry. He wanted two portions. She asked if there was anything else he needed. He asked for a bigger cup for his coffee. Afterward he tracked back to lodgings he had seen, on a side street near the city offices. There was room at the inn. Vacation time was over. He paid a premium price for what the innkeeper called a suite, but what he called a room with a sofa and way too many floral patterns and feather pillows. He shoveled a dozen off the bed and put his pants under the mattress to press. Then he took a long hot shower, and climbed under the sheets, and went to sleep. The tunnel through the trees turned out to be more than two miles long. Patty Sundstrom traced its curves with her finger on the map. Under the Honda's wheels was grayed and pitted blacktop, the finished surface completely washed away in places by runoff water, leaving shallow potholes the size of pool tables, some of them bare ribbed
Te n s e 15 concrete, some of them graveled, some of them full of leaf mold slop still wet from springtime, because overhead the leafy canopy was thick and unbroken, apart from one spot where no trees grew for twenty-'some yards. There was a bar of bright pink open sky. Maybe a narrow seam of different dirt, or a sudden underground escarpment of solid rock, or a hydraulic oddity with no ground water, or too much. Then the sliver of sky was behind them. They were back in the tunnel. Shorty Fleck was going slow, to save the shocks and nurse the motor. He wondered if he should put his headlights on. Then the canopy thinned for a second time, with the promise of more to come, like a big clearing was on its way, like they were arriving somewhere. What they saw was the road ahead coming out of the trees and running in a straight line through a couple acres of flat grassland, the thin gray ribbon suddenly naked and exposed in the last of the daylight. Its destination was a group of three substantial wooden buildings, laid out one after the other on a sweeping right-? hand curve, maybe fifty yards between the first and the last. All three were painted dull red, with bright white trim. Set against the green grass they looked like classic New England structures. The closest building was a motel. Like a picture in a kid's book. Like learning your ABCs. M is for Motel. It was long and low, made of dull red boards, with a pitched roof of gray asphalt shingle, and a red neon Office sign in the first window, and then a louvered door for storage, and then a repeating pattern, of a broad window with an HVAC grille and two plastic lawn chairs under it, and a numbered door, and another broad window with the same grille and the same chairs, and another numbered door, and so on, all the way to the end. There were twelve rooms in total, all in a line. But there were no cars parked out front of any of them. Looked like zero occupancy. 'OK'? Shorty said. Patty didn't answer. He stopped the car. In the distance on the right they saw the second building was shorter from end to end, but much taller and deeper from front to back. Some kind of barn. But not for animals. The concrete ramp to the door was conspicuously clean.
16 There was no shit, to put it bluntly. It was a workshop of some kind. Out front were nine quad-'bike ATVs. Like regular motorcycles, but with four fat tires instead of two slicks. They were lined up in three ranks of three, with exact precision. 'Maybe they're Hondas,' Patty said. 'Maybe these guys would know how to fix the car.' On the end of the line the third building was a regular house, of plain construction but generous size, with a wraparound porch, which had rocking chairs set out on it. Shorty rolled the car forward, and stopped again. The blacktop was about to end. Ten yards short of the motel's empty lot. He was about to bump down onto an owner-'maintained surface that his expert potato-'farmer eye told him was made up of equal parts gravel, mud, dead weeds, and live weeds. He saw at least five species he would rather not have in his own dirt. The end of the blacktop felt like a threshold. Like a decision. 'OK'? he said again. 'The place is empty,' Patty said. 'There are no guests. How weird is that'? 'The season is over.' 'Like flicking a switch'? 'They're always complaining about it.' 'It's the middle of nowhere.' 'It's a getaway vacation. No hustle, no bustle.' Patty was quiet a long moment. Then she said, 'I guess it looks OK.' Shorty said, 'I think it's this or nothing.' She traced the motel structure left to right, the plain proportions, the solid roof, the heavy boards, the recent stain. Necessary maintenance had been performed, but nothing flashy. It was an honest building. It could have been in Canada. She said, 'Let's take a look.' They bumped down off the blacktop and rattled across the uneven surface and parked outside the office. Shorty thought a second and
Te n s e 17 shut the motor down. Safer than letting it idle. In case of molten metal and explosions. If it didn't start up again, too bad. It was already near enough where it needed to be. They could ask for room one, if necessary. They had one huge suitcase, full of the stuff they planned to sell. It could stay in the car. Apart from that they didn't have much to haul. They got out of the car and stepped into the office. There was a guy behind the reception counter. He was about Shorty's own age, and Patty's, mid-'twenties, maybe a year or two more. He had short blond hair, combed neatly, and a good tan, and blue eyes, and white teeth, and a ready smile. But he looked a little out of place. At first Shorty took him to be like a summer thing he had seen in Canada, where a well bred kid is sent to do a dumb job in the countryside, for the purposes of building his r'sum', or expanding his horizons, or finding himself, or some such. But this guy was five years too old for that. And behind his greeting he had a proprietorial air. He was saying welcome, for sure, but to my house. Like he owned the place. Maybe he did. Patty told him they needed a room, and that they wondered if whoever looked after the quad-'bikes could take a look at their car, or failing that, they would surely appreciate the phone number of a good mechanic. Hopefully not a tow truck. The guy smiled and asked, 'What's wrong with your car'? He sounded like every young guy in the movies, who worked on Wall Street and wore a suit and tie. Full of smooth confidence. Probably drank champagne. Greed is good. Not a potato farmer's favorite type of guy. Patty said, 'It's overheating and making weird banging noises under the hood.' The guy smiled a different kind of smile, this one a modest but commanding junior-'master-'of-'the-'universe grin, and he said, 'Then I guess we should take a look at it. Sounds low on coolant, and low on oil. Both of which are easy to fix, unless something is leaking. That would depend on what parts are needed. Maybe we could adapt
18 something. Failing that, as you say, we know some good mechanics. Either way, there's nothing to be done until it cools right down. Park it outside your room overnight, and we'll check it first thing in the morning.' 'What time exactly'? Patty asked, thinking about how late they were already, but also thinking about gift horses and mouths. The guy said, 'Here we're all up with the sun.' She said, 'How much is the room'? 'After Labor Day, before the leaf-'peepers, let's call it fifty bucks.' 'OK,' she said, although not really, but she was thinking about gift horses again, and what Shorty had said, that it was this or nothing. 'We'll give you room ten,' the guy said. 'It's the first we've refurbished so far. In fact we only just finished it. You would be its very first guests. We hope you will do us the honor.'
Reacher woke up a minute after three in the morning. All the clich's: snapped awake, instantly, like flicking a switch. He didn't move. Didn't even tense his arms and legs. He just lay there, staring into the dark, listening hard, concentrating a hundred percent. Not a learned response. A primitive instinct, baked deep in the back of his brain by evolution. One time he had been in Southern California, fast asleep with the windows open on a beautiful night, and he had snapped awake, instantly, like flicking a switch, because in his sleep he had smelled a faint wisp of smoke. Not cigarette smoke or a building on fire, but a burning hillside forty miles away. A primeval smell. Like a wildfire racing across an ancient savannah. Whose ancestors outran it depended on who woke up fastest and got the earliest start. Rinse and repeat, down hundreds of generations. But there was no smoke. Not at one minute past three that particular morning. Not in that particular hotel room. So what woke him? Not sight or touch or taste, because he had been alone in bed with his eyes shut and the drapes closed and nothing in his mouth. Sound, then. He had heard something. He waited for a repeat. Which he considered an evolutionary weakChapter 3
20 ness. The product was not yet perfect. It was still a two-'step process. One time to wake you up, and a second time to tell you what it was. Better to do both together, surely, first time out. He heard nothing. Not many sounds were lizard-brain ? sounds anymore. The pad or hiss of an ancient predator was unlikely. The nearest forest twigs to be ominously stepped upon and loudly broken were miles away beyond the edge of town. Not much else scared the primitive cortex. Not in the audio kingdom. Newer sounds were dealt with elsewhere, in the front part of the brain, which was plenty vigilant for the scrapes and clicks of modern threats, but which lacked the seniority to wake a person up from a deep and contented sleep. So what woke him? The only other truly ancient sound was a cry for help. A scream, or a plea. Not a modern yell, or a whoop or a cackle of laughter. Something deeply primitive. The tribe, under attack. At its very edge. A distant early warning. He heard nothing more. There was no repeat. He slid out from under the covers and listened at the door. Heard nothing. He took a feather pillow and held it over the peephole. No reaction. No gunshot through the eye. He looked out. Saw nothing. A bright empty hallway. He lifted the drapes and checked the window. Nothing there. Nothing on the street. Pitch dark. All quiet. He got back in bed and smacked the pillow into shape and went back to sleep. Patty Sundstrom was also awake at one minute past three. She had slept four hours and then some kind of subconscious agitation had forced its way through and woken her up. She didn't feel good. Not deep inside, like she knew she should. Partly the delay was on her mind. At best they would get to the city halfway through the next day. Not prime trading hours. On top of which was the fifty extra bucks for the room. Plus the car was an unknown quantity. It might cost a fortune. If parts were required. If something had to be adapted. Cars were great until they weren't. Even so, the engine had started when they came out of the office. The motel guy didn't seem too worried
Te n s e 21 about it. He made a reassuring face. He didn't come to the room with them. Which was good, too. She hated people crowding in, showing her where the light switch was, and the bathroom, judging her stuff, acting all obsequious, wanting a tip. The guy did none of that. But still she didn't feel good. She didn't know why. The room was pleasant. It was newly refurbished, as promised, every inch. The wallboard was new, and the ceiling, and the trim, and the paint, and the carpet. Nothing adventurous. Certainly nothing flashy. It looked like an apples-'for-'apples update of what tradition would have had there before, but newly straight and true and smooth and solid. The AC was cold and quiet. There was a flat-'screen television. The window was an expensive unit, with two thick panes of glass sealed in thermal gaskets, with an electric roller blind set in the void between. You didn't tug on a chain to close it. You pressed a button. No expense spared. Only problem was, the window itself didn't open. Which she would worry about in a fire. And generally she liked a breath of night air in a room. But overall it was a decent place. Better than most she had seen. Maybe even worth fifty bucks. But she didn't feel good. There was no phone in the room, and no cell signal, so after half an hour they had walked back to the office to inquire about using the motel's land line for hot food delivery. Pizza, maybe. The guy at the desk had smiled a rueful smile and said he was sorry, but they were way too remote for delivery. No one would come. He said most guests drove out to a diner or a restaurant. Shorty looked like he was going to get mad. As if the guy was saying, most guests have cars that work. Maybe something to do with the rueful smile. Then the guy said, but hey, we've got pizzas in the freezer down at the house. Why don't you come eat with us? Which was a weird meal, in a dark old residence, with Shorty and the guy and three others just the same. Same age, same look, with some kind of same-'wavelength connection between them. As if they were all on a mission. There was something nervous about them. After some conversation she concluded they were all maxed-'out investors in the same new venture. The motel, she assumed. She as-
22 sumed they had bought it and were trying to make a go of it. Whatever, they were all extremely polite and gracious and talkative. The guy from the reception desk said his name was Mark. The others were Robert, Steven, and Peter. They all asked intelligent questions about life in Saint Leonard. They asked about the hardcore drive south. Again Shorty looked like he was going to get mad. He thought they were calling him dumb for setting out in a bad car. But the guy who said he looked after the quad-'bikes, who was Peter, said he would have done exactly the same thing. Purely on a statistical basis. The car had run for years. Why assume it would stop now? The odds said it would keep on going. It always had before. Then they said goodnight and walked back to room ten, and went to sleep, except she woke up again four hours later, agitated. She didn't feel good, and she didn't know why. Or maybe she did. Maybe she just didn't want to admit it. Maybe that was the issue. Truth was, deep down, she guessed she was probably mad at Shorty himself. The big trip. The most important part of their secret plan. He set out in a bad car. He was dumb. He was dumber than his own potatoes. He couldn't invest a buck upfront? What would it have cost, at a lube shop with a coupon? Less than the fifty bucks they were paying for the motel, that was for sure, also which Shorty was pestering her to agree was a creepy place run by creepy people, which was a conflict for her, because really she felt like a bunch of polite young men were rescuing her, like knights in shining armor, from a predicament caused entirely by a potato farmer too dumb to check his car before setting out on about a thousand-'mile trip to, oh yeah, a foreign country, with, oh yeah, something very valuable in the trunk. Dumb. She wanted air. She slipped out of bed and padded barefoot to the door. She turned the knob, and pressed her other hand on the frame for balance, so she could ease the door open without a sound, because she wanted Shorty to stay asleep, because she didn't want to deal with him right then, as mad as she was. But the door was stuck. It wouldn't move at all. She checked it was properly unlocked from the inside, and she tried the knob both ways,
Te n s e 23 but nothing happened. The door was jammed. Maybe it had never been adjusted properly after installation. Or maybe it had swelled with the summer heat. Dumb. Really dumb. Now was the one time she could use Shorty. He was a strong little fireplug. From throwing hundred-'pound bags of potatoes around. But was she going to wake him up and ask him? Was she hell. She crept back to bed and got in alongside him and stared at the ceiling, which was straight and true and smooth and solid. Reacher woke again at eight o'clock in the morning. Bright bars of hard sun came past the edges of the drapes. There was dust in the air, floating gently. There were muted sounds from the street. Cars waiting, and then moving off. A light at the end of the block, presumably. Occasionally the dulled blare of a horn, as if a guy in front had looked away and missed the green. He showered, and retrieved his pants from under the mattress, and dressed, and walked out in search of breakfast. He found coffee and muffins close by, which sustained him through a longer reconnaissance, which brought him to a place he figured might have good food hiding under multiple layers of some kind of faux-'retro irony. He figured it would take a smarter guy than him to decode them all. The basic idea seemed to be someone's modern-'day notion of where old-? time lumberjacks might have dined, on whatever it was that old-'time lumberjacks ate, which in the modern day seemed to be interpreted as one of every fried item on the menu. In Reacher's experience lumberjacks ate the same as any other hard-'working person, which was all kinds of different things. But he had no ideological objection to fried food as such, especially not in generous quantities, so he played along. He went in and sat down, briskly, he hoped, as if he had thirty minutes before he had a tree to fell. The food was fine, and the coffee kept on coming, so he lingered longer than thirty minutes, watching out the window, timing the hus-
24 tle and the bustle, waiting until the people in the suits and the skirts were safely at work. Then he got up and left his tip and paid his check, and walked two of the blocks he had scouted the night before, toward the place he guessed he should start. Which was the records department of the city offices. Which had a suite number all its own, on a crowded multi-'line floor directory, outside a brick-'built multi-? purpose government building, which because of its age and its shape Reacher figured had once contained a courtroom. Maybe it still did. The suite he was looking for turned out to be one of many small rooms opening off a grand mezzanine hallway. Like a corridor in an expensive hotel. Except the doors were half glass, which was reeded in an old-'fashioned style, with the department name painted on it in gold. Over two lines, in the case of the records department. Inside the door was an empty room with four plastic chairs and a waist-'high inquiry counter. Like a miniature version of any government office. There was an electric bell push screwed to the counter. It had a thin wire that ran away to a nearby crack, and a handwritten sign that said If Unattended Ring For Service. The message was carefully lettered and protected by many layers of clear tape, applied in strips of generous length, some of which were curled at the corners, and dirty, as if picked at by bored or anxious fingers. Reacher rang for service. A minute later a woman came through a door in the rear wall, looking back as she did so, with what Reacher thought was regret, as if she was leaving a space dramatically larger and more exciting. She was maybe thirty, slim and neat, in a gray sweater and a gray skirt. She stepped up to the counter but she glanced back at the door. Either her boyfriend was waiting, or she hated her job. Maybe both. But she did her best. She cranked up a warm and welcoming manner. Not exactly like in a store, where the customer was always right, but more as an equal, as if she and the customer were just bound to have a good time together, puzzling through some ancient town business. There was enough light in her eyes Reacher figured she meant at least some of it. Maybe she didn't hate her job after all.
Te n s e 25 He said, 'I need to ask you about an old real estate record.' 'Is it for a title dispute'? the woman asked. 'In which case you should get your attorney to request it. Much faster that way.' 'No kind of dispute,' he said. 'My father was born here. That's all. Years ago. He's dead now. I was passing by. I thought I would stop in and take a look at the house he grew up in.' 'What's the address'? 'I don't know.' 'Can you remember roughly where it is'? 'I've never been there.' 'You didn't visit'? 'No.' 'Perhaps because your father moved away when he was young.' 'Not until he joined the Marines when he was seventeen.' 'Then perhaps because your grandparents moved away before your father had a family of his own. Before visits became a thing.' 'I got the impression my grandparents stayed here the rest of their lives.' 'But you never met them'? 'We were a Marine family. We were always somewhere else.' 'I'm sorry.' 'Not your fault.' 'But thank you for your service.' 'Wasn't my service. My dad was the Marine, not me. I was hoping we could look him up, maybe in a register of births or something, to get his parents? full names, so we could find their exact address, maybe in property tax records or something, so I could drop by and take a look.' 'You don't know your grandparents? names'? 'I think they were James and Elizabeth Reacher.' 'That's my name.' 'Your name is Reacher'? 'No, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Castle.' 'I'm pleased to meet you,' Reacher said.
26 'Likewise,' she said. 'I'm Jack Reacher. My dad was Stan Reacher.' 'How long ago did Stan leave to join the Marines'? 'He would be about ninety now, so it was more than seventy years ago.' 'Then we should start eighty years ago, for a safety margin,' the woman said. 'At that point Stan Reacher would be about ten years old, living at home with his parents James and Elizabeth Reacher, somewhere in Laconia. Is that a fair summary'? 'That could be chapter one of my biography.' 'I'm pretty sure the computer goes back more than eighty years now,' she said. 'But for property taxes that old it might just be a list of names, I'm afraid.' She turned a key and opened a lid in the countertop. Under it was a keyboard and a screen. Safe from thieves, while unattended. She pressed a button, and looked away. 'Booting up,' she said. Which were words he had heard before, in a technological context, but to him they sounded military, as if infantry companies were lacing tight ahead of a general advance. She clicked and scrolled, and scrolled and clicked. 'Yes,' she said. 'Eighty years ago is just an index, with file numbers. If you want detail, you need to request the actual physical document from storage. Usually that takes a long time, I'm afraid.' 'How long'? 'Sometimes three months.' 'Are there names and addresses in the index'? 'Yes.' 'Then that's really all we need.' 'I guess so. If all you want to do is take a look at the house.' 'That's all I'm planning to do.' 'Aren't you curious'? 'About what'? 'Their lives. Who they were and what they did.'
Te n s e 27 'Not three months? worth of curious.' 'OK, then names and addresses are all we need.' 'If the house is still there,' he said. 'Maybe someone tore it down. Suddenly eighty years sounds like a real long time.' 'Things change slowly here,' she said. She clicked again, and scrolled, fast at first, scooting down through the alphabet, and then slowly, peering at the screen, through what Reacher assumed was the R section, and then back up again, just as slowly, peering just as hard. Then down and up again fast, as if trying to shake something loose. She said, 'No one named Reacher owned property in Laconia eighty years ago.'
Chapter 4 Patty Sundstrom also woke again at eight in the morning, later than she would have liked, but finally she had succumbed to exhaustion, and she had slept deeply for almost five more hours. She sensed the space in the bed next to her was empty. She rolled over and saw the door was open. Shorty was out in the lot. He was talking to one of the motel guys. Maybe Peter, she thought. The guy who looked after the quad-'bikes. They were standing next to the Honda. Its hood was up. The sun was bright. She slipped out of bed and crept bent-'over to the bathroom. So Peter or whoever it was by the Honda wouldn't see. She showered, and dressed in the same clothes, because she hadn't brought enough for an extra day. She came out of the bathroom. She was hungry. The door was still open. The sun was still bright. Now Shorty was there on his own. The other guy had gone. She stepped out and said, 'Good morning.' 'Car won't start,' Shorty said. 'The guy messed with it and now it's dead. It was OK last night.' 'It was not OK, exactly.'
Te n s e 29 'It started last night. Now it won't. The guy must have messed it up.' 'What did he do'? 'He poked around some. He had a wrench and a pair of pliers. I think he made it worse.' 'Was it Peter? The guy that looks after the quad-'bikes'? 'So he says. If it's true, good luck to them. Probably that's why they need nine bikes in the first place. To make sure they always have one that works.' 'The car started last night because it was hot. Now it's cold. That makes a difference.' 'You're a mechanic now'? 'Are you'? she said. 'I think the guy broke something.' 'And I think he's trying to help us the best he can. We should be grateful.' 'For getting our car broken'? 'It was already broken.' 'It started last night. First turn of the key.' She said, 'Did you have a problem with the room door'? He said, 'When'? 'When you came out this morning.' 'What kind of problem'? 'I wanted some air in the night but I couldn't get it open. It was jammed.' 'I didn't have a problem,' Shorty said. 'It opened right up.' Fifty yards away they saw Peter come out of the barn, with a brown canvas bag in his hand. It looked heavy. Tools, Patty thought. To fix their car. She said, 'Shorty Fleck, now you listen to me. These gentlemen are trying to help us, and I want you to act like you appreciate it. At the very minimum I don't want you to give them a reason to stop helping us before they're finished. Do I make myself clear''
30 'Jesus,' he said. 'You're acting like this is my fault or something.' 'Yeah, something,' she said, and then she shut up and waited for Peter, with the bag of tools. Who clanked up to them with a cheerful smile, as if he was just itching to clap the dust off his hands and get straight to work. She said, 'Thanks so much for your help.' He said, 'No problem at all.' 'I hope it's not too complicated.' 'Right now it's dead as a doornail. Which is usually electrical. Maybe a wire melted.' 'Can you fix that'? 'We could splice in a replacement. Just enough to bypass the bad part. Sooner or later you would want to get it properly repaired. It's the kind of thing that could shake loose eventually.' 'How long does it take to splice'? 'First we need to find where it melted.' 'The engine started last night,' Shorty said. 'Then we ran it two minutes and shut it off again. It got cooler and cooler, all night long. How would anything melt'? Peter said nothing. 'He's just asking,' Patty said. 'In case the melting thing is a wild goose chase. We wouldn't want to take up more of your time than we had to. It's very nice of you to help us.' 'It's OK,' Peter said. 'It's a reasonable question. When you stop the engine you also stop the radiator fan and the water pump. So there's no forced cooling and no circulation. The hottest water rises passively to the top of the cylinder head. Surface temperatures can actually get worse in the first hour. Maybe there was a wire touching the metal.' He ducked under the hood and pondered a moment. He traced circuits with his finger, checking the wires, tugging things, tapping things. He looked at the battery. He used a wrench to check the clamps were tight on the posts. He backed out and said, 'Try it one more time.'
Te n s e 31 Shorty put his butt on the seat and kept his feet on the ground. He twisted to face front and put his hand on the key. He looked up. Peter nodded. Shorty turned the key. Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Not even a click or a whir or a cough. Turning the key was the same thing as not turning it. Inert. Dead as a doornail. Dead as the deadest thing that ever died. Elizabeth Castle looked up from her screen and focused on nothing much, as if running through a number of possible scenarios, and the consequent next steps in all the different circumstances, starting, Reacher assumed, with him being an idiot and getting the town wrong, in which case the next step would be to get rid of him, no doubt politely, but also no doubt expeditiously. She said, 'They were probably renters. Most people were. The landlords paid the taxes. We'll have to find them somewhere else. Were they farmers'? 'I don't think so,' Reacher said. 'I don't remember any stories about having to go outside in the freezing dawn to feed the chickens before walking twenty miles through the snow to school, uphill both ways. That's the kind of thing farmers tell you, right? But I never heard that.' 'Then I'm not sure where you should start.' 'The beginning is often good. The register of births.' 'That's in the county offices, not the city. It's a whole different building, quite far from here. Maybe you should start with the census records instead. Your father should show up in two of them, when he was around two years old and twelve years old.' 'Where are they'? 'They're in the county offices, too, but a different office, slightly closer.' 'How many offices have they got'? 'A good number.' She gave him the address of the particular place he needed, with
32 extensive turn-'by-'turn directions how to get there, and he said goodbye and set out walking. He passed the inn where he had spent the night. He passed a place he figured he would come back to for lunch. He was moving south and east through the downtown blocks, sometimes on worn brick sidewalks easily eighty years old. Even a hundred. The stores were crisp and clean, many of them devoted to cookware and bakeware and tableware and all kinds of other wares associated with the preparation and consumption of food. Some were shoe stores. Some had bags. The building he was looking for turned out to be a modern structure built wide and low across what must have been two regular lots. It would have looked better on a technology campus, surrounded by computer laboratories. Which was what it was, he thought. He realized in his mind he had been expecting shelves of moldering paper, hand-'lettered in fading ink, tied up with string. All of which still existed, he was sure, but not there. That stuff was in storage, three months away, after being copied and catalogued and indexed on a computer. It would be retrieved not with a puff of dust and a cart with wheels, but with a click of a mouse and the whir of a printer. The modern world. He went in, to a reception desk that could have been in a hip museum or at an upscale dentist's. Behind it was a guy who looked like he was stationed there as a punishment. Reacher said hello. The guy looked up but didn't answer. Reacher told him he wanted to see two sets of old census records. 'For where'? the guy asked, like he didn't care at all. 'Here,' Reacher said. The guy looked blank. 'Laconia,' Reacher said. 'New Hampshire, USA, North America, the world, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe.' 'Why two'? 'Why not'? 'What years''
Te n s e 33 Reacher told him, first the year his dad was two, and then the next census ten years later, when his dad was twelve. The guy asked, 'Are you a county resident'? 'Why do you want to know'? 'Funding. This stuff ain't free. But residents are entitled.' 'I've been here a good while,' Reacher said. 'At least as long as I lived anywhere else recently.' 'What is the reason for your search'? 'Is that important'? 'We have boxes to check.' 'Family history,' Reacher said. 'Now I need your name,' the guy said. 'Why'? 'We have targets to meet. We have to take names, or they think we're inflating the numbers.' 'You could make up names all day long.' 'We have to see ID.' 'Why? Isn't this stuff in the public domain'? 'Welcome to the real world,' the guy said. Reacher showed him his passport. The guy said, 'You were born in Berlin.' 'Correct,' Reacher said. 'Not Berlin, New Hampshire, either.' 'Is that a problem? You think I'm a foreign spy sent here to disrupt what already happened ninety years ago'? The guy wrote Reacher in a box on a form. 'Cubicle two, Mr. Reacher,' he said, and pointed through a door in the opposite wall. Reacher stepped in, to a hushed square space, with low lighting, and long maple workbenches divided by upright partitions into separate stations. Each station had a muted tweed chair, and a flat-'screen computer on the work surface, and a freshly sharpened pencil, and a thin pad of paper with the county's name printed at the top, like a
34 hotel brand. There was thick carpet on the floor. Fabric on the walls. The woodwork was excellent quality. Reacher figured the room as a whole must have cost a million dollars. He sat down in cubicle two, and the screen in front of him came to life. It lit up blue, a plain wash of color, apart from two small icons in the top right corner, like postage stamps on a letter. He was not an experienced computer user, but he had tried it once or twice, and he had seen it done many more times. Now even cheap hotels had computers at reception. Many times he had waited while a clerk clicked and scrolled and typed. Gone were the days when a person could slap down a couple of bills and get a big brass key in instant exchange. He moved the mouse and sent the arrow up toward the icons. He knew they were files. Or file folders. You had to click on them, and in response they would open. He was never sure whether you had to click once or twice. He had seen it done both ways. His usual habit was to click twice. If in doubt, et cetera. Maybe it helped, and it never seemed to hurt. Like shooting someone in the head. A double tap could do no harm. He put the arrow center mass on the left-'hand icon and clicked twice, and the screen redrew to a gray color, like the deck of a warship. In the center was a black and white image of the title page from a government report, like a bright crisp Xerox, printed with prissy, old-'fashioned writing in a government-'style typeface. At the top it said: U.S. Department of Commerce, R. P. Lamont, Secretary, Bureau of the Census, W. M. Steuart, Director. In the middle it said: Fifteenth Census of the United States, Returns Extracted For The Municipality Of Laconia, New Hampshire. At the bottom it said: For Sale By The Superintendent of Documents, Washington, D.C., Price One Dollar. Reacher could see the top of a second page peeking up from the bottom of the screen. Scrolling would be required. That was clear. Best accomplished, he imagined, with the little wheel set in the top surface of the mouse. Between about where its shoulder blades would be. Under the pad of his index finger. Convenient. Intuitive. He skimmed the introduction, which was mostly about many and various
Te n s e 35 improvements made in methodology since the fourteenth census. Not boasting, really. More of a one-'geek-'to-'another kind of a thing, even back then. Stuff you needed to know, if you loved counting people. Then came the lists, of plain names and old occupations, and the world of nearly ninety years before seemed to rise up all around. There were button makers, and hat makers, and glove makers, and turpentine farmers, and laborers, and locomotive engineers, and silk spinners, and tin mill workers. There was a separate section titled Unusual Occupations For Children. Most were optimistically classified as apprentices. Or helpers. There were blacksmiths and brick masons and engine hostlers and ladlers and pourers and smelter boys. There were no Reachers. Not in Laconia, New Hampshire, the year Stan was two. He wheeled his way back to the top and started again, this time paying particular attention to the dependent children column. Maybe there had been a gruesome accident, and orphan baby Stan had been taken in by unrelated but kindly neighbors. Maybe they had noted his birth name as a tribute. There were no dependent children separately identified as Stan Reacher. Not in Laconia, New Hampshire, the year he was supposed to be two. Reacher found the place in the top left of the screen, with the three little buttons, red, orange, green, like a tiny traffic signal laid on its side. He clicked twice on red and the document went away. He opened up the right-'hand icon, and he found the sixteenth census, different Secretary, different Director, but the same substantial improvements since the last time around. Then came the lists, now just eighty years old instead of ninety, the difference faintly discernable, with more jobs in factories, and fewer on the land. But still no Reachers. Not in Laconia, New Hampshire, the year Stan Reacher was supposed to be twelve. He clicked twice on the little red button and the document went away.
Chapter 5 Shorty tried the key one more time, but again nothing happened. There was nothing but a soft mechanical click, which was just the physical key itself, turning inside the barrel on the steering column. A soft little click no one ever heard, because normally it was drowned out instantly by the sounds of a car bursting into life. Same thing with the click of a trigger, ahead of a gunshot. But not that morning. The Honda felt dead. Like a sick old dog, gone in the night. A whole different condition. No response at all. Some kind of charge gone out of it. Patty said, 'I think we better call a mechanic.' Peter looked over her shoulder. She turned, and she saw the other three guys walking up toward them. From the house, or the barn. The main man was in the lead, as always. Mark, who had checked them in the night before. Who had invited them to dinner. The guy with the smile. Behind him was Steven, and then Robert. They arrived and Mark said, 'How are we doing this morning'? Peter said, 'Not great.' 'What's wrong with it'? 'Can't tell. It's dead as a doornail. I guess something fried.'
Te n s e 37 'We should call a mechanic,' Patty said. 'We don't want to take up any more of your time.' 'It started last night,' Shorty said. 'First turn of the key.' Mark smiled and said, 'Yes, it did.' 'Now it's dead. Just saying. I know this car. I've had it a long time. It has good days and bad days, but it never dies.' Mark was quiet for a long moment. Then he smiled again and said, 'I'm not sure what you're suggesting.' 'Maybe poking around in there made it worse.' 'You think Peter broke it'? 'Something did, between last night and right now. That's all I'm saying. Maybe it was Peter, and maybe it wasn't. Doesn't even matter anymore. Because the thing is, you guys poking around in there is pretty much the same thing as you guys assuming responsibility for it. Because you're a motel. I'm sure there are innkeeper laws. Safekeeping of guest property, all that kind of issue.' Again Mark went quiet. 'He doesn't mean it,' Patty said. 'He's upset, is all.' Mark just shook his head, hardly moving at all, as if he was shrugging off the smallest of things. He looked at Shorty and said, 'Stress is a hard thing to deal with, I agree. I think we all know that. But equally I think we all know the smart play here is to establish a minimum amount of courtesy, in all our mutual dealings. Wouldn't you say? A little respect. Maybe a little humility, too. Maybe a little acceptance of responsibility. Your car hasn't been well looked after, has it'? Shorty didn't answer. 'The clock is ticking,' Mark said. 'Midday is on its way. Which is when last night becomes tonight, in the motel business, at which time you will owe us another fifty dollars, which I can see in Patty's face you don't want to pay, or can't pay, so a speedy reply would help you much more than it would help me. But fast or slow, the choice is yours.'
38 Patty said, 'OK, our car is not well maintained.' 'Hey,' Shorty said. 'Well it isn't,' she said. 'I bet this is the first time the hood was up since you bought it.' 'I didn't buy it. I got given it.' 'Who by'? 'My uncle.' 'Then I bet this is the first time the hood was up since it left the factory.' Shorty said nothing. Mark looked at him and said, 'Patty sees things from a third-'party perspective. Which implies a measure of objectivity. So I'm sure she's absolutely right. I'm sure it's that simple. You're a busy man. Who has the time? Some things get neglected.' 'I guess,' Shorty said. 'But you need to say it out loud. We need to hear it from your own lips, in your own words.' 'What'? 'So we can all get off on the right foot.' 'The right foot of what'? 'We need to establish a friendly relationship, Mr. Fleck.' 'Why'? 'Well, for instance, last night we fed you dinner. And, also for instance, about an hour from now you're going to ask us to feed you breakfast. Because what other choice do you have? All we ask in return is that you give as well as take.' 'Give what'? 'An honest account of your own part in your predicament.' 'What for'? 'It would be like putting some chips on the table, I suppose. At the start of the game. It would be like an emotional stake in our friendly relationship. We opened ourselves to you, when we had you at our table, and now we ask that you return the favor.'
Te n s e 39 'We don't want breakfast.' 'Not even coffee'? 'We can get water from the bathroom tap. If that's OK with you.' 'You'll ask us to feed you lunch. Pride can make you skip one meal, but not two.' 'Just give us a ride to town. We'll send a tow truck for the car.' 'A ride to town is not on offer.' 'Then call a mechanic for us.' 'We will,' Mark said. 'Immediately after you've spoken.' 'You want a public confession'? 'Do you have something to confess'? 'I guess I could have done better,' Shorty said. 'Some guy told me Japanese motors could take it. Like you could skip a year. Then I guess some years I couldn't remember what year I was up to. So overall I guess some years got missed, that shouldn't have.' 'Only some'? 'Maybe all of them. Like you said, I didn't have the time.' 'Good policy in the short term.' 'It was easiest.' 'But not in the long term.' 'I guess not,' Shorty said. 'A mistake, in fact.' 'I guess so.' 'That's the part we want you to say out loud, Mr. Fleck. We want to hear you say you made a dumb mistake that is causing all kinds of people all kinds of trouble. And we want to hear you say you're sorry about that, to Patty especially, who we think is being touchingly loyal. You've got a good one there, Mr. Fleck.' 'I guess so.' 'We need to hear you say it out loud.' 'About Patty'? 'About the mistake.' No response.
40 Mark said, 'A moment ago you asked us to assume responsibility. But it's you that must do that. We didn't neglect your car. We didn't treat a fine machine like a piece of shit, and then set out on a long important journey without so much as kicking the tires. It was you that did all that, Mr. Fleck. Not us. All we're trying to do is make that clear.' No response. The sun was bright. It was hot on the top of Patty's head. She said, 'Just say it, Shorty. It won't be the end of the world.' Shorty said, 'OK, I made a dumb mistake that is causing all kinds of people all kinds of trouble. I apologize to all concerned.' 'Thank you,' Mark said. 'Now we'll go call a mechanic.' Reacher walked back the way he had come, past the stores with the bags, and the shoes, and the wares, past the place he had picked out for lunch, past the place he had spent the night, back to the rec? ords department, inside the city offices. The waist-'high counter was once again unattended. He rang the bell for service. There was a short delay, and then Elizabeth Castle came in. 'Oh,' she said. 'Hello again.' 'Hello,' he said. 'Any luck'? 'Not so far,' he said. 'They weren't in either census.' 'You sure you got the right town? Or state, even. There could be a Laconia somewhere else. New Mexico, or New York or New Jersey. There are a lot of N-'states.' 'Eight,' Reacher said. 'Between New and North and Nevada and Nebraska.' 'Then it might not have been N-? H you saw. It might have been N-? something else. Old-'time handwriting can be weird.' 'I saw it typed,' Reacher said. 'Mostly by Marine Corps clerks. Who usually get things right. And I heard him say it, a dozen times. My mother would be ribbing him about something, most likely a
Te n s e 41 missing romantic gesture, and he would say, well hell, I'm just a plain New Hampshire Yankee.' Elizabeth Castle said, 'Huh.' Then she said, 'I guess every census misses people. All kinds of geeky reasons. They're forever trying to improve the methodology. There's a guy here you should talk to. He's a census enthusiast.' 'Is that a new thing'? 'Probably not,' she said, a little sharply. 'I'm sure it's a serious pursuit with a long and honorable history.' 'I'm sorry.' 'For what'? 'I think I offended you.' 'How could you? I'm not a census enthusiast.' 'If the census enthusiast was your boyfriend, for instance.' 'He isn't,' she said, with an indignant gasp, as if the idea was absurd. 'What's his name'? 'Carter,' she said. 'Where will I find him'? 'What time is it'? she said, suddenly looking around for her phone, which wasn't there. Reacher had noticed many fewer people wearing watches. Phones did everything. 'Nearly eleven o'clock,' he said. 'Four minutes to, plus a few seconds.' 'Seriously'? 'Why not? I took it as a serious question.' 'Plus a few seconds'? 'You think that's too exact'? 'Most people would say five to. Or about eleven o'clock.' 'Which I would have, if you had asked me what time it was approximately. But you didn't. You asked me what time it was, period. Three minutes and change now.' 'You're not looking at your watch.' 'I don't wear one,' he said. 'Like you.'
42 'Then how do you know what time it is'? 'I don't know.' 'For real'? 'Now it's two minutes and maybe fifty seconds before eleven in the morning.' 'Wait,' she said. She went back out through the door in the rear wall. A long moment later she came back in with her phone. She laid it on the counter. The screen was dark. She said, 'What time is it now'? 'Wait,' he said. Then he said, 'Three, two, one, it's the top of the hour. Eleven o'clock exactly.' She pressed the button on her phone. The screen lit up. It showed 10:59. 'Close,' she said. It changed to 11:00. 'How do you do that'? she said. 'I don't know,' he said again. 'Where will I find your friend Carter, the census enthusiast'? 'I didn't say he was my friend.' 'Co-'worker'? 'Different department entirely. In the back office. Not part of the customer-'facing ecology, as they say.' 'Then how do I get to see him'? 'That's why I asked the time. He takes a coffee break at a quarter past eleven. Every day, regular as clockwork.' 'He sounds like a man of sound character.' 'He takes thirty minutes exactly, in the place across the light. In the garden, if the sun is shining. Which it might or might not be. We can't tell in here.' 'What's Carter's first name'? Reacher asked, thinking about baristas calling out to customers. He figured the place could be crowded
Te n s e 43 with office workers taking thirty-'minute breaks, all of them looking pretty much the same. 'Carter is his first name,' Elizabeth Castle said. 'What's his last name'? 'Carrington,' she said. 'Check back and tell me how it went. Don't give up. Family is important. There will be other ways to find out.'
Chapter 6 Patty and Shorty were alone in room ten, sitting together on the unmade bed. Mark had invited them to breakfast after all. He had turned to go and then turned back with a forgiving grin on his face, all-'friends-'together, let's-'not-'be-'stupid. Patty had wanted to say yes. Shorty said no. They had gone inside and drunk toothbrush glasses of tepid water, standing at the bathroom sink. Patty said, 'You'll only feel worse when you have to ask him to give us lunch. You should have gotten it over with right away. Now it's going to build up in your mind.' Shorty said, 'You got to admit that was weird.' 'What was'? 'All of what just happened.' 'Which was what'? 'You saw it. You were there.' 'Tell me in your own words.' 'From my own lips? You sound like him. You saw what happened. He started up with some weird vendetta against me.' 'What I saw was Peter voluntarily donating his time to help us out.
Te n s e 45 He got to work right away. I wasn't even awake yet. Then what I saw was you kicking him in the teeth by saying he had made it worse.' 'I agree yesterday the car was not running great, but now it's not running at all. What else can have happened? Obviously he did something.' 'There was plenty wrong with your car already. Maybe starting it up last night was the straw that broke the camel's back.' 'It was weird, what he made me do.' 'He made you tell the truth, Shorty. We would have been in New York City by now. The deal would have been done. Now we could be driving to one of those lots where they take anything in trade. We could have gotten something better. We could have gone the rest of the way in style.' 'I'm sorry,' Shorty said. 'I mean it.' 'Maybe the mechanic can fix it.' 'Maybe we should just dump it and walk away. Before we have to pay another fifty bucks for the room.' 'What do you mean, walk away'? 'On our own two feet. We could walk back to the road and thumb a ride. You said there was some place twenty miles ahead. They might have a bus.' 'The track through the trees was more than two miles long. You'd be carrying the suitcase. It's bigger than you are. We can't leave it here. And then all we got anyway is a back road. With no traffic. We planned it that way, remember? We could wait there all day for a ride. Especially with a big suitcase. That kind of thing puts people off. They don't stop. Maybe their trunk is already full.' 'OK, maybe the mechanic will fix it. Or at least he could give us a ride to town. In his truck. With the big suitcase. We could figure something out from there.' 'Another fifty bucks will surely make a dent.' 'It's worse than that,' Shorty said. 'Fifty bucks is a drop in the ocean. We could stay here all week, compared to what the mechanic