Utama Blue Moon

Blue Moon

'This is one of his best' - The TimesJack Reacher is back in a brand new white-knuckle read from Lee Child.It's a random universe, but once in a blue moon things turn out just right.In a nameless city, two rival criminal gangs are competing for control. But they hadn’t counted on Jack Reacher arriving on their patch.Reacher is trained to notice things.He’s on a Greyhound bus, watching an elderly man sleeping in his seat, with a fat envelope of cash hanging out of his pocket. Another passenger is watching too ... hoping to get rich quick.As the mugger makes his move, Reacher steps in.The old man is grateful, yet he turns down Reacher’s offer to help him home. He’s vulnerable, scared, and clearly in big, big trouble.What hold could the gangs have on the old guy? Will Reacher be in time to stop bad things happening? The odds are better with Reacher involved. That's for damn sure.
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Lee Child




* * *





BLUE MOON





Contents




ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

THIRTY-THREE

THIRTY-FOUR

THIRTY-FIVE

THIRTY-SIX

THIRTY-SEVEN

THIRTY-EIGHT

THIRTY-NINE

FORTY

FORTY-ONE

FORTY-TWO

FORTY-THREE

FORTY-FOUR

FORTY-FIVE

FORTY-SIX

FORTY-SEVEN

FORTY-EIGHT

FORTY-NINE

FIFTY

FIFTY-ONE





About the Author


Lee Child is one of the world’s leading thriller writers. He was born in Coventry, raised in Birmingham, and now lives in New York. One of his novels featuring his hero Jack Reacher is sold somewhere in the world every nine seconds. His books consistently achieve the number-one slot on bestseller lists around the world, and have sold over one hundred million copies. Two blockbusting Jack Reacher movies have been made so far. He is the recipient of many awards, most recently Author of the Year at the 2019 British Book Awards. He was appointed CBE in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours.





Also by Lee Child


KILLING FLOOR

DIE TRYING

TRIPWIRE

THE VISITOR

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 (stories) THE MIDNIGHT LINE

PAST TENSE

For more information on Lee Child and his books, see his website at www.leechild.com





For Jane and Ruth.

My tribe.





ONE


The city looked small on a map of America. It was just a tiny polite dot, near a red threadlike road that ran across an otherwise empty half inch of paper. But up close and on the ground it had half a million people. It covered more than a hundred square miles. It had nearly a hundred and fifty thousand households. It had more than two thousand acres of pa; rkland. It spent half a billion dollars a year, and raised almost as much through taxes and fees and charges. It was big enough that the police department was twelve hundred strong.

And it was big enough that organized crime was split two separate ways. The west of the city was run by Ukrainians. The east was run by Albanians. The demarcation line between them was gerrymandered as tight as a congressional district. Nominally it followed Center Street, which ran north to south and divided the city in half, but it zigged and zagged and ducked in and out to include or exclude specific blocks and parts of specific neighbourhoods, wherever it was felt historic precedents justified special circumstances. Negotiations had been tense. There had been minor turf wars. There had been some unpleasantness. But eventually an agreement had been reached. The arrangement seemed to work. Each side kept out of the other’s way. For a long time there had been no significant contact between them.

Until one morning in May. The Ukrainian boss parked in a garage on Center Street, and walked east into Albanian territory. Alone. He was fifty years old and built like a bronze statue of an old hero, tall, hard, and solid. He called himself Gregory, which was as close as Americans could get to pronouncing his given name. He was unarmed, and he was wearing tight pants and a tight T-shirt to prove it. Nothing in his pockets. Nothing concealed. He turned left and right, burrowing deep, heading for a backstreet block, where he knew the Albanians ran their businesses out of a suite of offices in back of a lumber yard.

He was followed all the way, from his first step across the line. Calls were made ahead, so that when he arrived he was faced by six silent figures, all standing still in the half circle between the sidewalk and the lumber yard’s gate. Like chess pieces in a defensive formation. He stopped and held his arms out from his sides. He turned around slowly, a full 360, his arms still held wide. Tight pants, tight T-shirt. No lumps. No bulges. No knife. No gun. Unarmed, in front of six guys who undoubtedly weren’t. But he wasn’t worried. To attack him unprovoked was a step the Albanians wouldn’t take. He knew that. Courtesies had to be observed. Manners were manners.

One of the six silent figures stepped up. Partly a blocking manoeuvre, partly ready to listen.

Gregory said, ‘I need to speak with Dino.’

Dino was the Albanian boss.

The guy said, ‘Why?’

‘I have information.’

‘About what?’

‘Something he needs to know.’

‘I could give you a phone number.’

‘This is a thing that needs to be said face to face.’

‘Does it need to be said right now?’

‘Yes, it does.’

The guy said nothing for a spell, and then he turned and ducked through a personnel door set low in a metal roll-up gate. The other five guys formed up tighter, to replace his missing presence. Gregory waited. The five guys watched him, part wary, part fascinated. It was a unique occasion. Once in a lifetime. Like seeing a unicorn. The other side’s boss. Right there. Previous negotiations had been held on neutral ground, on a golf course way out of town, on the other side of the highway.

Gregory waited. Five long minutes later the guy came back out through the personnel door. He left it open. He gestured. Gregory walked forward and ducked and stepped inside. He smelled fresh pine and heard the whine of a saw.

The guy said, ‘We need to search you for a wire.’

Gregory nodded and stripped off his T-shirt. His torso was thick and hard and matted with hair. No wire. The guy checked the seams in his T-shirt and handed it back. Gregory put it on and ran his fingers through his hair.

The guy said, ‘This way.’

He led Gregory deep into the corrugated shed. The other five guys followed. They came to a plain metal door. Beyond it was a windowless space set up like a boardroom. Four laminate tables had been pushed together end to end, like a barrier. In a chair in the centre on the far side was Dino. He was younger than Gregory by a year or two, and shorter by an inch or two, but wider. He had dark hair, and a knife scar on the left side of his face, shorter above the eyebrow and longer from cheekbone to chin, like an upside down exclamation point.

The guy who had done the talking pulled out a chair for Gregory opposite Dino, and then tracked around and sat down at Dino’s right hand, like a faithful lieutenant. The other five split three and two and sat alongside them. Gregory was left alone on his side of the table, facing seven blank faces. At first no one spoke. Then eventually Dino asked, ‘To what do I owe this great pleasure?’

Manners were manners.

Gregory said, ‘The city is about to get a new police commissioner.’

‘We know this,’ Dino said.

‘Promoted from within.’

‘We know this,’ Dino said again.

‘He has promised a crackdown, against both of us.’

‘We know this,’ Dino said, for the third time.

‘We have a spy in his office.’

Dino said nothing. He hadn’t known that.

Gregory said, ‘Our spy found a secret file on a standalone hard drive hidden in a drawer.’

‘What file?’

‘His operational plan for cracking down on us.’

‘Which is what?’

‘It’s short on detail,’ Gregory said. ‘In parts it’s extremely sketchy. But not to worry. Because day by day and week by week he’s filling in more and more parts of the puzzle. Because he’s getting a constant stream of inside information.’

‘From where?’

‘Our spy searched long and hard and found a different file.’

‘What different file?’

‘It was a list.’

‘A list of what?’

‘The police department’s most trusted confidential informants,’ Gregory said.

‘And?’

‘There were four names on the list.’

‘And?’

‘Two of them were my own men,’ Gregory said.

No one spoke.

Eventually Dino asked, ‘What have you done with them?’

‘I’m sure you can imagine.’

Again no one spoke.

Then Dino asked, ‘Why are you telling me this? What has this got to do with me?’

‘The other two names on the list are your men.’

Silence.

Gregory said, ‘We share a predicament.’

Dino asked, ‘Who are they?’

Gregory said the names.

Dino said, ‘Why are you telling me about them?’

‘Because we have an agreement,’ Gregory said. ‘I’m a man of my word.’

‘You stand to benefit enormously if I go down. You would run the whole city.’

‘I stand to benefit only on paper,’ Gregory said. ‘Suddenly I realize I should be happy with the status quo. Where would I find enough honest men to run your operations? Apparently I can’t even find enough to run my own.’

‘And apparently neither can I.’

‘So we’ll fight each other tomorrow. Today we’ll respect the agreement. I’m sorry to have brought you embarrassing news. But I embarrassed myself also. In front of you. I hope that counts for something. We share this predicament.’

Dino nodded. Said nothing.

Gregory said, ‘I have a question.’

‘Then ask it,’ Dino said.

‘Would you have told me, like I told you, if the spy had been yours, and not mine?’

Dino was quiet a very long time.

Then he said, ‘Yes, and for the same reasons. We have an agreement. And if we both have names on their list, then neither one of us should be in a hurry to get foolish.’

Gregory nodded and stood up.

Dino’s right-hand man stood up to show him out.

Dino asked, ‘Are we safe now?’

‘We are from my side,’ Gregory said. ‘I can guarantee that. As of six o’clock this morning. We have a guy at the city crematorium. He owes us money. He was willing to light the fire a little early today.’

Dino nodded and said nothing.

Gregory asked, ‘Are we safe from your side?’

‘We will be,’ Dino said. ‘By tonight. We have a guy at the car crushing plant. He owes us money too.’

The right-hand man showed Gregory out, across the deep shed to the low door in the roll-up gate, and out to the bright May morning sunshine.

At that same moment Jack Reacher was seventy miles away, in a Greyhound bus, on the interstate highway. He was on the left side of the vehicle, towards the rear, in the window seat over the axle. There was no one next to him. Altogether there were twenty-nine other passengers. The usual mixture. Nothing special. Except for one particular situation, which was mildly interesting. Across the aisle and one row in front was a guy asleep with his head hanging down. He had grey hair overdue for a trim, and loose grey skin, as if he had lost a lot of weight. He could have been seventy years old. He was wearing a short blue zip jacket. Some kind of heavy cotton. Maybe waterproof. The butt end of a fat envelope was sticking out of the pocket.

It was a type of envelope Reacher recognized. He had seen similar items before. Sometimes, if their ATM was busted, he would step inside a bank branch and get cash with his card from the teller, directly across the counter. The teller would ask how much he wanted, and he would think, well, if ATM reliability was on the decline, then maybe he should get a decent wad, to be on the safe side, and he would ask for two or three times what he normally took. A large sum. Whereupon the teller would ask if he wanted an envelope with that. Sometimes Reacher said yes, just for the sake of it, and he would get his wad in an envelope exactly like the one sticking out of the sleeping guy’s pocket. Same thick paper, same size, same proportions, same bulge, same heft. A few hundred dollars, or a few thousand, depending on the mix of bills.

Reacher wasn’t the only one who had seen it. The guy dead ahead had seen it too. That was clear. He was taking a big interest. He was glancing across and down, across and down, over and over. He was a lean young guy with greasy hair and a thin goatee beard. Twenty-something, in a jeans jacket. Not much more than a kid. Glancing, thinking, planning. Licking his lips.

The bus rolled on. Reacher took turns watching out the window, and watching the envelope, and watching the guy watching the envelope.

Gregory came out of the Center Street garage and drove back into safe Ukrainian territory. His offices were in back of a taxi company, across from a pawn shop, next to a bail bond operation, all of which he owned. He parked and went inside. His top guys were waiting there. Four of them, all similar to each other, and to him. Not related in the traditional family sense, but they were from the same towns and villages and prisons back in the old country, which was probably even better.

They all looked at him. Four faces, eight wide eyes, but only one question.

Which he answered.

‘Total success,’ he said. ‘Dino bought the whole story. That’s one dumb donkey, let me tell you. I could have sold him the Brooklyn Bridge. The two guys I named are history. He’ll take a day to reshuffle. Opportunity knocks, my friends. We have about twenty-four hours. Their flank is wide open.’

‘That’s Albanians for you,’ his own right-hand man said.

‘Where did you send our two?’

‘The Bahamas. There’s a casino guy who owes us money. He has a nice hotel.’

The green federal signs on the highway shoulder showed a city coming up. The first stop of the day. Reacher watched the guy with the goatee map out his play. There were two unknowns. Was the guy with the money planning to get out there? And if not, would he wake up anyway, with the slowing and the turning and the jolting?

Reacher watched. The bus took the exit. A state four-lane then carried it south, through flat land moist with recent rain. The ride was smooth. The tyres hissed. The guy with the money stayed asleep. The guy with the goatee beard kept on watching him. Reacher guessed his plan was made. He wondered how good of a plan it was. The smart play would be pickpocket the envelope pretty soon, conceal it well, and then aim to get out of the bus as soon as it stopped. Even if the guy woke up short of the depot, he would be confused at first. Maybe he wouldn’t even notice the envelope was gone. Not right away. And even when he did, why would he jump straight to conclusions? He would figure it had fallen out. He would spend a minute looking on the seat, and under it, and under the seat in front, because he might have kicked it in his sleep. Only after all of that would he start to look around, questioningly. By which time the bus would be stopped and people would be getting up and getting out and getting in. The aisle would be jammed. A guy could slip away, no problem. That was the smart play.

Did the guy know it?

Reacher never found out.

The guy with the money woke up too soon.

The bus slowed, and then stopped for a light with a hiss of brakes, and the guy’s head jerked up, and he blinked, and patted his pocket, and shoved the envelope down deeper, where no one could see it.

Reacher sat back.

The guy with the beard sat back.

The bus rolled on. There were fields either side, dusted pale green with spring. Then came the first commercial lots, for farm equipment, and domestic automobiles, all spread over huge acreages, with hundreds of shiny machines lined up under flags and bunting. Then came office parks, and a giant out-of-town supermarket. Then came the city itself. The four-lane narrowed to two. Up ahead were taller buildings. But the bus turned off left and tracked around, keeping a polite distance behind the high-rent districts, until half a mile later it arrived at the depot. The first stop of the day. Reacher stayed in his seat. His ticket was good for the end of the line.

The guy with the money stood up.

He kind of nodded to himself, and hitched up his pants, and tugged down his jacket. All the things an old guy does, when he’s about to get out of a bus.

He stepped into the aisle, and shuffled forward. No bag. Just him. Grey hair, blue jacket, one pocket fat, one pocket empty.

The guy with the goatee beard got a new plan.

It came on him all of a sudden. Reacher could practically see the gears spinning in the back of his head. Coming up cherries. A sequence of conclusions built on a chain of assumptions. Bus depots were never in the nice part of town. The exit doors would give out on to cheap streets, the backs of other buildings, maybe vacant lots, maybe self-pay parking. There would be blind corners and empty sidewalks. It would be a twenty-something against a seventy-something. A blow from behind. A simple mugging. Happened all the time. How hard could it be?

The guy with the goatee beard jumped up and hustled down the aisle, following the guy with the money six feet behind.

Reacher got up and followed them both.





TWO


The guy with the money knew where he was going. That was clear. He didn’t glance around to get his bearings. He just stepped through the depot door and turned east and set out walking. No hesitation. But no speed either. He trudged along slow. He looked a little unsteady. His shoulders were slumped. He looked old and tired and worn out and beaten down. He had no enthusiasm. He looked like he was en route between two points of equally zero appeal.

The guy with the goatee beard followed along about six paces behind, hanging back, staying slow, restraining himself. Which looked difficult. He was a rangy, long-legged individual, all hopped up with excitement and anticipation. He wanted to get right to it. But the terrain was wrong. Too flat and open. The sidewalks were wide. Up ahead was a four-way traffic light, with three cars waiting for a green. Three drivers, bored, gazing about. Maybe passengers. All potential witnesses. Better to wait.

The guy with the money stopped at the kerb. Waiting to cross. Aiming dead ahead. Where there were older buildings, with narrower streets between. Wider than alleys, but shaded from the sun, and hemmed in by mean three-and four-storey walls either side.

Better terrain.

The light changed. The guy with the money trudged across the road, obediently, as if resigned. The guy with the goatee beard followed six paces behind. Reacher closed the gap on him a little. He sensed the moment coming. The kid wasn’t going to wait for ever. He wasn’t going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Two blocks in would do it.

They walked on, single file, spaced apart, oblivious. The first block felt good up ahead and side to side, but behind them it still felt open, so the guy with the beard hung back, until the guy with the money was over the cross street and into the second block. Which looked properly secretive. It was shady at both ends. There were a couple of boarded-up establishments, and a closed-down diner, and a tax preparer with dusty windows.

Perfect.

Decision time.

Reacher guessed the kid would go for it, right there, and he guessed the launch would be prefaced by a nervous glance all around, including behind, so he stayed out of sight around the cross street’s corner, one second, two, three, which he figured was long enough for all the glances a person could need. Then he stepped out and saw the kid with the beard already closing the gap ahead, hustling, eating up the six-pace distance with a long and eager stride. Reacher didn’t like running, but on that occasion he had to.

He got there too late. The guy with the beard shoved the guy with the money, who went down forward with a heavy ragged thump, hands, knees, head, and the guy with the beard swooped down in a seamless dexterous glide, into the still-moving pocket, and out again with the envelope. Which was when Reacher arrived, at a clumsy run, six feet five of bone and muscle and 250 pounds of moving mass, against a lean kid just then coming up out of a crouch. Reacher slammed into him with a twist and a dip of the shoulder, and the guy flailed through the air like a crash test dummy, and landed in a long sliding tangle of limbs, half on the sidewalk, half in the gutter. He came to rest and lay still.

Reacher walked over and took the envelope from him. It wasn’t sealed. They never were. He took a look. The wad was about three quarters of an inch thick. A hundred dollar bill on the top, and a hundred dollar bill on the bottom. He flicked through. A hundred dollar bill in every other possible location, too. Thousands and thousands of dollars. Could be fifteen. Could be twenty grand.

He glanced back. The old guy’s head was up. He was gazing about, panic-stricken. He had a cut on his face. From the fall. Or maybe his nose was bleeding. Reacher held up the envelope. The old guy stared at it. He tried to get up, but couldn’t.

Reacher walked back.

He said, ‘Anything broken?’

The guy said, ‘What happened?’

‘Can you move?’

‘I think so.’

‘OK, roll over.’

‘Here?’

‘On your back,’ Reacher said. ‘Then we can sit you up.’

‘What happened?’

‘First I need to check you out. I might need to call the ambulance. You got a phone?’

‘No ambulance,’ the guy said. ‘No doctors.’

He took a breath and clamped his teeth, and squirmed and thrashed until he rolled over on his back, like a guy in bed with a nightmare.

He breathed out.

Reacher said, ‘Where does it hurt?’

‘Everywhere.’

‘Regular kind of thing, or worse?’

‘I guess regular.’

‘OK then.’

Reacher got the flat of his hand under the guy’s back, high up between his shoulder blades, and he folded him forward into a sitting position, and swivelled him around, and scooted him along, until he was sitting on the kerb with his feet down on the road, which would be more comfortable, Reacher thought.

The guy said, ‘My mom always told me, don’t play in the gutter.’

‘Mine too,’ Reacher said. ‘But right now we ain’t playing.’

He handed over the envelope. The guy took it and squeezed it all over, fingers and thumb, as if confirming it was real. Reacher sat down next to him. The guy looked inside the envelope.

‘What happened?’ he said again. He pointed. ‘Did that guy mug me?’

Twenty feet to their right the kid with the goatee beard was face down and motionless.

‘He followed you off the bus,’ Reacher said. ‘He saw the envelope in your pocket.’

‘Were you on the bus too?’

Reacher nodded.

He said, ‘I came out the depot right behind you.’

The guy put the envelope back in his pocket.

He said, ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have no idea. More than I can possibly say.’

‘You’re welcome,’ Reacher said.

‘You saved my life.’

‘My pleasure.’

‘I feel like I should offer you a reward.’

‘Not necessary.’

‘I can’t anyway,’ the guy said. He touched his pocket. ‘This is a payment I have to make. It’s very important. I need it all. I’m sorry. I apologize. I feel bad.’

‘Don’t,’ Reacher said.

Twenty feet to their right the kid with the beard pushed himself up to his hands and knees.

The guy with the money said, ‘No police.’

The kid glanced back. He was stunned and shaky, but he was already twenty feet ahead. Should he go for it?

Reacher said, ‘Why no police?’

‘They ask questions when they see a lot of cash.’

‘Questions you don’t want to answer?’

‘I can’t anyway,’ the guy said again.

The kid with the beard took off. He staggered to his feet and set out fleeing the scene, weak and bruised and floppy and uncoordinated, but still plenty fast. Reacher let him go. He had run enough for one day.

The guy with the money said, ‘I need to get going now.’

He had scrapes on his cheek and his forehead, and blood on his upper lip, from his nose, which had taken a decent impact.

‘You sure you’re OK?’ Reacher asked.

‘I better be,’ the guy said. ‘I don’t have much time.’

‘Let me see you stand up.’

The guy couldn’t. Either his core strength had drained away, or his knees were bad, or both. Hard to say. Reacher helped him to his feet. The guy stood in the gutter, facing the opposite side of the street, hunched and bent. He turned around, laboriously, shuffling in place.

He couldn’t step up the kerb. He got his foot in place, but the propulsive force necessary to boost himself up six inches was too much load for his knee to take. It must have been bruised and sore. There was a bad scuff on the fabric of his pants, right where his kneecap would be.

Reacher stood behind him and cupped his hands under his elbows, and lifted, and the guy stepped up weightless, like a man on the moon.

Reacher asked, ‘Can you walk?’

The guy tried. He managed small steps, delicate and precise, but he winced and gasped, short and sharp, every time his right leg took the weight.

‘How far have you got to go?’ Reacher asked.

The guy looked all around, calibrating. Making sure where he was.

‘Three more blocks,’ he said. ‘On the other side of the street.’

‘That’s a lot of kerbs,’ Reacher said. ‘That’s a lot of stepping up and down.’

‘I’ll walk it off.’

‘Show me,’ Reacher said.

The guy set out, heading east as before, at a slow shuffling creep, with his hands out a little, as if for balance. The wincing and the gasping was loud and clear. Maybe getting worse.

‘You need a cane,’ Reacher said.

‘I need a lot of things,’ the guy said.

Reacher stepped around next to him, on the right, and cupped his elbow, and took the guy’s weight in his palm. Mechanically the same thing as a stick or a cane or a crutch. An upward force, ultimately through the guy’s shoulder. Newtonian physics.

‘Try it now,’ Reacher said.

‘You can’t come with me.’

‘Why not?’

The guy said, ‘You’ve done enough for me already.’

‘That’s not the reason. You would have said you really couldn’t ask me to do that. Something vague and polite. But you were much more emphatic than that. You said I can’t come with you. Why? Where are you going?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

‘You can’t get there without me.’

The guy breathed in and breathed out, and his lips moved, like he was rehearsing things to say. He raised his hand and touched the scrape on his forehead, then his cheek, then his nose. More wincing.

He said, ‘Help me to the right block, and help me across the street. Then turn around and go home. That’s the biggest favour you could do for me. I mean it. I would be grateful. I’m already grateful. I hope you understand.’

‘I don’t,’ Reacher said.

‘I’m not allowed to bring anyone.’

‘Who says?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

‘Suppose I was headed in that direction anyway. You could peel off and go in the door and I could walk on.’

‘You would know where I went.’

‘I already know.’

‘How could you?’

Reacher had seen all kinds of cities, all across America, east, west, north, south, all kinds of sizes and ages and current conditions. He knew their rhythms and their grammars. He knew the history baked into their bricks. The block he was on was one of a hundred thousand just like it east of the Mississippi. Back offices for dry goods wholesalers, some specialist retail, some light manufacturing, some lawyers and shipping agents and land agents and travel agents. Maybe some tenement accommodations in the rear courtyards. All peaking in terms of hustle and bustle in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth. Now crumbled and corroded and hollowed out by time. Hence the boarded-up establishments and the closed-down diner. But some places held out longer than others. Some places held out longest of all. Some habits and appetites were stubborn.

‘Three blocks east of here, and across the street,’ Reacher said. ‘The bar. That’s where you’re headed.’

The guy said nothing.

‘To make a payment,’ Reacher said. ‘In a bar, before lunch. Therefore to some kind of a local loan shark. That’s my guess. Fifteen or twenty grand. You’re in trouble. I think you sold your car. You got the best cash price out of town. Maybe a collector. A regular guy like you, it could have been an old car. You drove out there and took the bus back. Via the buyer’s bank. The teller put the cash in an envelope.’

‘Who are you?’

‘A bar is a public place. I get thirsty, same as anyone else. Maybe they have coffee. I’ll sit at a different table. You can pretend not to know me. You’ll need help getting out again. That knee is going to stiffen up some.’

‘Who are you?’ the guy said again.

‘My name is Jack Reacher. I was a military cop. I was trained to detect things.’

‘It was a Chevy Caprice. The old style. All original. Perfect condition. Very low miles.’

‘I know nothing about cars.’

‘People like the old Caprices now.’

‘How much did you get for it?’

‘Twenty-two five.’

Reacher nodded. More than he thought. Crisp new bills, packed tight.

He said, ‘You owe it all?’

‘Until twelve o’clock,’ the guy said. ‘After that it goes up.’

‘Then we better get going. This could be a relatively slow process.’

‘Thank you,’ the guy said. ‘My name is Aaron Shevick. I am for ever in your debt.’

‘The kindness of strangers,’ Reacher said. ‘Makes the world go round. Some guy wrote a play about it.’

‘Tennessee Williams,’ Shevick said. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’

‘One of which we could use right now. Three blocks for a nickel would be a bargain.’

They set out walking, Reacher stepping slow and short, Shevick hopping and pecking and lurching, all lopsided because of Newtonian physics.





THREE


The bar was on the ground floor of a plain old brick building in the middle of the block. It had a battered brown door in the centre, with grimy windows either side. There was an Irish name in sputtering green neon above the door, and half dead neon harps and shamrocks and other dusty shapes in the windows, all of them advertising brands of beer, some of which Reacher recognized, and some of which he didn’t. He helped Shevick down the far kerb, and across the street, and up the opposite kerb, to the door. The time in his head was twenty to twelve.

‘I’ll go in first,’ he said. ‘Then you come in. Works better that way around. Like we never met. OK?’

‘How long?’ Shevick asked.

‘Couple minutes,’ Reacher said. ‘Get your breath.’

‘OK.’

Reacher pulled the door and went in. The light was dim and the air smelled of spilled beer and disinfectant. The place was a decent size. Not cavernous, but not just a storefront, either. There were long rows of four-top tables either side of a worn central track that led to the bar itself, which was laid out in a square shape, in the back left corner of the room. Behind the bar was a fat guy with a four-day beard and a towel slung over his shoulder, like a badge of office. There were four customers, each of them alone at a separate table, each of them hunched and vacant, looking just as old and tired and worn out and beaten down as Shevick himself. Two of them were cradling long-neck bottles, and two of them were cradling half-empty glasses, defensively, as if they expected them to be snatched away at any moment.

None of them looked like a loan shark. Maybe the barman did the business. An agent, or a go-between, or a middleman. Reacher walked up and asked him for coffee. The guy said he didn’t have any, which was a disappointment, but not a surprise. The guy’s tone was polite, but Reacher got the feeling it might not have been had the guy not been talking to an unknown stranger of Reacher’s size and implacable demeanour. A regular joe might have gotten a sarcastic response.

Instead of coffee Reacher got a bottle of domestic beer, cold and slick and dewy, with a volcano of foam erupting out the top. He left a dollar of his change on the bar, and stepped over to the nearest empty four-top, which happened to be in the rear right-hand corner, which was good, because it meant he could sit with his back to the angle, and see the whole room at once.

‘Not there,’ the barman called out.

‘Why not?’ Reacher called back.

‘Reserved.’

The other four customers looked up, and looked away.

Reacher stepped back and took his dollar off the bar. No please, no thank you, no tip. He crossed diagonally to the front table on the other side, under the grimy window. Same geometry, but in reverse. He had a corner behind him, and he could see the whole room. He took a swallow of beer, which was mostly foam, and then Shevick came in, limping. He glanced ahead at the empty table in the far right-hand corner, and stopped in surprise. He looked all around the room. At the barman, at the four lonely customers, at Reacher, and then back at the corner table again. It was still empty.

Shevick set out hobbling towards it, but he stopped halfway. He changed direction. He limped to the bar instead. He spoke to the barman. Reacher was too far away to hear what he said, but he guessed it was a question. Could have been, where’s so-and-so? Certainly it involved a glance at the empty four-top in the rear corner. It seemed to get a sarcastic response. Could have been, what am I, clairvoyant? Shevick flinched away and stepped a pace into no-man’s-land. Where he could think about what to do next.

The clock in Reacher’s head said quarter to twelve.

Shevick limped over to the empty table, and stood for a moment, undecided. Then he sat down, opposite the corner, as if in a visitor chair in front of a desk, not in the executive chair behind it. He perched on the edge of the seat, bolt upright, half turned, watching the door, as if ready to spring up politely as soon as the guy he was meeting walked in.

No guy walked in. The bar stayed quiet. Some grateful swallowing, some wet breathing, the squeak of the barman’s towel on a glass. Shevick stared at the door. Time ticked on.

Reacher got up and walked to the bar. To the part nearest Shevick’s table. He rested his elbows and looked expectant, like a guy with a new order. The barman turned his back and suddenly got busy with an urgent task all the way in the opposite corner. As in, no tip, no service. Which Reacher had predicted. And wanted. For a degree of privacy.

He whispered, ‘What?’

‘He isn’t here,’ Shevick whispered back.

‘Is he usually?’

‘Always,’ Shevick whispered. ‘He sits at this table all day long.’

‘How many times have you done this?’

‘Three.’

The barman was still busy, way far away.

Shevick whispered, ‘Five minutes from now I’ll owe them twenty-three five, not twenty-two five.’

‘The late fee is a thousand dollars?’

‘Every day.’

‘Not your fault,’ Reacher whispered. ‘Not if the guy doesn’t show up.’

‘These are not reasonable people.’

Shevick stared at the door. The barman finished up his imaginary task, and waddled the diagonal distance from the back of the bar to the front, with his chin up, hostile, as if possibly willing to entertain a request, but very unlikely to fulfil it.

He stopped a yard from Reacher and waited.

Reacher said, ‘What?’

‘You want something?’ the guy said.

‘Not any more. I wanted to make you walk there and back. You looked like you could use the exercise. But now you’ve done it, so I’m all good. Thanks anyway.’

The guy stared. Sizing up his situation. Which wasn’t great. Maybe he had a bat or a gun under the counter, but he would never get to them. Reacher was only an arm’s length away. His response was going to have to be verbal. Which was going to be a struggle. That was clear. In the end he was saved by his wall phone. It rang behind him. An old-fashioned bell. A long muted mournful peal, and then another.

The barman turned away and answered the call. The phone was a classic design, with a big plastic handset on a curly cord stretched so much it dragged on the floor. The barman listened and hung up. He jutted his chin in the direction of Shevick, all the way over at the rear corner table.

He called out, ‘Come back at six o’clock tonight.’

‘What?’ Shevick said.

‘You heard me.’

The barman walked away, to another imaginary task.

Reacher sat down at Shevick’s table.

Shevick said, ‘What did he mean, come back at six o’clock?’

‘I guess the guy you’re waiting for got delayed. He called in, so you know where you stand.’

‘But I don’t know,’ Shevick said. ‘What about my twelve o’clock deadline?’

‘Not your fault,’ Reacher said again. ‘It was the guy who missed it, not you.’

‘He’s going to say I owe them another grand.’

‘Not if he didn’t show up. Which everyone knows he didn’t. The barman took his call. He’s a witness. You were here and the other guy wasn’t.’

‘I can’t find another thousand dollars,’ Shevick said. ‘I just don’t have it.’

‘I would say the postponement gives you a pass. It’s a clear implication. Like an implied term in a contract. You were offering legal tender in the right place at the right time. They didn’t show up to accept it. It’s some kind of a common law principle. An attorney could explain it.’

‘No lawyers,’ Shevick said.

‘Worried about them too?’

‘I can’t afford one. Especially if I have to find another thousand bucks.’

‘You don’t. They can’t have it both ways. You were here on time. They weren’t.’

‘These are not reasonable people.’

The barman glared from far away.

The clock in Reacher’s head hit twelve noon exactly.

He said, ‘We can’t wait here six hours.’

‘My wife will be worried,’ Shevick said. ‘I should go home and see her. Then come back again.’

‘Where do you live?’

‘About a mile from here.’

‘I’ll walk with you, if you like.’

Shevick paused a long moment.

Then he said, ‘No, I really couldn’t ask you to do that. You’ve done enough for me already.’

‘That was vague and polite, for damn sure.’

‘I mean I mustn’t put you out any more. I’m sure you have things to do.’

‘Generally I avoid having things to do. Clearly a reaction against literal regimentation earlier in my life. The result is I have no particular place to go, and all the time in the world to get there. I’m happy to take a one-mile detour.’

‘No, I couldn’t ask you to do that.’

‘The regimentation I mentioned was, as I said, in the military police, where, as I also said, we were trained to notice things. Not just physical clues, but things about how people are. How they behave and what they believe. Human nature, and so on and so forth. Most of it was bullshit, but some of it rang bells. Right now you’re facing a mile walk through a backstreet neighbourhood, with more than twenty grand in your pocket, which you feel weird about, because you’re not really supposed to still have it, and it’s a total disaster if you lose it, and you’ve already been mugged once today, so the truth is all in all you’re afraid of that walk, and you know I could help with that feeling, and you’re also hurt from the attack, and therefore not moving well, and you know I can help with that too, so all in all you should be begging me to see you home.’

Shevick said nothing.

‘But you’re a gentleman,’ Reacher said. ‘You wanted to give me a reward. Now if I walk you home and meet your wife, you think the very least you should do is give me lunch. But there is no lunch. You’re embarrassed. But you shouldn’t be. I get it. You’re in trouble with a moneylender. You haven’t eaten lunch in a couple of months. You look like you lost twenty pounds. Your skin is hanging loose. So we’ll pick up sandwiches on the way. Uncle Sam’s dime. That’s where my cash comes from. Your tax dollars at work. We’ll enjoy some conversation, and then I’ll walk you back here. You can pay off your guy, and I’ll get on my way.’

‘Thank you,’ Shevick said. ‘I mean it.’

‘You’re welcome,’ Reacher said. ‘I mean it.’

‘Where are you headed?’

‘Someplace else. Often depends on the weather. I like to be warm. Saves buying a coat.’

The barman glared again, still from far away.

‘Let’s go,’ Reacher said. ‘A person could die of thirst in here.’





FOUR


The man who had been due to meet Aaron Shevick at the table in the far back corner of the bar was a forty-year-old Albanian named Fisnik. He was one of the two men mentioned that morning by Gregory, the Ukrainian boss. Accordingly he had gotten a call at home from Dino, telling him to drop by the lumber yard before starting his day’s work in the bar. Dino’s tone of voice revealed nothing untoward. In fact if anything it sounded cheery and enthusiastic, as if praise and recognition were in store. Maybe expanded opportunities, or a bonus, or both. Maybe a promotion, or extra status in the organization.

It didn’t work out that way. Fisnik ducked through the personnel door in the roll-up gate, and smelled fresh pine, and heard the whine of a saw, and headed to the offices in back, feeling pretty good about things. A minute later he was duct-taped to a wooden chair, and suddenly the pine smelled like coffins, and the saw sounded like agony. First they drilled through his knees with a cordless DeWalt sporting a quarter-inch masonry bit. Then they moved on. He told them nothing, because he had nothing to tell. His silence was taken as a stoic confession. Such was their culture. He garnered a little grudging admiration for his fortitude, but not enough to stop the drill. He died about the same time Reacher and Shevick finally left the bar.

The first half of the mile walk was through left-behind blocks just like the one that housed the bar, but then the view opened out to what might once have been a bunch of ten-acre pastures, until the GIs came home at the end of World War Two, when the pastures were ploughed up and straight rows of small houses were built, all of them single storey, some of them split level, depending on how the pastures had risen and fallen. Seventy years later they had all been re-roofed many times, no two exactly the same, and some had add-ons and bump-outs and new vinyl siding, and some had trimmed lawns and others had wild yards, but otherwise the ghost of mean postwar uniformity still marched through the whole development, with small lots and narrow roads and narrow sidewalks and tight right-angle turns, all scaled to the maximum steering capabilities of 1948 Fords and Chevys and Studebakers and Plymouths.

Reacher and Shevick stopped on the way at a gas station deli counter. They got three chicken salad sandwiches, and three bags of potato chips, and three cans of soda. Reacher carried the bag in his right hand and helped Shevick with his left. They limped and crept through the warren. Shevick’s house turned out to be deep into it, on a cul-de-sac served by a mean turnaround barely wider than the street itself. Like the bulb on the end of an old-style thermometer. The house was on the left, behind a white picket fence that had early roses budding through it. The house was a one-storey ranch, same bones and same square footage as every other house, with an asphalt roof and bright white siding. It looked well cared for, but not recently. The windows were dusty and the lawn was long.

Reacher and Shevick hobbled up a concrete path barely wide enough for the two of them side by side. Shevick took out a key, but before he could get it in the lock the door opened in front of them. A woman stood there. Mrs Shevick, without question. There was an obvious bond between them. She was grey and stooped and newly thin like he was, also about seventy, but her head was up and her eyes were steady. The fires were still burning. She stared at her husband’s face. A scrape on his forehead, a scrape on his cheek, crusted blood on his lip.

‘I fell,’ Shevick said. ‘I tripped on the kerb. I banged my knee. That’s the worst of it. This gentleman was kind enough to help me.’

The woman’s gaze switched to Reacher for a second, uncomprehending, and then back to her husband.

She said, ‘We better get you cleaned up.’

She stood back and Shevick stepped into his hallway.

His wife started to ask him ‘Did you’, but then she stopped, maybe embarrassed in front of a stranger. No doubt she meant to say, did you pay the guy? But some troubles were private.

Shevick said, ‘It’s complicated.’

There was silence for a moment.

Reacher held up the bag from the deli counter.

‘We brought lunch,’ he said. ‘We thought it might be difficult to get out to the store, under the circumstances.’

Mrs Shevick looked at him again, still uncomprehending. And then a little wounded. Abashed. Ashamed.

‘He knows, Maria,’ Shevick said. ‘He was an army detective and he saw right through me.’

‘You told him?’

‘He figured it out. He has extensive training.’

‘What’s complicated?’ she asked. ‘What happened? Who hit you? Was it this man?’

‘What man?’

She looked straight at Reacher.

‘This man with the lunch,’ she said. ‘Is he one of them?’

‘No,’ Shevick said. ‘Absolutely not. He has nothing to do with them.’

‘Then why is he following you? Or escorting you? He’s like a prison guard.’

Shevick started to say ‘When I was’, and then he stopped and changed it to, ‘When I tripped and fell, he was passing by, and he helped me up. Then I found I couldn’t walk, so he helped me along. He isn’t following me. Or escorting me. He’s here because I’m here. You can’t have one without the other. Not right now. Because I hurt my knee. Simple as that.’

‘You said it was complicated, not simple.’

‘We should go inside,’ Shevick said.

His wife stood still for a moment, and then turned and led the way. The house was the same on the inside as it looked from the outside. Old, well cared for, but not recently. The rooms were small and the hallways were narrow. They stopped in the living room, which had a loveseat and two armchairs, and outlets and wires but no TV.

Mrs Shevick said, ‘What’s complicated?’

‘Fisnik didn’t show,’ Shevick said. ‘Normally he’s there all day. But not today. All we got was a phone message to come back at six o’clock.’

‘So where’s the money now?’

‘I still have it.’

‘Where?’

‘In my pocket.’

‘Fisnik is going to say we owe them another thousand dollars.’

‘This gentleman thinks he can’t.’

The woman looked at Reacher again, and then back at her husband, and she said, ‘We should go get you cleaned up.’ Then she looked at Reacher again and pointed towards the kitchen and said, ‘Please put the lunch in the refrigerator.’

Which was more or less empty. Reacher got there and pulled the door and found a well-scrubbed space with nothing much in it, except used-up bottles of stuff that could have been six months old. He put the bag on the middle shelf and went back to the living room to wait. There were family photographs on the walls, grouped and clustered like in a magazine. Senior among them were three ornate frames holding black and white images gone coppery with age. The first showed a literal GI standing in front of the house, with what Reacher guessed was his new bride alongside him. The guy was in a crisp khaki uniform. A private soldier. Probably too young to have fought in World War Two. Probably did a three-year hitch in Germany afterwards. Probably got called up again for Korea. The woman was in a flowery dress that puffed out to calf length. Both of them were smiling. The siding behind them shone in the sun. The dirt at their feet was raw.

The second photograph showed a year-old lawn at their feet, and a baby in their arms. Same smiles, same bright siding. The new father was out of uniform and in a pair of high-waisted miracle-fibre pants and a white shirt with short sleeves. The new mother had swapped out the floral dress for a thin sweater and pedal pushers. The baby was mostly wrapped up in a shawl, except for its face, which looked pale and indistinct.

The third photograph showed the three of them about eight years later. Behind them foundation plantings covered half the siding. The grass at their feet was lush and thick. The guy was eight years less bony, a little thicker in the waist, a little heavier in the shoulders. His hair was slicked back, and he was losing some of it. The woman was prettier than before, but tired, in all the ways women were, in photographs from the 1950s.

The eight-year-old girl standing in front of them was almost certainly Maria Shevick. Something about the shape of her face and the directness of her gaze. She had grown up, they had grown old, they had died, she had inherited their house. That was Reacher’s guess. He was proved right by the next group of pictures. Now in faded Kodak colours, but in the same location. Same patch of lawn. Same length of wall. Some kind of a tradition. The first showed Mrs Shevick maybe twenty years old, next to a much straighter and much leaner Mr Shevick, also about twenty years old, their faces sharp and young and hawkish with shadows, their smiles wide and happy.

The second in the new sequence showed the same couple with a baby in their arms. It grew up in leaps and bounds, left to right across the next row down, into a toddler, then a girl about four, then six, then eight, while above her the Shevicks cycled through 1970s hairstyles, big and bushy, above tight tank tops and puffy sleeves.

The next row down showed the same girl become a teenager, then a high-school graduate, then a young woman. Then a woman who got older as the Kodak got newer. She would be nearly fifty now, Reacher figured. Whatever that generation was called. The early kids of the early boomers. Got to be called something. Everyone else was.

‘There you are,’ Mrs Shevick said, behind him.

‘I was admiring your photographs,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘You have a daughter.’

‘Yes,’ she said again.

Then Shevick himself came in. The blood had been cleaned off his lip. His scrapes were shiny with some kind of a yellow potion. His hair was brushed.

He said, ‘Let’s eat.’

There was a small table in the kitchen, with contoured aluminium edges, and a laminate top now dulled and faded by decades of time and wiping, but once bright and sparkly and atomic. There were three matching vinyl chairs. Maybe all bought way back when Maria Shevick was a little girl. For her first grown-up dinners. Knife and fork and please and thank you. Now many years later she told Reacher and her husband to sit down, and she put the sandwiches from the deli bag on china plates, and the chips in china bowls, and the sodas in cloudy glass tumblers. She brought cloth napkins. She sat down. She looked at Reacher.

‘You must think us very foolish,’ she said. ‘To have gotten ourselves in this situation.’

‘Not really,’ Reacher said. ‘Very unlucky, perhaps. Or very desperate. I’m sure this situation is a last resort. You sold your TV. Plus many other things, no doubt. I assume you took out a loan on the house. But it wasn’t enough. You had to find alternative arrangements.’

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘I’m sure there were good reasons.’

‘Yes,’ she said again.

She said nothing more. She and her husband ate slowly, one small bite at a time, one chip, one sip of soda. As if savouring the novelty. Or worrying about indigestion. The kitchen was quiet. No passing traffic, no street sounds, no commotion. There was old subway tile on the walls, and wallpaper where there wasn’t, with flowers on it, like Mrs Shevick’s mother’s dress, in the very first photograph, but paler and less boldly delineated. The floor was linoleum, pitted long ago by stiletto heels, now rubbed almost smooth again. The appliances had been replaced, maybe back when Nixon was president. But Reacher figured the countertops were still original. They were pale yellow laminate, with fine wavy lines that looked like heartbeats on a hospital machine.

Mrs Shevick finished her sandwich. She drained her soda. She dabbed up the last fragments of her potato chips on a dampened fingertip. She pressed her napkin to her lips. She looked at Reacher.

She said, ‘Thank you.’

He said, ‘You’re welcome.’

‘You think Fisnik can’t ask for another thousand dollars.’

‘In the sense of shouldn’t. I guess that’s different from won’t.’

‘I think we’ll have to pay.’

‘I’m happy to go discuss it with the guy. On your behalf. If you like. I could make a number of arguments.’

‘And I’m sure you would be convincing. But my husband told me you’re only passing through. You won’t be here tomorrow. We will. It’s probably safer to pay.’

Aaron Shevick said, ‘We don’t have it.’

His wife didn’t answer. She twisted the rings on her finger. Maybe subconsciously. She had a slim gold wedding band, and a token diamond next to it. She was thinking about the pawn shop, Reacher figured. Probably near the bus depot, on a cheap street. But she would need more than a wedding band and a small solitaire, for a thousand bucks. Maybe she still had her mother’s stuff, upstairs in a drawer. Maybe there had been random inheritances, from old aunts and uncles, pins and pendants and retirement watches.

She said, ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Maybe he’ll be reasonable. Maybe he won’t ask for it.’

Her husband said, ‘These are not reasonable people.’

Reacher asked him, ‘Do you have direct evidence of that?’

‘Only indirect evidence,’ Shevick said. ‘Fisnik explained the various penalties to me, right back at the beginning. He had photographs on his phone, and a short video. I was made to watch it. As a consequence, we have never been late with a payment. Until now.’

‘Did you think about going to the police?’

‘Of course we thought about it. But it was a contract voluntarily entered into. We borrowed their money. We accepted their terms. One of which was no police. I had been shown the punishment, on Fisnik’s phone. Overall we thought it was too much of a risk.’

‘Probably wise,’ Reacher said, although he didn’t really mean it. He figured what Fisnik needed was a punch in the throat, not contractual respect. Maybe followed by slamming him face down on the tabletop, way in the far back corner. But then, Reacher wasn’t either seventy or stooped or starving. Probably wise.

Mrs Shevick said, ‘We’ll know where we stand at six o’clock.’

They avoided the subject for the rest of the afternoon. Some kind of unspoken agreement. Instead they swapped biographies, like regular polite conversation. Mrs Shevick had indeed inherited the house from her parents, who had bought it sight unseen through the GI Bill, all caught up in the crazy postwar land rush towards the middle class. She herself had been born a year later, like the lawn showed in the photograph, and she had grown up there, and then her parents died and she met her husband all in the same year. He was a machine tool operator, very skilled, raised nearby. An essential occupation, so he was never drafted for Vietnam. They had a daughter within a year, just the same as her parents had, and the daughter grew up there, the second generation to do so. She did well in school, and got a job. Never married, no grandchildren, but hey. Reacher noticed their tone changed the nearer the story got to the present day. It got bleaker, and strangled, as if there were things they couldn’t say.

The clock in his head hit five. A mile was fifteen minutes for him, and twenty for most other people, but at Shevick’s pace it was going to be close to the full hour.

‘It’s time,’ he said. ‘Let’s go.’





FIVE


Once again Reacher helped Shevick down the far kerb, and across the street, and up the near kerb, and across the sidewalk to the door. Once again he went in first. For the same reason. An unknown guy coming in immediately before a target was ten times less subconsciously connected than an unknown guy coming in immediately after. Human nature. Mostly bullshit, but sometimes it rang a bell.

The same fat guy was behind the bar. There were now nine other customers. Two pairs, and five singletons alone at separate tables. One of the singletons had been in the same spot six hours previously. Another was a woman about eighty years old. She was cradling a glass full of clear liquid. Probably not water.

There was a guy at the four-top in the far back corner.

He was a big slab of a man, maybe forty years old, so pale he looked luminescent in the gloom. He had pale eyes, and pale eyelashes, and pale eyebrows. He had hair the colour of corn silk, buzzed so short it glittered. He had thick white wrists resting on the edge of the table, and big white hands resting on a large black ledger. He wore a black suit, a white shirt, and a black silk tie. He had a tattoo coming up out of the neck of the shirt. Some kind of writing. A foreign alphabet. Not Russian. Something else.

Reacher sat down without ordering. A minute later Shevick limped in. Once again he glanced ahead at the table in the far back corner. Once again he stopped in surprise. He shuffled sideways and sat down at an empty four-top next to Reacher’s.

He whispered, ‘That’s not Fisnik.’

‘You sure?’

‘Fisnik has dark skin and black hair.’

‘Have you ever seen this other guy before?’

‘Never. It was always Fisnik.’

‘Maybe he’s indisposed. Maybe that’s what the phone call was about. He needed to find a replacement, which he couldn’t, not before six o’clock.’

‘Maybe.’

Reacher said nothing.

‘What?’ Shevick whispered.

‘You sure you never saw this guy before?’

‘Why?’

‘Because then he never saw you before. All he has is an entry in a book.’

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘I could be you. I could go pay this guy for you, and get all the details squared away.’

‘You mean if he asks for more?’

‘I could attempt to persuade him. Most people do the right thing in the end. That’s been my experience.’

Now Shevick said nothing.

‘I would need to be sure of something,’ Reacher said. ‘Otherwise I’ll look stupid.’

‘Sure of what?’

‘Is this the end of it? Twenty-two five and you’re done?’

‘That’s what we owe them.’

‘Give me the envelope,’ Reacher said.

‘This is nuts.’

‘You’ve had a hard day. Take a load off.’

‘What Maria said was right. You won’t be here tomorrow.’

‘I won’t leave you with a problem. He’ll either agree or he won’t. If he doesn’t, you won’t be any worse off. But it’s your call. Either way is fine with me. I’m not looking for trouble. I like a quiet life. That said, you could save yourself the walk there and back. That knee still looks pretty bad.’

Shevick sat still and said nothing for a long moment. Then he gave Reacher the envelope. He took it out of his pocket and slid it across, low and furtive. Reacher took it from him. Three quarters of an inch thick. Heavy. He put it in his own pocket.

‘Sit tight,’ he said.

He stood up and walked towards the far back corner. He considered himself a modern man, born in the twentieth century, living in the twenty-first, but he also knew he had some kind of a wide-open portal in his head, a wormhole to humanity’s primitive past, where for millions of years every living thing could be a predator, or a rival, and therefore had to be assessed, and judged, instantly, and accurately. Who was the superior animal? Who would submit?

What he saw at the back table was going to be a challenge. If it came to it. If matters moved from the verbal to the physical. Not a colossal challenge. Somewhere between major and minor. The guy would be technically less skilled, almost certainly, unless he had also served in the U.S. Army, which taught the dirtiest fighting in the world, not that it would ever admit it in public. Against that the guy was big, and younger by a number of years, and he looked like he had been around the block a couple of times. He looked like he wouldn’t scare easy. He looked like he was accustomed to winning. The ancient part of Reacher’s brain took in all the subliminal information, and it flashed an amber warning, but it didn’t stop him walking. Ahead of him the guy at the table watched him in turn, all the way, apparently making his own atavistic calculations. Who was the superior animal? The guy looked pretty confident. As if he liked his chances.

Reacher sat down where Shevick had perched six hours previously. The visitor chair. Up close the guy in the executive chair could have been a little older than he seemed at first sight. Forty-something. Maybe halfway to fifty. Fairly senior. A man of substance, chronologically, but the weighty impression was undercut by the guy’s ghostlike pallor. That was the most noticeable thing about him. Plus his tattoo. It was inexpert and uneven. Prison ink. Probably not an American prison.

The guy picked up his ledger and opened it and propped it upright on his edge of the table. He peered down at it, with difficulty, like a guy playing his cards too close to his vest.

He said, ‘What’s your name?’

‘What’s yours?’ Reacher said.

‘My name is of no importance.’

‘Where’s Fisnik?’

‘Fisnik has been replaced. Whatever business you had with him, now you have it with me.’

‘I need more than that,’ Reacher said. ‘This is an important transaction. This is a serious financial matter. Fisnik lent me money, and I need to pay him back.’

‘I just told you, whatever business you had with Fisnik, now you have it with me. Fisnik’s clients are now my clients. If you owed money to Fisnik, now you owe it to me. This is not rocket science. What’s your name?’

Reacher said, ‘Aaron Shevick.’

The guy squinted down at his book.

He nodded.

He said, ‘Is this a final payment?’

‘Do I get a receipt?’ Reacher asked.

‘Did Fisnik give you receipts?’

‘You’re not Fisnik. I don’t even know your name.’

‘My name is of no importance.’

‘It is to me. I need to know who I’m paying.’

The guy tapped his finger, white as a bone, against the side of his glittering head.

‘Your receipt is in here,’ he said. ‘That’s all you need to know.’

‘I could have Fisnik coming after me tomorrow.’

‘I told you two times already, yesterday you were Fisnik’s, today you are mine. Tomorrow you will still be mine. Fisnik is history. Fisnik is gone. Things change. How much do you owe?’

‘I don’t know,’ Reacher said. ‘I depended on Fisnik to tell me. He had a formula.’

‘What formula?’

‘For the fees and the penalties and the add-ons. Rounded up to the nearest hundred, plus another five hundred as an administrative charge. That was his rule. I could never work it out right. I didn’t want him to think I was shortchanging him. I preferred to pay what he told me. Safer that way.’

‘How much do you think it should be?’

‘This time?’

‘As your final payment.’

‘I wouldn’t want you to think I was shortchanging you, either. Not if you inherited Fisnik’s business. I assume the same terms apply.’

‘Give it to me both ways,’ the guy said. ‘What you figure, and then what you think Fisnik’s formula would figure. Maybe I’ll cut you a break. Maybe we’ll split the difference. As an introductory offer.’

‘I figure eight hundred dollars,’ Reacher said. ‘But Fisnik would probably figure fourteen hundred. Like I told you. Rounded up to the nearest hundred plus five as a charge.’

The guy squinted down at his book.

He nodded, slowly, sagely, in complete agreement.

‘But no break,’ he said. ‘I decided against. I’ll take the full fourteen hundred.’

He closed his book and laid it flat on the table.

Reacher put his hand in his pocket and his thumb in the envelope and peeled fourteen bills off the back of Shevick’s wad. He handed them over. The pale guy recounted them with fast practised fingers, folded them once, and put them in his own pocket.

‘Are we good now?’ Reacher asked.

‘Paid off in full,’ the guy said.

‘Receipt?’

The guy tapped the side of his head again.

‘Now get lost,’ he said. ‘Until the next time.’

‘The next time what?’ Reacher said.

‘You need a loan.’

‘I hope not to.’

‘Losers like you always do. You know where to find me.’

Reacher paused a beat.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I do. Count on it.’

He stayed where he was for a long moment, and then he got up out of the visitor chair and walked away, slowly, eyes front, all the way out the door to the sidewalk.

A minute later Shevick limped out after him.

‘We need to talk,’ Reacher said.





SIX


Shevick still had a cell phone. He said he hadn’t sold it because it was an old flip worth close to nothing, and he was still using it because cancelling his plan would have cost more than continuing it. Plus there were times he really needed it. Reacher told him this was one of those times. He told him to call a cab. Shevick said he couldn’t afford a cab. Reacher told him yes he could, just this once.

The cab that came was an old beat-up Crown Vic, thick with orange-peel paint, with a cop-car spotlight on the driver’s pillar and a taxi light strapped to the roof. Not an appealing vehicle, visually. But it worked OK. It wallowed and whined the mile to Shevick’s house and pulled up outside. Reacher helped Shevick down the narrow concrete path to his door. Once again it opened before the guy could get his key in the lock. Mrs Shevick stared out at him. There were silent questions in her face. A taxi? For your knee? Then why did the big man come back too?

And above all: Do we owe another thousand dollars?

‘It’s complicated again,’ Shevick said.

They went back to the kitchen. The stove was cold. No dinner. They had already eaten once that day. They all sat down at the table. Shevick told his part of the story. No Fisnik. A substitute instead. A sinister pale stranger with a big black book. Then Reacher’s offer to be a go-between.

Mrs Shevick switched her gaze to Reacher.

Who said, ‘I’m pretty sure he was Ukrainian. He had a prison tattoo on his neck. Cyrillic alphabet, certainly.’

‘I don’t think Fisnik was Ukrainian,’ Mrs Shevick said. ‘Fisnik is an Albanian name. I looked it up at the library.’

‘He said Fisnik had been replaced. He said whatever business anyone had with Fisnik, now they had it with him. He said Fisnik’s clients were now his clients. He said if you owed money to Fisnik, now you owed it to him. He made the same kind of point several times over. He said it wasn’t rocket science.’

‘Did he want another thousand dollars?’

‘He propped his book open so close to his chest it was awkward. At first I wasn’t sure why. I assumed he didn’t want me to see what was in it. He asked my name, and I said Aaron Shevick. He looked down at his book and nodded. Which I thought was weird.’

‘Why?’

‘What were the odds the book happened to be propped open at the S page? One in twenty-six. Possible, but unlikely. So then I started to think he was hiding the book not because he didn’t want me to see what was in it, but because he didn’t want me to see what wasn’t in it. Because there was nothing in it. It was blank. That was my guess. Then he proved it. He asked me how much I owed. He didn’t know. He didn’t have Fisnik’s previous data. It wasn’t Fisnik’s old ledger. It was a new blank book.’

‘What does all that mean?’

‘It means this wasn’t a routine internal reorganization. They didn’t bench Fisnik and send in a pinch hitter. It was a hostile takeover from the outside. There’s a whole new management now. I went back through the guy’s words. His use of language. He made it clear. Someone else is muscling in.’

‘Wait,’ Mrs Shevick said. ‘I heard it on the radio. Last week, I think. We’re getting a new police commissioner. He says we have rival Ukrainian and Albanian gangs in town.’

Reacher nodded.

‘There you go,’ he said. ‘The Ukrainians are moving in on a part of the Albanians’ business. You’re dealing with new people now.’

‘Did they want the extra thousand dollars?’

‘They’re looking ahead, not back in the past. They’re prepared to write off Fisnik’s old loans. All or part. Because they have to. They have no choice. They don’t know what anyone owes. They don’t have the information. And why wouldn’t they write it off anyway? It wasn’t their money. They want his customers. That’s all. For the future. They want to service their needs for the next many years.’

‘Did you pay the man?’

‘He asked what I owed and I took a chance and told him fourteen hundred dollars. He looked down at his blank page and nodded solemnly and agreed. So I paid him fourteen hundred dollars. At which point he said I was good to go and he confirmed I was paid off in full.’

‘Where’s the rest of the money?’

‘Right here,’ Reacher said. He took the envelope out of his pocket. Barely thinner than it was before. Still two hundred eleven bills in it. Twenty-one thousand one hundred dollars. He put it on the table, in the middle, equidistant. Shevick and his wife stared at it and said nothing.

Reacher said, ‘This is a random universe. Once in a blue moon things turn out just right. Like now. Someone started a war and you’re the exact opposite of collateral damage.’

Shevick said, ‘Not if Fisnik shows up next week wanting all this plus seven grand more.’

‘He won’t,’ Reacher said. ‘Fisnik has been replaced. Which coming from a Ukrainian gangster with prison ink on his neck almost certainly means Fisnik is dead. Or otherwise incapacitated. He won’t be showing up next week. Or any week. And you’re all squared away with the new guys. They said so. You’re out of the woods.’

There was silence for a long moment.

Mrs Shevick looked at Reacher.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

Then Shevick’s cell phone rang. He limped out to the hallway and took the call. Reacher heard a faint plastic quack from the earpiece. A man’s voice, he thought. He couldn’t make out the words. Some long stream of information. He heard Shevick reply, loud and clear, ten feet away, with a muttered assent that sounded weary and unsurprised, yet still disappointed. Then Shevick asked what was unmistakably a question.

He said, ‘How much?’

The faint plastic quack answered.

Shevick closed his phone. He stood still for a moment, and then he limped back into the kitchen and sat down again at the table. He folded his hands in front of him. He looked at the envelope. Not a stare, not a gaze. Some kind of a bittersweet glance. Equidistant. Equally far away from all of them.

He said, ‘They need another forty thousand dollars.’

His wife closed her eyes and clamped her hands over her face.

Reacher said, ‘Who needs?’

‘Not Fisnik,’ Shevick said. ‘Not the Ukrainians, either. Not any of them. This is the other end of the issue entirely. This is the reason we had to borrow money in the first place.’

‘Are you being blackmailed?’

‘No, nothing like that. I wish it was that simple. All I can say is there are bills we have to pay. One just came due. Now we have to find another forty thousand dollars.’ He glanced at the envelope again. ‘Some of which we’ve already got, thanks to you.’ He worked it out in his head. ‘Technically we need to find another eighteen thousand nine hundred dollars.’

‘By when?’

‘Tomorrow morning.’

‘Can you?’

‘We couldn’t find another eighteen cents.’

‘Why so quick?’

‘Some things can’t wait.’

‘What are you going to do?’

Shevick didn’t answer.

His wife took her hands away from her face.

‘We’re going to borrow it,’ she said. ‘What else can we do?’

‘Who from?’

‘The man with the prison tattoo,’ she said. ‘What choice do we have? We’re maxed out everywhere else.’

‘Can you pay it back?’

‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.’

No one spoke.

Reacher said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you more.’

Mrs Shevick looked at him.

‘You can,’ she said.

‘Can I?’

‘In fact you’ll have to.’

‘Will I?’

‘The man with the prison tattoo thinks you’re Aaron Shevick. You have to go get our money for us.’





SEVEN


They discussed it thirty minutes more. Reacher and the Shevicks, back and forth. Certain facts were established early. The fixed points. The dealbreakers. They absolutely needed the money. No question. No debate. They absolutely needed it by morning. No leeway. No flexibility.

They absolutely would not say why.

Their life savings were gone. Their house was gone. They were newly into an old-person’s mortgage arrangement, whereby they were allowed to live there the rest of their lives, but the title had already passed to the bank. The lump sum they had gotten was already spent. No more could be raised. Their credit cards were maxed out and cancelled. They had borrowed against their Social Security cheques. They had cashed in their life insurance and given up their land line telephone. Now that their car was gone they had sold everything of value. All they had left were personal trinkets. Between their own stuff and family heirlooms they had five nine-carat wedding bands, three small diamond rings, and a gold-plated wristwatch with a crack in the crystal. Reacher figured on the happiest day of his life the most warmhearted pawnbroker in the world might have given them two hundred bucks. No more than that. Maybe less than a hundred on a bad day. Not even a drop in the bucket.

They said they had first used Fisnik five weeks previously. They had gotten his name from a neighbour. As an item of gossip, not as a recommendation. Some kind of a scandal. Some lurid story about some other neighbour’s nephew’s wife’s cousin borrowing money from a gangster in a bar. Name of Fisnik, imagine that. Shevick had narrowed the search radius based on detail and rumour, and he had started checking every bar within that predicted area, one by one, blushing, embarrassed, stared at, asking every barman if he knew a guy named Fisnik, until at his fourth stop a fat man with a sarcastic manner jerked his thumb at the corner table.

Reacher said, ‘How did it work?’

‘Very easy,’ Shevick said. ‘I approached his table, and stood there, while he inspected me, and then he signalled me to sit down, so I did. I guess at first I beat about the bush a bit, but then I just came out and said, look, I need to borrow money, and I understand you lend it. He asked how much, and I told him. He explained the terms of the contract. He showed me the photographs. I watched the video. I gave him my account number. Twenty minutes later the money was in my bank. It was wired in from somewhere untraceable via a corporation in Delaware.’

‘I pictured a bag of cash,’ Reacher said.

‘We had to make our repayments in cash.’

Reacher nodded.

‘Two things in one,’ he said. ‘Both at the same time. Loansharking and money laundering. They wired dirty electrons and in return they got random clean cash from the streets. Plus a healthy rate of interest on top. Most money laundering involves losing a percentage, not gaining one. I guess those boys weren’t dumb.’

‘Not in our experience.’

‘You think the Ukrainians will be better or worse?’

‘Worse, I expect. The law of the jungle seems to be proving it already.’

‘So how are you going to pay them back?’

‘That’s tomorrow’s problem.’

‘You have nothing left to sell.’

‘Something might show up.’

‘In your dreams.’

‘No, in reality. We’re waiting for something. We have reason to believe it will come very soon. We have to hang tough until it does.’

They absolutely would not say what they were waiting for.

Twenty minutes later Reacher stepped down the far kerb unencumbered, and crossed the street in four fast strides, and stepped up the near kerb, and pulled the bar door. Inside it felt brighter than before, because it was darker outside, and it was a click noisier, because there were more people, including a group of five men all squeezed around a four-top table, all reminiscing about something or other.

The pale guy was still in the far back corner.

Reacher walked towards him. The pale guy watched him all the way. Reacher dialled it back a little. There were conventions to follow. Lender and borrower. He walked what he thought of as his friendly walk, pure unselfconscious locomotion, no threat to anybody. He sat down in the same chair he had used before.

The pale guy said, ‘Aaron Shevick, right?’

‘Yes,’ Reacher said.

‘What brings you back so soon?’

‘I need a loan.’

‘Already? You just paid me off.’

‘Something came up.’

‘I told you,’ the guy said. ‘Losers like you always come back.’

‘I remember,’ Reacher said.

‘How much do you want?’

‘Eighteen thousand nine hundred dollars,’ Reacher said.

The pale guy shook his head.

‘Can’t do it,’ he said.

‘Why not?’

‘It’s a big jump up from eight hundred last time.’

‘Fourteen hundred.’

‘Six hundred of that was fees and charges. The capital sum was eight hundred only.’

‘That was then. This is now. It’s what I need.’

‘You good for it?’

‘I always was before,’ Reacher said. ‘Ask Fisnik.’

‘Fisnik is history,’ the pale guy said.

Nothing more.

Reacher waited.

Then the pale guy said, ‘Maybe there’s a way I can help you. Although you got to understand, I would be taking a risk, which would have to be reflected in the price. You comfortable with that scenario?’

‘I guess,’ Reacher said.

‘And I have to tell you, I’m pretty much a round-figures guy. Can’t do eighteen nine. We would have to call it twenty. Then I would take eleven hundred off the top as an administration fee. You would get the exact amount you need. You want to hear the interest rates?’

‘I guess,’ Reacher said again.

‘Things have moved on since Fisnik’s day. We’re in an era of innovation now. We operate what they call dynamic pricing. We pitch the rate up or down, depending on supply and demand and things like that, but also on what we think of the borrower. Will he be reliable? Can we trust him? Questions of that nature.’

‘So what am I?’ Reacher asked. ‘Up or down?’

‘I’m going to start you off way up there at the very top. Where the worst risks are. Truth is, I don’t like you very much, Aaron Shevick. I’m not getting a good feeling. You take twenty tonight, you bring me twenty-five, a week from today. After that, interest continues at twenty-five per cent a week or part of a week, plus a late fee of a thousand dollars a day, or part of a day. After the first deadline, all sums become payable in full immediately on demand. Refusal or inability to pay on demand may expose you to unpleasant things of various different types. You have to understand that ahead of time. I need to hear you say so, in your own words. It’s not the kind of thing that can be written down and signed. I have photographs for you to look at.’

‘Terrific,’ Reacher said.

The guy dabbed at his phone, menus, albums, slideshows, and he handed it over sideways, like a landscape, not a portrait, which was appropriate, because all the subjects of all the pictures were lying down. Mostly they were duct-taped to an iron bedstead, in a room with whitewashed walls gone grey with age and damp. Some had their eyeballs popped out with a spoon, and some had been grazed by an electric saw, deeper and deeper, and some had been burned with a smoothing iron, and some had been drilled with cordless power tools, which were left in the pictures as if in proof, yellow and black, top heavy and wobbling, their bits two-thirds buried in yielding flesh.

Pretty bad.

But not the worst things Reacher had ever seen.

Maybe the worst things all on one phone, though.

He handed it back. The guy dabbed through his menus again, until he got where he wanted to be. Serious business now.

He said, ‘Do you understand the terms of the contract?’

‘Yes,’ Reacher said.

‘Do you agree to them?’

‘Yes,’ Reacher said.

‘Bank account?’

Reacher gave him Shevick’s numbers. The guy typed them in, right there on his phone, and then he dabbed a big green rectangle at the bottom of the screen. The go button.

He said, ‘The money will be in your bank in twenty minutes.’

Then he dabbed through more menus, and suddenly raised the phone in camera mode, and snapped Reacher’s picture.

He said, ‘Thank you, Mr Shevick. A pleasure doing business. I’ll see you again in one week exactly.’

Then he tapped his bristly head with his bone-white finger, the same gesture as before. Something about remembering. Some kind of a threatening implication.

Whatever, Reacher thought.

He got up and walked away, out the door, into the dark. There was a car at the kerb. A black Lincoln, with an idling engine, and an idling driver behind the wheel, leaning back in his seat, head on the cushion, elbows wide, knees wide, like limo guys everywhere, taking a break.

There was a second guy, outside the car, leaning on the rear fender. He was dressed the same as the driver. And the guy inside the bar. Black suit, white shirt, black silk tie. Like a uniform. He had his ankles crossed, and his arms crossed. He was just waiting. He looked like the guy at the corner table would look, after about a month in the sun. White, not luminescent. He had pale hair buzzed close to his scalp, and a busted nose, and scar tissue on his eyebrows. Not much of a fighter, Reacher thought. Obviously he got hit a lot.

The guy said, ‘You Shevick?’

Reacher said, ‘Who’s asking?’

‘The people you just borrowed money from.’

‘Sounds like you already know who I am.’

‘We’re going to drive you home.’

‘Suppose I don’t want you to?’ Reacher said.

‘Part of the deal,’ the guy said.

‘What deal?’

‘We need to know where you live.’

‘Why?’

‘Reassurance.’

‘Look me up.’

‘We did.’

‘And?’

‘You’re not in the book. You don’t own real estate.’

Reacher nodded. The Shevicks had given up their land line telephone. The title to their house had already passed to the bank.

The guy said, ‘So we need to pay a personal visit.’

Reacher said nothing.

The guy asked, ‘Is there a Mrs Shevick?’

‘Why?’

‘Maybe we should visit a little with her too, while we’re looking at where you live. We like to keep our customers close. We like to make a family’s acquaintance. We find it helpful. Now get in the car.’

Reacher shook his head.

‘You misunderstand,’ the guy said. ‘This is not a choice. It’s part of the deal. You borrowed our money.’

‘Your milky-white friend inside explained the contract. He went through all the terms, in considerable detail. The administration fee, the dynamic pricing, the penalties. At one point he even introduced visual aids. After which he asked if I accepted the terms of the contract, and I said yes I did, so at that point the deal was done. You can’t start adding extra stuff afterwards, about a ride home and meeting the family. I would have to agree to that, ahead of time. A contract is a two-way street. Subject to negotiation and agreement. It can’t be done unilaterally. That’s a basic principle.’

‘You got a smart mouth.’

‘I can only hope,’ Reacher said. ‘Sometimes I worry I’m just pedantic.’

‘What?’

‘You can offer me a ride, but you can’t insist that I take it.’

‘What?’

‘You heard.’

‘OK, I’m offering you a ride. Last chance. Get in the car.’

‘Say please.’

The guy paused a long, long moment.

He said, ‘Please get in the car.’

‘OK,’ Reacher said. ‘Since you asked so nicely.’





EIGHT


About the safest way to transport an unwilling hostage in a passenger car was to make him drive with his seat belt off. The guys with the Lincoln didn’t do that. They opted for a conventional second best instead. They put Reacher in the back, behind the empty front passenger seat, with nothing dead ahead for him to attack. The guy who had done all the talking got in next to him, on the other side, behind the driver, and he sat half sideways, watchful.

He said, ‘Where to?’

‘Turn around,’ Reacher said.

The driver U-turned across the width of the street, bouncing his front right-side wheel up the far kerb, and slapping it down again.

‘Go straight for five blocks,’ Reacher said.

The driver rolled on. He was a smaller version of the first guy. Not as pale. Caucasian for sure, but not blinding. He had the same buzzed hair, golden and glittery. He had a knife scar on the back of his left hand. Probably a defensive wound. He had a spidery and fading tattoo snaking out of his right cuff. He had big pink ears, sticking straight out from the sides of his head.

Their tyres pattered over broken blacktop and patches of cobblestone. After the five straight blocks they came to the four-way light. Where Shevick had waited to cross. They rolled out of the old world and into the new. Flat and open terrain. Concrete and gravel. Wide sidewalks. It all looked different in the dark. The bus depot was up ahead.

‘Straight on,’ Reacher said.

The driver rolled through the green. They passed the depot. They tracked around, a polite distance behind the high-rent districts. Half a mile later they came to where the bus had turned off the main drag.

‘Take the right,’ Reacher said. ‘Out towards the highway.’

He saw the in-town two-lane was called Center Street. Then it widened to four lanes and was called a state route number. Then came the giant supermarket. The office parks were up ahead.

‘Where the hell are we going?’ the guy in the back said. ‘No one lives out here.’

‘Why I like it,’ Reacher said.

The road was smooth. Their tyres hissed over it. There was no traffic up ahead. Maybe something behind them. Reacher didn’t know. He couldn’t risk a look.

He said, ‘Tell me again why you want to meet my wife.’

The guy in the back said, ‘We find it helpful.’

‘How?’

‘You pay back a bank loan because you’re worried about your credit score and your good name and your standing in the community. But that’s all gone for you. You’re down in the sewer. What are you worried about now? What’s going to make you pay us back?’

They passed the office parks. Still no traffic. The auto dealer was up ahead in the distance. A wire fence, ranks of dark shapes, bunting that gleamed grey in the moonlight.

‘Sounds like a threat,’ Reacher said.

‘Daughters are good too.’

Still no traffic.

Reacher hit the guy in the face. Out of nowhere. A sudden violent explosion of muscle. No warning at all. A pile driver, with all the speed and twist he could muster in the confined space available. The guy’s head smashed back into the window frame behind him. A mist of blood from his nose spattered the glass.

Reacher reloaded and hit the driver. Same kind of force. Same kind of result. Leaning over the seat, a clubbing roundhouse right direct to the guy’s ear, the guy’s head snapping sideways, bouncing off the glass, straight into a second jabbing right to the same ear, and a third, which turned the lights out. The guy fell forward on his steering wheel.

Reacher balled himself up in the rear foot well.

A second later the car hit the auto dealer’s fence at forty miles an hour. Reacher heard a colossal bang and a banshee screech and the airbags exploded and he was crushed against the seat back in front of him, which yielded and collapsed into the deflating airbag ahead of it, just as the car smashed into the first vehicle for sale, on the near end of the long line under the flags and the bunting. The Lincoln hit it hard, head on into its gleaming flank, and the Lincoln’s windshield shattered and its back end came up in the air, and crashed back to earth, and the engine stalled out, and the car went still and quiet, all except for a loud and furious hiss of steam under the wrecked hood.

Reacher unfolded himself and climbed up on the seat again. He had taken all the juddering impacts on the flat of his back. He felt like Shevick had looked on the sidewalk. Shaken up. Hurting all over. Regular kind of thing, or worse? He guessed regular. He moved his head, his neck, his shoulders, his legs. Nothing broken. Nothing torn. Not too bad.

The same could not be said for the other two guys. The driver had been smashed in the face by the airbag, and then in the back of the head by the other guy, who had been thrown forward from the rear compartment like a spear, right out through the shattering windshield, where he still was, folded at the waist over the crumpled hood, face down. His feet were the nearest part of him. He wasn’t moving. Neither was the driver.

Reacher forced open his door against the screech of distorted metal, and he crawled out, and he forced the door shut again after him. There was no traffic behind them. Nothing up ahead either, except dim twinkling headlights, maybe a mile in the distance. Coming towards them. A minute away, at sixty miles an hour. The vehicle the Lincoln had hit was a minivan. A Ford. It was all stoved in on the side. Bent like a banana. It had a banner in the windshield that said No Accidents. The Lincoln itself was a total mess. It was crumpled up like a concertina, all the way back to the windshield. Like a safety ad in a newspaper. Except for the guy draped on top.

The headlights up ahead were getting nearer. And now back towards town there were more. The auto dealer’s fence was burst open like a cartoon drawing. Raggedy curls of wire curved neatly out the way. As if they had been blown back by the slipstream. The gap was about eight feet wide. Basically a whole section was gone. Reacher wondered if the fence had motion sensors. Connected to a silent alarm. Connected to the police department. Maybe an insurance requirement. Certainly there was plenty of stuff to steal inside.

Time to go.

Reacher stepped through the hole in the fence, stiff and sore, bruised and battered, but functioning. He stayed away from the road. Instead he stumbled along parallel to it, through fields and vacant lots, fifty feet in the dirt, out of lateral headlight range, while cars drove by in the distance, some slow, some fast. Maybe cops. Maybe not. He skirted around the blind side of the first office park, and the second, and then he changed his angle and headed for the giant supermarket’s parking lot, aiming to walk through it and rejoin the main drag where it let out.

Gregory got the news more or less immediately, from a janitor cleaning up in the emergency room. Part of the Ukrainian network. The guy took a smoke break and called it right in. Two of Gregory’s men, just arrived on gurneys. Lights and sirens. One bad, one worse. Both would probably die. There was talk of a car wreck out by the Ford dealer.

Gregory called his top boys together, and ten minutes later they were all assembled, around a table in the back room of the taxi company. His right-hand man said, ‘All we know for sure is earlier this evening two of our guys deployed to the bar to do an address check on one of the former customers from the Albanian credit operation.’

‘How long does an address check take?’ Gregory said. ‘They must have finished long ago. This must be something else entirely. It’s obviously separate. It can’t have been the address check itself. Because who the hell lives all the way out by the Ford dealer? No one, that’s who. So they let the guy out at his house and noted the address, maybe took a photograph, and then they headed over to the Ford dealer afterwards. Why? Must have been a reason. And why did they crash?’

‘Maybe they were chased in that direction. Or decoyed. Then bumped and run off the road. It’s pretty lonely out there at night.’

‘You think it was Dino?’

‘You got to ask, why those two in particular? Maybe they were followed from right outside the bar. Which would be appropriate. Because maybe Dino is making a point here. We stole his business. We expected some reaction, after all.’

‘After he twigged.’

‘Maybe he has now.’

‘How much of a point is he going to make?’

‘Maybe this is it,’ the guy said. ‘Two men for two men. We keep the loan business. It would be a surrender with honour. He’s a realistic man. He doesn’t have many options. He can’t start a war, with the cops watching.’

Gregory said nothing. The room went quiet. No sound at all, except muted chatter from the taxi radio in the front office. Through the closed door. Just background noise. No one paid any attention to it. If they had, they would have heard a driver calling in to say he had let out an old lady at the supermarket, and was going to use his waiting time while she shopped to earn an extra buck by driving a guy home, to the old tract houses east of downtown. The guy was on foot, but he looked reasonably civilized and he had cash money. Maybe his car had broken down. It was four miles there, and four miles back. He would be done before the old lady was even out of the bakery aisle. No harm, no foul.

At that moment Dino was getting a much earlier and incomplete snapshot of part of the news. It had taken an hour to travel up the chain. It included nothing about the car wreck. Most of the day had been spent disposing of Fisnik and his named accomplice. Reorganization had been left very late. Almost an afterthought. A replacement had been sent to the bar, to pick up on Fisnik’s business. The chosen guy had gotten there a little after eight o’clock in the evening. Immediately he had seen Ukrainian muscle in the street. Guarding the place. A Town Car, and two men. He had sneaked around to the bar’s rear fire door, and sneaked a look inside. A Ukrainian guy was sitting at Fisnik’s table in the far back corner, talking to a big guy, who looked dishevelled and poor. Obviously a customer.

At that point the chosen replacement regrouped and retreated. He phoned it in. The guy he told called another guy. Who called another guy. And so on. Because bad news travelled slowly. An hour later Dino heard about it. He called his top boys together, in the lumber yard.

He said, ‘There are two possible scenarios. Either the thing about the police commissioner’s list was true, and they opportunistically and treacherously used the disruption to muscle in on our moneylending business, or it wasn’t true, and they planned this thing all along, and in fact tricked us into clearing the way for them.’

His right-hand man said, ‘I suppose we must hope it was the former.’

Dino was quiet for a long spell.

Then he said, ‘I’m afraid we must pretend it was the former. We have no choice. We can’t start a war. Not now. We’ll have to let them keep the moneylending business. We have no practical way to get it back. But we’ll surrender it with honour. It must be two for two. We can’t be seen to do less than that. Kill two of their men, and we’ll call it even.’

His right-hand man asked, ‘Which two?’

‘I don’t care,’ Dino said.

Then he changed his mind.

‘No, choose them carefully,’ he said. ‘Let’s try to find an advantage.’





NINE


Reacher got out of the taxi at the Shevick house and walked up the narrow concrete path. The door opened before he could ring the bell. Shevick stood there, with the light behind him and his phone in his hand.

‘The money came through an hour ago,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’

‘Welcome,’ Reacher said.

‘You’re late. We thought maybe you weren’t coming back.’

‘I had to take a minor detour.’

‘Where?’

‘Let’s go inside,’ Reacher said. ‘We need to talk.’

This time they used the living room. The photographs on the wall, the amputated television. The Shevicks took the armchairs, and Reacher sat on the loveseat.

He said, ‘It happened pretty much like it happened with you and Fisnik. Except the guy snapped my picture. Which might be a good thing, in the end. Your name, my face. A little confusion never hurts. But if I was a real client, I wouldn’t have liked it. Not one little bit. It would have felt like a bony finger on my shoulder. It would have made me feel vulnerable. Then I got outside and there was more. Two guys, who wanted to drive me home, to see where I lived, and who I lived with. My wife, if I had one. Which was another bony finger. Maybe a whole bony hand.’

‘What happened?’

‘The three of us negotiated a different arrangement. Not linked in any way to your name or address. In fact fairly confusing as to exactly what took place. I wanted an element of mystery about it. Their bosses will suspect a message, but they won’t be sure who from. They’ll think the Albanians, most likely. Not you, certainly.’

‘What happened to the men?’

‘They were part of the message. As in, this is America. Don’t send an asshole who last time out was seventh on the undercard in some basement fight club in Kiev. At least take it seriously. Show some respect.’

‘They saw your face.’

‘They won’t remember. They had an accident. They got all banged up. Their memories will be missing an hour or two. Retrograde amnesia, they call it. Fairly common, after physical trauma. If they don’t die first, that is.’

‘So everything’s OK?’

‘Not really,’ Reacher said.

‘What else?’

‘These are not reasonable people.’

‘We know.’

‘How are you going to pay their money back?’

They didn’t answer.

‘You need twenty-five grand, a week from right now. You can’t be late. They showed me pictures too. Fisnik’s can’t have been worse. You need some kind of a plan.’

Shevick said, ‘A week is a long time.’

‘Not really,’ Reacher said again.

Mrs Shevick said, ‘Something good might happen.’

Nothing more.

Reacher said, ‘You really need to tell me what it is you’re waiting for.’

It was about their daughter, inevitably. Mrs Shevick’s gaze roamed the pictures on the wall as she told the story. Their daughter’s name was Margaret, shortened since childhood to Meg. She had been a bright, happy infant, full of charm and energy. She loved other children. She loved kindergarten. She loved elementary school. She loved to read and write and draw. She smiled and chattered all the time. She could persuade anyone to do anything. She could have sold ice to the Eskimos, her mother said.

She loved middle school just as much, and junior high, and high school. She was popular. Everyone liked her. She put on plays and sang in the choir and ran track and swam. She got her diploma, but she didn’t go to college. Her book learning was good, but not her main strength. She was a people person. She needed to be out and about, smiling, chatting, charming folks. Bending them to her will, if truth be told. She liked a purpose.

She got an entry-level job in the spokesperson business, and she bounced around town from one PR office to another, doing whatever the local establishments had a budget for. She worked hard, and made her name, and got promoted, and by the time she was thirty she was making more than her dad ever had as a machinist. Ten years later, at forty, she was still doing well, but she felt her trajectory had slowed. Her acceleration had been blunted. She could see her ceiling above her. She would sit at her desk and think, is this it?

No, she decided. She wanted one last big score. Bigger than big. She was in the wrong place, she knew. She would have to move. San Francisco, probably, where the tech money was. Where complicated things needed explaining. Sooner or later she would have to go there. Or New York. But she dithered. Time passed. Then, amazingly, San Francisco came to her. In a manner of speaking. Later she learned there was a perpetual ongoing game, stoked up by real estate people and tech sector accountants, in which the prize was to guess correctly about where the next-but-one Silicon Valley would be. In order to get in early. For some reason her hometown checked all the secret boxes. Regenerating, the right kind of people, the right buildings, and power, and internet speed. The first advance scouts were already sniffing around.

Meg got a friend-of-a-friend introduction to a guy who knew a guy, who arranged an interview with the founder of a brand new venture. They met in a downtown coffee shop. He was a twenty-five-year-old fresh off the plane from California. Some kind of a foreign-born computer genius, with some new thing to do with medical software and apps on people’s phones. Mrs Shevick admitted she had never been exactly sure what the product was, except she knew it was the type of thing that made folks rich.

Meg was offered the job. Senior Vice President for Communications and Local Affairs. It was a fledgling ink-not-dry start-up company, so the salary wasn’t great. Not much more than she was already making. But there was a whole giant package of benefits. Stock options, a huge pension plan, a gold-plated health plan, a European coupé to drive. Plus weird San Francisco stuff like free pizza and candy and massages. She liked all of it. But the stock options were by far the biggest deal. One day she could be a billionaire. Literally. That was how these things happened.

At first it went pretty well. Meg did great work keeping the drums beating, and two or three times in the first year it looked like they might make it to the top of the hill. But they didn’t. Not quite. The second year was the same. Still glossy and glamorous and cutting edge and the next big thing, but nothing actually happened. The third year was worse. Investors got nervous. The cash spigot was turned way down. But they hung in, lean and mean. They rented two floors of their building. No more pizza or candy. The massage tables were folded up and put away. They worked harder than ever, side by side in cramped quarters, still determined, still confident.

Then Meg got cancer.

Or, more accurately, she found out she’d had cancer for about the last six months. She had been too busy for doctor visits. She thought the weight she was losing was from working too hard. But no. It was a bad diagnosis. It was a virulent type, and it was fairly advanced. The only ray of hope was a bunch of new treatments. They were exotic and expensive, but their trials had been promising. They seemed to work. Their success rate was climbing. No other option, the doctors said. Calendars were cleared, and Meg was booked in for her first session the very next morning.

Which was when the problems started.

Mrs Shevick said, ‘There was a glitch with her insurance. Her account number wouldn’t run. She was prepping for chemo, and people were running in and out asking her full name and date of birth and Social Security number. It was a nightmare. They had the insurance company on the phone, and no one knew what was going on. They could see her history and they knew she was a customer. But the code wouldn’t authorize. It threw up an error message. They said it was just a computer thing. No big deal. They said it would be fixed the next day. But the hospital said we couldn’t wait. They had us sign a form. It said we would cover the bill if the insurance didn’t come through. They said it was just a technicality. They said computer things happened all the time. They said everything would get straightened out.’

‘I’m guessing everything didn’t,’ Reacher said.

‘The weekend came along, which was two more sessions, and then it was Monday, and then we found out.’

‘Found out what?’ Reacher asked, although he felt he could guess.

Mrs Shevick shook her head and sighed and flapped her hand in front of her face, as if she couldn’t form the words. As if she was all done talking. Her husband leaned forward, with his elbows on his knees, and he continued the tale.

‘Their third year,’ he said. ‘When their investors got nervous. It was even worse than they knew. It was worse than anyone knew. The boss was keeping secrets. From everyone, Meg included. Behind the scenes the whole thing was falling apart. He wasn’t paying the bills. Not a dime. He didn’t renew the company health plan. He didn’t pay the premium. He just ignored it. Meg’s number wouldn’t run because the policy was cancelled. On her fourth day of treatment we found out she was uninsured.’

‘Not her fault,’ Reacher said. ‘Surely. It was some kind of fraud or breach of contract. There must be a remedy.’

‘There are two,’ Shevick said. ‘One is a government no-fault fund, and the other is an insurance industry no-fault fund, both of them set up for this specific reason. Naturally we ran straight to them. Right away they got to work on how to apportion responsibility between them, and as soon as that’s done they’re going to refund everyt