In the morning they gave Reacher a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school. The medal was another Legion of Merit. His second. It was a handsome item, enamelled in white, with a ribbon halfway between purple and red. Army Regulation 600-8-22 authorized its award for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the United States in a key position of responsibility. Which was a bar Reacher felt he had cleared, technically. But he figured the real reason he was getting it was the same reason he had gotten it before. It was a transaction. A contractual token. Take the bauble and keep your mouth shut about what we asked you to do for it. Which Reacher would have anyway. It was nothing to boast about. The Balkans, some police work, a search for two local men with wartime secrets to keep, both soon identified, and located, and visited, and shot in the head. All part of the peace process. Interests were served, and the region calmed down a little. Two weeks of his life. Four rounds expended. No big deal.
Army Regulation 600-8-22 was surprisingly vague about exactly how medals should be handed out. It said only that decorations were to be presented with an appropriate air of formality and with fitting ceremony. Which usually meant a large room with gilt furniture and a bunch of flags. And an officer senior in rank to the recipient. Reacher was a major, with twelve years in, but other awards were being given out that morning, including three to a trio of colonels and two to a pair of one-star generals, so the big cheese on deck was a three-star from the Pentagon, who Reacher knew from many years before, when the guy had been a CID battalion commander working out of Fort Myer. A thinker. Certainly enough of a thinker to figure out why an MP major was getting a Legion of Merit. He had a look in his eye. Part wry, and part seal-the-deal serious. Take the bauble and keep your mouth shut. Maybe in the past the guy had done the same thing himself. Maybe more than once. He had a whole fruit salad of ribbons on the left chest of his Class-A coat. Including two Legions of Merit.
The appropriately formal room was deep inside Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Which was close to the Pentagon, which was convenient for the three-star. Convenient for Reacher too, because it was about equally close to Rock Creek, where he had been marking time since he got back. Not so convenient for the other officers, who had flown in from Germany.
There was some milling around, and some small talk, and some shaking of hands, and then everyone went quiet and lined up and stood to attention, and salutes were exchanged, and medals were variously pinned or draped on, and then there was more milling around and small talk and shaking of hands. Reacher edged towards the door, keen to get out, but the three-star caught him before he made it. The guy shook his hand and kept hold of his elbow, and said, ‘I hear you’re getting new orders.’
Reacher said, ‘No one told me. Not yet. Where did you hear that?’
‘My top sergeant. They all talk to each other. U.S. Army NCOs have the world’s most efficient grapevine. It always amazes me.’
‘Where do they say I’m going?’
‘They don’t know for sure. But not far. Within driving distance, anyway. Apparently the motor pool got a requisition.’
‘When am I supposed to find out?’
‘Thank you,’ Reacher said. ‘Good to know.’
The three-star let go of his elbow, and Reacher edged onward, to the door, and through it, and out to a corridor, where a sergeant first class skidded to a halt and saluted. He was out of breath, like he had run a long way. From a distant part of the installation, maybe, where the real work was done.
The guy said, ‘Sir, with General Garber’s compliments, he requests that you stop by his office at your earliest convenience.’
Reacher said, ‘Where am I going, soldier?’
‘Driving distance,’ the guy said. ‘But around here, that could be a lot of different things.’
Garber’s office was in the Pentagon, so Reacher caught a ride with two captains who lived at Belvoir but had afternoon shifts in the B ring. Garber had a walled-off room all his own, two rings in, two floors up, guarded by a sergeant at a desk outside the door. Who stood up and led Reacher inside, and announced his name, like an old-time butler in a movie. Then the guy sidestepped and began his retreat, but Garber stopped him and said, ‘Sergeant, I’d like you to stay.’
So the guy did, standing easy, feet planted on the shiny linoleum.
Garber said, ‘Take a seat, Reacher.’
Reacher did, on a visitor chair with tubular legs, which sagged under his weight and tipped him backward, as if a strong wind was blowing.
Garber said, ‘You have new orders.’
Reacher said, ‘What and where?’
‘You’re going back to school.’
Reacher said nothing.
Garber said, ‘Disappointed?’
Hence the witness, Reacher supposed. Not a private conversation. Best behaviour. He said, ‘As always, general, I’m happy to go where the army sends me.’
‘You don’t sound happy. But you should. Career development is a wonderful thing.’
‘Details are being delivered to your office as we speak.’
‘How long will I be gone?’
‘That depends on how hard you work. As long as it takes, I guess.’
Reacher got a bus in the Pentagon parking lot and rode two stops to the base of the hill below the Rock Creek HQ. He walked up the slope and went straight to his office. There was a slim file centred on his desk. His name was on it, and some numbers, and a course title: Impact of Recent Forensic Innovation on Inter-Agency Cooperation. Inside were sheets of paper, still warm from the Xerox machine, including a formal notice of temporary detachment to a location that seemed to be a leased facility in a corporate park in McLean, Virginia. He was to report there before five o’clock that afternoon. Civilian dress was to be worn. Residential quarters would be on-site. A personal vehicle would be provided. No driver.
Reacher tucked the file under his arm and walked out of the building. No one watched him go. He was of no interest to anyone. Not any more. He was a disappointment. An anticlimax. The NCO grapevine had held its breath, and all it had gotten was a meaningless course with a bullshit title. Not exciting at all. So now he was a non-person. Out of circulation. Out of sight, out of mind. Like a ballplayer on the disabled list. A month from now someone might suddenly remember him for a second, and wonder when he was coming back, or if, and then forget him again just as quickly.
The desk sergeant inside the door glanced up, and glanced away, bored.
Reacher had very few civilian clothes, and some of them weren’t really civilian. His off-duty pants were Marine Corps khakis about thirty years old. He knew a guy who knew a guy who worked in a warehouse, where he claimed there was a bale of old stuff wrongly delivered back when LBJ was still president, and then never squared away again afterwards. And apparently the point of the story was that old Marine pants looked just like new Ralph Lauren pants. Not that Reacher cared what pants looked like. But five bucks was an attractive price. And the pants were fine. Unworn, never issued, stiffly folded, a little musty, but good for another thirty years at least.
His off-duty T-shirts were no more civilian, being old army items, gone pale and thin with washing. Only his jacket was definitively non-military. It was a tan denim Levi’s item, totally authentic in every respect, including the label, but sewn by an old girlfriend’s mother, in a basement in Seoul.
He changed and packed the rest of his stuff into a duffel and a suit carrier, which he heaved out to the kerb, where a black Chevy Caprice was parked. He guessed it was an old MP black-and-white, now retired, with the decals peeled off, and the holes for the light bar and the antennas all sealed up with rubber plugs. The key was in. The seat was worn. But the engine started, and the transmission worked, and the brakes were fine. Reacher swung the thing around like a battleship manoeuvring, and headed out towards McLean, Virginia, with the windows down and the radio playing.
The corporate park was one of many, all of them the same, brown and beige, discreet typefaces, neat lawns, some evergreen planting, low two-and three-building campuses spreading outward across empty land, servicing folks who hid behind bland and modest names and tinted glass in their office windows. Reacher found the right place by the street number, and pulled in past a knee-high sign that said Educational Solutions Incorporated, in a typeface so plain it looked childish.
Parked at the door were two more Chevy Caprices. One was black and one was navy blue. They were both newer than Reacher’s. And they were both properly civilian, in that they didn’t have rubber plugs and brush-painted doors. They were government sedans, no doubt about it, clean and shiny, each one with two more antennas than a person needed for listening to the ball game. But the extra two antennas were not the same in both cases. The black car had short needles and the blue car had longer whips, in a different configuration. On a different wavelength. Two separate organizations.
Reacher parked alongside, and left his bags in the car. He went in the door, to an empty lobby, which had durable grey carpet underfoot and green potted ferns here and there against the walls. There was a door marked Office. And a door marked Classroom. Which Reacher opened. There was a green chalkboard at the head of the room, and twenty college desks, in four rows of five, each one with a little ledge on the right, for paper and pencil.
Sitting on two of the desks were two guys, both in suits. One suit was black, and one suit was navy blue. Like the cars. Both guys were looking straight ahead, like they had been talking, but had run out of things to say. They were about Reacher’s own age. The one in the black suit was pale with dark hair worn dangerously long for a guy with a government car. The one in the blue suit was pale with colourless hair buzzed short. Like an astronaut. Built like an astronaut, too, or a gymnast not long out of the game.
Reacher stepped in, and they both turned to look.
The dark-haired guy said, ‘Who are you?’
Reacher said, ‘That depends on who you are.’
‘Your identity depends on mine?’
‘Whether I tell you or not. Are those your cars outside?’
‘Is that significant?’
‘Because they’re different.’
‘Yes,’ the guy said. ‘Those are our cars. And yes, you’re in a classroom with two different representatives of two different government agencies. At cooperation school. Where they’re going to teach us all about how to get along with other organizations. Please don’t tell me you’re from one of them.’
‘Military Police,’ Reacher said. ‘But don’t worry. I’m sure by five o’clock we’ll have plenty of civilized people here. You can give up on me and get along with them instead.’
The guy with the buzz cut looked up and said, ‘No, I think we’re it. I think we’re the whole ball game. There are only three bedrooms made up. I took a look around.’
Reacher said, ‘What kind of a government school has only three students? I never heard of that before.’
‘Maybe we’re faculty. Maybe the students live elsewhere.’
The guy with the dark hair said, ‘Yes, that would make more sense.’
Reacher thought back, to the conversation in Garber’s office. He said, ‘My guy called it career development. I got the strong impression I would be on the receiving end, not the giving end. Then he seemed to suggest I could get through fast if I worked hard. All in all, I don’t think I’m faculty. Did your orders sound any different?’
The guy with the buzz cut said, ‘Not really.’
The guy with the hair didn’t answer, except for a big speculative shrug that seemed to concede a person with a strong imagination could interpret his orders as less than impressive.
The guy with the buzz cut said, ‘I’m Casey Waterman, FBI.’
‘Jack Reacher, United States Army.’
The guy with the hair said, ‘John White, CIA.’
They all shook hands, and then they lapsed into the same kind of silence Reacher had heard when he stepped in. They had run out of things to say. He sat on a desk near the back of the room. Waterman was ahead of him on the left, and White was ahead of him on the right. Waterman was very still. But watchful. He was passing the time and conserving his energy. He had done so before. He was an experienced agent. No kind of a rookie. And neither was White, despite being different in every other way. White was never still. He was twitching and writhing and wringing his hands, and squinting into space, variably, focusing long, focusing short, sometimes narrowing his eyes and grimacing, looking left, looking right, as if caught in a tortuous sequence of thoughts, with no way out. An analyst, Reacher guessed, after many years in a world of unreliable data and double, triple, and quadruple bluffs. The guy was entitled to look a little agitated.
No one spoke.
Five minutes later Reacher broke the silence and asked, ‘Is there a history of us not getting along? The FBI, I mean, and the CIA and the MPs. I’m not aware of any kind of a big deal. Are you?’
Waterman said, ‘I think you’re jumping to the wrong conclusion. This is not about history. It’s about the future. They know we’re already cooperative. Which allows them to exploit us. Think about the first half of the course title. This is about forensic innovation just as much as cooperation. And innovation means they’re going to save money. We’re all going to cooperate even more in the future. By sharing lab space. They’re going to build one new place and we’re all going to use it. That’s my bet. We’re here to be told how to make it work.’
‘That’s nuts,’ Reacher said. ‘I don’t know anything about labs or scheduling. I’m the last person for that.’
‘Me too,’ Waterman said. ‘Not a strength, to be honest.’
‘This is worse than nuts,’ White said. ‘This is a colossal waste of time. There are far too many far more important things going on.’
Twitching and writhing and wringing his hands.
Reacher asked, ‘Did they pull you off a job to bring you here? You got unfinished business?’
‘No, actually. I was due a rotation. I just closed out a thing. Successfully, I thought, but this was my reward.’
‘Look on the sunny side of the street. You can relax. Take it easy. Go play golf. You don’t need to learn how to make it work. CIA doesn’t give a damn about labs. You hardly use them.’
‘I’ll be three months behind on the job I should be starting right now.’
‘Which is what?’
‘I can’t tell you.’
‘Who is doing it instead?’
‘I can’t tell you that, either.’
‘A good analyst?’
‘Not good enough. He’ll miss things. They might be vital. This stuff is impossible to predict.’
‘I can’t tell you.’
‘But important stuff, right?’
‘Far more important than this.’
‘What was the thing you just closed out?’
‘I can’t tell you.’
‘Was it an outstanding service to the United States in a key position of responsibility?’
‘Or words to that effect.’
‘Yes, I would say so.’
‘But this was your reward.’
Waterman said, ‘Mine too. I’m in the same boat. I could say every word he just said. I expected a promotion. Not this.’
‘A promotion for what? Or after what?’
‘We closed a big case.’
‘What kind of case?’
‘A manhunt, basically. Years old and very cold. But we did it.’
‘A service to our nation?’
‘What’s this about?’
‘I’m comparing the two of you. And there’s not much difference. You’re very good agents, already fairly senior, seen as loyal and reliable and trustworthy, and hence you’re given something useful to do. But then this is your reward for doing it. Which means one of two things.’
‘Which are?’ White said.
‘Maybe the thing you did was embarrassing in certain circles. Maybe now it needs to be deniable. Maybe you need to be hidden away. Out of sight and out of mind.’
White shook his head. He said, ‘No, it was well regarded. It will be for years. I got a secret decoration. And a personal letter from the Secretary of State. And it doesn’t need to be deniable anyway, because it was completely secret. No one in those circles knew anything about it.’
Reacher looked at Waterman and said, ‘Was there anything embarrassing about your manhunt?’
Waterman shook his head, and said, ‘What’s the second possibility?’
‘This is not a school.’
‘Then what is it?’
‘It’s a place where they send good agents fresh off a big win.’
Waterman paused a beat. A new thought. He said, ‘Are you the same as us? I don’t see why you wouldn’t be. Why draft two the same and not three?’
Reacher nodded. ‘I’m the same. I’m fresh off a big win. That’s for damn sure. I got a medal this morning. On a ribbon around my neck. For a job well done. All clean and tidy. Nothing to get embarrassed about.’
‘What kind of job was it?’
‘I’m sure it’s classified. But I’m reliably informed it might have involved someone breaking into a house and shooting the occupant in the head.’
‘One in the forehead and one behind the ear. Never fails.’
‘No, where was the house?’
‘I’m sure that’s classified too. But overseas, I expect. And I’m reliably informed there were a lot of consonants in the name. Not many vowels at all. And then the same someone did the same thing the next night. At a different house. All for good reasons. Which taken together means I would expect him to get better than this afterwards. I would expect him to get some input into his next deployment, at least. Maybe even a choice.’
‘Exactly,’ White said. ‘And my choice wouldn’t have been this. It would have been to do what I should be doing right now.’
‘Which sounds challenging.’
‘Which is typical. As a reward we want a challenge. We don’t want the easy commands. We want to step up.’
‘Maybe we have,’ Reacher said. ‘Let me ask you a question. Think back to when you got these orders. Was it face to face, or written?’
‘Face to face. It had to be, for a thing like this.’
‘Was there a third person in the room?’
White said, ‘As a matter of fact there was. It was humiliating. An administrative assistant, waiting to deliver a stack of papers. He told her to stay. She was just standing there.’
Reacher looked at Waterman, who said, ‘Same for me. He kept his secretary in the room. Normally he wouldn’t. How did you know?’
‘Because the same thing happened to me. His sergeant. A witness. But also a gossip. That was the whole point. They all talk to each other. Within seconds everyone knew I wasn’t going anywhere interesting. Just a meaningless course with a bullshit title. I was instantly yesterday’s news. Immediately off the radar. I’m sure it’s far and wide by now. I’m a non-person. I disappeared into the bureaucratic fog. And maybe you did too. Maybe administrative assistants and FBI secretaries have networks of their own. If they do, then the three of us are the three most invisible people on the planet right now. No one is asking questions about us. No one is curious about us. No one can even remember us. There’s nothing more boring than where we are now.’
‘You’re saying they moved three unrelated but in-form operatives completely under the radar. Why?’
‘Under the radar doesn’t capture it. We’re in class here. We’re completely invisible.’
‘Why? And why us three? What’s the connection?’
‘I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s a challenging project. Possibly the kind of thing three in-form operatives might regard as a satisfactory reward for services rendered.’
‘What is this place?’
‘I don’t know,’ Reacher said again. ‘But it ain’t a school. That’s for damn sure.’
At five o’clock exactly two black vans pulled in off the road, and drove past the knee-high sign, and parked behind the three Caprices, like a barricade, trapping them in. Two men in suits got out of each of the vans. Secret Service, or U.S. Marshals. Both pairs of men looked around briefly, and gave themselves the all-clear, and ducked back to their vans to get their principals out.
From the second van came a woman. She had a briefcase in one hand and a stack of papers in the other. She was wearing a neat black dress. Knee length. It was the kind of thing that could do double duty, in the daytime with pearls in hushed high-floor offices, and in the evening with diamonds at cocktail parties and receptions. She was older than Reacher, maybe ten years or more. Middle forties, but doing well. Looking sharp. She had blonde hair, medium length, arranged in an unaffected style and no doubt combed with her fingers. She was taller than the average, but no wider.
Then out of the first van came a guy Reacher recognized instantly. His face was in the paper once a week, and on TV more than that, because as well as getting coverage for his own business, he was in a lot of stock photographs and B-roll footage, of Cabinet meetings, and tense shirt-sleeve discussions in the Oval Office. He was Alfred Ratcliffe, the National Security Adviser. The president’s top boy, whenever it came to things that might not end well. The go-to guy. The right-hand man. Rumour had it he was nearly seventy years old, but he didn’t look it. He was an old State Department survivor, historically in and out of favour as the winds changed and he didn’t, but he had hung in there long enough until finally his backbone got him the best job of all.
The woman joined up with him and they walked together, with the four suits all around them, to the lobby doors, which Reacher heard open, and then he heard feet on the hard carpet, and then they all came into the classroom, two suits hanging back, two walking point towards the chalkboard, Ratcliffe and the woman following them, and turning when they could get no further, to face the room, exactly like teachers at the start of a lesson.
Ratcliffe looked at White, and then at Waterman, and then at Reacher, way in back.
He said, ‘This is not a school.’
The woman bent decorously at the knee and laid her briefcase and her stack of papers on the floor. Ratcliffe took a step forward and said, ‘You three were brought here under false pretences, obviously. But we didn’t want a lot of fanfare. A little misdirection was better. We want to avoid attention, if we can. At least at the beginning.’
And then he paused, for the drama, as if inviting questions, but no one asked any. Not even: the beginning of what? Better to hear the pitch all the way through. Always safer, with orders from on high.
Ratcliffe asked, ‘Who here can articulate this administration’s national security policy in simple plain English?’
No one spoke.
Ratcliffe asked, ‘Why aren’t you answering?’
Waterman retreated behind a thousand-yard stare, and White shrugged as if to say the immense complexities obviously precluded ordinary language, and anyway weren’t the notions of simplicity and plainness entirely subjective, and therefore clearly in need of a preliminary round of argument in order to agree definitions?
Reacher said, ‘It’s a trick question.’
Ratcliffe said, ‘You think our policy can’t be explained simply?’
‘I think it doesn’t exist.’
‘You think we’re incompetent?’
‘No, I think the world is changing. Better to stay flexible.’
‘Are you the MP?’
Ratcliffe paused again, and said, ‘A little over three years ago a bomb went off in a garage under a very tall building in New York City. Personally tragic for those killed or injured, of course, but from a global perspective not a very big deal at all. Except at that moment the world went mad. The closer we looked, the less we saw, and the less we understood. We had enemies everywhere, apparently, but we didn’t know for sure who they were, or where they were, or why they were, or what was the connection between them, or what they wanted, and we certainly had no idea what they would do next. We were nowhere. But at least we admitted that to ourselves. Therefore we didn’t waste time developing policies on things we hadn’t even heard of yet. We felt that would generate a false sense of security. So as of now our standard operating procedure is to run around with our hair on fire, dealing with ten things at once, as and when they arise. We chase everything, because we have to. A little more than three years from now is the new millennium, with every capital city celebrating around the clock, which makes that one single day the greatest propaganda target in the history of planet Earth. We need to know who these guys are well ahead of time. All of them. So we ignore nothing.’
No one spoke.
Ratcliffe said, ‘Not that I need to justify myself to you. But you need to understand the theory. We make no assumptions and we leave no stone unturned.’
No one asked anything. Not even: do you have a particular stone in mind for us? Always safer not to speak, unless spoken to. Better just to wait.
But then Ratcliffe turned towards the woman and said, ‘This is Dr Marian Sinclair, my senior deputy. She will complete the briefing. Every single word she says is backed by me, and therefore by the president also. Every single word. This might be a complete waste of time and go nowhere, but until we know that for sure it gets exactly the same priority as everything else. No effort is to be spared. You’ll get anything you need.’
And then the guy swept out, between two hustling suits. Reacher heard them leave the lobby, and he heard their van start up and drive away. Dr Marian Sinclair hauled a front-row desk around until it was facing the rest of the room, and she sat down, all toned arms and dark nylons and good shoes. She crossed her legs and said, ‘Gather round.’
Reacher moved up to the third row and squeezed into a desk that put him in a neat and attentive semicircle with Waterman and White. Sinclair’s face looked open and honest, but pinched by stress and worry. There was serious shit going on. That was clear. Maybe Garber had dropped a hint. You don’t sound happy. But you should. Maybe all was not lost. Reacher figured White was arriving at the same conclusion. He was leaning forward, and his eyes were still. Waterman was motionless. Conserving energy.
Sinclair said, ‘There’s an apartment in Hamburg, Germany. A fashionable neighbourhood, reasonably central, pretty expensive, but maybe a little transitory and corporate. For the last year the apartment has been rented to four men in their twenties. Not Germans. Three are Saudis, and the fourth is an Iranian. All four appear very secular. Clean-shaven, short hair, well dressed. They favour polo shirts in pastel colours with alligator badges. They wear gold Rolex watches and Italian shoes. They drive BMWs and go out to nightclubs. But they don’t go out to work.’
Reacher saw White nod to himself, as if he was familiar with such situations. There was no reaction from Waterman.
Sinclair said, ‘Locally the four young men are taken to be minor playboys. Possibly related to distant branches of rich and prominent families. Sowing their wild oats before coming home to the oil ministry. Standard-issue Eurotrash, in other words. But we know they’re not. We know they were recruited in their home countries and sent to Germany through Yemen and Afghanistan by a new organization we don’t know much about yet. Other than it seems to be well funded, strongly jihadist, largely paramilitary in its training methods, and indifferent to national origins. Saudis and Iranians working together is unusual. But working together they are. They were well thought of in the training camps, and they were sent to Hamburg a year ago. Their mission was to embed themselves in the West, live quietly, and await further instructions. Of which they’ve had none so far. They’re a sleeper cell, in other words.’
Waterman stirred and said, ‘How do we know all this?’
‘The Iranian is ours,’ Sinclair said. ‘He’s a double agent. CIA runs him out of the Hamburg consulate.’
Sinclair nodded. ‘And brave kids are hard to find. That’s one of the ways the world changed. Assets used to walk in the embassy door. They wrote begging letters. We used to turn some of them away. But those were old communists. Now we need young Arabs and we don’t know any.’
‘Why do you need us?’ Waterman said. ‘It’s a stable situation. They’re not going anywhere. You’ll get the activation order about a minute after they do. Assuming the consulate mans the switchboard around the clock.’
Better to hear the pitch all the way through.
Sinclair said, ‘It is a stable situation. Nothing ever happens. But then something did. A few days ago. Just a tiny random collision. They had a visitor.’
At Sinclair’s suggestion they moved out of the classroom to the office. She said the classroom was uncomfortable, because of the desks, which was true, especially for Reacher. He was six feet five and two hundred fifty pounds. He was wearing his desk more than sitting in it. By contrast the office had a conference table with four reclining chairs made of leather. Which enhanced level of comfort Sinclair seemed to fully anticipate. Which made sense. She had leased the space herself, after all, probably yesterday, or had an under-deputy do so on her behalf. Three bedrooms, and four chairs for the briefings.
The men in suits waited outside, and Sinclair said, ‘Our asset was squeezed for every detail he had, and we think we can trust his conclusions. The visitor was another Saudi. The same age as them. Dressed the same as them. Product in his hair, gold necklace, alligator on his shirt. They weren’t expecting him. It was a total surprise. But they have a thing like the Mafia, where they might be called upon to perform a service. The visitor alluded to it. It turned out he was what they call a courier. Nothing to do with them. Something else entirely. Just that he was in Germany on business and needed a safe house. Which is always a courier’s preferred option. Hotels leave trails, eventually. They’re very paranoid, because these new networks are very spread out. Which means secure communication is theoretically very difficult. They think we can hear their cell phones, which we probably can, and they think we can read their e-mails, which I’m sure we soon will, and they know we steam open their regular mail. So they use couriers instead, who are really messengers. They don’t carry briefcases chained to their wrists. They carry verbal questions and verbal answers in their heads. They go back and forth, from continent to continent, question, answer, question, answer. Very slow, but completely secure. No electronic fingerprint anywhere, nothing written down, and nothing to see except a guy with a gold chain passing through an airport, alongside a million others just like him.’
White asked, ‘Do we know if Hamburg was his final destination? Or was he breaking his journey to somewhere else in Germany?’
Sinclair said, ‘His business was in Hamburg.’
‘But not with the boys in the house.’
‘No, with someone else.’
‘Do we know who sent him? Do we assume the same guys from Yemen and Afghanistan?’
‘We strongly believe it was the same guys. Because of another circumstance.’
Waterman said, ‘Which was what?’
‘By a statistically not very amazing coincidence, the messenger knew one of the Saudis in the house. They had spent three months in Yemen together, climbing ropes and firing AK47s. It’s a small world. So the two of them had brief conversations, and the Iranian overheard some of them.’
‘What did he hear?’
‘The guy was waiting for a rendezvous coming up two days from then. Location was never stated, or at least never overheard, but the context suggested it was reasonably local to the safe house. He didn’t have a message to give. He was there to be told something. An opening statement, the Iranian says. An initial position, of some sort. He says it was clear from the context. The messenger was to hear the statement and carry it back in his head.’
‘It sounds like the start of a negotiation. Like an opening bid.’
Sinclair nodded. ‘We expect the messenger to return. At least once, with a yes or no answer.’
‘Do we have any idea what the issue is?’
Sinclair shook her head. ‘But it’s important business. The Iranian is sure of it, because the messenger was an elite warrior, just like himself. He must have been well thought of in the camps, or how could he have gotten the polo shirts and the Italian shoes and four passports? He wasn’t the sort of guy used by small fish at either end of the chain. He was a principals-only type of messenger.’
‘Did the rendezvous happen?’
‘In the late afternoon of the second day. The guy went out for fifty minutes.’
‘And then what?’
‘He left, first thing the next morning.’
‘No more conversations?’
‘One more. And it was a good one. The guy spilled the beans. He came right out with it. He told his friend the information he was carrying home. Just like that. He couldn’t help himself. Because he was impressed by it, we think. By the scale of it. The Iranian said he seemed very excited. These are young men in their twenties.’
‘What was the information?’
‘It was an opening statement. An initial position. Just like the Iranian thought it would be. Short and to the point.’
‘What did it say?’
‘The American wants a hundred million dollars.’
Sinclair sat up straight and hitched closer to the table, as if to emphasize her points, and said, ‘The Iranian is by all accounts very smart and articulate and sensitive to the nuances of language, and the head of station went over and over it with him, and we firmly believe it was a simple declarative statement. During those fifty minutes the messenger met face to face with an American. Male, because there was no comment about it being a woman, and there would have been, the Iranian says. He’s completely certain of that. During the meeting the American told the messenger he wanted a hundred million dollars. As a price for something. That was clearly the context. But that was the end of the transmission. What American, we don’t know. A hundred million for what, we don’t know. From whom, we don’t know.’
White said, ‘But a hundred million narrows the field. Even if it’s an opening bid that gets knocked down to fifty, it’s still a good chunk of change. Who has that kind of money? Plenty of people, you would say, but at least you can get them all in one Rolodex.’
‘Wrong end of the telescope,’ Reacher said. ‘Better to find the seller than the buyer, surely. What kind of a thing would guys who climb ropes in Yemen pay a hundred million dollars for? And what kind of American in Hamburg has such a thing for sale?’
Waterman said, ‘A hundred million is a lot of money. That kind of price would worry me a little.’
Sinclair nodded and said, ‘That kind of price worries us a lot. It sounds deadly serious. It’s more than we ever heard of before. Therefore we’re working every channel we can. All our assets worldwide have been alerted. Hundreds of people are working hard already. But we need more. Your job is to find that American. If he’s still overseas, then CIA has jurisdiction, and Mr White will lead the effort. If he’s back in the States now, the FBI has jurisdiction and Special Agent Waterman will step up instead. And because statistics tell us the overwhelming majority of Americans in Germany at any one time are serving U.S. military, we think we might need Major Reacher to be involved with either or both.’
Reacher looked at Waterman, then White, and saw issues in their eyes, and had no doubt they saw the same in his.
Sinclair said, ‘Staff and supplies will arrive in the morning. You can have anything you want, at any time. But you will talk to no one except me, Mr Ratcliffe, or the president. This is a quarantined unit. Even if all you want is a box of pencils, you go through me, Mr Ratcliffe, or the president. Which in practice will be me. Subsequent paperwork will be generated inside the West Wing. You must not be identified personally. Because a hundred million dollars is a lot of money. Government involvement is not impossible. The American could be State Department, or Justice, or in the Pentagon. You might talk to the wrong person by mistake. So talk to no one. That’s rule number two.’
Waterman said, ‘What was rule number one?’
‘Rule number one is the Iranian must not be burned. We must do nothing that could be traced back to him. We have a lot invested in him and we’re going to need him, because we truly have no idea what’s coming next.’
Then she pushed her chair back and stood up and headed for the door. As she left she said, ‘Remember, hair on fire.’
Reacher lay back in his leather chair, and White looked at him and said, ‘It has to be tanks and planes.’
Reacher said, ‘Our nearest tanks are a thousand miles from Yemen or Afghanistan, and they take weeks and weeks and thousands of people to move. It would be easier to bring Yemen or Afghanistan to them. Also faster and less obtrusive.’
‘I guess a hundred million might get a couple of pilots to come on over to the dark side. Maybe three or four. I doubt if Afghanistan has runways long enough. But maybe Yemen does. So it’s theoretically possible. Except planes are no good to them. They would need hundreds of tons of spare parts and hundreds of engineers and maintenance technicians. And hundreds of hours of training. And we’d find them five minutes later anyway, and destroy them on the ground with missiles. Or maybe we can do it remotely now.’
‘Some other military hardware, then.’
‘But what? A million rifles at a hundred bucks each? We don’t have that many.’
Waterman said, ‘It could be a secret, or a code word, or a password, or a formula, or a map or a plan or a diagram, or a list, or the blueprint of all of the world financial system’s computer security, or a commercial recipe, or the sum total of all the bribes required to pass legislation in all fifty states.’
White said, ‘You think data?’
‘What else can be bought and sold unobtrusively and is worth that much? Diamonds, maybe, but they’re in Antwerp, not Hamburg. Drugs, maybe, but no American has a hundred million dollars’ worth ready to ship. That’s South and Central America. And Afghanistan has poppies of its own.’
‘What’s the worst case scenario?’
‘That’s above my pay grade. Ask Ratcliffe. Or the president.’
‘In your own personal opinion?’
‘I’m a Middle East specialist. It’s all worst case to me.’
‘Smallpox germs,’ Waterman said. ‘That’s my worst case. Or something like that. A plague. A biological weapon. Or Ebola. Or an antidote. Or a vaccine. Which would mean they already have the germs.’
Reacher stared at the ceiling.
Things that might not end well.
You don’t sound happy. But you should.
As long as it takes.
Garber was like a crossword puzzle.
White looked at him and said, ‘What are you thinking about?’
He said, ‘The contradiction between rule one and the rest of it. We mustn’t burn the Iranian. Which means we can’t go anywhere near the messenger. We can’t even stake out a location the messenger leads us to. Because we don’t know the messenger exists. Not unless we got an inside whisper.’
‘That’s an impediment,’ Waterman said. ‘Not a contradiction. We’ll find a way to work around it. They need that guy.’
‘It’s a question of efficiency. They need to know who these guys are ahead of time. They need to trace networks and build databases. Therefore they should focus on the messengers, surely. Verbal questions and verbal answers in their heads, back and forth, continent to continent, question, answer, question, answer. They know everything. They’re like audiotape. They’re worth a hundred inside men. Because they have the big picture.
What has the Iranian got? Nothing but four walls in Hamburg and nothing to do.’
‘He can’t just be sacrificed.’
‘They could pull him out the same moment they hit the messenger. They could give him a house in Florida.’
White said, ‘The messenger wouldn’t talk. This is a tribal thing, going back a thousand years. They wouldn’t rat each other out. Not after the little we’re allowed to do to them, anyway. So it’s a smart play to keep the inside man where he is. They genuinely don’t know what’s coming. An early hint would be nice. Even part of a clue.’
Reacher said, ‘Do you know what’s coming?’
‘Something unhinged. This is not the same as it used to be.’
‘Have you worked with Ratcliffe before? Or Sinclair?’
‘Never. Have you?’
Waterman said, ‘They didn’t choose us because they know us. They chose us because we weren’t in Hamburg at the critical time. We were engaged elsewhere. Therefore we can’t be the wrong people to talk to.’
A quarantined unit, Sinclair had said, and it felt like it. Three guys in a room, shut away from the outside world, because they were all infected, with an alibi.
At seven o’clock Reacher got his bags from the car and hauled them up to his bedroom, which was at the far end of three in a line, in a corridor that looked like an office corridor, and might have been the day before. The room was spacious and had a bathroom attached. An executive’s suite. Designed for a desk, not a bed, but it worked.
Eating was a case of firing up the old Caprice and cruising McLean, turning by instinct into the kind of streets that might have the kind of eventual edge-of-town lots that might have the kind of restaurants he was looking for. Not everyone’s choice. His metabolism helped. He saw neon up ahead, and shiny aluminium, next to a gas station, next to a highway ramp. A diner, old enough to be nearly authentic. Some dents and tarnish. Some miles on the clock.
He pulled in and parked, and heaved open the chromium door, and stepped inside. The air was cold and bright with fluorescent light. The first person he saw was a woman he knew. All alone in a booth. From his last but one command. The best soldier he had ever worked with. His best friend, possibly, in a guarded way, if friendship was permission to leave things unsaid.
At first he thought it was another not very amazing co-incidence. It was a small world, and close to the Pentagon it got smaller still. Then he reassessed. She had been his top sergeant during the 110th MP’s glory years. She had played as big a part as anyone, and bigger than some. Bigger than most. Bigger than him, probably.
By being very smart.
Way too smart to be a coincidence.
He stepped up to her table. She didn’t move. She was watching him in the back of an upturned spoon. He slid in opposite and said, ‘Hello, Neagley.’