Authors: Lee Child
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Mystery & Detective, #Political, #General, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Fiction, #Espionage
"No prints, I guess," Neagley said.
"Well, this is where it gets weird," Froelich answered. She moved the coffee tray an inch and laid the photograph flat Pointed to the top edge. "Right here on the actual edge we've got microscopic traces of talcum dust." Then she pointed to a spot an inch below the top edge. "And here we've got two definite smudges of talcum dust, one on the back, one on the front."
"Latex gloves," Neagley said.
"Exactly," Froelich said. "Disposable latex gloves, like a doctor's or a dentist's. They come in boxes of fifty or a hundred pairs. Talcum powder inside the gloves, to help them slip on. But there's always some loose talcum in the box, so it transfers from the outside of the glove, too. The dust on the top edge is baked, but the smudges aren't."
"OK," Neagley said. "So the guy puts on his gloves, breaks open a new ream of paper, fans it out so it won't jam, which puts talcum dust on the top edge where he flips it, then he loads the printer, prints out his message, whereby he bakes the dust."
"Because a laser printer uses heat," Froelich said. "The toner powder is attracted to the paper by an electrostatic charge in the shape of the required letters, and then a heater bakes it permanently into place. Somewhere around two hundred degrees, I think, momentarily."
Neagley leaned close. "Then he lifts the paper out of the output tray by clamping it between his finger and thumb, which accounts for the smudges front and back near the top, which aren't baked because it's after the heat treatment. And you know what? This is a home office, not a work office."
"The front and back finger-clamping thing means the paper is coming out of the printer vertically. Popping up, like a toaster. If it was feeding out flat the marks would be different. There would be a smear on the front where he slides it. Less of a mark on the back. And the only Hewlett-Packard lasers that feed the paper vertically are the little ones. Home office things. I've got one myself. It's too slow to use high-volume. And the toner cartridge only lasts twenty-five hundred pages. Strictly amateur. So this guy did this in his den at home."
Froelich nodded. "Stands to reason, I guess. He's going to look a little strange using latex gloves in front of other people in an office."
Neagley smiled, like she was making progress. "OK, he's in his den, he lifts the message out of his printer and slides it straight into the envelope and seals it with faucet water while he's still got his gloves on. Hence none of his prints."
Froelich's face changed. "No, this is where it gets very weird." She pointed to the photograph. Laid her fingernail on a spot an inch below the printed message, and a little right of centre. "What might we expect to find here, if this were a regular letter, for instance?"
"A signature," Reacher said.
"Exactly," Froelich said. She kept her fingernail on the spot. "And what we've got here is a thumbprint. A big, clear, definite thumbprint. Obviously deliberate. Bold as anything, exactly vertical, clear as a bell. Way too big to be a woman's. He's signed the message with his thumb."
Reacher pulled the photograph out from under Froelich's finger and studied it.
"You're tracing the print, obviously," Neagley said.
"They won't find anything," Reacher said. "The guy must be completely confident his prints aren't on file anywhere."
"We've come up blank so far," Froelich said.
"Which is very weird," Reacher said. "He signs the note with his thumbprint, which he's happy to do because his prints aren't on file anywhere, but he goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure his prints don't appear anywhere else on the letter or the envelope. Why?"
"Effect?" Neagley said. "Drama? Neatness?"
"But it explains the expensive paper," Reacher said. ifhe smooth coating holds the print. Cheap paper would be too porous."
"What did they use at the lab?" Neagley asked. "Iodine fuming? Ninhydrin?"
Froelich shook her head. "It came right up on the fluoroscope."
Reacher was quiet for a spell,just looking at the photograph.
Full dark had fallen outside the window. Shiny, damp, city dark. "What else?" he said to Froelich. "Why are you so uptight?"
"Should she need something else?" Neagley asked him.
He nodded. You know how these organizations work, he had told her.
"There has to be something else," he said. "I mean, OK, this is scary and challenging and intriguing, I guess, but she's really panicking here."
Froelich sighed and picked up her envelope and slid out a second item. It was identical to the first in almost every respect. A plastic page protector, with an eight-by-ten colour photograph inside it. The photograph showed a sheet of white paper. There were eight words printed on it: Vice-President-elect Armstrong is going to die. The paper was lying on a different surface, and it had a different ruler next to it. The surface was grey laminate, and the ruler was clear plastic.
"It's virtually identical," Froelich said. "The forensics are the same, and it's got the same thumbprint for a signature."
"It showed up on my boss's desk," Froelich said. "One morning, it was just there. No envelope, no nothing. And absolutely no way of telling how it got there."
Reacher stood up and moved to the window. Found the track cord and pulled the drapes closed. No real reason. It just felt like the appropriate thing to do.
"When did it show up?" he asked.
"Three days after the first one came in the mail," Froelich said.
"Aimed at you," Neagley said. "Rather than Armstrong himself. Why? To make sure you take the first one seriously?"
"We were already taking it seriously," Froelich said.
"When does Armstrong leave Camp David?" Reacher asked.
"They'll have dinner there tonight," Froelich said. "Probably shoot the breeze for a spell. They'll fly back after midnight, I guess."
"Who's your boss?"
"Guy called Stuyvesant," Froelich said. "Like the cigarette."
"You tell him about the last five days?"
Froelich shook her head. "I decided not to."
"Wise," Reacher said. "Exactly what do you want us to do?" Froelich was quiet for a spell.
"I don't really know," she said. "I've asked myself that for six days, ever since I decided to find you. I asked myself, in a situation like this, what do I really want? And you know what? I really want to talk to somebody. Specifically, I really want to talk to Joe. Because there are complexities here, aren't there? You can see that, right? And Joe would find a way through them. He was smart like that."
"You want me to be Joe?" Reacher said.
"No, I want Joe to be still alive."
Reacher nodded. "You and me both. But he ain't."
"So maybe you could be the next best thing." Then she was quiet again.
"I'm sorry," she said. "That didn't come out very well."
"Tell me about the Neanderthals," Reacher said. "In your office."
She nodded. "That was my first thought too."
"It's a definite possibility," he said. "Some guy gets all jealous and resentful, lays all this stuff on you and hopes you'll crack up and look stupid."
"My first thought," she said again.
"Any likely candidates in particular?"
She shrugged. "On the surface, none of them. Below the surface, any of them. There are six guys on my old pay grade who got passed over when I got the promotion. Each one of them has got friends and allies and supporters in the grades below. Like networks inside networks. Could be anybody."
She shook her head. "I can't come up with a favourite. And all their prints are on file. Condition of employment for us too. And this period between the election and the inauguration is very busy. We're stretched. Nobody's had time for a weekend in Vegas."
"Didn't have to be a weekend. Could have been in and out in a single day."
Froelich said nothing.
"What about discipline problems?" Reacher asked. "Anybody resent the way you're leading the team? You had to yell at anybody yet? Anybody underperforming?"
She shook her head. "I've changed a few things. Spoken to a couple of people. But I've been tactful. And the thumbprint doesn't match anybody anyway, whether I've spoken to them or not. So I think it's a genuine threat from out there in the world."
"Me too," Neagley said. "But there's some insider involvement, right? Like, who else could wander around your building and leave something on your boss's desk?"
Froelich nodded. "I need you to come see the office," she said. "Will you do that?"
"They rode the short distance in the government Suburban. Reacher sprawled in the back and Neagley rode with Froelich in the front. The night air was damp, suspended somewhere between drizzle and evening mist. The roads were glossy with water and orange light. The tyres hissed and the windshield wipers thumped back and forth. Reacher glimpsed the White House railings and the front of the Treasury Building before Froelich turned a corner and drove into a narrow alley and headed for a garage entrance straight ahead. There was a steep ramp and a guard in a glass booth and a bright wash of white light. There were low ceilings and thick concrete pillars. She parked the Suburban on the end of a row of six identical models. There were Lincoln Town Cars here and there, and Cadillacs of various vintages and sizes with awkward rebuilt frames around the windows where bulletproof glass had been installed. Every vehicle was black and shiny and the whole garage was painted gloss white, walls and ceiling and floor alike. The place looked like a monochrome photograph. There was a door with a small porthole of wired glass. Froelich led them through it and up a narrow mahogany staircase into a small first-floor lobby. There were marble pilasters and a single elevator door.
"You two shouldn't really be here," Froelich said. "So say nothing, stick close to me and walk fast, OK?" Then she paused a beat. "But come look at something first."
She led them through another inconspicuous door and round a corner into a vast dark hall that felt the size of a football field.
"The building's main lobby," she said. Her voice echoed in the marble emptiness. The light was dim. White stone looked grey in the gloom.
"Here," she said.
The walls had giant raised panels carved out of marble, reeded at the edges in the classical style. The one they were standing under was engraved at the top: The United States Department of the Treasury. The inscription ran laterally for eight or nine feet. Underneath it was another inscription: Roll of Honor. Then starting in the top left corner of the panel was an engraved list of dates and names. Maybe three or four dozen of them. The last but one place on the list was J. Reacher, 1997. Last was M. B. Gordon, 1997. Then there was plenty of empty space. Maybe a column and a half.
"That's Joe," Froelich said. "Our tribute."
Reacher looked up at his brother's name. It was neatly chiselled. Each letter was maybe two inches high and inlaid with gold leaf. The marble looked cold, and it was veined and flecked like marble everywhere. Then he caught a glimpse in his mind of Joe's face, maybe twelve years old, maybe at the dinner table or the breakfast table, always a millisecond faster than anyone else to see a joke, always a millisecond slower to start a smile. Then a glimpse of him leaving home, which at that time was a service bungalow somewhere hot, his shirt wet with sweat, his kitbag on his shoulder, heading out to the flight-line and a ten-thousand-mile journey to West Point. Then at the graveside at their mother's funeral, which was the last time he had seen him alive. He'd met Molly Beth Gordon, too. About fifteen seconds before she died. She had been a bright, vivacious blonde woman. Not so very different from Froelich herself.
"No, that's not Joe," he said. "Or Molly Beth. Those are just names."
Neagley glanced at him and Froelich said nothing and led them back to the small lobby with the single elevator. They went up three floors to a different world. It was full of narrow corridors and low ceilings and businesslike adaptations. Acoustic tile overhead, halogen,light, white linoleum and grey carpet on the floors, offices divided into cubicles with shoulder high padded fabric panels on adjustable feet. Banks of phones, fax machines, piles of paper, computers everywhere. There was a literal hum of activity built from the whine of hard drives and cooling fans and the muted screech of modems and the soft ringing of phones. Inside the main door was a reception counter with a man in a suit sitting behind it. He had a phone cradled in his shoulder and was writing something on a message log and couldn't manage more than a puzzled glance and a distracted nod of greeting. "Duty officer," Froelich said. "They work a three shift system round the clock. This desk is always manned."