Authors: Lee Child
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Mystery & Detective, #Political, #General, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Fiction, #Espionage
"OK?" she said brightly.
"OK," he said. "You got underwear too?"
"Over here," she said.
He rooted through a bin of reject-quality boxers and selected a pair in white. Then a pair of socks, mostly cotton, flecked with all kinds of organic colors.
"OK?" the woman said again. He nodded and she led him to the register at the front of the store and bleeped all the tags under the little red light.
"One hundred and eighty-nine dollars even," she said.
He stared at the red figures on the register's display.
"I thought this was a discount store," he said.
"That's incredibly reasonable, really," she said. He shook his head and dug into his pocket and came out with a wad of crumpled bills. Counted out a hundred and ninety. The dollar change she gave him left him with four bucks in his hand. The senior colleague from the other side of the organization called Froelich back within twenty-five minutes.
"You get a home address?" she asked him.
"One hundred Washington Boulevard," the guy said. "Arlington, Virginia. Zip code is 20310-1500."
Froelich wrote it down. "OK, thanks. I guess that's all I need."
"I think you might need a little more."
"You know Washington Boulevard?"
Froelich paused. "Runs up to the Memorial Bridge, right?"
"It's just a highway."
"No buildings? Got to be buildings."
"There is one building. Pretty big one. Couple hundred yards off the east shoulder."
"The Pentagon," the guy said. "This is a phony address, Froelich. One side of Washington Boulevard is Arlington Cemetery and the other side is the Pentagon. That's it. Nothing else. There's no number one hundred. There are no private mailing addresses at all. I checked with the Postal Service. And that zip code is the Department of the Army, inside the Pentagon."
"Great," Froelich said. "You tell the bank?"
"Of course not. You told me to be discreet."
"Thanks. But "I'm back at square one."
"Maybe not. This is a bizarre account, Froelich. Six-figure balance, but it's all just stuck in checking, earning nothing. And the customer accesses it via Western Union only. Never comes in. It's a phone arrangement. Customer calls in with a password, the bank wires cash through Western Union, wherever."
"No ATM card?"
"No cards at all. No checkbook was ever issued, either."
"Western Union only? I never heard of that before. Are there any records?"
"Geographically, all over the place, literally. Forty states and counting in five years. Occasional deposits and plenty of nickel-and-dime withdrawals, all of them to Western Union offices in the boonies, in the cities, everywhere."
"Like I said."
"Anything you can do?"
"Already done it. They're going to call me next time the customer calls them."
"And then you're going to call me?"
"Is there a frequency pattern?"
"It varies. Maximum interval recently has been a few weeks. Sometimes it's every few days. Mondays are popular. Banks are closed on the weekend."
"So I could get lucky today."
"Sure you could," the guy said. "Question is, am I going to get lucky too?"
"Not that lucky," Froelich said. The lounge manager watched Reacher step into his motel lobby. Then he ducked back into a windy side street and fired up his cell phone. Cupped his hand around it and spoke low and urgently, and convincingly, but respectfully, as was required.
"Because he's dissing me," he said, in answer to a question.
"Today would be good," he said, in answer to another.
"Two at least," he said, in answer to the final question. "This is a big guy." Reacher changed one of his four dollars for quarters at the motel desk and headed for the pay phone. Dialed his bank from memory and gave his password and arranged for five hundred bucks to be wired to Western Union in Atlantic City by close of business. Then he went to his room and bit off all the tags and put his new clothes on. Transferred all his pocket junk across and threw his summer gear in the trash and looked himself over in the long mirror behind the closet door. Grow a beard and get some sunglasses and I could walk all the way to the North Pole, he thought. Froelich heard about the proposed wire transfer eleven minutes later. Closed her eyes for a second and clenched her hands in triumph and then reached behind her and pulled a map of the eastern seaboard off a shelf. Maybe three hours if the traffic cooperates. I might just make it. She grabbed her jacket and her purse and ran down to the garage. Reacher wasted an hour in his room and then went out to test the insulating properties of his new coat. Field trial, they used to call it, way back when. He headed east toward the ocean, into the wind. Felt rather than saw somebody behind him. Just a characteristic little burr down in the small of his back. He slowed up and used a store window for a mirror. Caught a glimpse of movement fifty yards back. Too far away for details.
He walked on. The coat was pretty good, but he should have bought a hat to go with it. That was clear. The same buddy with the opinion on coats used to claim that half of total heat loss was through the top of the head, and that was certainly how it felt. The cold was blowing through his hair and making his eyes water. A military-issue watch cap would have been valuable, in November on the Jersey shore. He made a mental note to keep an eye out for surplus stores on his way back from the Western Union office. In his experience they often inhabited the same neighborhoods.
He reached the boardwalk and walked south, with the same itch still there in the small of his back. He turned suddenly and saw nothing. Walked back north to where he had started. The boards under his feet were in good shape. There was a notice claiming they were made from some special hardwood, the hardest timber the world's forests had to offer. The feeling was still there in the small of his back. He turned and led his invisible shadows out onto the Central Pier. It was the original structure, preserved. It looked like he guessed it must have way back when it was built. It was deserted, which was no surprise considering the weather, and which added to the feeling of unreality. It was like an architectural photograph from a history book. But some of the little antique booths were open and selling things, including one selling modern coffee in Styrofoam cups. He bought a twenty-ounce black regular, which took all his remaining cash, but warmed him through. He walked to the end of the pier as he drank it. Dropped the cup in the trash and stood and watched the gray ocean for a spell. Then he turned back and headed for the shore and saw two men walking toward him.
They were useful-sized guys, short but wide, dressed pretty much alike in blue pea coats and gray denim pants. They both had hats. Little knitted watch caps made from gray wool, jammed down over meaty heads. Clearly they knew how to dress for the climate. They had their hands in their pockets, so he couldn't tell whether they had gloves to match. Their pockets were high on their coats, so their elbows were forced outward. They both wore heavy boots, the sort of things a steelworker or a stevedore might choose. They were both a little bow-legged, or maybe they were just attempting an intimidating swagger. They both had a little scar tissue around their brows. They looked like fairground scufflers or dockyard bruisers from fifty years ago. Reacher glanced back and saw nobody behind him, all the way to Ireland. So he just stopped walking. Didn't worry about putting his back against the rail.
The two men walked on and stopped eight feet in front of him and faced him head-on. Reacher flexed his fingers by his side, to test how cold they were. Eight feet was an interesting choice of distance. It meant they were going to talk before they tangled. He flexed his toes and ran some muscle tension up through his calves, his thighs, his back, his shoulders. Moved his head side to side and then back a little, to loosen his neck. He breathed in through his nose. The wind was on his back. The guy on the left took his hands out of his pockets. No gloves. And either he had bad arthritis or he was holding rolls of quarters in both palms.
"We got a message for you," he said.
Reacher glanced at the pier rail and the ocean beyond. The sea was gray and roiled. Probably freezing. Throwing them in would be close to homicide.
"From that club manager?" he asked.
"From his people, yeah."
"He's got people?"
"This is Atlantic City," the guy said. "Stands to reason he's got people."
Reacher nodded. "So let me guess. "I'm supposed to get out of town, skedaddle, beat it, get lost, never come back, never darken your door again, forget I was ever here."
"You're on the ball today."
"I can read minds," Reacher said. "I used to work a fairground booth. Right next to the bearded lady. Weren't you guys there too? Three booths along? The World's Ugliest Twins?"
The guy on the right took his hands out of his pockets. He had the same neuralgic pain in his knuckles, or else a couple more rolls of quarters. Reacher smiled. He liked rolls of quarters. Good old-fashioned technology. And they implied the absence of firearms. Nobody clutches rolls of coins if they've got a gun in their pocket.
"We don't want to hurt you," the guy on the right said.
"But you got to go," the guy on the left said. "We don't need people interfering in this town's economic procedures."
"So take the easy way out," the guy on the right said. "Let us walk you to the bus depot. Or the old folk could wind up getting hurt, too. And not just financially."
Reacher heard an absurd voice in his head: straight from his childhood, his mother saying please don't fight when you're wearing new clothes. Then he heard a boot-camp unarmed-combat instructor saying hit them fast, hit them hard, and hit them a lot. He flexed his shoulders inside his coat. Suddenly felt very grateful to the woman in the store for making him take the bigger size. He gazed at the two guys, exactly nothing in his eyes except a little amusement and a lot of absolute self-confidence. He moved a little to his left, and they rotated with him. He moved a little closer to them, tightening the triangle. He raised his hand and smoothed his hair where the wind was disturbing it.
"Better just to walk away now," he said.
They didn't, like he knew they wouldn't. They responded to the challenge by crowding in toward him, imperceptibly, just a fractional muscle movement that eased their body weight forward rather than backward. They need to be laid up for a week, he thought. Cheekbones, probably. A sharp blow, depressed fractures, maybe temporary loss of consciousness, bad headaches. Nothing too severe. He waited until the wind gusted again and raised his right hand and swept his hair back behind his left ear. Then he kept his hand there, with his elbow poised high, like a thought had just struck him.
"Can you guys swim?" he asked.
It would have taken superhuman self-control not to glance at the ocean. They weren't superhuman. They turned their heads like robots. He clubbed the right-hand guy in the face with his raised elbow and cocked it again and hit the left-hand guy as his head snapped back toward the sound of his buddy's bones breaking. They went down on the boards together and their rolls of quarters split open and coins rolled everywhere and pirouetted small silver circles and collided and fell over, heads and tails. Reacher coughed in the bitter cold and stood still and replayed it in his head: two guys, two seconds, two blows, game over. You've still got the good stuff. He breathed hard and wiped cold sweat from his forehead. Then he walked away. Stepped off the pier onto the boardwalk and went looking for Western Union. He had looked at the address in the motel phone book, but he didn't need it. You could find a Western Union office by feel. By intuition. It was a simple algorithm: stand on a street corner and ask yourself, is it more likely to be left or right now? Then you turned left or right as appropriate, and pretty soon you were in the right neighborhood, and pretty soon you found it. This one had a two-year-old Chevy Suburban parked on a fireplug right outside the door. The truck was black with smoked windows, and it was immaculately clean and shiny. It had three short UHF antennas on the roof. There was a woman alone in the driver's seat. He glanced at her once, and then again. She was fair-haired and looked relaxed and alert all at the same time. Something about the way her arm was resting against the window. And she was cute, no doubt about that. Some kind of magnetism about her. He glanced away and went inside the office and claimed his cash. Folded it into his pocket and came back out and found the woman on the sidewalk, standing right in front of him, looking straight at him. At his face, like she was checking off similarities and differences against a mental image. It was a process he recognized. He had been looked at like that once or twice before.