Authors: Lee Child
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Mystery & Detective, #Political, #General, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Fiction, #Espionage
"Jack Reacher?" she said.
He double-checked his memory, because he didn't want to be wrong, although he didn't think he was. Short fair hair, great eyes looking right at him, some kind of a quiet confidence in the way she held herself. She had qualities he would remember. He was sure of that. But he didn't remember them. Therefore he had never seen her before.
"You knew my brother," he said.
She looked surprised, and a little gratified. And temporarily lost for words.
"I could tell," he said. "People look at me like that, they're thinking about how we look a lot alike, but also a lot different."
She said nothing.
"Been nice meeting you," he said, and moved away.
"Wait," she called.
He turned back.
"Can we talk?" she said. "I've been looking for you."
He nodded. "We could talk in the car. "I'm freezing my ass off out here." She was still for a second longer, with her eyes locked on his face. Then she moved suddenly and opened the passenger door.
"Please," she said. He climbed in and she walked around the hood and climbed in on her side. Started the engine to run the heater, but didn't go anywhere.
"I knew your brother very well," she said. "We dated, Joe and I. More than dated, really. We were pretty serious for a time. Before he died."
Reacher said nothing. The woman flushed.
"Well, obviously before he died," she said. "Stupid thing to say." She went quiet.
"When?" Reacher asked.
"We were together two years. We broke up a year before it happened."
"I'm M. E. Froelich," she said.
She left an unspoken question hanging in the air: did he ever mention me? Reacher nodded again, trying to make it like the name meant something. But it didn't. Never heard of you, he thought. But maybe I wish I had.
"Emmy?" he said. "Like the television thing?"
"M. E.," she said. "I go by my initials."
"What are they for?"
"I won't tell you that."
He paused a beat. "What did Joe call you?"
"He called me Froelich," she said.
He nodded. "Yes, he would."
"I still miss him," she said.
"Me too, I guess," Reacher said. "So is this about Joe, or is it about something else?"
She was still again, for another beat. Then she shook herself, a tiny subliminal quiver, and came back all business.
"Both," she said. "Well, mainly something else, really."
"Want to tell me what?"
"I want to hire you for something," she said. "On a kind of posthumous recommendation from Joe. Because of what he used to say about you. He talked about you, time to time."
Reacher nodded. "Hire me for what?"
Froelich paused again and came up with a tentative smile.
"I've rehearsed this line," she said. "Couple of times."
"So let me hear it."
"I want to hire you to assassinate the Vice President of the United States."
"Good line," Reacher said. "Interesting proposition."
"What's your answer?" Froelich asked.
"No," he said. "Right now I think that's probably the safest all-around response."
She smiled the tentative smile again and picked up her purse. "Let me show you some ID," she said.
He shook his head. "Don't need it," he said. "You're United States Secret Service."
She looked at him. "You're pretty quick."
"It's pretty clear," he said. "Is it?"
He nodded. Touched his right elbow. It was bruised.
"Joe worked for them," he said. "And knowing the way he was he probably worked pretty hard, and he was a little shy, so anybody he dated was probably in the office, otherwise he would never have met them. Plus, who else except the government keeps two-year-old Suburbans this shiny? And parks next to hydrants? And who else but the Secret Service could track me this efficiently through my banking arrangements?"
"You're pretty quick," she said again.
"Thank you," he said back. "But Joe didn't have anything to do with Vice Presidents. He was in Financial Crimes, not the White House protection detail."
She nodded. "We all start out in Financial Crimes. We pay our dues as anti-counterfeiting grunts. And he ran anti counterfeiting. And you're right, we met in the office. But he wouldn't date me then. He said it wasn't appropriate. But I was planning on transferring across to the protection detail as soon as I could anyway, and as soon as I did, we started going out."
Then she went a little quiet again. Looked down at her purse. "And?" Reacher said.
She looked up. "Something he said one night. I was kind of keen and ambitious back then, you know, starting a new job and all, and I was always trying to figure out if we were doing the best we could, and Joe and I were goofing around, and he said the only real way for us to test ourselves would be to hire some outsider to try to get to the target. To see if it was possible, you know. A security audit, he called it. I asked him, like who? And he said, my little brother would be the one. If anybody could do it, he could. He made you sound pretty scary."
Reacher smiled. "That sounds like Joe. A typical hare-brained scheme."
"For a smart guy, Joe could be,very dumb sometimes."
"Why is it dumb?"
"Because if you hire some outsider, all you need to do is watch for him coming. Makes it way too easy."
"No, his idea was the person would come in anonymously and unannounced. Like now, absolutely nobody knows about you except me."
Reacher nodded. "OK, maybe he wasn't so dumb."
"He felt it was the only way. You know, however hard we work, we're always thinking inside the box. He felt we should be prepared to test ourselves against some random challenge from the outside."
"And he nominated me?"
"He said you'd be ideal."
"So why wait so long to try it? Whenever this conversation was, it has to be at least six years ago. Didn't take you six years to find me."
"It was eight years ago," Froelich said. "Right at the start of our relationship, just after I got the transfer. And it only took me one day to find you."
"So you're pretty quick, too," Reacher said. "But why wait eight years?"
"Because now "I'm in charge. I was promoted head of the Vice President's detail four months ago. And "I'm still keen and ambitious, and I still want to know that we're doing it right. So I decided to follow Joe's advice, now that it's my call. I decided to try a security audit. And you were recommended, so to speak. All those years ago, by somebody I trusted very much. So "I'm here to ask you if you'll do it."
"You want to get a cup of coffee?"
She looked surprised, like coffee wasn't on the agenda, "This is urgent business," she said.
"Nothing's too urgent for coffee," he said. "That's been my experience. Drive me back to my motel and I'll take you to the downstairs lounge. Coffee's OK, and it's a very dark room. Just right for a conversation like this."
The government Suburban had a DVD-based navigation system built into the dash, and Reacher watched her fire it up and pick the motel's street address off a long list of potential Atlantic City destinations.
"I could have told you where it is," he said.
"I'm used to this thing," she said. "It talks to me."
"I wasn't going to use hand signals," he said.
She smiled again and pulled out into the traffic. There wasn't much. Evening gloom was falling. The wind was still blowing. The casinos might do OK, but the boardwalk and the piers and the beaches weren't going to see much business for the next six months. He sat still next to her in the warmth from the heater and thought about her with his dead brother for a moment.
Then he just watched her drive. She was pretty good at it. She parked outside the motel door and he led her inside and down a half-flight of stairs to the lounge. It smelled stale and sticky, but it was warm and there was a flask of coffee on the machine behind the bar. He pointed at it, and then at himself and Froelich, and the barman got busy. Then he walked to a corner booth and slid in across the vinyl with his back to the wall and the whole room in sight. Old habits. Froelich clearly had the same habits because she did the same thing, so they ended up close together and side by side. Their shoulders were almost touching.
"You're very similar to him," she said.
"In some ways," he said. "Not in others. Like, "I'm still alive."
"You weren't at his funeral."
"It came at an inopportune time."
"You sound just the same."
"Brothers often do."
The barman brought the coffee, on a beer-stained cork tray. Two cups, black, little plastic pots of fake milk, little paper packets of sugar. Two cheap little spoons, pressed out of stainless steel.
"People liked him," Froelich said.
"He was OK, I guess."
"Is that all?"
"That's a compliment, one brother to another."
He lifted his cup and tipped the milk and the sugar and the spoon off his saucer.
"You drink it black," Froelich said. "Just like Joe."
Reacher nodded, "Thing I can't get my head around is I was always the kid brother, but now "I'm three years older than he ever got to be."
Froelich looked away. "I know. He just stopped being there, but the world carried on anyway. It should have changed, just a little bit."
She sipped her coffee. Black, no sugar. Just like Joe.
"Nobody ever think of doing it, apart from him?" Reacher asked. "Using an outsider for a security audit?"
"Secret Service is a relatively old organization."
"So I'm going to ask you an obvious question."
She nodded. "President Lincoln signed us into existence just after lunch on April the fourteenth, 1865. Then he went to the theatre that same night and got assassinated."
"From our perspective, now. But back then we were only supposed to protect the currency. Then McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and they figured they should have some body looking out for the President full time, and we got the job."
"Because there was no FBI until the 1930s."
She shook her head. "Actually there was an early incarnation called the Office of the Chief Examiner, founded in 1908. It became the FBI in 1935."
"That sounds like the sort of pedantic stuff Joe would know."
"I think it was him who told me."
"He would. He loved all that historical stuff."
He saw her make an effort not to go quiet again.
"So what was your obvious question?" she said.
"You use an outsider for the very first time in a hundred and one years, got to be because of something more than you're a perfectionist."
She started to answer, and then she stopped. She paused a beat. He saw her decide to lie. He could sense it, in the angle of her shoulder.
"I'm under big pressure," she said. "You know, professionally. There are a lot of people waiting for me to screw up. I need to be sure."
He said nothing. Waited for the embellishments. Liars always embellish.
"I wasn't an easy choice," she said. "It's still rare for a woman to head up a team. There's a gender thing going on, same as anywhere else, I guess, same as always. Some of my colleagues are a little Neanderthal."
He nodded. Said nothing.
"It's always on my mind," she said. "I've got to slam-dunk the whole thing."
"Which vice president?" he asked, "The new one or the old one?"
"The new one," she said. "Brook Armstrong. The Vice President-elect, strictly speaking. I was assigned to lead his team back when he joined the ticket, and we want continuity, so it's a little bit like an election for us, too. If our guy wins, we stay on the job. If our guy loses, we're back to being foot soldiers."
Reacher smiled. "So did you vote for him?"
She didn't answer.
"What did Joe say about me?" he asked.
"He said you'd relish the challenge. You'd beat your brains out to find a way of getting it done. He said you had a lot of ingenuity and you'd find three or four ways of doing it and we'd learn a lot from you."
"And you said?"
"This was eight years ago, don't forget. I was kind of full of myself, I guess. I said no way would you even get close."
"And he said?"
"He said plenty of people had made that same mistake."
Reacher shrugged. "I was in the army eight years ago. I was probably ten thousand miles away, up to my eyes in bullshit."
She nodded. "Joe knew that. It was kind of theoretical."
He looked at her. "But now it's not theoretical, apparently. Eight years later you're going ahead with it. And "I'm still wondering why."
"Like I said, now it's my call. And "I'm under big-time pressure to perform well."
He said nothing.
"Would you consider doing it?" Froelich asked.
"I don't know a lot about Armstrong. Never heard much about him before."
She nodded. "Nobody has. He was a surprise choice. Junior senator from North Dakota, standard-issue family man, wife, grown-up daughter, cares long-distance for his sick old mother, never made any kind of national impact. But he's an OK guy, for a politician. Better than most. I like him a lot, so far."
Reacher nodded. Said nothing.
"We would pay you, obviously," Froetich said. "That's not a problem. You know, a professional fee, as long as it's reasonable."
"I'm not very interested in money," Reacher Raid. "I don't need a job."
"You could volunteer."
"I was a soldier. Soldiers never volunteer for anything."
"That's not what Joe said about you. He said you did all kinds of stuff."
"I don't like to be employed."
"Well, if you want to do it for free we certainly wouldn't object."
He was quiet for a beat. "There would be expenses, probably, if a person did this sort of a thing properly."
"We'd reimburse them, naturally. Whatever the person needed. All official and above board, afterwards."
He looked down at the table. "Exactly what would you want the person to do?"
"I want you, not a person. Just to act the part of an assassin. To scrutinize things from an outside perspective. Find the holes. Prove to me if he's vulnerable, with times, dates, places. I could start you off with some schedule information, if you want."
"You offer that to all assassins? If you're going to do this you should do it for real, don't you think?"