Main Past Tense:

Past Tense:

JACK REACHER NEVER LOOKS BACK . . . UNTIL NOW. The most hotly anticipated thriller of the year follows our hero Jack Reacher on a quest into his father's past, and climaxes in the most blood-curdling ticking time bomb of an adventure yet. The present can be tense . . . A young couple trying to get to New York City are stranded at a lonely motel in the middle of nowhere. Before long they're trapped in an ominous game of life and death. But the past can be worse . . . Meanwhile, Jack Reacher sets out on an epic road trip across America. He doesn't get far. Deep in the New England woods, he sees a sign to a place he has never been - the town where his father was born. But when he arrives he is told no one named Reacher ever lived there. Now he wonders- who's lying? As the tension ratchets up and these two stories begin to entwine, the stakes have never been higher for Reacher. That's for damn sure.
Transworld Publishers Limited
ISBN 13:
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About the Book

Jack Reacher plans to follow the autumn sun on an epic road trip across America, from Maine to California. He doesn’t get far. On a country road deep in the New England woods, he sees a sign to a place he has never been – the town where his father was born. He thinks, what’s one extra day? He takes the detour.

At the very same moment, close by, a car breaks down. Two young Canadians are trying to get to New York City to sell a treasure. They’re stranded at a lonely motel in the middle of nowhere. It’s a strange place … but it’s all there is.

The next morning in the city clerk’s office, Reacher asks about the old family home. He’s told no one named Reacher ever lived in that town. He knows his father never went back. Now he wonders, was he ever there in the first place?

So begins another nail-biting, adrenaline fuelled adventure for Reacher. The present can be tense, but the past can be worse. That’s for damn sure.



About the Book

Title Page















































About the Author

Also by Lee Child



Lee Child

In Memoriam

John Reginald Grant, 1924–2016

Norman Steven Shiren, 1925–2017

Audrey Grant, 1926–2017


JACK REACHER CAUGHT the last of the summer sun in a small town on the coast of Maine, and then, like the birds in the sky above him, he began his long migration south. But not, he thought, straight down the coast. Not like the orioles and the buntings and the phoebes and the warblers and the ruby-throated hummingbirds. Instead he decided on a diagonal route, south and west, f; rom the top right-hand corner of the country to the bottom left, maybe through Syracuse, and Cincinnati, and St Louis, and Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque, and onward all the way to San Diego. Which for an army guy like Reacher was a little too full of navy people, but which was otherwise a fine spot to start the winter.

It would be an epic road trip, and one he hadn’t made in years.

He was looking forward to it.

He didn’t get far.

He walked inland a mile or so and came to a county road and stuck out his thumb. He was a tall man, more than six feet five in his shoes, heavily built, all bone and muscle, not particularly good-looking, never very well dressed, usually a little unkempt. Not an overwhelmingly appealing proposition. As always most drivers slowed and took a look and then kept on going. The first car prepared to take a chance on him came along after forty minutes. It was a year-old Subaru wagon, driven by a lean middle-aged guy in pleated chino pants and a crisp khaki shirt. Dressed by his wife, Reacher thought. The guy had a wedding ring. But under the fine fabrics was a workingman’s body. A thick neck and large red knuckles. The slightly surprised and somewhat reluctant boss of something, Reacher thought. The kind of guy who starts out digging post holes and ends up owning a fencing company.

Which turned out to be a good guess. Initial conversation established the guy had started out with nothing to his name but his daddy’s old framing hammer, and had ended up owning a construction company, responsible for forty working people, and the hopes and dreams of a whole bunch of clients. He finished his story with a little facial shrug, part Yankee modesty, part genuine perplexity. As in, how did that happen? Attention to detail, Reacher thought. This was a very organized guy, full of notions and nostrums and maxims and cast-iron beliefs, one of which was at the end of summer it was better to stay away from both Route One and I-95, and in fact to get out of Maine altogether as fast as possible, which meant soon and sideways, on Route Two, straight west into New Hampshire. To a place just south of Berlin, where the guy knew a bunch of back roads that would get them down to Boston faster than any other way. Which was where the guy was going, for a meeting about marble countertops. Reacher was happy. Nothing wrong with Boston as a starting point. Nothing at all. From there it was a straight shot to Syracuse. After which Cincinnati was easy, via Rochester and Buffalo and Cleveland. Maybe even via Akron, Ohio. Reacher had been in worse places. Mostly in the service.

They didn’t get to Boston.

The guy got a call on his cell, after fifty-some minutes heading south on the aforementioned New Hampshire back roads. Which were exactly as advertised. Reacher had to admit the guy’s plan was solid. There was no traffic at all. No jams, no delays. They were bowling along, doing sixty miles an hour, dead easy. Until the phone rang. It was hooked up to the car radio, and a name came up on the navigation screen, with a thumbnail photograph as a visual aid, in this case of a red-faced man wearing a hard hat and carrying a clipboard. Some kind of a foreman on a job site. The guy at the wheel touched a button and phone hiss filled the car, from all the speakers, like surround sound.

The guy at the wheel spoke to the windshield pillar and said, ‘This better be good news.’

It wasn’t. It was something to do with an inspector from a municipal buildings department, and a metal flue liner above a fireplace in an entrance lobby, which was properly insulated, exactly up to code, except that couldn’t be proved visually without tearing down the stonework, which was by that point already three storeys high, nearly done, with the masons booked on a new job starting the next week, or alternatively without ripping out the custom walnut millwork in the dining room on the other side of the chimney, or the millwork in the closet above, which was rosewood and even more complicated, but the inspector was being a hardass about it and needed to see for himself.

The guy at the wheel glanced at Reacher and said, ‘Which inspector is it?’

The guy on the phone said, ‘The new one.’

‘Does he know he gets a turkey at Thanksgiving?’

‘I told him we’re all on the same side here.’

The guy at the wheel glanced at Reacher again, as if seeking permission, or offering an apology, or both, and then he faced front again and said, ‘Did you offer him money?’

‘Five hundred. He wouldn’t take it.’

Then the cell signal ran out. The sound went garbled, like a robot drowning in a swimming pool, and then it went dead. The screen said it was searching.

The car rolled on.

Reacher said, ‘Why would a person want a fireplace in an entrance lobby?’

The guy at the wheel said, ‘It’s welcoming.’

‘I think historically it was designed to repel. It was defensive. Like the campfire burning in the mouth of the cave. It was intended to keep predators at bay.’

‘I have to go back,’ the guy said. ‘I’m sorry.’

He slowed the car and pulled over on the gravel. All alone, on the back roads. No other traffic. The screen said it was still searching for a signal.

‘I’m going to have to let you out here,’ the guy said. ‘Is that OK?’

‘No problem,’ Reacher said. ‘You got me part of the way. For which I thank you very much.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘Whose is the rosewood closet?’


‘Cut a big hole in it and show the inspector. Then give the client five commonsense reasons why he should install a wall safe. Because this is a guy who wants a wall safe. Maybe he doesn’t know it yet, but a guy who wants a fireplace in his entrance lobby wants a wall safe in his bedroom closet. That’s for damn sure. Human nature. You’ll make a profit. You can charge him for the time it takes to cut the hole.’

‘Are you in this business too?’

‘I was a military cop.’

The guy said, ‘Huh.’

Reacher opened the door and climbed out, and closed the door again behind him, and walked far enough away to give the guy space to swing the Subaru around, gravel shoulder to gravel shoulder, across the whole width of the road, and then to take off back the way he had come. All of which the guy did, with a brief gesture Reacher took to be a rueful good-luck wave. Then he got smaller and smaller in the distance, and Reacher turned back and continued walking, south, the way he was headed. Wherever possible he liked to maintain forward momentum. The road he was on was a two-lane, wide enough, well maintained, curved here and there, a little up and down. But no kind of a problem for a modern car. The Subaru had been doing sixty. Yet there was no traffic. None at all. Nothing coming, either way. Total silence. Just a sigh of wind in the trees, and the faint buzz of heat coming up off the blacktop.

Reacher walked on.

Two miles later the road he was on curved gently left, and a new road of equal size and appearance split off to the right. Not exactly a turn. More like an equal choice. A classic Y-shaped junction. Twitch the wheel left, or twitch the wheel right. Your call. Both options ran out of sight through trees so mighty in places they made a tunnel.

There was a road sign.

A tilted arrow to the left was labelled Portsmouth, and a tilted arrow to the right was labelled Laconia. But the right-hand option was written in smaller writing, and it had a smaller arrow, as if Laconia was less important than Portsmouth. A mere byway, despite its road being the same size.

Laconia, New Hampshire.

A name Reacher knew. He had seen it on all kinds of historic family paperwork, and he had heard it mentioned from time to time. It was his late father’s place of birth, and where he was raised, until he escaped at age seventeen to join the Marines. Such was the vague family legend. Escaped from what had not been specified. But he never went back. Not once. Reacher himself had been born more than fifteen years later, by which time Laconia was a dead detail of the long-ago past, as remote as the Dakota Territory, where it was said some earlier ancestor had lived and worked. No one in the family ever went to either place. No visits. The grandparents died young and were rarely mentioned. There were apparently no aunts or uncles or cousins or any other kind of distant relatives. Which was statistically unlikely, and suggested a rift of some kind. But no one other than his father had any real information, and no one ever made any real attempt to get any from him. Certain things were not discussed in Marine families. Much later as a captain in the army Reacher’s brother Joe was posted north and said something about maybe trying to find the old family homestead, but nothing ever came of it. Probably Reacher himself had said the same kind of thing, from time to time. He had never been there either.

Left or right. His call.

Portsmouth was better. It had highways and traffic and buses. It was a straight shot to Boston. San Diego beckoned. The Northeast was about to get cold.

But what was one extra day?

He stepped right, and chose the fork in the road that led to Laconia.

At that same late-afternoon moment, nearly thirty miles away, heading south on a different back road, was a worn-out Honda Civic, driven by a twenty-five-year-old man named Shorty Fleck. Next to him in the passenger seat was a twenty-five-year-old woman named Patty Sundstrom. They were boyfriend and girlfriend, both born and raised in Saint Leonard, which was a small faraway town in New Brunswick, Canada. Not much happened there. The biggest news in living memory was ten years previously, when a truck carrying twelve million bees overturned on a curve. The local paper reported with pride that the accident was the first of its kind in New Brunswick. Patty worked in a sawmill. She was the granddaughter of a guy from Minnesota who had slipped north half a century earlier, to beat the draft for Vietnam. Shorty was a potato farmer. His family had been in Canada for ever. And he wasn’t particularly short. Maybe he had been once, as a kid. But now he figured he was what any eyewitness would call an average-looking guy.

They were trying to make it non-stop from Saint Leonard to New York City. Which by any standard was a hardcore drive. But they saw a big advantage in doing it. They had something to sell in the city, and saving a night in a hotel would maximize their profit. They had planned out their route, looping west to avoid the summer people heading home from the beaches, using back roads, Patty’s blunt finger on a map, her gaze ranging ahead for turns and signs. They had timed it out on paper, and figured it was a feasible course of action.

Except they had gotten a later start than they would have liked, due a little bit to general disorganization, but mostly due to the Honda’s ageing battery not liking the newly crisp autumnal temperatures blowing in from the direction of Prince Edward Island. The delay put them in a long line at the U.S. border, and then the Honda started overheating, and needed nursing along below fifty miles an hour for an extended spell.

They were tired.

And hungry, and thirsty, and in need of the bathroom, and late, and behind schedule. And frustrated. The Honda was overheating again. The needle was kissing the red. There was a grinding noise under the hood. Maybe the oil was low. No way of telling. All the dashboard lights had been on continuously for the last two and a half years.

Shorty asked, ‘What’s up ahead?’

Patty said, ‘Nothing.’

Her fingertip was on a wandering red line, which was labelled with a three-digit number, and which was shown running north to south through a jagged shape shaded pale green. A forested area. Which matched what was out the window. The trees crowded in, still and dark, laden down with heavy end-of-summer leaves. The map showed tiny red spider-web lines here and there, like the veins in an old lady’s leg, which were presumably all tracks to somewhere, but nowhere big. Nowhere likely to have a mechanic or a lube shop or radiator water. The best bet was about thirty minutes ahead, some ways east of south, a town with its name printed not too small and semi-bold, which meant it had to have at least a gas station. It was called Laconia.

She said, ‘Can we make another twenty miles?’

Now the needle was all the way in the red.

‘Maybe,’ Shorty said. ‘If we walk the last nineteen of them.’

He slowed the car and rolled along on a whisker of gas, which generated less new heat inside the engine, but which also put less airflow through the radiator vanes, so the old heat couldn’t get away so fast, so in the short term the temperature needle kept on climbing. Patty rubbed her fingertip forward on the map, keeping pace with her estimate of their speed. There was a spider-web vein coming up on the right. A thin track, curling through the green ink to somewhere about an inch away. Without the rush of air from her leaky window she could hear the noises from the engine. Clunking, knocking, grinding. Getting worse.

Then up ahead on the right she saw the mouth of a narrow road. The spider-web vein, right on time. But more like a tunnel than a road. It was dark inside. The trees met overhead. At the entrance on a frost-heaved post was nailed a board, on which were screwed ornate plastic letters, and an arrow pointing into the tunnel. The letters spelled the word Motel.

‘Should we?’ she asked.

The car answered. The temperature needle was jammed against the stop. Shorty could feel the heat in his shins. The whole engine bay was baking. For a second he wondered what would happen if they kept on going instead. People talked about automobile engines blowing up and melting down. Which were figures of speech, surely. There would be no actual puddles of molten metal. No actual explosions would take place. It would just conk out, peacefully. Or seize up. It would coast gently to a stop.

But in the middle of nowhere, with no passing traffic and no cell signal.

‘No choice,’ he said, and braked and steered and turned in to the tunnel. Up close they saw the plastic letters on the sign had been painted gold, with a narrow brush and a steady hand, like a promise, like the motel was a high-class place. There was a second sign, identical, facing drivers coming the other way.

‘OK?’ Shorty said.

The air felt cold in the tunnel. Easily ten degrees colder than the main drag. Last fall’s leaf litter and last winter’s mud were mashed together on the shoulders.

‘OK?’ Shorty asked again.

They drove over a wire laid across the road. A fat rubbery thing, not much smaller than a garden hose. Like they had at gas stations, to ding a bell in the kiosk, to get the pump jockey out to help you.

Patty didn’t answer.

Shorty said, ‘How bad can it be? It’s marked on the map.’

‘The track is marked.’

‘The sign was nice.’

‘I agree,’ Patty said. ‘It was.’

They drove on.


THE TREES COOLED and freshened the air, so Reacher was happy to keep up a steady four miles an hour, which for his length of leg was exactly eighty-eight beats a minute, which was exactly the tempo of a whole bunch of great music, so it was easy time to pass. He did thirty minutes, two miles, seven classic tracks in his head, and then he heard real sounds behind him, and turned around to see an ancient pick-up coming crabwise towards him, as if each of the wheels wanted to go in a different direction.

Reacher stuck out his thumb.

The truck stopped. An old guy with a long white beard leaned across inside and wound down the passenger window.

He said, ‘I’m going to Laconia.’

‘Me too,’ Reacher said.

‘Well, OK.’

Reacher got in, and wound the window back up. The old guy pulled out and wobbled back up to speed.

He said, ‘I guess this is the part where you tell me I need new tyres.’

‘It’s a possibility,’ Reacher said.

‘But at my age I try to avoid large capital expenditures. Why invest in the future? Do I even have one?’

‘That argument is more circular than your tyres.’

‘Actually the frame is bent. I was in a wreck.’


‘Close on twenty-three years ago.’

‘So this is normal to you now.’

‘Keeps me awake.’

‘How do you know where to point the steering wheel?’

‘You get used to it. Like sailing a boat. Why are you going to Laconia?’

‘I was passing by,’ Reacher said. ‘My father was born there. I want to see it.’

‘What’s your last name?’


The old guy shook his head.

He said, ‘I never knew anyone in Laconia named Reacher.’

The reason for the previous Y-shaped fork in the road turned out to be a lake, wide enough to make north–south drivers pick a side, right bank or left bank. Reacher and the old guy squirmed and shuddered along the right bank, which was mechanically stressful, but visually beautiful, because the view was stunning and the sun was less than an hour from setting. Then came the town of Laconia itself. It was a bigger place than Reacher expected. Fifteen or twenty thousand people. A county seat. Solid and prosperous. There were brick buildings and neat old-fashioned streets. The low red sun made them look like they were in an old-time movie.

The squirming pick-up truck wobbled to a stop at a downtown corner. The old guy said, ‘This is Laconia.’

Reacher said, ‘How much has it changed?’

‘Around here, not much.’

‘I grew up thinking it was smaller than this.’

‘Most people remember things bigger.’

Reacher thanked the guy for the ride, and got out, and watched the truck squeal away, each tyre insisting the other three were wrong. Then he turned away and walked random blocks, getting a sense for what might be where, in particular two specific destinations for start of business the next day, and two for immediate attention that evening, the first being a place to eat, and the second being a place to sleep.

Both were available, in a historic-downtown kind of way. Healthy food, no place more than two tables wide. No motels in town, but plenty of inns and plenty of bed and breakfasts. He ate at a narrow bistro, because a waitress smiled at him through the window, after a moment of embarrassment when she brought his order. Which was some kind of salad with roast beef in it, which was the menu choice he felt would be most nutritious. But when it came it was tiny. He asked for a second order, and a bigger plate. At first the waitress misunderstood. She thought there was something wrong with the first order. Or the size of the plate. Or both. Then she caught on. He was hungry. He wanted two portions. She asked if there was anything else he needed. He asked for a bigger cup for his coffee.

Afterwards he tracked back to lodgings he had seen, on a side street near the city offices. There was room at the inn. Vacation time was over. He paid a premium price for what the innkeeper called a suite, but what he called a room with a sofa and way too many floral patterns and feather pillows. He shovelled a dozen off the bed and put his pants under the mattress to press. Then he took a long hot shower, and climbed under the covers, and went to sleep.

The tunnel through the trees turned out to be more than two miles long. Patty Sundstrom traced its curves with her finger on the map. Under the Honda’s wheels was greyed and pitted blacktop, the finished surface completely washed away in places by runoff water, leaving shallow potholes the size of pool tables, some of them bare ribbed concrete, some of them gravelled, some of them full of leaf mould slop still wet from springtime, because overhead the leafy canopy was thick and unbroken, apart from one spot where no trees grew for twenty-some yards. There was a bar of bright pink open sky. Maybe a narrow seam of different dirt, or a sudden underground escarpment of solid rock, or a hydraulic oddity with no ground water, or too much. Then the sliver of sky was behind them. They were back in the tunnel. Shorty Fleck was going slow, to save the shocks and nurse the motor. He wondered if he should put his headlights on.

Then the canopy thinned for a second time, with the promise of more to come, like a big clearing was on its way, like they were arriving somewhere. What they saw was the road ahead coming out of the trees and running in a straight line through a couple acres of flat grassland, the thin grey ribbon suddenly naked and exposed in the last of the daylight. Its destination was a group of three substantial wooden buildings, laid out one after the other on a sweeping right-hand curve, maybe fifty yards between the first and the last. All three were painted dull red, with bright white trim. Set against the green grass they looked like classic New England structures.

The closest building was a motel. Like a picture in a kid’s book. Like learning your ABCs. M is for Motel. It was long and low, made of dull red boards, with a pitched roof of grey asphalt shingle, and a red neon Office sign in the first window, and then a louvred door for storage, and then a repeating pattern, of a broad window with an HVAC grille and two plastic lawn chairs under it, and a numbered door, and another broad window with the same grille and the same chairs, and another numbered door, and so on, all the way to the end. There were twelve rooms in total, all in a line. But there were no cars parked out front of any of them. Looked like zero occupancy.

‘OK?’ Shorty said.

Patty didn’t answer. He stopped the car. In the distance on the right they saw the second building was shorter from end to end, but much taller and deeper from front to back. Some kind of barn. But not for animals. The concrete ramp to the door was conspicuously clean. There was no shit, to put it bluntly. It was a workshop of some kind. Out front were nine quad-bike ATVs. Like regular motorcycles, but with four fat tyres instead of two slicks. They were lined up in three ranks of three, with exact precision.

‘Maybe they’re Hondas,’ Patty said. ‘Maybe these guys would know how to fix the car.’

On the end of the line the third building was a regular house, of plain construction but generous size, with a wraparound porch, which had rocking chairs set out on it.

Shorty rolled the car forward, and stopped again. The blacktop was about to end. Ten yards short of the motel’s empty lot. He was about to bump down on to an owner-maintained surface that his expert potato-farmer eye told him was made up of equal parts gravel, mud, dead weeds, and live weeds. He saw at least five species he would rather not have in his own dirt.

The end of the blacktop felt like a threshold. Like a decision.

‘OK?’ he said again.

‘The place is empty,’ Patty said. ‘There are no guests. How weird is that?’

‘The season is over.’

‘Like flicking a switch?’

‘They’re always complaining about it.’

‘It’s the middle of nowhere.’

‘It’s a getaway vacation. No hustle, no bustle.’

Patty was quiet a long moment.

Then she said, ‘I guess it looks OK.’

Shorty said, ‘I think it’s this or nothing.’

She traced the motel structure left to right, the plain proportions, the solid roof, the heavy boards, the recent stain. Necessary maintenance had been performed, but nothing flashy. It was an honest building. It could have been in Canada.

She said, ‘Let’s take a look.’

They bumped down off the blacktop and rattled across the uneven surface and parked outside the office. Shorty thought a second and shut the motor down. Safer than letting it idle. In case of molten metal and explosions. If it didn’t start up again, too bad. It was already near enough where it needed to be. They could ask for room one, if necessary. They had one huge suitcase, full of the stuff they planned to sell. It could stay in the car. Apart from that they didn’t have much to haul.

They got out of the car and stepped into the office. There was a guy behind the reception counter. He was about Shorty’s own age, and Patty’s, mid-twenties, maybe a year or two more. He had short blond hair, combed neatly, and a good tan, and blue eyes, and white teeth, and a ready smile. But he looked a little out of place. At first Shorty took him to be like a summer thing he had seen in Canada, where a well-bred kid is sent to do a dumb job in the countryside, for the purposes of building his résumé, or expanding his horizons, or finding himself, or some such. But this guy was five years too old for that. And behind his greeting he had a proprietorial air. He was saying welcome, for sure, but to my house. Like he owned the place.

Maybe he did.

Patty told him they needed a room, and that they wondered if whoever looked after the quad bikes could take a look at their car, or failing that, they would surely appreciate the phone number of a good mechanic. Hopefully not a tow truck.

The guy smiled and asked, ‘What’s wrong with your car?’

He sounded like every young guy in the movies who worked on Wall Street and wore a suit and tie. Full of smooth confidence. Probably drank champagne. Greed is good. Not a potato farmer’s favourite type of guy.

Patty said, ‘It’s overheating and making weird banging noises under the hood.’

The guy smiled a different kind of smile, this one a modest but commanding junior-master-of-the-universe grin, and he said, ‘Then I guess we should take a look at it. Sounds low on coolant, and low on oil. Both of which are easy to fix, unless something is leaking. That would depend on what parts are needed. Maybe we could adapt something. Failing that, as you say, we know some good mechanics. Either way, there’s nothing to be done until it cools right down. Park it outside your room overnight, and we’ll check it first thing in the morning.’

‘What time exactly?’ Patty asked, thinking about how late they were already, but also thinking about gift horses and mouths.

The guy said, ‘Here we’re all up with the sun.’

She said, ‘How much is the room?’

‘After Labor Day, before the leaf-peepers, let’s call it fifty bucks.’

‘OK,’ she said, although not really, but she was thinking about gift horses again, and what Shorty had said, that it was this or nothing.

‘We’ll give you room ten,’ the guy said. ‘It’s the first we’ve refurbished so far. In fact we only just finished it. You would be its very first guests. We hope you will do us the honour.’


REACHER WOKE UP a minute after three in the morning. All the clichés: snapped awake, instantly, like flicking a switch. He didn’t move. Didn’t even tense his arms and legs. He just lay there, staring into the dark, listening hard, concentrating a hundred per cent. Not a learned response. A primitive instinct, baked deep in the back of his brain by evolution. One time he had been in Southern California, fast asleep with the windows open on a beautiful night, and he had snapped awake, instantly, like flicking a switch, because in his sleep he had smelled a faint wisp of smoke. Not cigarette smoke or a building on fire, but a burning hillside forty miles away. A primeval smell. Like a wildfire racing across an ancient savannah. Whose ancestors outran it depended on who woke up fastest and got the earliest start. Rinse and repeat, down hundreds of generations.

But there was no smoke. Not at one minute past three that particular morning. Not in that particular hotel room. So what woke him? Not sight or touch or taste, because he had been alone in bed with his eyes shut and the drapes closed and nothing in his mouth. Sound, then. He had heard something.

He waited for a repeat. Which he considered an evolutionary weakness. The product was not yet perfect. It was still a two-step process. One time to wake you up, and a second time to tell you what it was. Better to do both together, surely, first time out.

He heard nothing. Not many sounds were lizard-brain sounds any more. The pad or hiss of an ancient predator was unlikely. The nearest forest twigs to be ominously stepped upon and loudly broken were miles away beyond the edge of town. Not much else scared the primitive cortex. Not in the audio kingdom. Newer sounds were dealt with elsewhere, in the front part of the brain, which was plenty vigilant for the scrapes and clicks of modern threats, but which lacked the seniority to wake a person up from a deep and contented sleep.

So what woke him? The only other truly ancient sound was a cry for help. A scream, or a plea. Not a modern yell, or a whoop or a cackle of laughter. Something deeply primitive. The tribe, under attack. At its very edge. A distant early warning.

He heard nothing more. There was no repeat. He slid out from under the covers and listened at the door. Heard nothing. He took a feather pillow and held it over the peephole. No reaction. No gunshot through the eye. He looked out. Saw nothing. A bright empty hallway.

He lifted the drapes and checked the window. Nothing there. Nothing on the street. Pitch dark. All quiet. He got back in bed and smacked the pillow into shape and went back to sleep.

Patty Sundstrom was also awake at one minute past three. She had slept four hours and then some kind of subconscious agitation had forced its way through and woken her up. She didn’t feel good. Not deep inside, like she knew she should. Partly the delay was on her mind. At best they would get to the city halfway through the next day. Not prime trading hours. On top of which was the fifty extra bucks for the room. Plus the car was an unknown quantity. It might cost a fortune. If parts were required. If something had to be adapted. Cars were great until they weren’t. Even so, the engine had started when they came out of the office. The motel guy didn’t seem too worried about it. He made a reassuring face. He didn’t come to the room with them. Which was good too. She hated people crowding in, showing her where the light switch was, and the bathroom, judging her stuff, acting all obsequious, wanting a tip. The guy did none of that.

But still she didn’t feel good. She didn’t know why. The room was pleasant. It was newly refurbished, as promised, every inch. The wallboard was new, and the ceiling, and the trim, and the paint, and the carpet. Nothing adventurous. Certainly nothing flashy. It looked like an apples-for-apples update of what tradition would have had there before, but newly straight and true and smooth and solid. The AC was cold and quiet. There was a flat-screen television. The window was an expensive unit, with two thick panes of glass sealed in thermal gaskets, with an electric roller blind set in the void between. You didn’t tug on a chain to close it. You pressed a button. No expense spared. Only problem was, the window itself didn’t open. Which she would worry about in a fire. And generally she liked a breath of night air in a room. But overall it was a decent place. Better than most she had seen. Maybe even worth fifty bucks.

But she didn’t feel good. There was no phone in the room, and no cell signal, so after half an hour they had walked back to the office to enquire about using the motel’s land line for hot food delivery. Pizza, maybe. The guy at the desk had smiled a rueful smile and said he was sorry, but they were way too remote for delivery. No one would come. He said most guests drove out to a diner or a restaurant. Shorty looked like he was going to get mad. As if the guy was saying, most guests have cars that work. Maybe something to do with the rueful smile. Then the guy said, but hey, we’ve got pizzas in the freezer down at the house. Why don’t you come eat with us?

Which was a weird meal, in a dark old residence, with Shorty and the guy and three others just the same. Same age, same look, with some kind of same-wavelength connection between them. As if they were all on a mission. There was something nervous about them. After some conversation she concluded they were all maxed-out investors in the same new venture. The motel, she assumed. She assumed they had bought it and were trying to make a go of it. Whatever, they were all extremely polite and gracious and talkative. The guy from the reception desk said his name was Mark. The others were Robert, Steven and Peter. They all asked intelligent questions about life in Saint Leonard. They asked about the hardcore drive south. Again Shorty looked like he was going to get mad. He thought they were calling him dumb for setting out in a bad car. But the guy who said he looked after the quad bikes, who was Peter, said he would have done exactly the same thing. Purely on a statistical basis. The car had run for years. Why assume it would stop now? The odds said it would keep on going. It always had before.

Then they said goodnight and walked back to room ten, and went to sleep, except she woke up again four hours later, agitated. She didn’t feel good, and she didn’t know why. Or maybe she did. Maybe she just didn’t want to admit it. Maybe that was the issue. Truth was, deep down, she guessed she was probably mad at Shorty himself. The big trip. The most important part of their secret plan. He set out in a bad car. He was dumb. He was dumber than his own potatoes. He couldn’t invest a buck upfront? What would it have cost, at a lube shop with a coupon? Less than the fifty bucks they were paying for the motel, that was for sure, which Shorty was also pestering her to agree was a creepy place run by creepy people, which was a conflict for her, because really she felt like a bunch of polite young men were rescuing her, like knights in shining armour, from a predicament caused entirely by a potato farmer too dumb to check his car before setting out on about a thousand-mile trip to, oh yeah, a foreign country, with, oh yeah, something very valuable in the trunk.

Dumb. She wanted air. She slipped out of bed and padded barefoot to the door. She turned the knob, and pressed her other hand on the frame for balance, so she could ease the door open without a sound, because she wanted Shorty to stay asleep, because she didn’t want to deal with him right then, as mad as she was.

But the door was stuck. It wouldn’t move at all. She checked it was properly unlocked from the inside, and she tried the knob both ways, but nothing happened. The door was jammed. Maybe it had never been adjusted properly after installation. Or maybe it had swelled with the summer heat.

Dumb. Really dumb. Now was the one time she could use Shorty. He was a strong little fireplug. From throwing hundred-pound bags of potatoes around. But was she going to wake him up and ask him? Was she hell. She crept back to bed and got in alongside him and stared at the ceiling, which was straight and true and smooth and solid.

Reacher woke again at eight o’clock in the morning. Bright bars of hard sun came past the edges of the drapes. There was dust in the air, floating gently. There were muted sounds from the street. Cars waiting, and then moving off. A light at the end of the block, presumably. Occasionally the dulled blare of a horn, as if a guy in front had looked away and missed the green.

He showered, and retrieved his pants from under the mattress, and dressed, and walked out in search of breakfast. He found coffee and muffins close by, which sustained him through a longer reconnaissance, which brought him to a place he figured might have good food hiding under multiple layers of some kind of fauxretro irony. He figured it would take a smarter guy than him to decode them all. The basic idea seemed to be someone’s modern-day notion of where old-time lumberjacks might have dined, on whatever it was that old-time lumberjacks ate, which in the modern day seemed to be interpreted as one of every fried item on the menu. In Reacher’s experience lumberjacks ate the same as any other hard-working person, which was all kinds of different things. But he had no ideological objection to fried food as such, especially not in generous quantities, so he played along. He went in and sat down, briskly, he hoped, as if he had thirty minutes before he had a tree to fell.

The food was fine, and the coffee kept on coming, so he lingered longer than thirty minutes, watching out the window, timing the hustle and the bustle, waiting until the people in the suits and the skirts were safely at work. Then he got up and left his tip and paid his check, and walked two of the blocks he had scouted the night before, towards the place he guessed he should start. Which was the records department of the city offices. Which had a suite number all its own, on a crowded multi-line floor directory, outside a brick-built multi-purpose government building, which because of its age and its shape Reacher figured had once contained a courtroom. Maybe it still did.

The suite he was looking for turned out to be one of many small rooms opening off a grand mezzanine hallway. Like a corridor in an expensive hotel. Except the doors were half glass, which was reeded in an old-fashioned style, with the department name painted on it in gold. Over two lines, in the case of the records department. Inside the door was an empty room with four plastic chairs and a waist-high enquiry counter. Like a miniature version of any government office. There was an electric bell push screwed to the counter. It had a thin wire that ran away to a nearby crack, and a handwritten sign that said If Unattended Ring For Service. The message was carefully lettered and protected by many layers of clear tape, applied in strips of generous length, some of which were curled at the corners, and dirty, as if picked at by bored or anxious fingers.

Reacher rang for service. A minute later a woman came through a door in the rear wall, looking back as she did so, with what Reacher thought was regret, as if she was leaving a space dramatically larger and more exciting. She was maybe thirty, slim and neat, in a grey sweater and a grey skirt. She stepped up to the counter but she glanced back at the door. Either her boyfriend was waiting, or she hated her job. Maybe both. But she did her best. She cranked up a warm and welcoming manner. Not exactly like in a store, where the customer was always right, but more as an equal, as if she and the customer were just bound to have a good time together, puzzling through some ancient town business. There was enough light in her eyes Reacher figured she meant at least some of it. Maybe she didn’t hate her job after all.

He said, ‘I need to ask you about an old real estate record.’

‘Is it for a title dispute?’ the woman asked. ‘In which case you should get your attorney to request it. Much faster that way.’

‘No kind of dispute,’ he said. ‘My father was born here. That’s all. Years ago. He’s dead now. I was passing by. I thought I would stop in and take a look at the house he grew up in.’

‘What’s the address?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Can you remember roughly where it is?’

‘I’ve never been there.’

‘You didn’t visit?’


‘Perhaps because your father moved away when he was young.’

‘Not until he joined the Marines when he was seventeen.’

‘Then perhaps because your grandparents moved away before your father had a family of his own. Before visits became a thing.’

‘I got the impression my grandparents stayed here the rest of their lives.’

‘But you never met them?’

‘We were a Marine family. We were always somewhere else.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Not your fault.’

‘But thank you for your service.’

‘Wasn’t my service. My dad was the Marine, not me. I was hoping we could look him up, maybe in a register of births or something, to get his parents’ full names, so we could find their exact address, maybe in property tax records or something, so I could drop by and take a look.’

‘You don’t know your grandparents’ names?’

‘I think they were James and Elizabeth Reacher.’

‘That’s my name.’

‘Your name is Reacher?’

‘No, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Castle.’

‘I’m pleased to meet you,’ Reacher said.

‘Likewise,’ she said.

‘I’m Jack Reacher. My dad was Stan Reacher.’

‘How long ago did Stan leave to join the Marines?’

‘He would be about ninety now, so it was more than seventy years ago.’

‘Then we should start eighty years ago, for a safety margin,’ the woman said. ‘At that point Stan Reacher would be about ten years old, living at home with his parents James and Elizabeth Reacher, somewhere in Laconia. Is that a fair summary?’

‘That could be chapter one of my biography.’

‘I’m pretty sure the computer goes back more than eighty years now,’ she said. ‘But for property taxes that old it might just be a list of names, I’m afraid.’

She turned a key and opened a lid in the countertop. Under it was a keyboard and a screen. Safe from thieves, while unattended. She pressed a button, and looked away.

‘Booting up,’ she said.

Which were words he had heard before, in a technological context, but to him they sounded military, as if infantry companies were lacing tight ahead of a general advance.

She clicked and scrolled, and scrolled and clicked.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Eighty years ago is just an index, with file numbers. If you want detail, you need to request the actual physical document from storage. Usually that takes a long time, I’m afraid.’

‘How long?’

‘Sometimes three months.’

‘Are there names and addresses in the index?’


‘Then that’s really all we need.’

‘I guess so. If all you want to do is take a look at the house.’

‘That’s all I’m planning to do.’

‘Aren’t you curious?’

‘About what?’

‘Their lives. Who they were and what they did.’

‘Not three months’ worth of curious.’

‘OK, then names and addresses are all we need.’

‘If the house is still there,’ he said. ‘Maybe someone tore it down. Suddenly eighty years sounds like a real long time.’

‘Things change slowly here,’ she said.

She clicked again, and scrolled, fast at first, scooting down through the alphabet, and then slowly, peering at the screen, through what Reacher assumed was the R section, and then back up again, just as slowly, peering just as hard. Then down and up again fast, as if trying to shake something loose.

She said, ‘No one named Reacher owned property in Laconia eighty years ago.’


PATTY SUNDSTROM ALSO woke again at eight in the morning, later than she would have liked, but finally she had succumbed to exhaustion, and she had slept deeply for almost five more hours. She sensed the space in the bed next to her was empty. She rolled over and saw the door was open. Shorty was out in the lot. He was talking to one of the motel guys. Maybe Peter, she thought. The guy who looked after the quad bikes. They were standing next to the Honda. Its hood was up. The sun was bright.

She slipped out of bed and crept bent-over to the bathroom. So Peter or whoever it was by the Honda wouldn’t see. She showered, and dressed in the same clothes, because she hadn’t brought enough for an extra day. She came out of the bathroom. She was hungry. The door was still open. The sun was still bright. Now Shorty was there on his own. The other guy had gone.

She stepped out and said, ‘Good morning.’

‘Car won’t start,’ Shorty said. ‘The guy messed with it and now it’s dead. It was OK last night.’

‘It was not OK, exactly.’

‘It started last night. Now it won’t. The guy must have messed it up.’

‘What did he do?’

‘He poked around some. He had a wrench and a pair of pliers. I think he made it worse.’

‘Was it Peter? The guy that looks after the quad bikes?’

‘So he says. If it’s true, good luck to them. Probably that’s why they need nine bikes in the first place. To make sure they always have one that works.’

‘The car started last night because it was hot. Now it’s cold. That makes a difference.’

‘You’re a mechanic now?’

‘Are you?’ she said.

‘I think the guy broke something.’

‘And I think he’s trying to help us the best he can. We should be grateful.’

‘For getting our car broken?’

‘It was already broken.’

‘It started last night. First turn of the key.’

She said, ‘Did you have a problem with the room door?’

He said, ‘When?’

‘When you came out this morning.’

‘What kind of problem?’

‘I wanted some air in the night but I couldn’t get it open. It was jammed.’

‘I didn’t have a problem,’ Shorty said. ‘It opened right up.’

Fifty yards away they saw Peter come out of the barn, with a brown canvas bag in his hand. It looked heavy. Tools, Patty thought. To fix their car.

She said, ‘Shorty Fleck, now you listen to me. These gentlemen are trying to help us, and I want you to act like you appreciate it. At the very minimum I don’t want you to give them a reason to stop helping us before they’re finished. Do I make myself clear?’

‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘You’re acting like this is my fault or something.’

‘Yeah, something,’ she said, and then she shut up and waited for Peter, with the bag of tools. Who clanked up to them with a cheerful smile, as if he was just itching to clap the dust off his hands and get straight to work.

She said, ‘Thanks so much for your help.’

He said, ‘No problem at all.’

‘I hope it’s not too complicated.’

‘Right now it’s dead as a doornail. Which is usually electrical. Maybe a wire melted.’

‘Can you fix that?’

‘We could splice in a replacement. Just enough to bypass the bad part. Sooner or later you would want to get it properly repaired. It’s the kind of thing that could shake loose eventually.’

‘How long does it take to splice?’

‘First we need to find where it melted.’

‘The engine started last night,’ Shorty said. ‘Then we ran it two minutes and shut it off again. It got cooler and cooler, all night long. How would anything melt?’

Peter said nothing.

‘He’s just asking,’ Patty said. ‘In case the melting thing is a wild goose chase. We wouldn’t want to take up more of your time than we had to. It’s very nice of you to help us.’

‘It’s OK,’ Peter said. ‘It’s a reasonable question. When you stop the engine you also stop the radiator fan and the water pump. So there’s no forced cooling and no circulation. The hottest water rises passively to the top of the cylinder head. Surface temperatures can actually get worse in the first hour. Maybe there was a wire touching the metal.’

He ducked under the hood and pondered a moment. He traced circuits with his finger, checking the wires, tugging things, tapping things. He looked at the battery. He used a wrench to check the clamps were tight on the posts.

He backed out and said, ‘Try it one more time.’

Shorty put his butt on the seat and kept his feet on the ground. He twisted to face front and put his hand on the key. He looked up. Peter nodded. Shorty turned the key.

Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Not even a click or a whirr or a cough. Turning the key was the same thing as not turning it. Inert. Dead as a doornail. Dead as the deadest thing that ever died.

Elizabeth Castle looked up from her screen and focused on nothing much, as if running through a number of possible scenarios, and the consequent next steps in all the different circumstances, starting, Reacher assumed, with him being an idiot and getting the town wrong, in which case the next step would be to get rid of him, no doubt politely, but also no doubt expeditiously.

She said, ‘They were probably renters. Most people were. The landlords paid the taxes. We’ll have to find them somewhere else. Were they farmers?’

‘I don’t think so,’ Reacher said. ‘I don’t remember any stories about having to go outside in the freezing dawn to feed the chickens before walking twenty miles through the snow to school, uphill both ways. That’s the kind of thing farmers tell you, right? But I never heard that.’

‘Then I’m not sure where you should start.’

‘The beginning is often good. The register of births.’

‘That’s in the county offices, not the city. It’s a whole different building, quite far from here. Maybe you should start with the census records instead. Your father should show up in two of them, when he was around two years old and twelve years old.’

‘Where are they?’

‘They’re in the county offices too, but a different office, slightly closer.’

‘How many offices have they got?’

‘A good number.’

She gave him the address of the particular place he needed, with extensive turn-by-turn directions how to get there, and he said goodbye and set out walking. He passed the inn where he had spent the night. He passed a place he figured he would come back to for lunch. He was moving south and east through the downtown blocks, sometimes on worn brick sidewalks easily eighty years old. Even a hundred. The stores were crisp and clean, many of them devoted to cookware and bakeware and tableware and all kinds of other wares associated with the preparation and consumption of food. Some were shoe stores. Some had bags.

The building he was looking for turned out to be a modern structure built wide and low across what must have been two regular lots. It would have looked better on a technology campus, surrounded by computer laboratories. Which was what it was, he thought. He realized in his mind he had been expecting shelves of mouldering paper, hand-lettered in fading ink, tied up with string. All of which still existed, he was sure, but not there. That stuff was in storage, three months away, after being copied and catalogued and indexed on a computer. It would be retrieved not with a puff of dust and a cart with wheels, but with a click of a mouse and the whirr of a printer.

The modern world.

He went in, to a reception desk that could have been in a hip museum or an upscale dentist. Behind it was a guy who looked like he was stationed there as a punishment. Reacher said hello. The guy looked up but didn’t answer. Reacher told him he wanted to see two sets of old census records.

‘For where?’ the guy asked, like he didn’t care at all.

‘Here,’ Reacher said.

The guy looked blank.

‘Laconia,’ Reacher said. ‘New Hampshire, USA, North America, the world, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe.’

‘Why two?’

‘Why not?’

‘What years?’

Reacher told him, first the year his dad was two, and then the next census ten years later, when his dad was twelve.

The guy asked, ‘Are you a county resident?’

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘Funding. This stuff ain’t free. But residents are entitled.’

‘I’ve been here a good while,’ Reacher said. ‘At least as long as I lived anywhere else recently.’

‘What is the reason for your search?’

‘Is that important?’

‘We have boxes to check.’

‘Family history,’ Reacher said.

‘Now I need your name,’ the guy said.


‘We have targets to meet. We have to take names, or they think we’re inflating the numbers.’

‘You could make up names all day long.’

‘We have to see ID.’

‘Why? Isn’t this stuff in the public domain?’

‘Welcome to the real world,’ the guy said.

Reacher showed him his passport.

The guy said, ‘You were born in Berlin.’

‘Correct,’ Reacher said.

‘Not Berlin, New Hampshire, either.’

‘Is that a problem? You think I’m a foreign spy sent here to disrupt what already happened ninety years ago?’

The guy wrote Reacher in a box on a form.

‘Cubicle two, Mr Reacher,’ he said, and pointed through a door in the opposite wall.

Reacher stepped in, to a hushed square space, with low lighting, and long maple workbenches divided by upright partitions into separate stations. Each station had a muted tweed chair, and a flat-screen computer on the work surface, and a freshly sharpened pencil, and a thin pad of paper with the county’s name printed at the top, like a hotel brand. There was thick carpet on the floor. Fabric on the walls. The woodwork was excellent quality. Reacher figured the room as a whole must have cost a million dollars.

He sat down in cubicle two, and the screen in front of him came to life. It lit up blue, a plain wash of colour, apart from two small icons in the top right corner, like postage stamps on a letter. He was not an experienced computer user, but he had tried it once or twice, and he had seen it done many more times. Now even cheap hotels had computers at reception. Many times he had waited while a clerk clicked and scrolled and typed. Gone were the days when a person could slap down a couple of bills and get a big brass key in instant exchange.

He moved the mouse and sent the arrow up towards the icons. He knew they were files. Or file folders. You had to click on them, and in response they would open. He was never sure whether you had to click once or twice. He had seen it done both ways. His usual habit was to click twice. If in doubt, et cetera. Maybe it helped, and it never seemed to hurt. Like shooting someone in the head. A double tap could do no harm.

He put the arrow centre mass on the left-hand icon and clicked twice, and the screen redrew to a grey colour, like the deck of a warship. In the centre was a black and white image of the title page from a government report, like a bright crisp Xerox, printed with prissy, old-fashioned writing in a government-style typeface. At the top it said: U.S. Department of Commerce, R. P. Lamont, Secretary, Bureau of the Census, W. M. Steuart, Director. In the middle it said: Fifteenth Census of the United States, Returns Extracted for the Municipality of Laconia, New Hampshire. At the bottom it said: For Sale by the Superintendent of Documents, Washington, D.C., Price One Dollar.

Reacher could see the top of a second page peeking up from the bottom of the screen. Scrolling would be required. That was clear. Best accomplished, he imagined, with the little wheel set in the top surface of the mouse. Between about where its shoulder blades would be. Under the pad of his index finger. Convenient. Intuitive. He skimmed the introduction, which was mostly about many and various improvements made in methodology since the fourteenth census. Not boasting, really. More of a one-geek-to-another kind of a thing, even back then. Stuff you needed to know, if you loved counting people.

Then came the lists, of plain names and old occupations, and the world of nearly ninety years before seemed to rise up all around. There were button makers, and hat makers, and glove makers, and turpentine farmers, and labourers, and locomotive engineers, and silk spinners, and tin mill workers. There was a separate section titled Unusual Occupations For Children. Most were optimistically classified as apprentices. Or helpers. There were blacksmiths and brick masons and engine hostlers and ladlers and pourers and smelter boys.

There were no Reachers. Not in Laconia, New Hampshire, the year Stan was two.

He wheeled his way back to the top and started again, this time paying particular attention to the dependent children column. Maybe there had been a gruesome accident, and orphan baby Stan had been taken in by unrelated but kindly neighbours. Maybe they had noted his birth name as a tribute.

There were no dependent children separately identified as Stan Reacher. Not in Laconia, New Hampshire, the year he was supposed to be two.

Reacher found the place in the top left of the screen, with the three little buttons, red, orange, green, like a tiny traffic signal laid on its side. He clicked twice on red and the document went away. He opened up the right-hand icon, and he found the sixteenth census, different Secretary, different Director, but the same substantial improvements since the last time around. Then came the lists, now just eighty years old instead of ninety, the difference faintly discernible, with more jobs in factories, and fewer on the land.

But still no Reachers.

Not in Laconia, New Hampshire, the year Stan Reacher was supposed to be twelve.

He clicked twice on the little red button and the document went away.


SHORTY TRIED THE key one more time, but again nothing happened. There was nothing but a soft mechanical click, which was just the physical key itself, turning inside the barrel on the steering column. A soft little click no one ever heard, because normally it was drowned out instantly by the sounds of a car bursting into life. Same thing with the click of a trigger, ahead of a gunshot.

But not that morning. The Honda felt dead. Like a sick old dog, gone in the night. A whole different condition. No response at all. Some kind of charge gone out of it.

Patty said, ‘I think we better call a mechanic.’

Peter looked over her shoulder. She turned, and she saw the other three guys walking up towards them. From the house, or the barn. The main man was in the lead, as always. Mark, who had checked them in the night before. Who had invited them to dinner. The guy with the smile. Behind him was Steven, and then Robert. They arrived and Mark said, ‘How are we doing this morning?’

Peter said, ‘Not great.’

‘What’s wrong with it?’

‘Can’t tell. It’s dead as a doornail. I guess something fried.’

‘We should call a mechanic,’ Patty said. ‘We don’t want to take up any more of your time.’

‘It started last night,’ Shorty said. ‘First turn of the key.’

Mark smiled and said, ‘Yes, it did.’

‘Now it’s dead. Just saying. I know this car. I’ve had it a long time. It has good days and bad days, but it never dies.’

Mark was quiet for a long moment.

Then he smiled again and said, ‘I’m not sure what you’re suggesting.’

‘Maybe poking around in there made it worse.’

‘You think Peter broke it?’

‘Something did, between last night and right now. That’s all I’m saying. Maybe it was Peter, and maybe it wasn’t. Doesn’t even matter any more. Because the thing is, you guys poking around in there is pretty much the same thing as you guys assuming responsibility for it. Because you’re a motel. I’m sure there are innkeeper laws. Safekeeping of guest property, all that kind of issue.’

Again Mark went quiet.

‘He doesn’t mean it,’ Patty said. ‘He’s upset, is all.’

Mark just shook his head, hardly moving at all, as if he was shrugging off the smallest of things. He looked at Shorty and said, ‘Stress is a hard thing to deal with, I agree. I think we all know that. But equally I think we all know the smart play here is to establish a minimum amount of courtesy, in all our mutual dealings. Wouldn’t you say? A little respect. Maybe a little humility, too. Maybe a little acceptance of responsibility. Your car hasn’t been well looked after, has it?’

Shorty didn’t answer.

‘The clock is ticking,’ Mark said. ‘Midday is on its way. Which is when last night becomes tonight, in the motel business, at which time you will owe us another fifty dollars, which I can see in Patty’s face you don’t want to pay, or can’t pay, so a speedy reply would help you much more than it would help me. But fast or slow, the choice is yours.’

Patty said, ‘OK, our car is not well maintained.’

‘Hey,’ Shorty said.

‘Well it isn’t,’ she said. ‘I bet this is the first time the hood was up since you bought it.’

‘I didn’t buy it. I got given it.’

‘Who by?’

‘My uncle.’

‘Then I bet this is the first time the hood was up since it left the factory.’

Shorty said nothing.

Mark looked at him and said, ‘Patty sees things from a third-party perspective. Which implies a measure of objectivity. So I’m sure she’s absolutely right. I’m sure it’s that simple. You’re a busy man. Who has the time? Some things get neglected.’

‘I guess,’ Shorty said.

‘But you need to say it out loud. We need to hear it from your own lips, in your own words.’


‘So we can all get off on the right foot.’

‘The right foot of what?’

‘We need to establish a friendly relationship, Mr Fleck.’


‘Well, for instance, last night we fed you dinner. And, also for instance, about an hour from now you’re going to ask us to feed you breakfast. Because what other choice do you have? All we ask in return is that you give as well as take.’

‘Give what?’

‘An honest account of your own part in your predicament.’

‘What for?’

‘It would be like putting some chips on the table, I suppose. At the start of the game. It would be like an emotional stake in our friendly relationship. We opened ourselves to you, when we had you at our table, and now we ask that you return the favour.’

‘We don’t want breakfast.’

‘Not even coffee?’

‘We can get water from the bathroom tap. If that’s OK with you.’

‘You’ll ask us to feed you lunch. Pride can make you skip one meal, but not two.’

‘Just give us a ride to town. We’ll send a tow truck for the car.’

‘A ride to town is not on offer.’

‘Then call a mechanic for us.’

‘We will,’ Mark said. ‘Immediately after you’ve spoken.’

‘You want a public confession?’

‘Do you have something to confess?’

‘I guess I could have done better,’ Shorty said. ‘Some guy told me Japanese motors could take it. Like you could skip a year. Then I guess some years I couldn’t remember what year I was up to. So overall I guess some years got missed, that shouldn’t have.’

‘Only some?’

‘Maybe all of them. Like you said, I didn’t have the time.’

‘Good policy in the short term.’

‘It was easiest.’

‘But not in the long term.’

‘I guess not,’ Shorty said.

‘A mistake, in fact.’

‘I guess so.’

‘That’s the part we want you to say out loud, Mr Fleck. We want to hear you say you made a dumb mistake that is causing all kinds of people all kinds of trouble. And we want to hear you say you’re sorry about that, to Patty especially, who we think is being touchingly loyal. You’ve got a good one there, Mr Fleck.’

‘I guess so.’

‘We need to hear you say it out loud.’

‘About Patty?’

‘About the mistake.’

No response.

Mark said, ‘A moment ago you asked us to assume responsibility. But it’s you that must do that. We didn’t neglect your car. We didn’t treat a fine machine like a piece of shit, and then set out on a long important journey without so much as kicking the tyres. It was you that did all that, Mr Fleck. Not us. All we’re trying to do is make that clear.’

No response.

The sun was bright. It was hot on the top of Patty’s head.

She said, ‘Just say it, Shorty. It won’t be the end of the world.’

Shorty said, ‘OK, I made a dumb mistake that is causing all kinds of people all kinds of trouble. I apologize to all concerned.’

‘Thank you,’ Mark said. ‘Now we’ll go call a mechanic.’

Reacher walked back the way he had come, past the stores with the bags, and the shoes, and the wares, past the place he had picked out for lunch, past the place he had spent the night, back to the records department, inside the city offices. The waist-high counter was once again unattended. He rang the bell for service. There was a short delay, and then Elizabeth Castle came in.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Hello again.’

‘Hello,’ he said.

‘Any luck?’

‘Not so far,’ he said. ‘They weren’t in either census.’

‘You sure you got the right town? Or state, even. There could be a Laconia somewhere else. New Mexico, or New York or New Jersey. There are a lot of N-states.’

‘Eight,’ Reacher said. ‘Between New and North and Nevada and Nebraska.’

‘Then it might not have been N-H you saw. It might have been N-something else. Old-time handwriting can be weird.’

‘I saw it typed,’ Reacher said. ‘Mostly by Marine Corps clerks. Who usually get things right. And I heard him say it, a dozen times. My mother would be ribbing him about something, most likely a missing romantic gesture, and he would say, well hell, I’m just a plain New Hampshire Yankee.’

Elizabeth Castle said, ‘Huh.’

Then she said, ‘I guess every census misses people. All kinds of geeky reasons. They’re forever trying to improve the methodology. There’s a guy here you should talk to. He’s a census enthusiast.’

‘Is that a new thing?’

‘Probably not,’ she said, a little sharply. ‘I’m sure it’s a serious pursuit with a long and honourable history.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘For what?’

‘I think I offended you.’

‘How could you? I’m not a census enthusiast.’

‘If the census enthusiast was your boyfriend, for instance.’

‘He isn’t,’ she said, with an indignant gasp, as if the idea was absurd.

‘What’s his name?’

‘Carter,’ she said.

‘Where will I find him?’

‘What time is it?’ she said, suddenly looking around for her phone, which wasn’t there. Reacher had noticed many fewer people wearing watches. Phones did everything.

‘Nearly eleven o’clock,’ he said. ‘Four minutes to, plus a few seconds.’


‘Why not? I took it as a serious question.’

‘Plus a few seconds?’

‘You think that’s too exact?’

‘Most people would say five to. Or about eleven o’clock.’

‘Which I would have, if you had asked me what time it was approximately. But you didn’t. You asked me what time it was, period. Three minutes and change, now.’

‘You’re not looking at your watch.’

‘I don’t wear one,’ he said. ‘Like you.’

‘Then how do you know what time it is?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘For real?’

‘Now it’s two minutes and maybe fifty seconds before eleven in the morning.’

‘Wait,’ she said. She went back out through the door in the rear wall. A long moment later she came back in with her phone. She laid it on the counter. The screen was dark.

She said, ‘What time is it now?’

‘Wait,’ he said.

Then he said, ‘Three, two, one, it’s the top of the hour. Eleven o’clock exactly.’

She pressed the button on her phone.

The screen lit up.

It showed 10:59.

‘Close,’ she said.

It changed to 11:00.

‘How do you do that?’ she said.

‘I don’t know,’ he said again. ‘Where will I find your friend Carter, the census enthusiast?’

‘I didn’t say he was my friend.’


‘Different department entirely. In the back office. Not part of the customer-facing ecology, as they say.’

‘Then how do I get to see him?’

‘That’s why I asked the time. He takes a coffee break at a quarter past eleven. Every day, regular as clockwork.’

‘He sounds like a man of sound character.’

‘He takes thirty minutes exactly, in the place across the light. In the garden, if the sun is shining. Which it might or might not be. We can’t tell in here.’

‘What’s Carter’s first name?’ Reacher asked, thinking about baristas calling out to customers. He figured the place could be crowded with office workers taking thirty-minute breaks, all of them looking pretty much the same.

‘Carter is his first name,’ Elizabeth Castle said.

‘What’s his last name?’

‘Carrington,’ she said. ‘Check back and tell me how it went. Don’t give up. Family is important. There will be other ways to find out.’


PATTY AND SHORTY were alone in room ten, sitting together on the unmade bed. Mark had invited them to breakfast after all. He had turned to go and then turned back with a forgiving grin on his face, all-friends-together, let’s-not-be-stupid. Patty had wanted to say yes. Shorty said no. They had gone inside and drunk toothbrush glasses of tepid water, standing at the bathroom sink.

Patty said, ‘You’ll only feel worse when you have to ask him to give us lunch. You should have gotten it over with right away. Now it’s going to build up in your mind.’

Shorty said, ‘You got to admit that was weird.’

‘What was?’

‘All of what just happened.’

‘Which was what?’

‘You saw it. You were there.’

‘Tell me in your own words.’

‘From my own lips? You sound like him. You saw what happened. He started up with some weird vendetta against me.’

‘What I saw was Peter voluntarily donating his time to help us out. He got to work right away. I wasn’t even awake yet. Then what I saw was you kicking him in the teeth by saying he had made it worse.’

‘I agree yesterday the car was not running great, but now it’s not running at all. What else can have happened? Obviously he did something.’

‘There was plenty wrong with your car already. Maybe starting it up last night was the straw that broke the camel’s back.’

‘It was weird, what he made me do.’

‘He made you tell the truth, Shorty. We would have been in New York City by now. The deal would have been done. Now we could be driving to one of those lots where they take anything in trade. We could have gotten something better. We could have gone the rest of the way in style.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Shorty said. ‘I mean it.’

‘Maybe the mechanic can fix it.’

‘Maybe we should just dump it and walk away. Before we have to pay another fifty bucks for the room.’

‘What do you mean, walk away?’

‘On our own two feet. We could walk back to the road and thumb a ride. You said there was some place twenty miles ahead. They might have a bus.’

‘The track through the trees was more than two miles long. You’d be carrying the suitcase. It’s bigger than you are. We can’t leave it here. And then all we got anyway is a back road. With no traffic. We planned it that way, remember? We could wait there all day for a ride. Especially with a big suitcase. That kind of thing puts people off. They don’t stop. Maybe their trunk is already full.’

‘OK, maybe the mechanic will fix it. Or at least he could give us a ride to town. In his truck. With the big suitcase. We could figure something out from there.’

‘Another fifty bucks will surely make a dent.’

‘It’s worse than that,’ Shorty said. ‘Fifty bucks is a drop in the ocean. We could stay here all week, compared to what the mechanic will cost. Those guys get a call-out charge, can you believe that? Which is basically like getting paid for still being alive. It’s not like that when you grow potatoes, let me tell you. Which mechanics eat, by the way. They love potatoes. French fries, hash browns, twice baked with cheese and bacon. What if I asked them to pay me just to think about growing them a potato?’

Patty got up suddenly, bouncing the bed, and she said, ‘I’m going out for some air.’

She crossed to the door and turned the handle and pulled. Nothing happened. It was jammed again. She checked the lock.

She said, ‘This is what happened in the night.’

Shorty got off the bed and stepped over.

He turned the handle.

The door opened.

He said, ‘Maybe you’re turning the handle wrong.’

She said, ‘How many ways are there to turn a handle?’

He closed the door and stood back.

She stepped up and tried again. She used the same grip as before, the same turn, the same pull.

The door swung open.

She said, ‘Weird.’

The sun was shining on downtown Laconia, a little low in the sky, like the first days of fall, but it was still as warm as summer. Reacher got to the coffee shop across the light at ten past eleven, five minutes ahead of schedule, and he got a seat at a small iron table in the corner of the garden, where he could see the sidewalk coming down from the city office door. He wasn’t sure what kind of a person he expected Carter Carrington to be. Although there were a number of clues. One, Elizabeth Castle found it absurd to imagine the guy as her boyfriend. Two, she had taken pains to point out he wasn’t even her regular friend. Three, the guy was banished to a back office. Four, he was kept away from customers. Five, he was enthusiastic about census methodology.

The signs were not good.

The garden had a side gate also, for the parking lot. People came and went. Reacher ordered regular black coffee, in a go-cup, not because he was planning on rushing away, but because he didn’t like the look of the table service alternatives, which were about the size and weight of chamber pots. Poor cups for coffee, in his opinion, but other people must have been satisfied, because the garden was filling up. Pretty soon there were only three spare seats. One of which was opposite Reacher, inevitably. A fact of his life. People didn’t find him approachable.

First in from the direction of the city office was a woman about forty, bustling, competent, probably in charge of some big department. She said hey and hi to a couple of customers, routine co-worker courtesies, and she dumped her bag on an empty seat, not the one opposite Reacher, and then she went in to the counter to get whatever it was she wanted. Reacher watched the sidewalk. In the distance he saw a guy come out of the city office, and start walking down the block. Even far away it was clear he was tall and well dressed. His suit was fine, and his shirt was white, and his tie was neat. He had fair hair, short, but a little unruly. Like he tried his best with it. He was tan and he looked fit and strong and full of vigour and energy. He had presence. Against the old brick he looked like a movie star on a film set.

Except he walked with a limp. Very slight, left leg.

The woman who had been to the counter came back with a cup and a plate, and she sat where she had saved her place, which left just two empty spaces, one of which was immediately taken by another woman, probably another department head, because she said hey and hi to a whole different bunch of people. Which left the only spare chair in the garden directly across from Reacher.

Then the movie star guy stepped in. Up close and personal he was everything Reacher had seen from a distance, and also good-looking, in a rugged kind of way. Like a cowboy who went to college. Tall, rangy, capable. Maybe thirty-five years old. Reacher made a small bet with himself the guy was ex-military. Everything said so. In a second he constructed a whole imaginary bio for the guy, from ROTC at a western university to a wound in Iraq or Afghanistan, and a spell at Walter Reed, and then separation and a new job in New Hampshire, maybe an executive position, maybe something that required him to go argue with the city. He was holding a go-cup of coffee and a paper bag slightly translucent with butter. He scanned the garden and located the only empty seat. He set out towards it.

Both department heads called out, ‘Hey, Carter.’

The guy said hey back, with a smile that probably killed them dead, and then he continued on his way. He sat down across from Reacher.

Who said, ‘Is your name Carter?’

The guy said, ‘Yes, it is.’

‘Carter Carrington?’

‘Pleased to meet you. And you are?’

He sounded more curious than annoyed. He spoke like an educated man.

Reacher said, ‘A woman named Elizabeth Castle suggested I speak to you. From the city records department. My name is Jack Reacher. I have a question about an old-time census.’

‘Is it a legal issue?’

‘It’s a personal thing.’

‘You sure?’

‘The only issue is whether I get on the bus today or tomorrow.’

‘I’m the town attorney,’ Carrington said. ‘I’m also a census geek. For ethical reasons I need to be absolutely certain which one you think you’re talking to.’

‘The geek,’ Reacher said. ‘All I want is background information.’

‘How long ago?’

Reacher told him, first the year his father was two, and then the year he was twelve.

Carrington said, ‘What’s the question?’

So Reacher told him the story, the family paperwork, cubicle two’s computer screen, the conspicuous absence of Reachers.

‘Interesting,’ Carrington said.

‘In what way?’

Carrington paused a beat.

He said, ‘Were you a Marine too?’

‘Army,’ Reacher said.

‘That’s unusual. Isn’t it? For the son of a Marine to join the army, I mean.’

‘It wasn’t unusual in our family. My brother did it too.’

‘It’s a three-part answer,’ Carrington said. ‘The first part is all kinds of random mistakes were made. But twice in a row makes that statistically unlikely. What were the odds? So we move on. And neither part two or part three of the answer reflects all that well on a theoretical person’s theoretical ancestors. So you need to accept I’m talking theoretically. In general, as in most of the people most of the time, the vast majority, nothing personal, lots of exceptions, all that kind of good stuff, OK? So don’t get offended.’

‘OK,’ Reacher said. ‘I won’t.’

‘Focus on the count when your dad was twelve. Ignore the earlier one. The later one is better. By then we’d had seven years of the Depression and the New Deal. Counting was really important. Because more people equalled more federal dollars. You can be sure that state and city governments tried like crazy not to miss anyone that year. But they did, even so. The second part of the answer is that the highest miss percentages were among renters, occupants of multi-family dwellings or overcrowded quarters, the unemployed, those of low education and income levels, and those receiving public assistance. Folks on the margins, in other words.’

‘You find people don’t like to hear that about their grandparents?’

‘They like it better than part three of the answer.’

‘Which is?’

‘Their grandparents were hiding from the law.’

‘Interesting,’ Reacher said.

‘It happened,’ Carrington said. ‘Obviously no one with a federal warrant would fill out a census form. Other folks thought laying low might help them in the future.’

Reacher said nothing.

Carrington said, ‘What did you do in the army?’

‘Military police,’ Reacher said. ‘You?’

‘What makes you think I was in the army?’

‘Your age, your appearance, your manner and bearing, your air of decisive competence, and your limp.’

‘You noticed.’

‘I was trained to. I was a cop. My guess is you have an artificial lower leg. Barely detectable, therefore a really good one. And the army has the best, these days.’

‘I never served,’ Carrington said. ‘I wasn’t able to.’

‘Why not?’

‘I was born with a rare condition. It has a long and complicated name. It meant I had no shin bone. Everything else was there.’

‘So you’ve had a lifetime of practice.’

‘I’m not looking for sympathy.’

‘You’re not getting any. But even so, you’re doing OK. Your walk is close to perfect.’

‘Thank you,’ Carrington said. ‘Tell me about being a cop.’

‘It was a good job, while it lasted.’

‘You saw the effect of crime on families.’


‘Your dad joined the Marines at seventeen,’ Carrington said. ‘Got to be a reason.’

Patty Sundstrom and Shorty Fleck sat outside their room, in the plastic lawn chairs under the window. They watched the mouth of the track through the trees and waited for the mechanic to come. He didn’t. Shorty got up and tried the Honda one more time. Sometimes leaving a thing switched off for a spell fixed it. He had a TV set like that. About one time in three it came on with no sound. You had to shut it down and try again.

He turned the key. Nothing happened. On, off, on, off, silently, no difference at all. He went back to his lawn chair. Patty got up and took all their maps from the glove box. She carried them back to her own chair and spread them out on her knee. She found their current location, at the end of the inch-long spider-web vein, in the middle of the pale green shape. The forested area. Which seemed to average about five miles across, and maybe seven from top to bottom. The tip of the spider-web vein was off-centre in the space, two miles from the eastern limit but three from the western. It was about equal north and south. The green shape had a faint line around it, as if it was all one property. Maybe the motel owned the forest. There was nothing much beyond it, except the two-lane road they had turned off, which wandered east and south, to the town with its name printed semi-bold. Laconia, New Hampshire. Nearer thirty miles away than twenty. Her guess the day before had been optimistic.

She said, ‘Maybe the best bet will be what you said. We should forget the car and get a ride in the tow truck. Laconia is near I-93. We could hitch a ride to the cloverleaf. Or take a taxi, even. For less money than another night here, probably. If we can get to Nashua or Manchester we can get to Boston, and then we can get the cheap bus to New York.’

‘I’m sorry about the car,’ Shorty said. ‘I mean it.’

‘No use crying over spilt milk.’

‘Maybe the mechanic can fix it. It might be easy. I don’t get how it can be so dead. Maybe there’s a loose connection, simple as that. I had a radio once, wouldn’t light up at all. I was banging and banging on it, and then I saw the plug had fallen out of the wall. It felt the same kind of dead.’

They heard footsteps in the dirt. Steven stepped around the corner and walked towards them. He passed room twelve, and eleven, and came to a stop.

‘Come to lunch,’ he said. ‘Don’t take what Mark said to heart. He’s upset, that’s all. He really wants to help you, and he can’t. He thought Peter would fix it in two minutes. He got frustrated. He likes things to turn out right for everybody.’

Shorty said, ‘When is the mechanic coming?’

‘I’m afraid we haven’t called him yet,’ Steven said. ‘The phone has been down all morning.’


REACHER LEFT CARRINGTON in the garden, and walked back to the city office. He pressed the record department’s bell, and a minute later Elizabeth Castle came in through the door.

He said, ‘You told me to check back.’

She said, ‘Did you find Carter?’

‘He seems like a nice guy. I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to date him.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘When I wondered if he was your boyfriend, and you were incredulous.’

‘That he would want to date me. He’s Laconia’s most eligible bachelor. He could have anyone he wants. I’m sure he has no idea who I am. What did he tell you?’

‘That my grandparents were either poor or thieves, or poor thieves.’

‘I’m sure they weren’t.’

Reacher said nothing.

She said, ‘Although I know both those things were frequent reasons.’

‘Either one is a possibility,’ he said. ‘We don’t need to walk on eggs.’

‘Probably they didn’t register to vote, either. Would they have had driver’s licences?’

‘Not if they were poor. Not if they were thieves, either. Not in their real names, anyway.’

‘Your dad must have had a birth certificate. He must be on paper somewhere.’

The customer door from the corridor opened, and Carter Carrington stepped inside, with his suit and his smile and his unruly hair. He saw Reacher and said, ‘Hello again,’ not surprised at all, as if he had expected no one else. Then he turned towards the counter and stuck out his hand and said, ‘You must be Ms Castle.’

‘Elizabeth,’ she said.

‘Carter Carrington. Really pleased to meet you. Thanks for sending this gentleman my way. He has an interesting situation.’

‘Because his dad is missing from two consecutive counts.’


‘Which feels deliberate.’

‘As long as we’re sure we’re looking at the right town.’

‘We are,’ Reacher said. ‘I saw it written down a dozen times. Laconia, New Hampshire.’

‘Interesting,’ Carrington said. Then he looked Elizabeth Castle in the eye and said, ‘We should have lunch sometime. I like the way you saw the thing with the two counts. I’d like to discuss it more.’

She didn’t answer.

‘Anyway, keep me in the loop,’ he said.

She said, ‘We figure he must have had a birth certificate.’

‘Almost certainly,’ he said. ‘What was his date of birth?’

Reacher paused a beat.

He said, ‘This is going to sound weird. In this context, I mean.’


‘Sometimes he wasn’t sure.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘Sometimes he said June, and sometimes he said July.’

‘Was there an explanation for that?’

‘He said he couldn’t remember because birthdays weren’t important to him. He didn’t see why he should be congratulated for getting another year closer to death.’

‘That’s bleak.’

‘He was a Marine.’

‘What did the paperwork say?’


Carrington said nothing.

Reacher said, ‘What?’


‘I already agreed with Ms Castle we don’t need to walk on eggs.’

‘A child uncertain of its birth date is a classic symptom of dysfunction within a family.’

‘Theoretically,’ Reacher said.

‘Anyway, birth records are in date order. Could take some time, if you’re not sure. Better to find another avenue.’

‘Such as?’

‘The police blotter, maybe. Not to be insensitive. Purely as a percentage play. If nothing else it would be nice to eliminate the possibility. I don’t want them to be hiding from the law, any more than you do. I want a more interesting reason than that. And it won’t take long to find out. As of now our police department is computerized back about a thousand years. They spent a fortune. Homeland Security money, not ours, but still. They also built a statue of the first chief.’

‘Who should I go see?’

‘I’ll call ahead. Someone will meet you at the desk.’

‘How cooperative will they be?’

‘I’m the guy who decides whether the city goes to bat for them. When they do something wrong, I mean. So they’ll be plenty cooperative. But wait until after lunch. You’ll get more time that way.’

Patty Sundstrom and Shorty Fleck went to lunch over at the big house. It was an awkward meal. Shorty was by turns stiff and sheepish. Peter was silent. Either offended or disappointed, Patty couldn’t tell. Robert and Steven didn’t say much of anything. Only Mark really talked. He was bright and blithe and chatty. Very friendly. As if the events of the morning had never occurred. He seemed determined to find solutions to their problems. He apologized to them over and over about the phone. He made them listen to the dead handset, as if to share his burden. He said he was concerned people would be worried about them, either back home, or at their destination. Were they missing appointments? Were there people they needed to call?

Patty said, ‘No one knows we’re gone.’


‘They would have tried to talk us out of it.’

‘Out of what?’

‘It’s boring up there. Shorty and I want something different.’

‘Where do you plan to go?’

‘Florida,’ she said. ‘We want to start our own business there.’

‘What kind of business?’

‘Something on the ocean. Watersports, maybe. Like windsurfer rentals.’

‘You would need capital,’ Mark said. ‘To buy the windsurfers.’

Patty looked away, and thought about the suitcase.

Shorty asked, ‘How long will the phone be out?’

Mark asked back, ‘What am I, clairvoyant?’

‘I mean, usually. On average.’

‘They usually fix it in half a day. And the mechanic is a good friend. We’ll ask him to put us first in line. You could be back on the road before dinnertime.’

‘What if it takes longer than half a day?’

‘Then it just does, I guess. I can’t control it.’

‘Honestly, the best thing would be just give us a ride to town. Best for us, and best for you. We’d be out of your hair.’

‘But your car would still be here.’

‘We would send a tow truck.’

‘Would you?’

‘From the first place we saw.’

‘Could we trust you?’

‘I promise I would take care of it.’

‘OK, but you have to admit, you haven’t proved a hundred per cent reliable about taking care of things so far.’

‘I promise we would send a truck.’

‘But suppose you didn’t? We’re running a business here. We would be stuck with getting rid of your car. Which might be difficult, because strictly speaking it isn’t ours to get rid of in the first place. There wouldn’t be much we could do without a title. We couldn’t donate it. We couldn’t even sell it for scrap. No doubt pursuing alternatives would cost us time and money. But needs must. We couldn’t have it here for ever, dirtying up the place. Nothing personal. A business like ours is all about image and kerb appeal. It needs to entice, not repel. A rusty old wreck of a car front and centre would send the wrong message. No offence. I’m sure you understand.’

‘You could come with us to the tow company,’ Shorty said. ‘You could drive us there first. You could watch us make the arrangements. Like a witness.’

Mark nodded, eyes down, now a little sheepish himself.

‘Good answer,’ he said. ‘The truth is we’re a little embarrassed ourselves, at the moment, when it comes to rides to town. The investment in this place was enormous. Three of us sold our cars. We kept Peter’s, to share, because as it happened it was the oldest and therefore the least valuable. It wouldn’t start this morning. Just like yours. Maybe it’s something in the air. But in practical terms, as of right now, I’m afraid we’re all stuck here together.’

Reacher ate at the place he had picked out earlier, which served upscale but recognizable dishes in a pleasant room with tablecloths. He had a burger piled high with all kinds of extras, and a slice of apricot pie, with black coffee throughout. Then he set out for the police station. He found it right where Carrington said it would be. The public lobby was tall and tiled and formal. There was a civilian desk worker behind a mahogany reception counter. Reacher gave her his name and told her Carter Carrington had promised he would call ahead and arrange for someone to speak with him. The woman was on the phone even before he got through the first part of Carrington’s name. Clearly she had been warned he was coming.

She asked him to take a seat, but he stood instead, and waited. Not long, as it turned out. Two detectives pushed through a pair of double doors. A man and a woman. Both looked like solid professionals. At first Reacher assumed they weren’t for him. He was expecting a file clerk. But they walked straight towards him, and when they arrived the man said, ‘Mr Reacher? I’m Jim Shaw, chief of detectives. I’m very pleased to meet you.’

The chief of detectives. Very pleased. They’ll be plenty cooperative, Carrington had said. He wasn’t kidding. Shaw was a heavy guy in his fifties, maybe five-ten, with a lined Irish face and a shock of red hair. Anyone within a hundred miles of Boston would have made him as a cop. He was like a picture in a book.

‘I’m very pleased to meet you too,’ Reacher said.

‘I’m Detective Brenda Amos,’ the woman said. ‘Happy to help. Anything you need.’

Her accent was from the south. A drawl, but no longer honeyed. It was roughed up by exposure. She was ten years younger than Shaw, maybe five-six, and slender. She had blonde hair and cheekbones and sleepy green eyes that said, don’t mess with me.

‘Ma’am, thank you,’ he said. ‘But really, this is no kind of a big deal. I don’t know exactly what Mr Carrington told you, but all I need is some ancient history. Which probably isn’t there anyway. From eighty years ago. It’s not even a cold case.’

Shaw said, ‘Mr Carrington mentioned you were an MP.’

‘Long ago.’

‘That buys you ten minutes with a computer. That’s all it’s going to take.’

They led him back through thigh-high mahogany gates, to an open area full of plain-clothed people sitting face to face at paired desks. The desks were loaded with phones and flat screens and keyboards and wire baskets of paper. Like any office anywhere, except for a weary air of grime and burden, that made it unmistakably a cop shop. They turned a corner, into a corridor with offices either side. They stopped at the third on the left. It was Amos’s. She ushered Reacher in, and Shaw said goodbye and walked on, as if all appropriate courtesies had been observed, and his job was therefore done. Amos followed Reacher inside and closed the door. The outer structure of the office was old and traditional, but everything in it was sleek and new. Desk, chairs, cabinets, computer.

Amos said, ‘How can I help you?’

He said, ‘I’m looking for the surname Reacher, in old police reports from the 1920s and 30s and 40s.’

‘Relatives of yours?’

‘My grandparents and my father. Carrington thinks they dodged the census because they had federal warrants.’

‘This is a municipal department. We don’t have access to federal records.’

‘They might have started small. Most people do.’

Amos pulled the keyboard close and started tapping away. She asked, ‘Were there any alternative spellings?’

He said, ‘I don’t think so.’

‘First names?’

‘James, Elizabeth, and Stan.’

‘Jim, Jimmy, Jamie, Liz, Lizzie, Beth?’

‘I don’t know what they called each other. I never met them.’

‘Was Stan short for Stanley?’

‘I never saw that. It was always just Stan.’

‘Any known aliases?’

‘Not known to me.’

She typed some more, and clicked, and waited.

She didn’t speak.

He said, ‘I’m guessing you were an MP too.’

‘What gave me away?’

‘First your accent. It’s the sound of the U.S. Army. Mostly southern, but a little mixed up. Plus most civilian cops ask about what we did and how we did it. Because they’re professionally curious. But you aren’t. Most likely because you already know.’

‘Guilty as charged.’

‘How long have you been out?’

‘Six years,’ she said. ‘You?’

‘Longer than that.’

‘What unit?’

‘The 110th, mostly.’

‘Nice,’ she said. ‘Who was the CO when you were there?’

‘I was,’ he said.

‘And now you’re retired and into genealogy.’

‘I saw a road sign,’ he said. ‘That’s all. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t.’

She looked back at the screen.

‘We have a hit,’ she said. ‘From seventy-five years ago.’


BRENDA AMOS CLICKED twice and typed in a passcode. Then she clicked again and leaned forward and read out loud. She said, ‘Late one September evening in 1943 a youth was found unconscious on the sidewalk of a downtown Laconia street. He had been beaten up. He was identified as a local twenty-year-old, already known to the police department as a loudmouth and a bully, but untouchable, because he was the son of the local rich guy. Therefore I guess there would have been much private celebration inside the department, but obviously for the sake of appearances they had to open an investigation. They had to go through the motions. It says here they went house to house the next day, not expecting to get much. But actually they got a lot. They got an old lady who had seen the whole thing through binoculars. The victim started an altercation with two other youths, clearly expecting to win, but the way it turned out he got his butt kicked instead.’

Reacher said, ‘Why was the old lady using binoculars late in the evening?’

‘It says here she was a birdwatcher. She was interested in nighttime migration and continuous flight. She said she could make out the shapes against the sky.’

Reacher said nothing.

Amos said, ‘She identified one of the two other youths as a fellow member of a local birdwatching club.’

Reacher said, ‘My dad was a birdwatcher.’

Amos nodded. ‘The old lady identified him as a local youth personally known to her, name of Stan Reacher, then just sixteen years old.’

‘Was she sure? I think he was only fifteen in September of 1943.’

‘She seems to be sure about the name. I guess she could have been wrong about the age. She was watching from an apartment window above a grocery store, looking directly down the street towards a good-sized patch of night sky in the east. She saw Stan Reacher with an unidentified friend about the same age. They were walking towards her, away from the centre of downtown. They passed through a pool of light from a street lamp, which allowed her to be confident in her identification. Then walking towards them in the other direction she saw the twenty-year-old. He also passed through a pool of light. The three youths all met face to face in the gloom between two lamps, which was unfortunate, but there was enough spill and scatter for her to see what was going on. She said it was like watching shadow puppets. It made their physical gestures more emphatic. The two smaller boys were still facing her. The bigger boy had his back to her. He seemed to be demanding something. Then threatening. One of the smaller boys ran away, possibly timid or scared. The other smaller boy stayed where he was, and then suddenly he punched the bigger boy in the face.’

Reacher nodded. Personally he called it getting your retaliation in first. Surprise was always a good thing. A wise man never counted all the way to three.

Amos said, ‘The old lady testified the smaller kid kept on hitting the bigger kid until the bigger kid fell down, whereupon the smaller kid kicked him repeatedly in the head and the ribs, and then the bigger kid struggled up and tried to run, but the smaller kid caught him and tripped him up, right in the next pool of light, which was apparently quite bright, which meant the old lady had no trouble seeing the smaller kid kicking the bigger kid a whole lot more. Then he quit just as suddenly as he had started, and he collected his timid pal, and they walked away together like nothing had happened. The old lady made contemporaneous notes on a piece of paper, plus a diagram, all of which she gave to the visiting officers the following day.’

‘Good witness,’ Reacher said. ‘I bet the DA loved her. What happened next?’

Amos scrolled and read.

‘Nothing happened next,’ she said. ‘The case went nowhere.’

‘Why not?’

‘Limited manpower. The draft for World War Two had started a couple of years before. The police department was operating with a skeleton staff.’

‘Why hadn’t the twenty-year-old been drafted?’

‘Rich daddy.’

‘I don’t get it,’ Reacher said. ‘How much manpower would they need? They had an eyewitness. Arresting a fifteen-year-old boy isn’t difficult. They wouldn’t need a SWAT team.’

‘They had no ID on the assailant, and no manpower to go dig one up.’

‘You said the old lady knew him from the birdwatching club.’

‘The unknown friend was the fighter. Stan Reacher was the one who ran away.’

They gave Patty and Shorty a cup of coffee, and they sent them on their way, back to room ten. Mark watched them go, until they were halfway to the barn, until they looked like people who weren’t coming back. Whereupon he turned around and said, ‘OK, plug the phone back in.’

Steven did so, and Mark said, ‘Now show me the problem with the door.’

‘The problem is not with the door,’ Robert said. ‘It’s with our reaction time.’

They crossed an inner hallway and opened a back parlour door. The room beyond it was small by comparison, but still a decent size. It was painted flat black. The window was boarded over. All four walls were covered with flat-screen televisions. There was a swivel chair in the centre of the room, boxed in by four low benches pushed together, loaded with keyboards and joysticks. Like a command centre. Patty and Shorty were on the screens, live pictures, past the barn now, walking away from one bunch of hidden cameras, towards another, some focused tight and head-on, others set wider, with the strolling couple tiny in the distance.

Robert stepped over a bench and sat down in the chair. He clicked a mouse and the screens changed to a dim night-vision shot.

He said, ‘This is a recording from three o’clock this morning.’

The picture was hyped up and misty because of the night-vision enhancements, but it was clearly of room ten’s queen-sized bed, which clearly had two sleeping people in it. It was the camera in the smoke detector, wide enough to be called a fisheye.

‘Except she wasn’t asleep,’ Robert said. ‘Afterwards I figured she slept about four hours, and then she woke up. But she didn’t move at all. Not a muscle. She gave absolutely no sign. By that point I was kind of lying back, frankly, taking it easy, because the last four hours had been pretty boring. Plus at that point as far as I knew she was still asleep. But actually she was lying there thinking. About something that must have made her mad. Because, watch.’

On the screens the scene stayed the same, and then it changed, fast, with no warning at all, when Patty suddenly flipped the covers aside and slid out of bed, controlled, neat, decisive, exasperated.

Robert said, ‘By the time I sat up and got my finger near the unlock button, she had already tried the door once. I guess she wanted air. I had to make a decision. I decided to leave it locked, because it felt more consistent. I left it locked until Peter went up there to fix the car. I unlocked it then because I figured one of them would want to come out to talk to him.’

‘OK,’ Mark said.

Robert clicked the mouse again and the screens changed to a daylight shot from a different angle. Patty and Shorty were sitting side by side on room ten’s unmade bed.

‘This took place while we were eating breakfast,’ Robert said.

‘I was on duty,’ Steven said. ‘Watch what happens.’

Robert pressed play. There was audio. Shorty was deflecting attention from his own shortcomings by ranting on about mechanics getting call-out charges. He was saying, ‘Which is basically like getting paid for still being alive. It’s not like that when you grow potatoes, let me tell you.’

Robert paused the recording.

Steven asked, ‘Now what happens next?’

Mark said, ‘I sincerely hope Patty points out the two trades are massively dissimilar in the economic sense.’

Peter said, ‘I sincerely hope Patty punches him in the face and tells him to shut up.’

‘Neither one,’ Steven said. ‘She gets exasperated again.’

Robert pressed play again. Patty got up suddenly, bouncing the bed, and she said, ‘I’m going out for some air.’

Steven said, ‘She’s really abrupt and jumpy. Right there she was zero to sixty in one-point-one seconds. I counted the video frames. I couldn’t get to the button in time. Then I saw Shorty was going to give it a go, so I unlocked it late. I thought if he got it open, where she couldn’t, she would somehow blame herself more than the door.’

‘Is there a fix for this?’ Mark asked.

‘Forewarned is forearmed. I guess we need to concentrate harder.’

‘I guess we’ll have to. We don’t want to spook them too soon.’