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Second Son

Lee Child


  ON A HOT August Thursday in 1974, an old man in Paris did something he had never done before: he woke up in the morning, but he didn’t get out of bed. He couldn’t. His name was Laurent Moutier, and he had felt pretty bad for ten days and really lousy for seven. His arms and legs felt thin and weak and his chest felt like it was full of setting concrete. He knew what was happening. He had been a furniture repairman by trade, and he had become what customers sometimes brought him: a wormy old heirloom weakened and rotted beyond hope. There was no single thing wrong with him. Everything was failing all at once. Nothing to be done. Inevitable. So he lay patient and wheezing and waited for his housekeeper.

  She came in at ten o’clock and showed no great shock or surprise. Most of her clients were old, and they came and went with regularity. She called the doctor, and at one point, clearly in answer to a question about his age, Moutier heard her say, ‘Ninety,’ in a resigned yet satisfied way, a way that spoke volumes, as if it was a whole paragraph in one word. It reminded him of standing in his workshop, breathing in dust and glue and varnish, looking at some abject crumbly cabinet and saying, ‘Well now, let’s see,’ when really his mind had already moved on to getting rid of it.

  A house call was arranged for later in the day, but then as if to confirm the unspoken diagnosis the housekeeper asked Moutier for his address book, so she could call his immediate family. Moutier had an address book but no immediate family beyond his only daughter, Josephine, but even so she filled most of the book by herself, because she moved a lot. Page after page was full of crossed-out box numbers and long strange foreign phone numbers. The housekeeper dialled the last of them and heard the whine and echo of great distances, and then she heard a voice speaking English, a language she couldn’t understand, so she hung up again. Moutier saw her dither for a moment, but then as if to confirm the diagnosis once again, she left in search of the retired schoolteacher two floors below, a soft old man who Moutier usually dismissed as practically a cretin, but then, how good did a linguist need to be to translate ton père va mourir into your father is going to die?

  The housekeeper came back with the schoolteacher, both of them pink and flushed from the stairs, and the guy dialled the same long number over again, and asked to speak to Josephine Moutier.

  ‘No, Reacher, you idiot,’ Moutier said, in a voice that should have been a roar, but in fact came out as a breathy tubercular plea. ‘Her married name is Reacher. They won’t know who Josephine Moutier is.’

  The schoolteacher apologized and corrected himself and asked for Josephine Reacher. He listened for a moment and covered the receiver with his palm and looked at Moutier and asked, ‘What’s her husband’s name? Your son-in-law?’

  ‘Stan,’ Moutier said. ‘Not Stanley, either. Just Stan. Stan is on his birth certificate. I saw it. He’s Captain Stan Reacher, of the United States Marine Corps.’

  The schoolteacher relayed that information and listened again. Then he hung up. He turned and said, ‘They just left. Really just days ago, apparently. The whole family. Captain Reacher has been posted elsewhere.’


  THE RETIRED SCHOOLTEACHER in Paris had been talking to a duty lieutenant at the Navy base on Guam in the Pacific, where Stan Reacher had been deployed for three months as Marine Corps liaison. That pleasant posting had come to an end and he had been sent to Okinawa. His family had followed three days later, on a passenger plane via Manila, his wife, Josephine, and his two sons, fifteen-year-old Joe and thirteen-year-old Jack. Josephine Reacher was a bright, spirited, energetic woman, at forty-four still curious about the world and happy to be seeing so much of it, still tolerant of the ceaseless moves and the poor accommodations. Joe Reacher at fifteen was already almost full-grown, already well over six feet and well over two hundred pounds, a giant next to his mother, but still quiet and studious, still very much Clark Kent, not Superman. Jack Reacher at thirteen looked like an engineer’s napkin sketch for something even bigger and even more ambitious, his huge bony frame like the scaffolding around a major construction project. Six more inches and a final eighty pounds of beef would finish the job, and they were all on their way. He had big hands and watchful eyes. He was quiet like his brother, but not studious. Unlike his brother he was always called by his last name only. No one knew why, but the family was Stan and Josie, Joe and Reacher, and it always had been.

  Stan met his family off the plane at the Futenma air station and they took a taxi to a bungalow he had found half a mile from the beach. It was hot and still inside and it fronted on a narrow concrete street with ditches either side. The street was dead straight and lined with small houses set close together, and at the end of it was a blue patch of ocean. By that point the family had lived in maybe forty different places, and the move-in routine was second nature. The boys found the second bedroom and it was up to them to decide whether it needed cleaning. If so, they cleaned it themselves, and if not, they didn’t. In this case, as usual, Joe found something to worry about, and Reacher found nothing. So he left Joe to it, and he headed for the kitchen, where first he got a drink of water, and then he got the bad news.


  REACHER’S PARENTS WERE side by side at the kitchen counter, studying a letter his mother had carried all the way from Guam. Reacher had seen the envelope. It was something to do with the education system. His mother said, ‘You and Joe have to take a test before you start school here.’

  Reacher said, ‘Why?’

  ‘Placement,’ his father said. ‘They need to know how well you’re doing.’

  ‘Tell them we’re doing fine. Tell them thanks, but no thanks.’

  ‘For what?’

  ‘I’m happy where I am. I don’t need to skip a grade. I’m sure Joe feels the same.’

  ‘You think this is about skipping a grade?’

  ‘Isn’t it?’

  ‘No,’ his father said. ‘It’s about holding you back a grade.’

  ‘Why would they do that?’

  ‘New policy,’ his mother said. ‘You’ve had very fragmented schooling. They need to check you’re ready to advance.’

  ‘They never did that before.’

  ‘That’s why it’s called a new policy. As opposed to an old policy.’

  ‘They want Joe to take a test? To prove he’s ready for the next grade? He’ll freak out.’

  ‘He’ll do OK. He’s good with tests.’

  ‘That’s not the point, Mom. You know what he’s like. He’ll be insulted. So he’ll make himself score a hundred per cent. Or a hundred and ten. He’ll drive himself nuts.’

  ‘Nobody can score a hundred and ten per cent. It’s not possible.’

  ‘Exactly. His head will explode.’

  ‘What about you?’

  ‘Me? I’ll be OK.’

  ‘Will you try hard?’

  ‘What’s the pass mark?’

  ‘Fifty per cent, probably.’

  ‘Then I’ll aim for fifty-one. No point wasting effort. When is it?’

  ‘Three days from now. Before the semester starts.’

  ‘Terrific,’ Reacher said. ‘What kind of an education system doesn’t know the meaning of a simple word like vacation?’


  REACHER WENT OUT to the concrete street and looked at the patch of ocean in the distance up ahead. The East China Sea, not the Pacific. The Pacific lay in the other direction. Okinawa was one of the Ryuku Islands, and the Ryuku Islands separated the two bodies of water.

  There were maybe forty homes between Reacher and the water on the left-hand side of the street, and another forty on the right. He figured the homes closer to him and further from the sea would be off-post housing for Marine families, and the homes further from him and nearer the water
would be locally owned, by Japanese families who lived there full-time. He knew how real estate worked. Just steps to the beach. People competed for places like that, and generally the military let the locals have the best stuff. The DoD always worried about friction. Especially on Okinawa. The air station was right in the centre of Genowan, which was a fair-sized city. Every time a transport plane took off the schools had to stop teaching for a minute or two, because of the noise.

  He turned his back on the East China Sea and walked inland, past identical little houses, across a four-way junction, into a perfect rectilinear matrix of yet more identical houses. They had been built quick and cheap, but they were in good order. They were meticulously maintained. He saw small doll-like local ladies on some of the porches. He nodded to them politely, but they all looked away. He saw no local Japanese kids. Maybe they were in school already. Maybe their semester had already started. He turned back and a hundred yards later found Joe out on the streets, looking for him.

  Joe said, ‘Did they tell you about the test?’

  Reacher nodded. ‘No big deal.’

  ‘We have to pass.’

  ‘Obviously we’ll pass.’

  ‘No, I mean we have to really pass this thing. We have to crush it. We have to knock it out of the park.’


  ‘They’re trying to humiliate us, Reacher.’

  ‘Us? They don’t even know us.’

  ‘People like us. Thousands of us. We have to humiliate them back. We have to make them embarrassed they even thought of this idea. We have to piss all over their stupid test.’

  ‘I’m sure we will. How hard can it be?’

  Joe said, ‘It’s a new policy, so it might be a new kind of test. There might be all kinds of new things in it.’

  ‘Like what?’

  ‘I have no idea. There could be anything.’

  ‘Well, I’ll do my best with it.’

  ‘How’s your general knowledge?’

  ‘I know that Mickey Mantle hit .303 ten years ago. And .285 fifteen years ago. And .300 twenty years ago. Which averages out to .296, which is remarkably close to his overall career average of .298, which has to mean something.’

  ‘They’re not going to ask about Mickey Mantle.’

  ‘Who then?’

  Joe said, ‘We need to know. And we have a right to know. We need to go up to that school and ask what’s in this thing.’

  Reacher said, ‘You can’t do that with tests. That’s kind of opposite to the point of tests, don’t you think?’

  ‘We’re at least entitled to know what part or parts of which curriculum is being tested here.’

  ‘It’ll be reading and writing, adding and subtracting. Maybe some dividing if we’re lucky. You know the drill. Don’t worry about it.’

  ‘It’s an insult.’

  Reacher said nothing.


  THE REACHER BROTHERS walked back together, across the four-way junction, and into the long concrete street. Their new place was ahead and on the left. In the distance the sliver of sea glowed pale blue in the sun. There was a hint of white sand. Maybe palm trees. Between their place and the sea there were kids out on the street. All boys. Americans, black and white, maybe two dozen of them. Marine families. Neighbours. They were clustered outside their own places, at the cheap end of the street, a thousand steps from the beach.

  Reacher said, ‘Let’s go take a look at the East China Sea.’

  Joe said, ‘I’ve seen it before. So have you.’

  ‘We could be freezing our butts off in Korea all winter.’

  ‘We were just on Guam. How much beach does a person need?’

  ‘As much as a person can get.’

  ‘We have a test in three days.’

  ‘Exactly. So we don’t have to worry about it today.’

  Joe sighed and they walked on, past their own place, toward the sliver of blue. Ahead of them the other kids saw them coming. They got up off kerbstones and stepped over ditches and kicked and scuffed their way to the middle of the road. They formed up in a loose arrowhead, facing front, arms folded, chests out, more than twenty guys, some of them as young as ten, some of them a year or two older than Joe.

  Welcome to the neighbourhood.

  The point man was a thick-necked bruiser of about sixteen. He was smaller than Joe, but bigger than Reacher. He was wearing a Corps T-shirt and a ragged pair of khaki pants. He had fat hands, with knuckles that dipped in, not stuck out. He was fifteen feet away, just waiting.

  Joe said quietly, ‘There are too many of them.’

  Reacher said nothing.

  Joe said, ‘Don’t start anything. I mean it. We’ll deal with this later, if we have to.’

  Reacher smiled. ‘You mean after the test?’

  ‘You need to get serious about that test.’

  They walked on. Forty different places. Forty different welcomes to forty different neighbourhoods. Except that the welcomes had not been different. They had all been the same. Tribalism, testosterone, hierarchies, all kinds of crazy instincts. Tests of a different kind.

  Joe and Reacher stopped six feet from the bruiser and waited. The guy had a boil on his neck. And he smelled pretty bad. He said, ‘You’re the new kids.’

  Joe said, ‘How did you figure that out?’

  ‘You weren’t here yesterday.’

  ‘Outstanding deduction. You ever thought of a career with the FBI?’

  The bruiser didn’t answer that. Reacher smiled. He figured he could land a left hook right on the boil. Which would hurt like hell, probably.

  The bruiser said, ‘You going to the beach?’

  Joe said, ‘Is there a beach?’

  ‘You know there’s a beach.’

  ‘And you know where we’re going.’

  ‘This is a toll road.’

  Joe said, ‘What?’

  ‘You heard. You have to pay the toll.’

  ‘What’s the toll?’

  ‘I haven’t decided yet,’ the bruiser said. ‘When I see what you’ve got, I’ll know what to take.’

  Joe didn’t answer.

  The guy said, ‘Understand?’

  Joe said, ‘Not even a little bit.’

  ‘That’s because you’re a retard. You two are the retard kids. We heard all about you. They’re making you take the retard test, because you’re retards.’

  Reacher said, ‘Joe, now that’s an insult.’

  The big guy said, ‘So the little retard talks, does he?’

  Joe said, ‘You seen that new statue in the square in Luzon?’

  ‘What about it?’

  ‘The last kid who picked a fight with my brother is buried in the pedestal.’

  The guy looked at Reacher and said, ‘That doesn’t sound very nice. Are you a psycho retard?’

  Reacher said, ‘What’s that?’

  ‘Like a psychopath.’

  ‘You mean do I think I’m right to do what I do and feel no remorse afterward?’

  ‘I guess.’

  Reacher said, ‘Then yes, I’m pretty much a psychopath.’

  Silence, except for a distant motorbike. Then two motorbikes. Then three. Distant, but approaching. The big kid’s gaze jumped to the four-way junction at the top of the street. Behind him the arrowhead formation broke up. Kids wandered back to the kerbs and their front yards. A bike slowed and turned into the street and puttered slowly along. On it was a Marine in BDUs. No helmet. An NCO, back from the base, his watch finished. He was followed by two more, one of them on a big Harley. Disciplinarian dads, coming home.

  The big kid with the boil said, ‘We’ll finish this another time.’