REACHER’S DESIGNATED HANDLER told him it wasn’t going to be easy. There were going to be difficulties. Numerous and various. A real challenge. The guy had no kind of a bedside manner. Normally handlers started with the good news.
Maybe there isn’t any, Reacher thought.
The handler was an Intelligence colonel named Cornelius Christopher, but that was the only thing wrong with him. He looked like a decent guy. Despite the fancy name he seemed to have turned out fairly plain and pragmatic. Reacher would have liked him, except he had never met him before. Going undercover with a handler you never met before led to inefficiency. Or worse.
Christopher asked, ‘How much did they tell you yesterday?’
Reacher said, ‘I was in Frankfurt yesterday. Which is in Germany. No one told me anything. Except to get on a plane to Dulles, and then report to this office.’
‘I see,’ Christopher said.
‘What should they have told me?’
‘You really know nothing about this?’
‘Some local trouble with staff officers.’
‘So they did tell you something.’
‘No one told me anything. But I’m an investigator. I do this stuff for a living. And some things are fairly obvious. I’m a relatively new guy who has so far been posted almost exclusively overseas. Therefore I’m almost certainly unknown to the kind of staff officer who doesn’t get out much.’
‘Out of where?’
‘The Beltway, for instance. Call it a two-mile radius from this very office. Maybe they also have a fishing cottage on a lake somewhere. But that’s not the kind of place I’m likely to have been.’
‘You’re not very happy, are you?’
‘I’ve had more promising days.’
‘What’s your problem?’
‘When does this thing start?’
‘Well, that’s my problem, right there. I’ve got a handler I never met before and a situation I know nothing about.’
‘It’s bad workmanship. It’s shoddy and confused. It shows no pride. Because you guys are always the same. There’s a clue in the title, remember?’
‘Your title. Military Intelligence. Ideally both of those words should mean something to you. But surely at least one of them does. One at a time, if you wish. On alternate days, if you prefer.’
‘Feel free to give me your honest opinion.’
Reacher said, ‘So what do I need to know?’
And at that same minute a car backed out of a driveway, in a distant location, slowly, a front-wheel-drive car, with a yelp as the tyres turned. Not the shriek of speed. The opposite. A suburban sound, rubber on a tended blacktop driveway, like the smell of the sprinkler on the summer air.
Then the car paused and the driver selected a forward gear and the car rolled south, gently over the speed bumps that the driver himself had argued should be put in, for the safety of the children.
Then the car turned a little west, towards the highway, ready to join the mighty flow towards the capital.
Colonel Cornelius Christopher sat forward and made a space on his desk, paired hands coming together back to back, and then sweeping apart, pushing clutter aside. The move was emphatic. But purely metaphorical. There was nothing on the desk. No clutter. A good man-manager, Reacher thought. He let me have my say, and now we’re moving right along.
Christopher said, ‘There’s no danger. It’s going to be all talking.’
Reacher said, ‘Talking about what?’
‘You were right, it’s about staff officers. There are four of them. One of them is bad. They’re all political liaison people. To the House and the Senate. They practically live there. You know the type. Going places, fast track, better not to get in their way.’
‘The army is asking for a new sniper rifle. We’re giving evidence to some new pre-committee. Begging, basically. Our legislative overseers. Well, not really. They sent senior staffers instead. We’re not even talking to elected officials.’
‘I’m not here to be happy. The liaison officers are sitting in on these hearings, obviously. And one of them is leaking. Design criteria, load, range, size, shape, weight and budget.’
‘Leaking to who?’
‘A likely bidder located overseas, we assume. A foreign manufacturer, in other words. Someone that wants the business. Someone that likes a rigged game.’
‘Is the business worth it? How many sniper rifles do we buy? And how much do we pay for them?’
‘It’s the implied endorsement. They can sell copies for five grand each to the freak market. The price of a decent used car. As many as they want. Like selling crack.’
‘Who else is at these hearings?’
‘There’s our four liaison and the four staffers we’re pitching to, plus our procurement guy and the Marine procurement guy, plus a Ranger sniper and a Marine sniper for colour commentary.’
‘The Marines are involved?’
‘In a minority way. They didn’t bring their own liaison, for instance. But it’s definitely a joint project. No other way of doing a thing like this.’
‘So why wouldn’t it be the Marines leaking? Their procurement guy or their sniper? Why assume it’s our guys?’
‘The leaks are via a fax machine inside the Capitol Building. Which is where our liaison guys have their offices.’
‘How certain are you of that?’
‘Could be the staffers. They’re in the Capitol Building, presumably.’
‘Different phone network. Our legislative overseers are on some new super-duper thing. Our offices are still steam-powered.’
‘OK,’ Reacher said. ‘So it’s one of our guys.’
‘I’m afraid so,’ Christopher said.
‘Money,’ Christopher said. ‘Got to be. I can’t see anyone forming a deep ideological attachment to a European firearms manufacturer. Can you? And money is always a factor for officers like these. They’re mixing with corporate lawyers and lobbyists all the time. Easy to feel like the poor relation.’
‘Can’t we just watch their fax machine?’
‘Not inside the Capitol Building. Our legislative overseers don’t like surveillance. Too many unintended consequences.’
‘Are they sending to an overseas fax number?’
‘No, it’s a local number. But these guys hire local people. As agents and lobbyists.’
‘So my job is what?’
‘To find out which one of our guys is the bad apple. By talking to them.’
‘In the committee, at first. The Ranger sniper has been recalled. Personal reasons. You’re going to take his place.’
‘Another Ranger sniper.’
‘With a real Marine sniper in the room? I’ll be asked for opinions. He’ll nail me in a second.’
‘So be Delta Force, not Rangers. Be mysterious. Don’t say anything. Be all weird and silent. Grow a beard.’
‘Before this afternoon?’
‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve seen your file. You know which end of a rifle is which. We have confidence in you.’
‘There’s one other thing.’
‘Our liaison guys are not guys. They’re women.’
‘All of them?’
‘Does that make a difference?’
‘I sincerely hope so. Some of the talking is going to have to be social. That’s easier with women. You can do i
t one on one. Men always want to drink in groups.’
‘So I’m here to take women to bars, and ask them what they want to drink, and by the way are they leaking military secrets overseas? Is that the idea?’
‘You’ll have to be more subtle than that. But yes, it’s a kind of interrogation. That’s all. Which you’re supposed to be good at. You’re supposed to do this stuff for a living.’
‘In which case why not arrest them all and interrogate them properly?’
‘Because three of the four are innocent. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and so on. Their careers would be hurt.’
‘That never stopped you before.’
‘We never had fast track people before. Not like this. Going places. We wouldn’t cripple them all. One of them would survive, and she’d get her revenge.’
Reacher said, ‘I’m just trying to establish the rules of engagement.’
‘Anything that wouldn’t get thrown out of court for blatant illegality.’
‘Flashing red with a siren. That kind of blatant.’
‘We can’t tolerate this kind of thing. Not with a foreign manufacturer. We have politicians to please, and they have donors to protect. American donors.’
‘Who like a rigged game.’
‘There’s two different kinds of rigged. Our kind, and their kind.’
‘Understood,’ Reacher said.
‘There’s no danger,’ Christopher said again. ‘It’s all just talking.’
‘So what are the difficulties? What’s not going to be easy?’
‘That’s complicated,’ Christopher said.
The front-wheel-drive car joined the traffic stream on the highway. It became just one of thousands, all heading the same way, all fast and focused and linear and metallic, like giant rounds fired from giant chain gun barrels somewhere far behind them. Which was a mental image the driver liked very much. He was a bullet, implacable and relentless, singular in his purpose. He was heading for his target. His aim was true.
Across the barrier no one was heading in the other direction. The morning flow was all one way, high speed and crowded, towards the distant city.
Christopher did the thing with his hands again, clearing metaphorical clutter off his desk, and out of the conversation. Ready for a new topic. The difficulties. He said, ‘It’s a speed issue. We have to be quick. And at the same time we have to keep things normal for the Marine Corps. We can’t let them suspect we have a leak. So we can’t stop talking, or they’ll guess. But we can’t let much more stuff go overseas. So you can’t waste time.’
Reacher said, ‘What, this is going to be like speed dating?’
‘You’re new in town, so why wouldn’t you?’
‘I would,’ Reacher said. ‘Believe me. It would be like a dream come true. But it takes two to tango. And I’m a realistic guy. On a good day I could get a woman to look at me. Maybe. But four women all at once is not very likely.’
‘That’s the complication,’ he said. ‘That’s the difficulty we were worrying about. Plus, these women are scary. West Pointers, off-the-charts IQs. Fast track. Going places. You can imagine.’
‘I don’t have to imagine. I was at West Point.’
‘We know. We checked. You didn’t overlap with any of them.’
‘Are any of them married?’
‘No, fortunately. Fast track women don’t get married. Not until the time is right.’
‘Any serious relationships?’
‘Are they older or younger than me?’
‘Older. Twenty-nine and thirty.’
‘Then that’s another negative. Most women date older men. And what rank am I going to be?’
‘You’re going in as a sergeant. Most snipers are.’
‘Women like that don’t want enlisted men.’
Christopher nodded again. ‘I said at the beginning this wasn’t going to be easy. But think logically. You might not need to go through all four. You might hit lucky the very first time. Or the second. And you might just know anyway. We have to assume the guilty one will resist any kind of contact. It could be that three say yes and one says no. In which case she’s the one.’
‘They’ll all resist contact. They’ll all say no.’
‘Maybe one slightly more emphatically than the others.’
‘I’m not sure I could tell the difference. It always feels about the same to me. My social antenna must not be very well developed.’
‘We don’t see another way of doing this.’
He asked, ‘Did you get me a uniform?’
‘We got you a suit.’
‘Because you’re going to be a Ranger. Or Delta. And they like to show up in civvies. It makes them feel like secret agents.’
‘It won’t fit.’
‘The suit? It’ll fit. Your height and weight are in your file. It was easy. It was like ordering anything. Except bigger.’
‘Have you got bios on these women?’
‘Detailed,’ Christopher said. ‘Plus transcripts of everything said at the hearings so far. You should probably read those first. The way they talk will tell you more than the bios.’
Five miles west, across the Potomac River, a thirty-year-old woman belted a fanny pack low on her hips and moved it around until it was comfortable, in its accustomed position. Then she bent forward and flipped her hair back and slid a towelling band in place, easing it back, and back, until it was seated just right. Then she kicked the hallway baseboard for luck, left toes, right toes, and then she opened her door and stepped out and ran in place for a moment, just gently, warming up, loosening, getting ready, facing it down.
It would depend on the lights, fundamentally. If more than half of the crosswalks were green, she would make it. Fifty-one per cent. That was all she needed. Less than that, she wouldn’t. Simple arithmetic. A fact of life. No disgrace.
Except it was. Failure was always a disgrace.
She took a breath, and another, and she hit her watch, and she ran down her path, and left on to the sidewalk, and she settled in for the first unbroken stretch. Long, easy strides, relaxed but pushing just a little, breathing well, moving well, her hair swinging behind her in a perfect circular rhythmic pattern, symmetrical, like a metronome.
The first crosswalk was green.