Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Second Son, Page 2

Lee Child

  Joe said, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

  Reacher said nothing.


  STAN REACHER WAS a quiet man by nature, and he was quieter than ever at breakfast on the fourth morning of his new command, which was turning out to be a tough gig. Back in the States the presidency had changed hands a little prematurely, and the Joint Chiefs had scrambled to present the new guy with a full range of options for his review. Standard practice. The start of every new administration was the same. There were plans for every imaginable theoretical contingency, and they had all been dusted off. Vietnam was effectively over, Korea was a stalemate, Japan was an ally, the Soviet Union was the same as ever, so China was the new focus. There had been a lot of public hoo-hah about détente, but equally there had been a lot of private planning for war. The Chinese were going to have to be beaten sooner or later, and Stan Reacher was going to have to play his part. He had been told so on his second morning.

  He had been given command of four rifle companies and he had been handed a top-secret file defining their mission, which was to act as the tip of an immense spear that would land just north of Hangzhou and then punch through clockwise to isolate Shanghai. Tough duty. Casualty estimates were frightening. But ultimately a little pessimistic, in Stan’s opinion. He had met his men and he had been impressed. On Okinawa it was always hard to avoid mental comparisons with the ghosts of the freak Marine generation that had been there thirty years before, but the current crop was good. Real good. They all shared Stan’s personal allegiance to the famous old saying: War is not about dying for your country. It’s about making the other guy die for his. For the infantry it all came down to simple arithmetic. If you could inflict two casualties for every one you took, you were ahead. If you could inflict five, you were winning. Eight or ten, the prize was in the bag. And Stan felt his guys could do eight or ten, easy.

  But China’s population was immense. And fanatical. They would keep on coming. Men, and then boys. Women too, probably. Boys no older than his own sons. Women like his wife. He watched them eat, and imagined husbands and fathers a thousand miles away doing the same thing. A Communist army would draft a kid Joe’s age without a second thought. Reacher’s age, even, especially a big kid like that. And then the women. And then the girls. Not that Stan was either sentimental or conflicted. He would put a round through anyone’s head and sleep like a baby. But these were strange times. That was for damn sure. Having kids made you think about the future, but being a combat Marine made the future a theory, not a fact.

  He had no real plans for his sons. He wasn’t that kind of a father. But he assumed they would stay military. What else did they know? In which case Joe’s brains would keep him safe. Not that there weren’t plenty of smart guys on the front lines. But Joe wasn’t a fighter. He was like a rifle built without a firing pin. He was all there physically, but there was no trigger in his head. He was like a nuclear launch console instead, full of are-you-really-sure failsafes and interlocks and sequenced buttons. He thought too much. He did it quickly, for sure, but any kind of delay or hesitation was fatal at the start of a fight. Even a split second. So privately Stan figured Joe would end up in Intelligence, and he figured he would do a pretty good job there.

  His second son was a whole different can of worms. The kid was going to be huge. He was going to be an eighth of a ton of muscle. Which was a frightening prospect. The kid had come home bruised and bloodied plenty of times, but as far as Stan knew he hadn’t actually lost a fight since he was about five years old. Maybe he had never lost a fight. He had no trigger either, but not in the same way as his big brother. Joe was permanently set to safe, and Reacher was permanently jammed wide open on full auto. When he was grown, he was going to be unstoppable. A force of nature. A nightmare for somebody. Not that he ever started anything. His mother had trained him early and well. Josie was smart about things like that. She had seen the danger coming. So she had taught him never, ever, ever to start trouble, but that it was perfectly OK to react if someone else started it first. Which was a sight to see. The smart money brings a gun to a knife fight. Reacher brought a hydrogen bomb.

  But the kid could think, too. He wasn’t academic like Joe, but he was practical. His IQ was probably about the same, but it was a get-the-job-done type of street-smart IQ, not any kind of for-the-sake-of-it cerebral indulgence. Reacher liked facts, for sure, and information too, but not theory. He was a real-world character. Stan had no idea what the future held for the guy. No idea at all, except he was going to be too big to fit inside a tank or an airplane cockpit. So it was going to have to be something else.

  But anyway, the future was still far off, for both of them. They were still kids. They were still just his fair-haired boys. Stan knew that right then Joe’s horizons stretched no further than the start of the new semester, and Reacher’s stretched no further than a fourth cup of coffee for breakfast. Which the kid got up and poured, right on cue. And also right on cue Joe said, ‘I’m going to walk up to the school today and ask them about this test.’

  ‘Negative on that,’ Stan said.

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Two reasons. First, never let them see you sweat. Second, I put in a requisition form yesterday and I’m expecting a delivery today.’

  ‘Of what?’

  ‘A telephone.’

  ‘Mom will be here.’

  ‘I won’t,’ Josie said. ‘I have errands to run.’

  ‘All day?’

  ‘Probably. I have to find a store cheap enough to feed you the eight pounds of protein you seem to need at every meal. Then I have to go have lunch with the other mothers at the Officers’ Club, which will probably tie me up all afternoon, if Okinawa is still the same as it was last time we were here, which it probably is.’

  ‘Reacher can wait home for the telephone,’ Joe said. ‘He doesn’t need a babysitter.’

  ‘That’s beside the point,’ Stan said. ‘Go swimming, go play ball, go chase girls, but don’t go ask about the test. Just do your best when it rolls around.’


  AT THAT MOMENT it was very late the previous evening in Paris, and the retired schoolteacher was back on the phone with the Navy station on Guam. Laurent Moutier’s housekeeper had whispered to him that they really ought to try to get hold of the old man’s daughter. But the schoolteacher was getting nowhere. The duty lieutenant on Guam had no personal insight into the Pentagon’s plans for China, but Stan Reacher’s new posting was classified as secret, so no foreign citizen was going to hear a thing about it. Not from the Navy. No sir. No way, no how.

  Moutier heard the audible half of the back-and-forth from his bed. He could understand English a little. Enough to get by, and just enough to hear things between the lines. He knew exactly how the military worked. Like practically every other twentieth-century male in Europe he had been in the service. He was already thirty years old when World War One broke out, but he volunteered immediately and survived all four years, Verdun and the Somme included, and he came out the other end with a chestful of medals and no scars longer than his middle finger, which was statistically the same thing as completely unscathed. On his day of demobilization a lugubrious one-armed, one-eyed brigadier wished him well and then added, apropos of nothing, ‘Mark my words, Moutier, a great war leaves a country with three armies: an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves.’

  And Moutier found all three immediately, on his return to Paris. There were mourners everywhere. Mothers, wives, fiancées, sisters, old men. Someone said that if you gave every dead soldier a one-page obituary, just one lousy page to list all his hopes and dreams, then the resulting pile of paper would still stand taller than the Eiffel Tower itself.

  Thieves were everywhere, some solo, some in mobs or gangs, some with a political tint. And Moutier saw cripples all day long, some in the natural course of events, but many more at work, because his furniture-repair operation had been commandeered by the government a
nd told to make wooden legs for the next ten years. Which Moutier did, out of parts of tables bought up cheap from bankrupt restaurants. It was entirely possible there were veterans in Paris stumping around on the same furniture they had once dined off.

  The ten-year government contract expired a week before the Wall Street Crash, and the next ten years were hard, except that he met the woman who quickly became his wife, a beauty foolish enough to take on a battered forty-five-year-old wreck like him. And a year later they had their only child, a mop-haired girl they called Josephine, who had grown up and married a Marine from New Hampshire in America, and who was currently completely uncontactable, despite the vast array of technological innovations Moutier had witnessed in his lifetime, many of them invented by the Americans themselves.


  STAN REACHER PULLED his field cap low and walked away to work. A minute later Josie headed out shopping, with a big bag and a thin purse. Reacher sat on the kerb, waiting for the kid with the boil to come out to play. Joe stayed inside. But not for long. Thirty minutes later he came out with combed hair and a jacket. He said, ‘I’m going to take a walk.’

  ‘To the school?’ Reacher asked.

  ‘Least said, soonest mended.’

  ‘They’re not humiliating you. You’re humiliating yourself. How does scoring a hundred per cent make you feel good when you already asked what the questions were?’

  ‘It’s a matter of principle.’

  ‘Not my principle,’ Reacher said. ‘My principle is they set these things so average people can pass them, which gives me enough of a chance that I don’t feel I have to get my panties in a wad beforehand.’

  ‘You want people to think you’re average?’

  ‘I don’t care what people think.’

  ‘You know you have to wait here for the delivery, right?’

  ‘I’ll be here,’ Reacher said. ‘Unless the fat smelly kid comes out with so many friends I end up in the hospital.’

  ‘Nobody’s coming out with anybody. They all went to a ballgame. This morning, in a bus. I saw them. They’ll be gone all day.’


  THE TELEPHONE DELIVERY arrived while Reacher was eating lunch. He had made himself a cheese sandwich and a pot of coffee and was halfway through both when the delivery guy knocked on the door. The guy unpacked the box himself and handed Reacher the phone. He said he had to keep the box. Apparently there was a shortage of boxes on the island.

  The phone was a weird instrument. It was like no phone Reacher had seen before. He put it on the countertop next to the remains of his sandwich and looked at it from all angles. It was definitely foreign, and probably about thirty years old. From some beaten nation’s wartime warehouses, then. Mountains of stuff had been inherited. A hundred thousand typewriters here, a hundred thousand binoculars there. A hundred thousand telephones, rewired and reissued. At the right time, too. Turning tents and Quonset huts all over the world into permanent brick-and-stone buildings must have put a lot of pressure on a lot of people. Why wait for Bell Labs or GE when you can just back up a truck to a warehouse in Frankfurt?

  Reacher found the jack on the kitchen wall and plugged in the phone and checked for a dial tone. It was there. So he left the phone on the countertop and headed out to the beach.


  IT WAS A great beach. Better than most Reacher had seen. He took off his shirt and his shoes and took a long swim in warm blue water, and then he closed his eyes and lay in the sun until he was dry again. He opened his eyes and saw nothing but white-out and glare from the sky. Then he blinked and turned his head and saw he was not alone. Fifteen feet away a girl was lying on a towel. She was in a one-piece bathing suit. She was maybe thirteen or fourteen. Not all grown up, but not a kid either. She had beads of water on her skin and her hair was slick and heavy.

  Reacher stood up, all crusted with sand. He had no towel. He used his shirt to brush himself off, and then he shook it out and put it on. The girl turned her head and asked, ‘Where do you live?’

  Reacher pointed.

  ‘Up the street,’ he said.

  ‘Would you let me walk back with you?’

  ‘Sure. Why?’

  ‘In case those boys are there.’

  ‘They’re not. They’re gone all day.’

  ‘They might come back early.’

  ‘Did they give you that toll road crap?’

  She nodded. ‘I wouldn’t pay.’

  ‘What did they want?’

  ‘I don’t want to tell you.’

  Reacher said nothing.

  The girl asked, ‘What’s your name?’

  Reacher said, ‘Reacher.’

  ‘Mine’s Helen.’

  ‘I’m pleased to meet you, Helen.’

  ‘How long have you been here?’

  ‘Since yesterday,’ Reacher said. ‘You?’

  ‘A week or so.’

  ‘Are you staying long?’

  ‘Looks like it. You?’

  ‘I’m not sure,’ Reacher said.

  The girl stood up and shook out her towel. She was a slender thing, small but long-legged. She had nail polish on her toes. They walked off the sand together and into the long concrete street. It was deserted up ahead. Reacher asked, ‘Where’s your house?’

  Helen said, ‘On the left, near the top.’

  ‘Mine’s on the right. We’re practically neighbours.’ Reacher walked her all the way, but her mom was home by then, so he wasn’t asked in. Helen smiled sweetly and said thanks and Reacher crossed the street to his own place, where he found hot still air and nobody home. So he just sat on the stoop and whiled away the time. Two hours later the three Marine NCOs came home on their motorbikes, followed by two more, then two more in cars. Thirty minutes after that a regular American school bus rolled in from the ballgame, and a crowd of neighbourhood kids spilled out and went inside their homes with nothing more than hard stares in Reacher’s direction. Reacher stared back just as hard, but he didn’t move. Partly because he hadn’t seen his target. Which was strange. He looked all around, once, twice, and by the time the diesel smoke cleared he was certain: the fat smelly kid with the boil had not been on the bus.


  EVENTUALLY JOE CAME home, silent and preoccupied and uncommunicative. He didn’t say where he had been. He didn’t say anything. He just headed for the kitchen, washed his hands, checked the new phone for a dial tone, and then went to take a shower, which was unusual for Joe at that time of day. Next in, surprisingly, was their father, also silent and preoccupied and uncommunicative. He got a glass of water, checked the phone for a dial tone, and holed up in the living room. Last in was their mother, struggling under the weight of packages and a bouquet of flowers the women’s welcoming committee had produced at lunch. Reacher took the packages from her and carried them to the kitchen. She saw the new phone on the countertop and brightened a little. She never felt good until she had checked in with her dad and made sure he had her latest contact information. France was seven hours behind Japan, which made it mid-morning there, which was a good time for a chat, so she dialled the long number and listened to it ring.

  She got the housekeeper, of course, and a minute later the hot little house on Okinawa was in an uproar.


  STAN REACHER GOT straight on the new phone to his company clerk, who leaned on a guy, who leaned on another guy, like dominoes, and within thirty minutes Josie had a seat on the last civilian flight of the evening to Tokyo, and within forty she had an onward connection to Paris.

  Reacher asked, ‘Do you want company?’

  His mother said, ‘Of course I would like it. And I know your grandpa Moutier would love to see you again. But I could be there a couple of weeks. More, perhaps. And you have a test to take, and then school to start.’

  ‘They’ll understand. I don’t mind missing a couple of weeks. And I could take the test when I get back. Or maybe they’ll forget all about it.’
/>   His father said, ‘Your mother means we can’t afford it, son. Plane tickets are expensive.’

  And so were taxicabs, but two hours later they took one to the airport. An old Japanese guy showed up in a big boxy Datsun, and Stan got in the front, and Josie and the boys crowded together in the back. Josie had a small bag. Joe was clean from the shower, but his hair was no longer combed. It was back to its usual tousled mess. Reacher was still salty and sandy from the beach. No one said much of anything. Reacher remembered his grandfather pretty well. He had met him three times. He had a closet full of artificial limbs. Apparently the heirs of deceased veterans were still officially obliged to return the prostheses to the manufacturer, for adjustment and eventual reissue. Part of the deal, from back in the day. Grandpa Moutier said every year or so another one would show up at his door. Sometimes two or three a year. Some of them were made from table legs.

  They got out at the airport. It was dark and the air was going cold. Josie hugged Stan, and kissed him, and she hugged Joe, and kissed him, and she hugged Reacher, and kissed him, and then she pulled him aside and whispered a long urgent sentence in his ear. Then she went on alone to the check-in line.

  Stan and the boys went up a long outside staircase to the observation