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Bad Luck and Trouble, Page 3

Lee Child

  disbanded and Reacher had never seen Franz again.

  Until that moment, in an autopsy photograph punched into a three-ring binder laid flat on a sticky laminate table in a cheap diner.

  In life Franz had been smaller than Reacher but bigger than most other people. Maybe six-three and two-ten. Powerful upper body, low waist, short legs. Primitive, in a way. Like a caveman. But overall he had been reasonably handsome. He had been calm, resolute, capable, relaxing to be around. His manner had tended to reassure people.

  He looked awful in the autopsy photograph. He was laid out flat and naked on a stainless tray and the camera’s flash had bleached his skin pale green.


  But then, dead people often looked pretty bad.

  Reacher asked, “How did you get this?”

  Neagley said, “I can usually get things.”

  Reacher said nothing in reply to that and turned the page. Started in on the dense mass of technical information. The corpse had been measured at six feet three inches in length and weighed a hundred and ninety pounds. Cause of death was given as multiple organ failure due to massive impact trauma. Both legs were broken. Ribs were cracked. The bloodstream was flooded with free histamines. The body was severely dehydrated and the stomach held nothing but mucus. There was evidence of rapid recent weight loss and no evidence of recent food consumption. Trace evidence from the recovered clothing was unexceptional, apart from unexplained ferrous oxide powder ground into both pant legs, low down, on the shins, below the knee and above the ankle.

  Reacher asked, “Where was he found?”

  Neagley said, “In the desert about fifty miles north and east of here. Hard sand, small rocks, a hundred yards off the shoulder of a road. No footprints coming or going.”

  The waitress brought the food. Reacher paused as she unloaded her tray and then started his sandwich, left-handed, to keep his right grease-free for turning the autopsy pages.

  Neagley said, “Two deputies in a car saw buzzards circling. Went to check. Hiked out there. They said it was like he had fallen out of the sky. The pathologist agrees.”

  Reacher nodded. He was reading the doctor’s conclusion, which was that a free fall from maybe three thousand feet onto hard sand could have produced the right amount of impact and caused the internal injuries observed, if Franz had happened to land flat on his back, which was aerodynamically possible if he had been alive and flailing his arms during the fall. A dead weight would have fallen on its head.

  Neagley said, “They made the ID through his fingerprints.”

  Reacher asked, “How did you find out?”

  “His wife called me. Three days ago. Seems he kept all our names in his book. A special page. His buddies, from back in the day. I was the only one she could find.”

  “I didn’t know he was married.”

  “It was recent. They have a kid, four years old.”

  “Was he working?”

  Neagley nodded. “He set up as a private eye. A one-man band. Originally, some strategic advice for corporations. But now mostly background checks. Database stuff. You know how thorough he was.”


  “Here in LA.”

  “Did all of you set up as private eyes?”

  “Most of us, I think.”

  “Except me.”

  “It was the only marketable skill we had.”

  “What did Franz’s wife want you to do?”

  “Nothing. She was just telling me.”

  “She doesn’t want answers?”

  “The cops are on it. LA County sheriff, actually. Where he was found is technically part of LA County. Outside of the LAPD’s jurisdiction, so it’s down to a couple of local deputies. They’re working on the airplane thing. They figure it was maybe flying west out of Vegas. That kind of thing has happened to them before.”

  Reacher said, “It wasn’t an airplane.”

  Neagley said nothing.

  Reacher said, “An airplane has a stall speed of, what? A hundred miles an hour? Eighty? He’d have come out the door horizontal into the slipstream. He’d have smashed against the wing or the tail. We’d see perimortem injuries.”

  “He had two broken legs.”

  “How long does it take to freefall three thousand feet?”

  “Twenty seconds?”

  “His blood was full of free histamines. That’s a massive pain reaction. Twenty seconds between injury and death wouldn’t have even gotten it started.”


  “The broken legs were old. Two, three days minimum. Maybe more. You know what ferrous oxide is?”

  “Rust,” Neagley said. “On iron.”

  Reacher nodded. “Someone broke his legs with an iron bar. Probably one at a time. Probably tied him to a post. Aimed for his shins. Hard enough to break the bone and grind rust particles into the weave of his pants. Must have hurt like hell.”

  Neagley said nothing.

  “And they starved him,” Reacher said. “Didn’t let him drink. He was twenty pounds underweight. He was a prisoner, two or three days. Maybe more. They were torturing him.”

  Neagley said nothing.

  Reacher said, “It was a helicopter. Probably at night. Stationary hover, three thousand feet up. Out the door and straight down.” Then he closed his eyes and pictured his old friend, tumbling, twenty seconds in the dark, cartwheeling, flailing, not knowing where the ground was. Not knowing exactly when he would hit. Two shattered legs trailing painfully behind him.

  “Therefore it probably wasn’t coming from Vegas,” he said. He opened his eyes. “The round-trip would be out of range for most helicopters. It was probably coming north and east out of LA. The deputies are barking up the wrong tree.”

  Neagley sat quiet.

  “Coyote food,” Reacher said. “The perfect disposal method. No tracks. The airflow during the fall strips away hairs and fibers. No forensics at all. Which is why they threw him out alive. They could have shot him first, but they didn’t even want to risk ballistics evidence.”

  Reacher was quiet for a long moment. Then he closed the black binder and reversed it and pushed it back across the table.

  “But you know all this anyway,” he said. “Don’t you? You can read. You’re testing me again. Seeing if my brain still works.”

  Neagley said nothing.

  Reacher said, “You’re playing me like a violin.”

  Neagley said nothing.

  Reacher asked, “Why did you bring me here?”

  “Like you said, the deputies are barking up the wrong tree.”


  “You have to do something.”

  “I will do something. Believe it. There are dead men walking, as of right now. You don’t throw my friends out of helicopters and live to tell the tale.”

  Neagley said, “No, I want you to do something else.”

  “Like what?”

  “I want you to put the old unit back together.”


  The old unit. It had been a typical U.S. Army invention. About three years after the need for it had become blindingly obvious to everyone else, the Pentagon had started to think about it. After another year of committees and meetings, the suits and the brass had signed off on the idea. It had been dumped on someone’s desk and a mad panic had started to get it going. Orders had been drawn up. Obviously no sane CO had wanted to touch it with a stick, so a new unit had been carved out of the 110th MP. Success was desirable but failure had to be deniable, so they went looking for a competent pariah to command it.

  Reacher had been the obvious choice.

  They thought his reward was promotion back to major again, but the real satisfaction for him was the chance to do something properly for once. His way. They had given him a free hand in personnel selection. He had enjoyed that. He had figured that a special investigations unit needed the best the army had to offer, and he had figured he knew who and where they were. He had wanted a small unit, for speed and flexibility,
and no clerical support, to prevent leaks. He had figured they could do their own paperwork, or not, as they deemed necessary. In the end he had settled on eight names in addition to his own: Tony Swan, Jorge Sanchez, Calvin Franz, Frances Neagley, Stanley Lowrey, Manuel Orozco, David O’Donnell, and Karla Dixon. Dixon and Neagley were the only women and Neagley was the only NCO. The others were all officers. O’Donnell and Lowrey were captains and the rest were all majors, which was totally screwed up in terms of a coherent chain of command, but Reacher didn’t care. He knew that nine people working closely would operate laterally rather than vertically, which in the event was exactly what happened. The unit had organized itself like a small-market baseball team enjoying an unlikely pennant run: talented journeymen working together, no stars, no egos, mutually supportive, and above all ruthlessly and relentlessly effective.

  Reacher said, “That was all a long time ago.”

  “We have to do something,” Neagley said. “All of us. Collectively. You do not mess with the special investigators. Remember that?”

  “That was just a slogan.”

  “No, it was true. We depended on it.”

  “For morale, that was all. It was just bravado. It was whistling in the dark.”

  “It was more than that. We had one another’s backs.”


  “And now and always. It’s a karma thing. Someone killed Franz, and we can’t just let it go. How would you feel if it was you, and the rest of us didn’t react?”

  “If it was me, I wouldn’t feel anything. I’d be dead.”

  “You know what I mean.”

  Reacher closed his eyes again and the picture came back: Calvin Franz tumbling and cartwheeling through the darkness. Maybe screaming. Or maybe not. His old friend. “I can handle it. Or you and I together. But we can’t go back to how it was. That never works.”

  “We have to go back.”

  Reacher opened his eyes. “Why?”

  “Because the others are entitled to participate. They earned that right over two hard years. We can’t just take it away from them unilaterally. They would resent that. It would be wrong.”


  “We need them, Reacher. Because Franz was good. Very good. As good as me, as good as you. And yet someone broke his legs and threw him out of a helicopter. I think we’re going to need all the help we can get with this. So we need to find the others.”

  Reacher looked at her. Heard her office guy’s voice in his head: There’s a list of names. You’re the first to get back to her. He said, “The others should have been a lot easier to find than me.”

  Neagley nodded.

  “I can’t raise any of them,” she said.


  A list of names. Nine names. Nine people. Reacher knew where three of them were, specifically or generically. Himself and Neagley, specifically, in a Denny’s on West Sunset in Hollywood. And Franz, generically, in a morgue somewhere else.

  “What do you know about the other six?” he asked.

  “Five,” Neagley said. “Stan Lowrey is dead.”


  “Years ago. Car wreck in Montana. The other guy was drunk.”

  “I didn’t know that.”

  “Shit happens.”

  “That’s for damn sure,” Reacher said. “I liked Stan.”

  “Me too,” Neagley said.

  “So where are the others?”

  “Tony Swan is Assistant Director of Corporate Security for a defense manufacturer here in southern California somewhere.”

  “Which one?”

  “I’m not sure. A start-up. Something new. He’s only been there about a year.”

  Reacher nodded. He had liked Tony Swan, too. A short, wide man. Almost cubic in shape. Affable, good-humored, intelligent.

  Neagley said, “Orozco and Sanchez are out in Vegas. They run a security business together, casinos and hotels, on contract.”

  Reacher nodded again. He had heard that Jorge Sanchez had left the army around the same time he had, a little frustrated and embittered. He had heard that Manuel Orozco had been planning to stay in, but overall it wasn’t a huge surprise to find that he had changed his mind. Both men were mavericks, lean, fast, leathery, impatient with bullshit.

  Neagley said, “Dave O’Donnell is in D.C. Plain-vanilla private detective. Plenty of work for him there.”

  “I guess there would be,” Reacher said. O’Donnell had been the meticulous one. He had done the whole unit’s paperwork, pretty much single-handed. He had looked like an Ivy League gentleman, but he had always carried a switchblade in one pocket and brass knuckles in the other. A useful guy to have around.

  Neagley said, “Karla Dixon is in New York. Forensic accounting. She understands money, apparently.”

  “She always understood numbers,” Reacher said. “I remember that.” Reacher and Dixon had spent the occasional hour trying to prove or disprove various famous mathematical theorems. A hopeless task, given that they were both rank amateurs, but it had passed some time. Dixon was dark and very pretty and comparatively small, a happy woman who thought the worst of people, but inevitably she had been proved right nine times out of ten.

  Reacher asked, “How do you know so much about them?”

  “I keep track,” Neagley said. “I’m interested.”

  “Why can’t you raise them?”

  “I don’t know. I put calls out, but nobody’s answering.”

  “So is this an attack on all of us collectively?”

  “Can’t be,” Neagley said. “I’m at least as visible as Dixon or O’Donnell and nobody has come after me.”



  “You called the others the same day you put the money in my bank?”

  Neagley nodded.

  “It’s only been three days,” Reacher said. “Maybe they’re all busy.”

  “So what do you want to do? Wait for them?”

  “I want to forget all about them. You and I can stand up for Franz. Just the two of us.”

  “It would be better to have the old unit back together. We were a good team. You were the best leader the army ever had.”

  Reacher said nothing.

  “What?” Neagley said. “What are you thinking?”

  “I’m thinking that if I wanted to rewrite history I’d start a lot further back than that.”

  Neagley folded her hands together and rested them on the black binder. Slim fingers, brown skin, painted nails, tendons and sinew.

  “One question,” she said. “Suppose I had gotten ahold of the others. Suppose I hadn’t bothered to try that thing with your bank. Suppose you found out years from now that Franz had been murdered and the six of us had just gone ahead and fixed it without you. How would you feel then?”

  Reacher shrugged. Paused a beat.