Eight days ago my life was an up and down affair. Some of it good. Some of it not so good. Most of it uneventful. Long slow periods of nothing much, with occasional bursts of something. Like the army itself. Which is how they found me. You can leave the army, but the army doesn’t leave you. Not always. Not completely.
They started looking two days after some guy took a shot at the president of France. I saw it in the paper. A long-range attempt with a rifle. In Paris. Nothing to do with me. I was six thousand miles away, in California, with a girl I met on a bus. She wanted to be an actor. I didn’t. So after forty-eight hours in LA she went one way and I went the other. Back on the bus, first to San Francisco for a couple of days, and then to Portland, Oregon, for three more, and then onward to Seattle. Which took me close to Fort Lewis, where two women in uniform got out of the bus. They left an Army Times behind, one day old, right there on the seat across the aisle.
The Army Times is a strange old paper. It started up before World War Two and is still going strong, every week, full of yesterday’s news and sundry how-to articles, like the headline staring up at me right then: New Rules! Changes For Badges And Insignia! Plus Four More Uniform Changes On The Way! Legend has it the news is yesterday’s because it’s copied second-hand from old AP summaries, but if you read the words sideways you sometimes hear a real sardonic tone between the lines. The editorials are occasionally brave. The obituaries are occasionally interesting.
Which was my sole reason for picking up the paper. Sometimes people die and you’re happy about it. Or not. Either way you need to know. But I never found out. Because on the way to the obituaries I found the personal ads. Which as always were mostly veterans looking for other veterans. Dozens of ads, all the same. Including one with my name in it. Right there, centre of the page, a boxed column inch, five words printed bold: Jack Reacher call Rick Shoemaker. Which had to be Tom O’Day’s work. Which later on made me feel a little lame. Not that O’Day wasn’t a smart guy. He had to be. He had survived a long time. A very long time. He had been around for ever. Twenty years ago he already looked a hundred. A tall, thin, gaunt, cadaverous man, who moved like he might collapse at any moment, like a broken stepladder. He was no one’s idea of an army general. More like a professor. Or an anthropologist. Certainly his thinking had been sound. Reacher stays under the radar, which means buses and trains and waiting rooms and diners, which, coincidentally or not, is the natural economic habitat for enlisted men and women, who buy the Army Times ahead of any other publication in the PX, and who can be relied upon to spread the paper around, like birds spread seeds from berries.
And he could rely on me to pick up the paper. Somewhere. Sooner or later. Eventually. Because I needed to know. You can leave the army, but the army doesn’t leave you. Not completely. As a means of communication, as a way of making contact, from what he knew, and from what he could guess, then maybe he would think ten or twelve consecutive weeks of personal ads might generate a small but realistic chance of success.
But it worked the first time out. One day after the paper was printed. Which is why I felt lame later on.
I was predictable.
Rick Shoemaker was Tom O’Day’s boy. Probably his second in command by now. Easy enough to ignore. But I owed Shoemaker a favour. Which O’Day knew about, obviously. Which was why he put Shoemaker’s name in his ad.
And which was why I would have to answer it.
Seattle was dry when I got out of the bus. And warm. And wired, in the sense that coffee was being consumed in prodigious quantities, which made it my kind of town, and in the sense that wifi hotspots and handheld devices were everywhere, which didn’t, and which made old-fashioned street-corner pay phones hard to find. But there was one down by the fish market, so I stood in the salt breeze and the smell of the sea, and I dialled a toll-free number at the Pentagon. Not a number you’ll find in the phone book. A number learned by heart long ago. A special line, for emergencies only. You don’t always have a quarter in your pocket.
The operator answered and I asked for Shoemaker and I got transferred, maybe elsewhere in the building, or the country, or the world, and after a bunch of clicks and hisses and some long minutes of dead air Shoemaker came on the line and said, ‘Yes?’
‘This is Jack Reacher,’ I said.
‘Where are you?’
‘Don’t you have all kinds of automatic machines to tell you that?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You’re in Seattle, on a pay phone down by the fish market. But we prefer it when people volunteer the information themselves. We find that makes the subsequent conversation go better. Because they’re already cooperating. They’re invested.’
‘In the conversation.’
‘Are we having a conversation?’
‘Not really. What do you see directly ahead?’
‘A street,’ I said.
‘Places to buy fish.’
‘A coffee shop across the light.’
I told him.
He said, ‘Go in there and wait.’
‘For about thirty minutes,’ he said, and hung up.
No one really knows why coffee is such a big deal in Seattle. It’s a port, so maybe it made sense to roast it close to where it was landed, and then to sell it close to where it was roasted, which created a market, which brought other operators in, the same way the auto makers all ended up in Detroit. Or maybe the water is right. Or the elevation, or the temperature, or the humidity. But whatever, the result is a coffee shop on every block, and a four-figure annual tab for a serious enthusiast. The shop across the light from the pay phone was representative. It had maroon paint and exposed brick and scarred wood, and a chalkboard menu about 90 per cent full of things that don’t really belong in coffee, like dairy products of various types and temperatures, and weird nut-based flavourings, and many other assorted pollutants. I got a plain house blend, black, no sugar, in the middle-sized go-cup, not the enormous grande bucket some folks like, and a slab of lemon pound cake to go with it, and I sat alone on a hard wooden chair at a table for two.
The cake lasted five minutes and the coffee another five, and eighteen minutes after that Shoemaker’s guy showed up. Which made him navy, because twenty-eight minutes was pretty fast, and the navy is right there in Seattle. And his car was dark blue. It was a lowspec domestic sedan, not very desirable, but polished to a high shine. The guy himself was nearer forty than twenty, and hard as a nail. He was in civilian clothes. A blue blazer over a blue polo shirt, and khaki chino pants. The blazer was worn thin and the shirt and the pants had been washed a thousand times. A Senior Chief Petty Officer, probably. Special Forces, almost certainly, a SEAL, no doubt part of some shadowy joint operation watched over by Tom O’Day.
He stepped into the coffee shop with a blank-eyed all-in-one scan of the room, like he had a fifth of a second to identify friend or foe before he started shooting. Obviously his briefing must have been basic and verbal, straight out of some old personnel file, but he had me at six-five two-fifty. Everyone else in the shop was Asian, mostly women and very petite. The guy walked straight towards me and said, ‘Major Reacher?’
I said, ‘Not any more.’
He said, ‘Mr Reacher, then?’
I said, ‘Yes.’
‘Sir, General Shoemaker requests that you come with
I said, ‘Where to?’
‘How many stars?’
‘Sir, I don’t follow.’
‘Does General Shoemaker have?’
‘One, sir. Brigadier General Richard Shoemaker, sir.’
‘When what, sir?’
‘Did he get his promotion?’
‘Two years ago.’
‘Do you find that as extraordinary as I do?’
The guy paused a beat and said, ‘Sir, I have no opinion.’
‘And how is General O’Day?’
The guy paused another beat and said, ‘Sir, I know of no one named O’Day.’
The blue car was a Chevrolet Impala with police hubs and cloth seats.
The polish was the freshest thing on it. The guy in the blazer drove me through the downtown streets and got on I-5 heading south. The same way the bus had come in. We drove back past Boeing Field once again, and past the Sea-Tac airport once again, and onward towards Tacoma. The guy in the blazer didn’t talk. Neither did I. We both sat there mute, as if we were in a no-talking competition and serious about winning. I watched out the window. All green, hills and sea and trees alike.
We passed Tacoma, and slowed ahead of where the women in uniform had gotten out of the bus, leaving their Army Times behind. We took the same exit. The signs showed nothing ahead except three very small towns and one very large military base. Chances were therefore good we were heading for Fort Lewis. But it turned out we weren’t. Or we were, technically, but we wouldn’t have been back in the day. We were heading for what used to be McChord Air Force Base, and was now the aluminium half of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Reforms. Politicians will do anything to save a buck.
I was expecting a little back-and-forth at the gate, because the gate belonged jointly to the army and the air force, and the car and the driver were both navy, and I was absolutely nobody. Only the Marine Corps and the United Nations were missing. But such was the power of O’Day we barely had to slow the car. We swept in, and hooked a left, and hooked a right, and were waved through a second gate, and then the car was right out there on the Tarmac, dwarfed by huge C-17 transport planes, like a mouse in a forest. We drove under a giant grey wing and headed out over open blacktop straight for a small white airplane standing alone. A corporate thing. A business jet. A Lear, or a Gulfstream, or whatever rich people buy these days. The paint winked in the sun. There was no writing on it, apart from a tail number. No name, no logo. Just white paint. Its engines were turning slowly, and its stairs were down.
The guy in the blazer drove a well-judged part-circle and came to a stop with my door about a yard from the bottom of the airplane steps. Which I took as a hint. I climbed out and stood a moment in the sun. Spring had sprung and the weather was pleasant. Beside me the car drove away. A steward appeared above me, in the little oval mouth of the cabin. He was wearing a uniform. He said, ‘Sir, please step up.’ The stairs dipped a little under my weight. I ducked into the cabin. The steward backed off to my right, and on my left another guy in uniform squeezed out of the cockpit and said, ‘Welcome aboard, sir. You have an all-air force crew today, and we’ll get you there in no time at all.’
I said, ‘Get me where?’
‘To your destination.’ The guy crammed himself back in his seat next to his co-pilot and they both got busy checking dials. I followed the steward and found a cabin full of butterscotch leather and walnut veneer. I was the only passenger. I picked an armchair at random. The steward hauled the steps up and sealed the door and sat down on a jump seat behind the pilots’ shoulders. Thirty seconds later we were in the air, climbing hard.