THE COAST GUARD heliport in Brooklyn is situated on the eastern edge of Floyd Bennett Field, facing an island in Jamaica Bay called Ruffle Bar, exactly sixty air miles north and east from McGuire. The Marine pilot kept his foot on the loud pedal all the way and made the trip in thirty-seven minutes. He touched down in a circle with a giant letter H painted inside it and dropped the engines down to idle.
"You've got four hours," he said. "Any longer than that, we're out of here and you're on your own, OK?"
"OK," Reacher said. He unstrapped himself and slipped the headset off and followed the ramp down as it opened. There was a dark blue sedan with Navy markings waiting on the tarmac with its motor running and its front passenger door open.
"You Reacher?" the driver yelled.
Reacher nodded and slid in alongside him. The guy stamped on the gas.
"I'm Navy Reserve," he said. "We're helping the colonel out. A little interservice cooperation. "
"I appreciate it," Reacher said.
"Don't think twice," the guy said. "So where we headed?"
" Manhattan. Aim for Chinatown. You know where that is?"
"Do I? I eat there three times a week. "
He took Flatbush Avenue and the Manhattan Bridge. Traffic was light, but ground transportation still seemed awful slow, after the Lear and the helicopter. It was thirty minutes before Reacher was anywhere near where he wanted to be. A whole eighth of his available time gone. The guy came off the bridge approach and stopped short on a hydrant.
"I'll be waiting right here," he said. "Facing the other direction, exactly three hours from now. So don't be late, OK?"
"I won't," he said.
He slid out of the car and slapped twice on the roof. Crossed the street and headed south. It was cold in New York, and damp, but it wasn't actually raining. There was no sun visible. Just a vague sullen light in the sky where the sun ought to have been. He stopped walking and stood still for a moment. He was twenty minutes from Jodie's office. He started walking again. It was twenty minutes he didn't have. First things first. That was his rule. And maybe they'd be watching her place. No way could he be seen in New York today. He shook his head and walked on. Forced himself to concentrate. Glanced at his watch. It was late morning and he started worrying he was too early. On the other hand, he might be timing it just right. There was no way of telling. He had no experience.
After five minutes, he stopped walking again. If any street was going to do it for him, this was the one. It was lined on both sides with Chinese restaurants, crowded together, bright gaudy facades in reds and yellows. There was a forest of signs in Oriental script. Pagoda shapes everywhere. The sidewalks were crowded. Delivery trucks double-parked tight against cars. Crates of vegetables and drums of oil piled on the curbs. He walked the length of the street twice, up and down, carefully inspecting the terrain, learning it. Looking at the alleys. Then he touched the gun in his pocket and set off strolling again, looking for his targets. They would be around somewhere. If he wasn't too early. He leaned on a wall and watched. They would be in a pair. Two of them, together. He watched for a long time. There were plenty of people in pairs, but they weren't the right people. They weren't them. None of them. He was too early.
He glanced at his watch and saw his time ticking away. He pushed off the wall and strolled again. He looked into doorways as he passed. Nothing. He watched the alleys. Nothing. Time ticked on. He walked a block south and a block west and tried another street. Nothing. He waited on a corner. Still nothing. He went another block south, another block west. Nothing. He leaned on a skinny tree and waited, with the watch on his wrist hammering like a machine. Nothing. He walked back to his starting point and leaned on his wall and watched the lunch crowd build to a peak. Then he watched it ebb away. Suddenly more people were coming out of the restaurants than were going in. His time was ebbing away with them. He moved to the end of the street. Checked his watch again. He had been waiting two whole hours. He had one hour left.
Nothing happened. The lunch crowd died away to nothing and the street went quiet. Trucks drove in, stopped, unloaded, drove out again. A light drizzle started, and then it stopped. Low clouds moved across the narrow sky. Time ticked away. He walked east and south. Nothing there. He came back again and walked up one side of the street and down the other. Waited at the corner. Checked his watch, over and over. He had forty minutes left. Then thirty. Then twenty.
Then he saw them. And he suddenly understood why it was now, and not before. They had been waiting for the lunch-hour cash flow to be neatly stashed in the registers. There were two guys. Chinese, of course, young, shiny black hair worn long on their collars. They wore dark pants and light windbreakers, with scarves at their necks, like a uniform.
They were very blatant. One carried a satchel and the other carried a notebook with a pen trapped in the spiral binding. They strolled into each restaurant in turn, slow and casual. Then they strolled out again, with one guy zipping the satchel and the other guy noting something in his book. One restaurant, then two, then three, then four. Fifteen minutes ticked away. Reacher watched. He crossed the street and moved ahead of them. Waited near a restaurant door. Watched them go in. Watched them approach an old guy at the register. They just stood there. Said nothing. The old guy reached into the cash drawer and took out a wad of folded bills. The agreed amount, ready and waiting. The guy with the book took them and handed them to his partner. Wrote something in the book as the money disappeared into the satchel.
Reacher stepped ahead, up to where a narrow alley separated two buildings. He ducked in and waited with his back to the wall, where they wouldn't see him until it was too late. He checked his watch. He had less than five minutes. He timed the two guys in his head. He built a mental picture of their lazy, complacent pace. Followed their rhythm in his mind. Waited. Waited. Then he stepped out of the alley and met them head on. They bumped right into him. He seized a bunch of windbreaker in each hand and leaned backward and swung them through a complete explosive half-circle and smashed them back-first into the alley wall. The guy in his right hand followed the wider arc, and therefore hit harder, and therefore bounced farther. Reacher caught him solidly with his elbow as he came forward off the wall and he went down on the floor. Didn't come back up again. He was the guy with the satchel.
The other guy dropped the book and went for his pocket, but Reacher had Trent 's Beretta out first. He stood close and held it angled low, down in the tails of his coat, down toward the guy's kneecap.
"Be smart, OK?" he said.
He reached down with his left and racked the slide. The sound was muffled by the cloth of his coat, but to his practiced ear it sounded horribly empty. No final click of the shell case smacking home. But the Chinese guy didn't notice. Too dizzy. Too shocked. He just pressed himself to the wall like he was trying to back right through it. Put all his weight on one foot, unconsciously preparing for the bullet that would blow his leg away.
"You're making a mistake, pal," he whispered.
Reacher shook his head. "No, we're making a move, asshole. "
"Petrosian," Reacher said.
"Petrosian? You're kidding me. "
"No way," Reacher said. "I'm serious. Real serious. This street is Petrosian's now. As of today. As of right now. All of it. The whole street. You clear on that?"
"This street is ours. "
"Not anymore. It's Petrosian's. He's taking it over. You want to lose a leg arguing about it?"
"Petrosian?" the guy repeated.
"Believe it," Reacher said, and slammed him left-handed in the stomach. The guy folded forward and Reacher tapped him above the ear with the butt of the gun and dropped him neatly on top of his partner. He clicked the trigger to free the slide and put the gun back in his pocket. Picked up the satchel and tucked it under his arm. Walked out of the alley and turned north.
He was already late. If his watch was a minute slow and the Navy guy's was a minute fast, then the rendezvous was already gone. But he didn't run. Running in the city was too conspicuous. He walked away as fast as he could, stepping one pace to the side for every three paces forward, threading his way along the sidewalks. He turned a corner and saw the blue car, USNR painted discreetly on its flank. He saw it moving away from the curb. Saw it lurching out into the traffic stream. Now he ran.
He got to where it had been parked four seconds after it left. Now it was three cars ahead, accelerating to catch the light. He stared after it. The light changed to red. The car accelerated faster. Then the guy chickened out and hit the brakes. The car slammed to a neat stop a foot into the crosswalk. Pedestrians swarmed out in front of it. Reacher breathed again and ran to the intersection and pulled open the passenger door. Dumped himself into the seat, panting. The driver nodded to him. Didn't say a word. Didn't offer any kind of an apology for not waiting. Reacher didn't expect one. When the Navy says three hours, it means three hours. One hundred and eighty minutes, not a second more, not a second less. Time and tide wait for no man. The Navy was built on all kinds of bullshit like that.
THE JOURNEY BACK to Trent 's office at Dix was the exact reverse of the journey out. Thirty minutes in the car through Brooklyn, the waiting helicopter, the raucous flight back to McGuire, the lieutenant in the staff Chevy waiting on the tarmac. Reacher spent the flight time counting the money in the satchel. There was a total of twelve hundred dollars in there, six folded wads of two hundred each. He gave the money to the load-masters for their next unit party. He tore the satchel along its seams and dropped the pieces through the flare hatch, two thousand feet above Lakewood, New Jersey.
It was still raining at Dix. The lieutenant drove him back to the alley and he walked to Trent 's window and rapped softly on the glass. Trent opened it up and he climbed back inside the office.
"We OK?" he asked.
Trent nodded. "She's just been sitting out there, quiet as a mouse, all day. Must be real impressed with our dedication. We worked right through lunch. "
Reacher nodded and handed back the empty gun. Took off his jacket. Sat down in his chair. Slipped his ID around his neck again and picked up a file. Trent had moved the stack right to left across the desk, like it had been minutely examined.
"Success?" Trent asked.
"I think so. Time will tell, right?"
Trent nodded and looked out at the weather. He was restless. He had been trapped in his office all day.
"Let her in, if you want," Reacher said. "Show's over now. "
"You're all wet," Trent said. "Show's not over until you're dried out. "
It took twenty minutes to dry out. He used Trent 's phone and called Jodie's numbers. The private office line, the apartment, the mobile. No reply, no reply, out of service. He stared at the wall. Then he read an unclassified file about proposed methods of getting mail to the Marines if they had to go serve in the Indian Ocean. The time he spent on it put him lower in his chair and put a glazed look on his face. When Trent finally opened the door and Harper got her second peek of the day, he was slumped and inert. Exactly like a man looks after an arduous day with paperwork.
"Progress?" she called.
He looked up and sighed at the ceiling. "Maybe. "
"Six solid hours, you must have gotten somewhere. "
"Maybe," he said again.
There was silence for a moment.
"OK, so let's go," she said.
She stood up behind her desk and stretched. She put her arms way above her head, palms flat, reaching for the ceiling. Some kind of a yoga thing. She arched her face upward and tilted her head and her hair cascaded down her back. Three sergeants and one colonel stared at her.
"So let's go," Reacher said.
"Don't forget your notes," Trent said.
He handed over a sheet of paper. There was a list of maybe thirty names printed on it. Probably Trent 's high school football team. Reacher put the list in his pocket and put his coat on and shook Trent 's hand. Walked through the anteroom and outside into the rain and stood there breathing for a second like a man who has been sitting down all day. Then Harper nudged him toward the lieutenant's car for the drive back to the Lear.
BLAKE AND POULTON and Lamarr were waiting for them at the same table in the Quantico cafeteria. It was just as dark outside, but now the table was set for dinner, not breakfast. There was a jug of water and five glasses, salt and pepper, bottles of steak sauce. Blake ignored Reacher and glanced at Harper, who nodded back to him, like a reassurance. Blake looked satisfied.
"So, you found our guy yet?" he asked.
"Maybe," Reacher said. "I've got thirty names. He could be one of them. "
"So let's see them. "
"Not yet. I need more. "
Blake stared at him. "Bullshit, you need more. We need to get tails on these guys. "
Reacher shook his head. "Can't be done. These guys are in places where you can't go. You even want a warrant on these guys, you're going to have to go to the Secretary of Defense, right after you've been to the judge. And Defense is going to go straight to the Commander-in-Chief, who was the President last time I looked, so you're going to need a damn sight more than I can give you right now. "
"So what are you saying?"
"I'm saying let me boil it down some. "
Reacher shrugged. "I want to go see Lamarr's sister. "
"My stepsister," Lamarr said.
"Why?" Blake asked.
Reacher wanted to say because I'm just killing time, asshole, and I'd rather do it on the road than stuck in here, but he composed his face into a serious look and shrugged again.
"Because we need to think laterally," he said. "If this guy is killing by category, we need to know why. He can't be mad at a whole category, just like that. One of these women must have sparked him off, first time around. Then he must have transferred his rage from the personal to the general, right? So who was it? Lamarr's sister could be a good place to start asking. She got a transfer between units. Two very different units. That doubles her potential contacts, profile-wise. "
It sounded professional enough. Blake nodded.
"OK," he said. "We'll set it up. You'll go tomorrow. "
"Where does she live?"
" Washington State," Lamarr said. "Someplace outside of Spokane, I think. "
"You think? You don't know?"
"I've never been there," she said. "I sure as hell don't get enough vacation time to drive all the way out and drive all the way back. "
Reacher nodded. Turned to Blake.
"You should be guarding these women," he said.
Blake sighed heavily. "Do the arithmetic, for God's sake. Eighty-eight women, and we don't know which one is next, seventeen days to go, if he sticks to his cycle, three agents every twenty-four hours, that's more than a hundred thousand man-hours, random locations all around the country. We just can't do it. We don't have the agents. We warned the local police departments, of course, but what can they do? Like outside of Spokane, Washington, for instance, the local police department is probably one man and a German shepherd. They drive by, time to time, I guess, but that's all we got. "
"Have you warned the women, too?"
Blake looked embarrassed and shook his head. "We can't. If we can't guard them, we can't warn them. Because what would we be saying? You're in danger, but sorry girls, you're entirely on your own? Can't be done. "
"We need to catch this guy," Poulton said. "That's the only sure way to help these women. "
Lamarr nodded. "He's out there, somewhere. We need to bring him in. "
Reacher looked at them. Three psychologists. They were trying to push all the right buttons. Trying to make it a challenge. He smiled. "I get the message. "
"OK, you go to Spokane tomorrow," Lamarr said. "Meanwhile I'll work
the files some more. You'll review them the day after tomorrow. That gives you the stuff you got from Trent, plus the stuff you get in Spokane, plus what we've already gotten. At which point we'll expect some real progress from you. "
Reacher smiled again. "Whatever, Lamarr. "
"So eat and get to bed," Blake said. "It's a long way to Spokane. Early start tomorrow. Harper will go with you, of course. "
Blake was embarrassed again. "To Spokane, asshole. "
Reacher nodded. "Whatever, Blake. "
THE PROBLEM WAS, it was a challenge. He was sealed in his room, lying alone on the bed, staring up at the blind eye of the hidden camera. But he wasn't seeing it. His gaze had dissolved just like it used to, into a blur. A green blur, like the whole of America had disappeared and returned to grassland and forest, the buildings gone, the roads gone, the noise gone, the population all gone, except for one man, somewhere. Reacher stared into the silent blur, a hundred miles, a thousand miles, three thousand miles, his gaze roving north and south, east and west, looking for the faint shadow, waiting for the sudden movement. He's out there, somewhere. We need to catch this guy. He was walking around right now, or sleeping, or planning, or preparing, and he was thinking he was just about the smartest guy on the whole continent.
Well, we'll see about that, Reacher thought. He stirred. He ought to get seriously involved. Or on the other hand, maybe not. It was a big decision, waiting to be made, but it wasn't made yet. He rolled over and closed his eyes. He could think about it later. He could make the decision tomorrow. Or the next day. Whenever.
THE DECISION WAS made. About the interval. The interval was history. Time to speed things up a little. Three weeks was way too long to wait now. This sort of thing, you let the idea creep up on you, you look at it, you consider it, you see its value, you see its appeal, and the decision is really made for you, isn't it? You can't get the genie back in the bottle, not once it's out. And this genie is out. All the way out. Up and running. So you run with it.