THEY LEFT THEIR gowns and overshoes in a tangle by the door and turned left and right through walkways and corridors to the pathology building's front exit. They took the long way around through the parking lots to the main building, as if brisk motion through chill fall air would rid them of the stink of paint and death. They rode the elevator four floors underground in silence. Walked through the narrow corridor and spilled into the seminar room and found Julia Lamarr sitting alone at the table, looking up at the silent television screen.
"You're supposed to be out of here," Blake said to her.
"Any conclusions?" she asked quietly. "From Stavely? "
Blake shook his head. "Later. You should have gone home. "
She shrugged. "I told you. I can't go home. I need to be on top of this. "
"But you're exhausted. "
"You saying I'm not effective?"
Blake sighed. "Julia, give me a break. I've got to organize. You collapse with exhaustion, you're no good to me. "
"Not going to happen. "
"It was an order, you realize that?"
Lamarr waved a hand, like a gesture of refusal. Harper stared at her.
"It was an order," Blake said again.
"And I ignored it," Lamarr said. "So what are you going to do? We need to work. We've got three weeks to catch this guy. That's not a lot of time. "
Reacher shook his head. "That's plenty of time. "
Harper turned her stare on him.
"If we talk about his motive, right now," he said.
There was silence. Lamarr stiffened in her seat.
"I think his motive is clear," she said.
There was ice in her voice. Reacher turned to face her, softening his expression, trying to defer to the fact that her family had been wiped out in the space of two days.
"It isn't to me," he said.
Lamarr turned to Blake, appealing.
"We can't start arguing this all over again," she said. "Not now. "
"We have to," Reacher said.
"We've done this work already," she snapped.
"Relax, people," Blake called. "Just relax. We've got three weeks, and we're not going to waste any of it arguing. "
"You're going to waste all of it, if you keep on like this," Reacher said.
There was suddenly tension in the air. Lamarr stared down at the table. Blake was silent. Then he nodded.
"You've got three minutes, Reacher," he said. "Tell us what's on your mind. "
"You're wrong about his motive," Reacher said. "That's what's on my mind. It's keeping you away from looking in the right places. "
"We've done this work already," Lamarr said again.
"Well, we need to do it over," Reacher said, gently. "Because we won't find the guy if we're looking in the wrong places. That stands to reason, right?"
"Do we need this?" Lamarr said.
"Two minutes and thirty seconds," Blake said. "Give us what you've got. Reacher. "
Reacher took a breath. "This is a very smart guy, right? Very, very smart. Smart in a very particular way. He's committed four homicides, bizarre, elaborate scenarios, and he hasn't left the slightest shred of evidence behind. He's only made one mistake, by leaving one box open. And that was a fairly trivial mistake, because it's not getting us anywhere. So we've got a guy who's successfully handled a thousand decisions, a thousand details, under urgent and stressful conditions. He's killed four women and so far we don't even know how. "
"So?" Blake said. "What's your point?"
"His intelligence," Reacher said. "It's a specific type. It's practical, efficient, real-world. He's got his feet on the ground. He's a planner, and he's pragmatic. He's a problem solver. He's intensely rational. He deals with reality. "
"So?" Blake said again.
"So let me ask you a question. You got a problem with black people?"
"Just answer the question. "
"No, I don't. "
"Good or bad as anybody, right?"
"Sure. Good or bad. "
"What about women? Good or bad as anybody, right?"
Blake nodded. "Sure. "
"So what if some guy is saying to you that black people are no good, or women are no good?"
"I'd say he's wrong. "
"You'd say he's wrong, and you'd know he's wrong, because deep down you know what the truth of the matter is. "
Blake nodded again. "Sure. So?"
"So that's my experience, too. Racists are fundamentally wrong. Sexists, too. No room for argument about it. Fundamentally, it's a completely irrational position to hold. So think about it. Any guy who gets in a big tantrum about this harassment issue is a guy who's wrong. Any guy who blames the victims is very wrong. And any guy who goes around looking for revenge against the victims is very wrong. He's got a screw loose. His brain doesn't function right. He's not rational. He's not dealing with reality. He's can't be. Deep down, he's some kind of an idiot. "
"But our guy isn't an idiot. We just agreed he's very smart. Not eccentric smart, not lunatic smart, but real-world smart, rational and pragmatic and practical. He's dealing with reality. We just agreed on that. "
"So he's not motivated by anger at these women. He can't be. It's not possible. You can't be real-world smart and real-world dumb, all at the same time. You can't be rational and irrational. You can't deal with reality and simultaneously not deal with it. "
There was silence again.
"We know what his motive is," Lamarr said. "What else could it be? The target group is too exact for it to be anything else. "
Reacher shook his head. "Like it or not, the way you're describing his motive, you're calling him deranged. But a deranged guy couldn't commit these crimes. "
Lamarr clamped her teeth. Reacher heard them click and grind. He watched her. She shook her head. Her thin hair moved with it, stiff, like it was full of lacquer.
"So what's his real motive, smart guy?" she asked, her voice low and quiet.
"I don't know," Reacher said.
"You don't know? You better be kidding. You question my expertise and you don't know?"
"It'll be something simple. It always is, right? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the simple thing is the correct thing. Maybe doesn't work like that for you guys down here, but that's how it works out there in the real world. "
Nobody said a word. Then the door opened and Poulton walked into the silence, small and sandy with a faint smile hanging there under his mustache. The smile disappeared as soon as the atmosphere hit him. He sat down quietly next to Lamarr and pulled a stack of paper in front of him, defensively.
"What's going on?" he asked.
Blake nodded toward Reacher. "Smart guy here is challenging Julia's reading of the motive. "
"So what's wrong about the motive?"
"Smart guy is about to tell us. You're just in time for the expert seminar. "
"What about the screwdriver?" Reacher asked. "Any conclusions?"
Poulton's smile came back. "Either that screwdriver or an identical one was used to lever the lids off. The marks match perfectly. But what's all this about the motive?"
Reacher took a breath and looked around the faces opposite him. Blake, hostile. Lamarr, white and tense. Harper, curious. Poulton, blank.
"OK, smart guy, we're listening," Blake said.
"It'll be something simple," Reacher said again. "Something simple and obvious. And common. And lucrative enough to be worth protecting. "
"He's protecting something?"
Reacher nodded. "That's my guess. I think maybe he's eliminating witnesses to something. "
"Witnesses to what?"
"Some kind of a racket, I suppose. "
"What kind of a racket?"
Reacher shrugged. "Something big, something systematic, I guess. "
There was si
"Inside the Army?" Lamarr asked.
"Obviously," Reacher said.
"OK," he said. "A big systematic racket, inside the Army. What is it?"
"I don't know. " Reacher said.
There was silence again. Then Lamarr buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders started moving. She started rocking back and forward in her chair. Reacher stared at her. She was sobbing, like her heart was breaking. He realized it a moment later than he should have, because she was doing it absolutely silently.
"Julia?" Blake called. "You OK?"
She took her hands away from her face. Gestured helplessly with her hands, yes, no, wait. Her face was white and contorted and anguished. Her eyes were closed. The room was silent. Just the rasp of her breathing.
"I'm sorry," she gasped.
"Don't be sorry," Blake said. "It's the stress. "
She shook her head, wildly. "No, I made a terrible mistake. Because I think Reacher's right. He's got to be. So I was wrong, all along. I screwed up. I missed it. I should have seen it before. "
"Don't worry about it now," Blake said.
She lifted her head and stared at him. "Don't worry about it? Don't you see? All the time we wasted?"
"Doesn't matter," Blake said, limply.
She stared on at him. "Of course it matters. Don't you see? My sister died because I wasted all this time. It's my fault. I killed her. Because I was wrong. "
Silence again. Blake stared at her, helplessly.
"You need to take time out," he said.
She shook her head. Wiped her eyes. "No, no, I need to work. I already wasted too much time. So now I need to think. I need to play catch-up. "
"You should go home. Take a couple of days. "
Reacher watched her. She was collapsed in her chair like she had taken a savage beating. Her face was blotched red and white. Her breathing was shallow, and her eyes were blank and vacant.
"You need rest," Blake said.
She stirred and shook her head.
"Maybe later," she said.
There was silence again. Then she hauled herself upright in her chair and fought to breathe.
"Maybe later I'll rest," she said. "But first I work. First, we all work. We've got to think. We've got to think about the Army. What's the racket?"
"I don't know," Reacher said again.
"Well think, for God's sake," she snapped. "What racket is he protecting?"
"Give us what you've got, Reacher," Blake said. "You didn't go this far without something on your mind. "
"Well, I had half an idea," he said.
"Give us what you've got," Blake said again.
"OK, what was Amy Callan's job?"
Blake looked blank and glanced at Poulton.
"Ordnance clerk," Poulton said.
"Lorraine Stanley's?" Reacher asked.
"Quartermaster sergeant. "
"Alison's?" he asked.
"Infantry close-support," Lamarr said, neutrally.
"No, before that. "
"Transport battalion," she said.
Reacher nodded. "Rita Scimeca's job?"
Harper nodded. "Weapons proving. Now I see why you made her tell me. "
"Why?" Blake asked.
"Because what's the potential link?" Reacher asked. "Between an ordnance clerk, a quartermaster sergeant, a transport driver, a weapons prover?"
"You tell me. "
"What did I take from those guys at the restaurant?"
Blake shrugged. "I don't know. That's James Cozo's business, in New York. I know you stole their money. "
"They had handguns," Reacher said. "M9 Berettas, with the serial numbers filed off. What does that mean?"
"They were illegally obtained. "
Reacher nodded. "From the Army. M9 Berettas are military-issue. "
Blake looked blank. "So what?"
"So if this is some Army guy protecting a racket, the racket most likely involves theft, and if the stakes are high enough for killing people, the theft most likely involves weapons, because that's where the money is. And these women were all in a position where they could have witnessed weapons theft. They were right there in the chain, transporting and testing and warehousing weapons, all day long. "
There was silence. Then Blake shook his head.
"You're crazy," he said. "It's too coincidental. The overlap is ridiculous. What are the chances all these witnesses would also be harassment victims?"
"It's only an idea," Reacher said. "But the chances are actually pretty good, the way I see it. The only real harassment victim was Julia's sister. Caroline Cooke doesn't count, because that was a technicality. "
"What about Callan and Stanley?" Poulton asked. "You don't call that harassment?"
Reacher shook his head. But Lamarr beat him to the punch. She was leaning forward, fingers drumming on the table, life back in her eyes, completely on the ball.
"No, think about it, people," she said. "Think about it laterally. They weren't harassment victims and witnesses. They were harassment victims because they were witnesses. If you're some Army racketeer and you've got a woman in your unit who's not turning a blind eye to what you need her to be turning a blind eye to, what do you do about it? You get rid of her, is what. And what's the quickest way to do that? You make her uncomfortable, sexually. "
There was silence. Then Blake shook his head again.
"No, Julia," he said. "Reacher's seeing ghosts, is all. It's still way too coincidental. Because what are the chances he'd just happen to be in a restaurant alley one night and stumble across the back end of the same racket that's killing our women? A million to one, minimum. "
"A billion to one," Poulton said.
Lamarr stared at them.
"Think, for God's sake," she said. "Surely he's not saying he saw the same racket that's killing our women. Probably he saw a completely different racket. Because there must be hundreds of rackets in the Army. Right, Reacher?"
"Right," he said. "The restaurant thing set me thinking along those lines, is all, in general terms. "
There was silence again. Blake colored red.
"There are hundreds of rackets?" he said. "So how does that help us? Hundreds of rackets, hundreds of Army people involved, how are we going to find the right one? Needle in a damn haystack. It'll take three years. We've got three weeks. "
"And what about the paint?" Poulton asked. "If he's eliminating witnesses, he'd walk up and shoot them in the head, silenced. 22. He wouldn't mess with all this other stuff. All this ritual is classic serial homicide. "
Reacher looked at him.
"Exactly," he said. "Your perception of the motive is defined by the manner of the killings. Think about it. If they had all got a silenced. 22 in the head, what would you have thought?"
Poulton said nothing. But there was doubt in his eyes. Blake sat forward and put his hands on the table.
"We'd have called them executions," he said. "Wouldn't have altered our assessment of the motive. "
"No, be honest with me," Reacher said. "I think you'd have been a little more open-minded. You'd have cast your net a little wider. Sure, you'd have considered the harassment angle, but you'd have considered other things too. More ordinary things. Bullets to the head, I think you'd have considered more routine reasons. "
Blake sat there, hesitant and silent. Which was the same thing as a confession.
"Bullets to the head are kind of normal, right?" Reacher said. "In your line of work? So you'd have looked at normal reasons too. Like eliminating witnesses to a crime. Bullets to the head, I think right now you'd be all over the Army scams, looking for some efficient enforcer. But the guy deflected you by dressing it up with all this bizarre bullshit. He hid his true motive. He smoke-screened it. He camoufla
ged it. He pushed you into this weird psychological arena. He manipulated you, because he's very smart. "
Blake was still silent.
"Not that you needed much manipulation," Reacher said.
"This is just speculation," Blake said.
Reacher nodded. "Of course it is. I told you, it's only half an idea. But that's what you do down here, right? You sit here all day long wearing the seat out of your pants, speculating about half-ideas. "
Silence in the room.
"It's bullshit," Blake said.
Reacher nodded again. "Yes, maybe it is. But maybe it isn't. Maybe it's some Army guy making big bucks out of some scam these women knew about. And he's hiding behind this harassment issue, by dressing it up like a psychodrama. He knew you'd jump right on it. He knew he could make you look in the wrong place. Because he's very smart. "
"Your call," Reacher said.
There was silence.
"Julia?" Blake said.
The silence continued. Then Lamarr nodded, slowly. "It's a viable scenario. Maybe more than viable. It's possible he could be exactly right. Possible enough that I think we should check it out, maximum effort, immediately. "
The silence came back.
"I think we shouldn't waste any more time," Lamarr whispered.
"But he's wrong," Poulton said.
He was riffing through paper, and his voice was loud and joyful.
"Caroline Cooke makes him wrong," he said. "She was in War Plans at NATO. High-level office work. She was never anywhere near weapons or warehouses or quartermasters. "
Reacher said nothing. Then the silence was broken by the door. It opened up and Stavely hurried into the room, big and busy and intrusive. He was dressed in a white lab coat, and his wrists were smeared green where the paint had lapped up above his gloves. Lamarr stared at the marks and went whiter than his coat. She stared for a long moment and then closed her eyes and swayed like she was about to faint. She gripped the tabletop in front of her, thumbs underneath, pale fingers above, spread outward with the thin tendons standing out like quivering wires.
"I want to go home now," she said, quietly.
She reached down and gathered up her bag. Threaded the strap onto her shoulder and pushed back her chair and stood up. Walked slowly and unsteadily to the door, her eyes fixed on the remnants of her sister's last moments of life daubed across Stavely's stained wrists. Her head turned as she walked to keep them in view. Then she wrenched her gaze away and opened the door. Passed through it and let it close silently behind her.
"What?" Blake said.
"I know how he kills them," Stavely said. "Except there's a problem. "
"What problem?" Blake asked.
"It's impossible. "