THERE ARE NINETY-ONE altogether, and you need to do exactly six of them in total, which is three more, so what do you do now? You keep on thinking and planning, is what. Think, think, think, that's what you do. Because it's all based on thinking. You need to outwit them all. The victims, and the investigators. Layers and layers of investigators. More and more investigators all the time. Local cops, state cops, the FBI, the specialists the FBI brings in. New angles, new approaches. You know they're there. They're looking for you. They'll find you if they can.
The investigators are tough, but the women are easy. Just about as easy as you expected them to be. There was no overconfidence there. None at all. The victims go down exactly as you imagined. You planned long and hard, and the planning was perfect. They answer the door, they let you in, they fall for it. They're so damn keen to fall for it, their tongues are practically hanging out. They're so stupid, they deserve it. And it's not difficult. No, not difficult at all. It's meticulous, is what it is. It's like everything else. If you plan it properly, if you think it through, if you prepare correctly, if you rehearse, then it's easy. It's a technical process, just like you knew it would be. Like a science. It can't be anything else. You do this, and then you do this, and then you do this, and then you're done, home free. Three more. That's all. That'll do it. The hard part is over. But you keep on thinking. Think, think, think. It worked once, it worked twice, it worked three times, but you know there are no guarantees in life. You know that, better than anybody. So you keep on thinking, because the only thing that can get you now is your own complacency.
" YOU DON'T KNOW?" Reacher said again.
Lamarr was startled. She was staring straight ahead, tired, concentrating, gripping the wheel, driving like a machine.
"Know what?" she said.
"How they died. "
She sighed and shook her head. "No, not really. "
He glanced across at her. "You OK?"
"Don't I look OK?"
"You look exhausted. "
She yawned. "I'm a little weary, I guess. It was a long night. "
"Well, take care. "
"You worrying about me now?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm worrying about myself. You could fall asleep, run us off the road. "
She yawned again. "Never happened before. "
He looked away. Found himself fingering the airbag lid in front of him.
"I'm OK," she said again. "Don't worry about it. "
"Why don't you know how they died?"
She shrugged. "You were an investigator. You saw dead people. "
"So what did you look for?"
"Wounds, injuries. "
"Right," she said. "Somebody's full of bullet holes, you conclude they've been shot to death. Somebody's got their head smashed in, you call it trauma with a blunt object. "
"These three were in bathtubs full of drying paint, right? The crime scene guys take the bodies out, and the pathologists clean them up, and they don't find anything. "
"Nothing at all?"
"Nothing obvious, not at first. So then naturally they look harder. They still don't find anything. They know they didn't drown. When they open them up, they find no water or paint in the lungs. So then they search for external injuries, microscopically. They can't find anything. "
"No hypodermic marks? Bruising?"
She shook her head. "Nothing at all. But remember, they've been coated in paint. And that military stuff wouldn't pass too many HUD regulations. Full of all kinds of chemicals, and fairly corrosive. It damages the skin, postmortem. It's conceivable the paint damage might be obscuring some tiny marks. But whatever killed them was very subtle. Nothing gross. "
"What about internal damage?"
She shook her head again. "Nothing. No subcutaneous bruising, no organ damage, no nothing. "
"No. Stomach contents were OK. They hadn't ingested the paint. Toxicology was completely clear. "
Reacher nodded, slowly. "No sexual interference either, I guess, because Blake was happy both Callan and Cooke would have slept with me if I'd wanted them to. Which means the perpetrator was feeling no sexual resentment, therefore no rape, or else you'd be looking for somebody who'd been rebuffed by them, one time or another. "
Lamarr nodded. "That's our profile. Sexuality wasn't an issue. The nakedness is about humiliation, we think. Punishment. The whole thing was about punishment. Retribution, or something. "
"Weird," Reacher said. "That definitely makes the guy a soldier. But it's a very unsoldierly way to kill somebody. Soldiers shoot or stab or hit or strangle. They don't do subtle things. "
"We don't know exactly what he did. "
"But there's no anger there, right? If this guy is into some retribution thing, where's the anger? It sounds too clinical. "
Lamarr yawned and nodded, all at once. "That troubles me too. But look at the victim category. What else can the motive be? And if we agree on the motive, what else can the perp be except an angry soldier?"
They lapsed into silence. The miles rolled by. Lamarr held the wheel, thin tendons in her wrists standing out like cords. Reacher watched the road reeling in, and tried not to feel happy about it. Then Lamarr yawned again, and she saw him glance sharply at her.
"I'm OK," she said.
He looked at her, long and hard.
"I'm OK," she said again.
"I'm going to sleep for an hour," he said. "Try not to kill me. "
WHEN HE WOKE up, they were still in New Jersey. The car was quiet and comfortable. The motor was a faraway hum and there was a faint tenor rumble from the tires. A faint rustle of wind. The weather was gray. Lamarr was rigid with exhaustion, gripping the wheel, staring down the road with red unblinking eyes.
"We should stop for lunch," he said.
"Too early. "
He checked his watch. It was one o'clock. "Don't be such a damn hero. You should get a pint of coffee inside you. "
She hesitated, ready to argue. Then she gave it up. Her body suddenly went slack and she yawned again.
"OK," she said. "So let's stop. "
She drove on for a mile and coasted into a rest area in a clearing in the trees behind the shoulder. She put the car in a slot and turned the motor off and they sat in the sudden silence. The place was the same as a hundred others Reacher had seen, low-profile Federal architecture of the fifties colonized by fast-food operations that lodged behind discreet counters and spread their messages outward with gaudy advertisements.
He got out first and stretched his cramped frame in the cold, damp air. The highway traffic was roaring behind him. Lamarr was inert in the car, so he strolled away to the bathroom. Then she was nowhere to be seen, so he walked inside the building and lined up for a sandwich. She joined him within a minute.
"You're not supposed to do that," she said.
"Stray out of my sight. "
"Because we have rules for people like you. "
She said it without any trace of softness or humor. He shrugged. "OK, next time I go to the bathroom I'll invite you right inside with me. "
She didn't smile. "Just tell me, and I'll wait at the door. "
The line shuffled forward and he changed his selection from cheese to crabmeat, because he figured it was more expensive and he assumed she was paying. He added a twenty-ounce cup of black coffee and a plain doughnut. He found a table while she fiddled with her purse. Then she joined him and he raised his coffee in an ironic toast.
"Here's to a few fun days together," he said.
"It'll be more than a few days," she said. "It'll be as long as it takes. "
He sipped his coffee and thought about time.
"What's the significance of the three-week cycle?" he asked.
She had chosen cheese on whole-wheat and was pecking a c
rumb from the corner of her mouth with her little finger.
"We're not entirely sure," she said. "Three weeks is an odd interval. It's not lunar. There's no calendar significance to three weeks. "
He did the math in his head. "Ninety-one targets, one every three weeks, it would take him five and a quarter years to get through. That's a hell of a long project. "
She nodded. "We think that proves the cycle is imposed by something external. Presumably he'd work faster if he could. So we think he's on a three-week work pattern. Maybe he works two weeks on, one week off. He spends the week off staking them out, organizing it, and then doing it. "
Reacher saw his chance. Nodded.
"Possible," he said.
"So what kind of soldier works that kind of pattern?"
"That regular? Maybe a rapid-response guy, two weeks on readiness, one week stood down. "
"Who's on rapid response?"
"Marines, some infantry," he said.
Then he swallowed. "And some Special Forces. "
Then he waited to see if she'd take the bait.
She nodded. "Special Forces would know subtle ways to kill, right?"
He started on the sandwich. The crabmeat could have been tuna fish. "Silent ways, unarmed ways, improvised ways, I guess. But I don't know about subtle ways. This is about concealment, right? Special Forces are interested in getting people dead, for sure, but they don't care about leaving anybody puzzled afterward about how they did it. "
"So what are you saying?"
He put his sandwich down. "I'm saying I don't have a clue about who's doing what, or why, or how. And I don't see how I should. You're the big expert here. You're the one studied landscape gardening in school. "
She paused, with her sandwich in midair. "We need more from you than this, Reacher. And you know what we'll do if we don't get it. "
"I know what you say you'll do. "
"You going to take the chance we won't?"
"She gets hurt, you know what I'll do to you, right?"
She smiled. "Threatening me, Reacher? Threatening a federal agent? You just broke the law again. Title 18, paragraph A-3, section 4702. Now you're really stacking up the charges against yourself, that's for sure. "
He looked away and made no reply.
"Stay on the ball, and everything will be OK," she said.
He drained his cup, and looked at her over the rim. A steady, neutral gaze. "The ethics bothering you here?" she asked.
"Are there ethics involved?" he asked back.
Then her face changed. A hint of embarrassment crept into it. A hint of softening. She nodded. "I know, it used to bother me too. I couldn't believe it, when I got out of the Academy. But the Bureau knows what it's doing. I learned that, pretty quick. It's a practical thing. It's about the greatest good for the greatest number. We need cooperation, we ask for it first, but you better believe we make damn sure we get it. "
Reacher said nothing.
"It's a policy I believe in, now," Lamarr said. "But I want you to know using your girlfriend as a threat wasn't my idea. "
Reacher said nothing.
"That was Blake," she said. "I'm not about to criticize him for it, but I wouldn't have gone down that road myself. "
"Because we don't need more women in danger here. "
"So why did you let him do it?"
"Let him? He's my boss. And this is law enforcement. Emphasis on the enforcement. But I need you to know it wouldn't have been my way. Because we need to be able to work together. "
"Is this an apology?"
She said nothing.
"Is it? Finally?"
She made a face. "Close as you'll get from me, I guess. "
Reacher shrugged. "OK, whatever. "
"Friends now?" she said.
"We'll never be friends," Reacher said. "You can forget about that. "
"You don't like me," she said.
"You want me to be honest with you?"
She shrugged. "Not really, I guess. I just want you to help me out. "
"I'll be a go-between," he said. "That's what I agreed to. But you need to tell me what you want. "
She nodded. "Special Forces sound promising to me. First thing you'll do is check them out. "
He looked away, and clenched his teeth to keep himself from smiling.
THEY SPENT A whole hour at the rest stop. Toward the end of it Lamarr started to relax. Then she seemed reluctant to get back on the road.
"You want me to drive?" Reacher asked.
"It's a Bureau car," she said. "You're not permitted. "
But the question jogged her back on track. She gathered her purse and stood up from the table. Reacher took the trash to the receptacle and joined her at the door. They walked back to the Buick in silence. She fired it up and eased it out of the slot and merged onto the highway.
The hum of the motor came back, and the faint noise from the road and the muted rush of the air, and within a minute it was like they had never stopped at all. Lamarr was in the same position, upright and tense behind the wheel, and Reacher was sprawled on her right, watching the view flash by.
"Tell me about your sister," he said.
"My stepsister. "
"Whatever, tell me about her. "
He shrugged. "You want me to help, I need background. Like where did she serve, what happened to her, stuff like that. "
"She's a rich girl who wanted adventure. "
"So she joined the Army?"
"She believed the advertisements. You seen those, in magazines? They make it look tough and glamorous. "
"Is she tough?"
Lamarr nodded. "She's very physical, you know? She loves all that stuff, rock climbing, biking, skiing, hiking, windsurfing. She thought the Army was going to be all rappelling down cliffs with a knife between your teeth. "
"And it wasn't?"
"You know damn well it wasn't. Not back then, not for a woman. They put her in a transport battalion, made her drive a truck. "
"Why didn't she quit, if she's rich?"
"Because she's not a quitter. She did great in basic training. She was pushing for something better. "
"She saw some jerk of a colonel five times, trying to make some progress. He suggested if she was naked throughout the sixth interview, that might help. "
"She busted him. Whereupon they gave her the transfer she wanted. Infantry close-support unit, about as near the action as a woman was going to get. "
"You know how it works, right? Rumors? No smoke without fire? The assumption was she had screwed the guy, you know, even though she had busted him and he was canned, which made it completely illogical. In the end, she couldn't stand the whispers, and she did finally quit. "
"So what's she doing now?"
"Nothing. She's feeling a little sorry for herself. "
"You close to her?"
"Not very, to be honest," she said. "Not as close as I'd maybe want to be. "
"You like her?"
Lamarr made a face. "What's not to like? She's very likable. She's a great person, actually. But I made mistakes, right from the start. Handled it all wrong. I was young, my dad was dead, we were real poor, this rich guy fell in love with my mother and finished up adopting me. I was full of resentment that I was being rescued, I guess. So I figured it didn't mean I had to fall in love with her. She's only my stepsister, I said to myself. "
"You never got past it?"
She shook her head. "Not totally. My fault, I admit it. My mother died early, which left me feeling a little isolated and awkward. I didn't handle it well. So now my stepsister is basically just a nice woman I know. Like a close acquaintance. I guess we both feel that way. But we get along OK, what we see of each other. "
He nodded. "If th
ey're rich, are you rich too?"
She glanced sideways. Smiled. The crossed teeth flashed, briefly.
"Why?" she said. "You like rich women? Or maybe you think rich women shouldn't hold down jobs? Or any women?"
"Just making conversation. "
She smiled again. "I'm richer than you'd think. My stepfather has lots of money. And he's very fair with us, even though I'm not really his daughter and she is. "
"Lucky you. "
"And we're going to be a lot richer soon," she said. "Unfortunately. He's real sick. He's been fighting cancer for two years. Tough old guy, but now he's going to die. So there's a big inheritance coming our way. "
"I'm sorry he's sick," Reacher said.
She nodded. "Yes, so am I. It's sad. "
There was silence. Just the hum of the miles passing under the wheels.
"Did you warn your sister?" Reacher asked.
"My stepsister. "
He glanced at her. "Why do you always emphasize she's your stepsister?"
She shrugged at the wheel. "Because Blake will pull me off if he thinks I'm too involved. And I don't want that to happen. "
"Of course I don't. Somebody close to you is in trouble, you want to take care of it yourself, right?"
Reacher looked away.
"You better believe it," he said.
She was quiet for a beat.
"And the family thing is very awkward for me," she said. "All those mistakes came home to haunt me. When my mother died, they could have cut me off, but they just didn't. They still both treat me exactly right, all the way, very loving, very generous, very fair and equal, and the more they do, the more I feel really guilty for calling myself a Cinderella at the beginning. "
Reacher said nothing.
"You think I'm being irrational again," she said.
He said nothing. She drove on, eyes fixed on the windshield.
"Cinderella," she said. "Although you'd probably call me the ugly sister. "
He made no reply to that. Just watched the road.
"Whatever, did you warn her?" he asked again.
She glanced sideways at him and he saw her haul herself back to the present.
"Yes, of course I warned her," she said. "Soon as Cooke made the pattern clear, I've called her over and over again. She should be safe enough. She spends a lot of time at the hospital with her father, and when she's at home I've told her not to let anybody through the door. Nobody at all, not anybody, no matter who they are. "
"She pay attention?"
"I made sure she did. "
He nodded. "OK, she's safe enough. Only eighty-seven others to worry about. "
AFTER NEW JERSEY came eighty miles of Maryland, which took an hour and twenty minutes to cover. It was raining again, prematurely dark. Then they skirted the District of Columbia and entered Virginia and settled in for the final forty miles of I-95, all the way down to Quantico. The buildings of the city receded behind them and gentle forest built ahead. The rain stopped. The sky lightened. Lamarr cruised fast and then slowed suddenly and turned off the highway onto an unmarked road winding through the trees. The surface was good, but the curves were tight. After a half-mile, there was a neat clearing with parked military vehicles and huts painted dark green.
"Marines," she said. "They gave us sixty acres of land for our place. "
He smiled. "That's not how they see it. They figure you stole it. "
More curves, another half-mile, and there was another clearing. Same vehicles, same huts, same green paint.
"Camouflage basecoat," Reacher said.
She nodded. "Creepy. "
More curves, two more clearings, altogether two miles deep into the woods. Reacher sat forward and paid attention. He had never been to Quantico before. He was curious. The car rounded a tight bend and came clear of the trees and stopped short at a checkpoint barrier. There was a red-and-white striped pole across the roadway and a sentry's hutch made from bullet-proof glass. An armed guard stepped forward. Over his shoulder in the distance was a long, low huddle of honey stone buildings. A couple of squat high-rises standing among them. The buildings crouched alone on undulating lawns. The lawns were immaculate and the way the low buildings spread into them meant their architect hadn't been worried about consuming space. The place looked very peaceful, like a minor college campus or a corporate headquarters, except for the razor-wire perimeter and the armed guard.
Lamarr had the window down and was rooting in her purse for ID. The guy clearly knew who she was, but rules are rules and he needed to see her plastic. He nodded as soon as her hand came clear of the bag. Then he switched his gaze across to Reacher.
"You should have paperwork on him," Lamarr said.
The guy nodded again. "Yeah, Mr. Blake took care of it. "
He ducked back to his hutch and came out with a laminated plastic tag on a chain. He handed it through the window and Lamarr passed it on. It had Reacher's name and his old service photograph on it. The whole thing was overprinted with a pale red V.
"V for visitor," Lamarr said. "You wear it at all times. "
"Or?" Reacher asked.
"Or you get shot. And I'm not kidding. "
The guard was back in his hutch, raising the barrier. Lamarr buzzed her window up and accelerated through. The road climbed the undulations and revealed parking lots in the dips. Reacher could hear gunfire. The flat bark of heavy handguns, maybe two hundred yards away in the trees.
"Target practice," Lamarr said. "Goes on all the time. "
She was bright and alert. Like proximity to the mother ship was reviving her. Reacher could see how that could happen. The whole place was impressive. It nestled in a natural bowl, deep in the forest, miles away from anywhere. It felt isolated and secret. Easy to see how it could breed a fierce, loyal spirit in the people fortunate enough to be admitted to it.
Lamarr drove slowly over speed bumps to a parking lot in front of the largest building. She eased nose-first into a slot and shut it down. Checked her watch.
"Six hours ten minutes," she said. "That's real slow. The weather, I guess, plus we stopped too long for lunch. "
Silence in the car.
"So now what?" Reacher asked.
"Now we go to work. "
The plate-glass doors at the front of the building opened up and Poulton walked out. The sandy-haired little guy with the mustache. He was wearing a fresh suit. Dark blue, with a white button-down and a gray tie. The new color made him less insignificant. More formal. He stood for a second and scanned the lot and then set his course for the car. Lamarr got out to meet him. Reacher sat still and waited. Poulton let Lamarr take her own bag from the trunk. It was a suit carrier in the same black imitation leather as her briefcase.
"Let's go, Reacher," she called.
He ducked his head and slipped the ID chain around his neck. Opened his door and slid out. It was cold and windy. The breeze was carrying the sound of dry leaves tossing, and gunfire.
"Bring your bag," Poulton called.
"I don't have a bag," Reacher said.
Poulton glanced at Lamarr, and she gave him an I've had this all day look. Then they turned together and walked toward the building. Reacher glanced at the sky and followed them. The undulating ground gave him a new view with each new step. The land fell away to the left of the buildings, and he saw squads of trainees walking purposefully, or running in groups, or marching away into the woods with shotguns. Standard apparel seemed to be dark blue sweats with FBI embroidered in yellow on the front and back, like it was a fashion label or a major-league franchise. To his military eye, it all looked irredeemably civilian. Then he realized with a little chill of shame that that was partly because a healthy percentage of the people doing the walking and running and carrying were women.
Lamarr opened the plate-glass door and walked inside. Poulton waited for
Reacher on the threshold.
"I'll show you to your room," he said. "You can stow your stuff. "
Up close in daylight, he looked older. There were faint lines in his face, barely visible, like a forty-year-old was wearing a twenty-year-old's skin.
"I don't have any stuff," Reacher said to him. "I just told you that. "
Poulton hesitated. There was clearly an itinerary. A timetable to be followed.
"I'll show you anyway," he said.
Lamarr walked away with her bag and Poulton led Reacher to an elevator. They rode together to the third floor and came out on a quiet corridor with thin carpet on the floor and worn fabric on the walls. Poulton walked to a plain door and took a key from his pocket and opened it up. Inside was a standard-issue motel room. Narrow entryway, bathroom on the right, closet on the left, queen bed, table and two chairs, bland decor.
Poulton stayed out in the corridor. "Be ready in ten. "
The door sucked shut. There was no handle on the inside. Not quite a standard-issue motel room. There was a view of the woods from the window, but the window didn't open. The frame was welded shut and the handle had been removed. There was a telephone on the nightstand. He picked it up and heard a dial tone. Hit 9 and heard more. He dialed Jodie's private office line. Let it ring eighteen times before trying her apartment. Her machine cut in. He tried her mobile. It was switched off.
He put his coat in the closet and unclipped his toothbrush from his pocket and propped it in a glass on the bathroom vanity. Rinsed his face at the sink and pushed his hair into some kind of shape. Then he sat down on the edge of the bed and waited.