In the morning they gave Reacher a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school. The medal was another Legion of Merit. His second. It was a handsome item, enameled in white, with a ribbon halfway between purple and red. Army Regulation 600-8-22 authorized its award for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the United States in a key position of responsibility. Which was a bar Reacher felt he had cleared, technically. But he figured the real reason he was getting it was the same reason he had gotten it before. It was a transaction. A contractual token. Take the bauble and keep your mouth shut about what we asked you to do for it. Which Reacher would have anyway. It was nothing to boast about. The Balkans, some police work, a search for two local men with wartime secrets to keep, both soon identified, and located, and visited, and shot in the head. All part of the peace process. Interests were served, and the region calmed down a little. Two weeks of his life. Four rounds expended. No big deal.
Army Regulation 600-8-22 was surprisingly vague about exactly how medals should be handed out. It said only that decorations were to be presented with an appropriate air of formality and with fitting ceremony. Which usually meant a large room with gilt furniture and a bunch of flags. And an officer senior in rank to the recipient. Reacher was a major, with twelve years in, but other awards were being given out that morning, including three to a trio of colonels and two to a pair of one-star generals, so the big cheese on deck was a three-star from the Pentagon, who Reacher knew from many years before, when the guy had been a CID battalion commander working out of Fort Myer. A thinker. Certainly enough of a thinker to figure out why an MP major was getting a Legion of Merit. He had a look in his eye. Part wry, and part seal-the-deal serious. Take the bauble and keep your mouth shut. Maybe in the past the guy had done the same thing himself. Maybe more than once. He had a whole fruit salad of ribbons on the left chest of his Class-A coat. Including two Legions of Merit.
The appropriately formal room was deep inside Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Which was close to the Pentagon, which was convenient for the three-star. Convenient for Reacher too, because it was about equally close to Rock Creek, where he had been marking time since he got back. Not so convenient for the other officers, who had flown in from Germany.
There was some milling around, and some small talk, and some shaking of hands, and then everyone went quiet and lined up and stood to attention, and salutes were exchanged, and medals were variously pinned or draped on, and then there was more milling around and small talk and shaking of hands. Reacher edged toward the door, keen to get out, but the three-star caught him before he made it. The guy shook his hand and kept hold of his elbow, and said, “I hear you’re getting new orders.”
Reacher said, “No one told me. Not yet. Where did you hear that?”
“My top sergeant. They all talk to each other. U.S. Army NCOs have the world’s most efficient grapevine. It always amazes me.”
“Where do they say I’m going?”
“They don’t know for sure. But not far. Within driving distance, anyway. Apparently the motor pool got a requisition.”
“When am I supposed to find out?”
“Thank you,” Reacher said. “Good to know.”
The three-star let go of his elbow, and Reacher edged onward, to the door, and through it, and out to a corridor, where a sergeant first-class skidded to a halt and saluted. He was out of breath, like he had run a long way. From a distant part of the installation, maybe, where the real work was done.
The guy said, “Sir, with General Garber’s compliments, he requests that you stop by his office at your earliest convenience.”
Reacher said, “Where am I going, soldier?”
“Driving distance,” the guy said. “But around here, that could be a lot of different things.”
Garber’s office was in the Pentagon, so Reacher caught a ride with two captains who lived at Belvoir but had afternoon shifts in the B-Ring. Garber had a walled-off room all his own, two rings in, two floors up, guarded by a sergeant at a desk outside the door. Who stood up and led Reacher inside, and announced his name, like an old-time butler in a movie. Then the guy sidestepped and began his retreat, but Garber stopped him and said, “Sergeant, I’d like you to stay.”
So the guy did, standing easy, feet planted on the shiny linoleum.
Garber said, “Take a seat, Reacher.”
Reacher did, on a visitor chair with tubular legs, which sagged under his weight and tipped him backward, as if a strong wind was blowing.
Garber said, “You have new orders.”
Reacher said, “What and where?”
“You’re going back to school.”
Reacher said nothing.
Garber said, “Disappointed?”
Hence the witness, Reacher supposed. Not a private conversation. Best behavior. He said, “As always, general, I’m happy to go where the army sends me.”
“You don’t sound happy. But you should. Career development is a wonderful thing.”
“Details are being delivered to your office as we speak.”
“How long will I be gone?”
“That depends on how hard you work. As long as it takes, I guess.”
Reacher got a bus in the Pentagon parking lot and rode two stops to the base of the hill below the Rock Creek HQ. He walked up the slope and went straight to his office. There was a slim file centered on his desk. His name was on it, and some numbers, and a course title: Impact of Recent Forensic Innovation on Inter-Agency Cooperation. Inside were sheets of paper, still warm from the Xerox machine, including a formal notice of temporary detachment to a location that seemed to be a leased facility in a corporate park in McLean, Virginia. He was to report there before five o’clock that afternoon. Civilian dress was to be worn. Residential quarters would be on-site. A personal vehicle would be provided. No driver.
Reacher tucked the file under his arm and walked out of the building. No one watched him go. He was of no interest to anyone. Not anymore. He was a disappointment. An anticlimax. The NCO grapevine had held its breath, and all it had gotten was a meaningless course with a bullshit title. Not exciting at all. So now he was a non-person. Out of circulation. Out of sight, out of mind. Like a ballplayer on the disabled list. A month from then someone might suddenly remember him for a second, and wonder when he was coming back, or if, and then forget him again just as quickly.
The desk sergeant inside the door glanced up, and glanced away, bored.
Reacher had very few civilian clothes, and some of them weren’t really civilian. His off-duty pants were Marine Corps khakis about thirty years old. He knew a guy who knew a guy who worked in a warehouse, where he claimed there was a bale of old stuff wrongly delivered back when LBJ was still president, and then never squared away again afterward. And apparently the point of the story was that old Marine pants looked just like new Ralph Lauren pants. Not that Reacher cared what pants looked like. But five bucks was an attractive price. And the pants were fine. Unworn, never issued, stiffly folded, a little musty, but good for another thirty years at least.
His off-duty T-shirts were no more civilian, being old army items, gone pale and thin with washing. Only his jacket was definitively non-military. It was a tan denim Levi’s item, totally authentic in every respect, including the label, but sewn by an old girlfriend’s mother, in a basement in Seoul.
He changed and packed the rest of his stuff into a duffel and a suit carrier, which he heaved out to the curb, where a black Chevy Caprice was parked. He guessed it was an old MP black-and-white, now retired, with the decals peeled off, and the holes for the light bar and the antennas all sealed up with rubber plugs. The key was in. The seat was worn. But the engine started, and the transmission worked, and the brakes were fine. Reacher swung the thing around like a battleship maneuvering, and headed out toward McLean, Virginia, with the windows down and the radio playing.
The corporate park was one of many, all of them the same, brown and beige, discreet typefaces, neat lawns, some evergreen planting, low two- and three-building campuses spreading outward across empty land, servicing folks who hid behind bland and modest names and tinted glass in their office windows. Reacher found the right place by the street number, and pulled in past a knee-high sign that said Educational Solutions Incorporated, in a typeface so plain it looked childish.
Parked at the door were two more Chevy Caprices. One was black and one was navy blue. They were both newer than Reacher’s. And they were both properly civilian, in that they didn’t have rubber plugs and brush-painted doors. They were government sedans, no doubt about it, clean and shiny, each one with two more antennas than a person needed for listening to the ball game. But the extra two antennas were not the same in both cases. The black car had short needles and the blue car had longer whips, in a different configuration. On a different wavelength. Two separate organizations.
Reacher parked alongside, and left his bags in the car. He went in the door, to an empty lobby, which had durable gray carpet underfoot and green potted ferns here and there against the walls. There was a door marked Office. And a door marked Classroom. Which Reacher opened. There was a green chalkboard at the head of the room, and twenty college desks, in four rows of five, each one with a little ledge on the right, for paper and pencil.
Sitting on two of the desks were two guys, both in suits. One suit was black, and one suit was navy blue. Like the cars. Both guys were looking straight ahead, like they had been talking, but had run out of things to say. They were about Reacher’s own age. The one in the black suit was pale with dark hair worn dangerously long for a guy with a government car. The one in the blue suit was pale with colorless hair buzzed short. Like an astronaut. Built like an astronaut, too, or a gymnast not long out of the game.
Reacher stepped in, and they both turned to look.
The dark haired guy said, “Who are you?”
Reacher said, “That depends on who you are.”
“Your identity depends on mine?”
“Whether I tell you or not. Are those your cars outside?”
“Is that significant?”
“Because they’re different.”
“Yes,” the guy said. “Those are our cars. And yes, you’re in a classroom with two different representatives of two different government agencies. At cooperation school. Where they’re going to teach us all about how to get along with other organizations. Please don’t tell me you’re from one of them.”
“Military police,” Reacher said. “But don’t worry. I’m sure by five o’clock we’ll have plenty of civilized people here. You can give up on me and get along with them instead.”
The guy with the buzz cut looked up and said, “No, I think we’re it. I think we’re the whole ball game. There are only three bedrooms made up. I took a look around.”
Reacher said, “What kind of a government school has three students only? I never heard of that before.”
“Maybe we’re faculty. Maybe the students live elsewhere.”
The guy with the dark hair said, “Yes, that would make more sense.”
Copyright © 2016 by Lee Child. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.