Reacher said, “I suppose.”
The man was over thirty, Reacher thought, and solid, and hot, obviously. He had sweated through his suit. The woman face to face with him could have been younger, but not by much. She was hot too, and scared. Or tense, at least. That was clear. The man was too close to her. She didn’t like that. It was nearly half past eight in the evening, and going dark. But not cooling off. A hundred degrees, someone had said. A real heat wave. Wednesday, July 13th, 1977, New York City. Reacher would always remember the date. It was his second solo visit.
The man put the palm of his hand flat on the woman’s chest, pressing damp cotton against her skin, the ball of his thumb down in her cleavage. Not a tender gesture. But not an aggressive gesture, either. Neutral, like a doctor. The woman didn’t back off. She just froze in place and glanced around. Without seeing much. New York City, half past eight in the evening, but the street was deserted. It was too hot. Waverly Place, between Sixth Avenue and Washington Square. People would come out later, if at all.
Then the man took his hand off the woman’s chest, and he flicked it downward like he wanted to knock a bee off her hip, and then he whipped it back up in a big roundhouse swing and slapped her full in the face, hard, with enough power for a real crack, but his hand and her face were too damp for pistol-shot acoustics, so the sound came out exactly like the word: slap. The woman’s head was knocked sideways. The sound echoed off the scalding brick.
Reacher said, “Hey.”
The man turned around. He was dark haired, dark eyed, maybe five-ten, maybe two hundred pounds. His shirt was transparent with sweat.
He said, “Get lost, kid.”
On that night Reacher was three months and sixteen days shy of his seventeenth birthday, but physically he was pretty much all grown up. He was as tall as he was ever going to get, and no sane person would have called him skinny. He was six-five, two-twenty, all muscle. The finished article, more or less. But finished very recently. Brand new. His teeth were white and even, his eyes were a shade close to navy, his hair had wave and body, his skin was smooth and clear. The scars and the lines and the calluses were yet to come.
The man said, “Right now, kid.”
Reacher said, “Ma’am, you should step away from this guy.”
Which the woman did, backward, one step, two, out of range. The man said, “Do you know who I am?”
Reacher said, “What difference would it make?”
“You’re pissing off the wrong people.”
“People?” Reacher said. “That’s a plural word. Are there more than one of you?”
“You’ll find out.”
Reacher looked around. The street was still deserted.
“When will I find out?” he said. “Not right away, apparently.”
“What kind of smart guy do you think you are?”
Reacher said, “Ma’am, I’m happy to be here alone, if you want to take off running.”
The woman didn’t move. Reacher looked at her.
He said, “Am I misunderstanding something?”
The man said, “Get lost, kid.”
The woman said, “You shouldn’t get involved.”
“I’m not getting involved,” Reacher said. “I’m just standing here in the street.”
The man said, “Go stand in some other street.”
Reacher turned back and looked at him and said, “Who died and made you mayor?”
“That’s some mouth, kid. You don’t know who you’re talking to. You’re going to regret that.”
“When the other people get here? Is that what you mean? Because right now it’s just you and me. And I don’t foresee a whole lot of regret in that, not for me, anyway, not unless you’ve got no money.”
“For me to take.”
“What, now you think you’re going to mug me?”
“Not mug you,” Reacher said. “More of a historical thing. An old principle. Like a tradition. You lose a war, you give up your treasure.”
“Are we at war, you and me? Because if we are, you’re going to lose, kid. I don’t care how big of a corn-fed country boy you are. I’m going to kick your ass. I’m going to kick it bad.”
The woman was still six feet away. Still not moving. Reacher looked at her again and said, “Ma’am, is this gentleman married to you, or related to you in some other way, or known to you either socially or professionally?”
She said, “I don’t want you to get involved.” She was younger than the guy, for sure. But not by much. Still way up there. Twenty-nine, maybe. A pale-colored blonde. Apart from the vivid red print from the slap she was plenty good looking, in an older-woman kind of a way. But she was thin and nervous. Maybe she had a lot of stress in her life. She was wearing a loose summer dress that ended above her knee. She had a purse hooked over her shoulder.
Reacher said, “At least tell me what it is you don’t want me to get involved in. Is this some random guy hassling you on the street? Or not?”
“What else would it be?”
“Domestic quarrel, maybe. I heard of a guy who busted one up, and then the wife got real mad with him afterward, for hurting her husband.”
“I’m not married to this man.”
“Do you have any interest in him at all?”
“In his welfare?”
“I suppose that’s what we’re talking about.”
“None at all. But you can’t get involved. So walk away. I’ll deal with it.”
“Suppose we walk away together?”
“How old are you, anyway?”
“Old enough,” Reacher said. “For walking, at least.”
“I don’t want the responsibility. You’re just a kid. You’re an innocent bystander.”
“Is this guy dangerous?”
“He doesn’t look it.”
“Looks can be deceptive.”
“Is he armed?”
“Not in the city. He can’t afford to be.”
“So what’s he going to do? Sweat on me?”
Which did the trick. The guy hit boiling point, aggrieved at being talked about like he wasn’t there, aggrieved at being called sweaty, even though he manifestly was, and he came in at a charge, his jacket flapping, his tie flailing, his shirt sticking to his skin. Reacher feinted one way and moved another, and the guy stumbled past, and Reacher tapped his ankles, and the guy tripped and fell. He got up again fast enough, but by then Reacher had backed off and turned around and was ready for the second maneuver. Which looked like it was going to be an exact repeat of the first, except Reacher helped it along a little by replacing the ankle tap with an elbow to the side of the head. Which was very well delivered. At nearly seventeen Reacher was like a brand new machine, still gleaming and dewy with oil, flexible, supple, perfectly coordinated, like something developed by NASA and IBM on behalf of the Pentagon.
The guy stayed down on his knees a little longer than the first time. The heat kept him there. Reacher figured the hundred degrees he had heard about must have been somewhere open. Central Park, maybe. Some little weather station. In the narrow brick canyons of the West Village, close to the huge stone sidewalk slabs, it must have been more like a hundred and twenty. And humid. Reacher was wearing old khakis and a blue T shirt, and both items looked like he had fallen in a river.
The guy stood up, panting and unsteady. He put his hands on his knees.
Reacher said, “Let it go, old man. Find someone else to hit.”
No answer. The guy looked like he was conducting an internal debate. It was a long one. Clearly there were points to consider on both sides of the argument. Pros, and cons, and plusses, and minuses, and costs and benefits. Finally the guy said, “Can you count to three and a half?”
“That’s how many hours you got to get out of town. After midnight you’re a dead man. And before that too, if I see you again.” And then the guy straightened up and walked away, back toward Sixth Avenue, fast, like his mind was made up, his heels ringing on the hot stone, like a brisk, purposeful person on a just-remembered errand. Reacher watched until he was lost to sight, and then he turned back to the woman and said, “Which way are you headed?”
She pointed in the opposite direction, toward Washington Square, and Reacher said, “Then you should be OK.”
“You have three and a half hours to get out of town.”
“I don’t think he was serious. He was hauling ass, trying to save face.”
“He was serious, believe me. You hit him in the head. I mean, Jesus.”
“Who is he?”
“Who are you?”
“Just a guy passing through.”
“Pohang, at the moment.”
“Where the hell is that?”
“South Korea. Camp Mujuk. The Marine Corps.”
“You’re a Marine?”
“Son of a Marine. We go where we’re posted. But school’s out, so I’m traveling.”
“On your own? How old are you?”
“Seventeen in the fall. Don’t worry about me. I’m not the one getting slapped in the street.”
The woman said nothing.
Reacher said, “Who was that guy?”
“How did you get here?”
“Bus to Seoul, plane to Tokyo, plane to Hawaii, plane to LA, plane to JFK, bus to the Port Authority. Then I walked.” The Yankees were out of town, in Boston, which had been a major disappointment. Reacher had a feeling it was going to be a special year. Reggie Jackson was making a difference. The long drought might be nearly over. But no luck. The Stadium was dark. The alternative was Shea, the Cubs at the Mets. In principle Reacher had no objection to Mets baseball, such as it was, but in the end the pull of downtown music had proven stronger. He had figured he would swing through Washington Square and check out the girls from NYU’s summer school. One of them might be willing to go with him. Or not. It was worth the detour. He was an optimist, and his plans were flexible.
The woman said, “How long are you traveling?”
“In theory I’m free until September.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I just got here. I haven’t figured that out yet.”
“Your parents are OK with this?”
“My mother is worried. She read about the Son of Sam in the newspaper.”
“She should be worried. He’s killing people.”
“Couples sitting in cars, mostly. That’s what the papers say. Statistically unlikely to be me. I don’t have a car, and so far I’m on my own.”
“This city has other problems too.”
“I know. I’m supposed to visit with my brother.”
“Here in the city?”
“Couple hours out.”
“You should go there right now.”
Reacher nodded. “I’m supposed to take the late bus.”
“Who was that guy?”
The woman didn’t answer. The heat wasn’t letting up. The air was thick and heavy. There was thunder coming. Reacher could feel it, in the north and the west. Maybe they were going to get a real Hudson Valley thunderstorm, rolling and clattering over the slow water, between the high cliffs, like he had read about in books. The light was fading all the way to purple, as if the weather was getting ready for something big.
The woman said, “Go see your brother. Thanks for helping out.”
The red handprint on her face was fading.
Reacher said, “Are you going to be OK?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ernest Hemingway. The writer.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You free tonight?”
“My name is Reacher. I’m pleased to meet you.” He stuck out his hand, and they shook. Her hand felt hot and slick, like she had a fever. Not that his didn’t. A hundred degrees, maybe more, no breeze, no evaporation. Summer in the city. Faraway to the north the sky flickered. Heat lightning. No rain.
He said, “How long have you been with the FBI?”
“Who says I am?”
“That guy was a mobster, right? Organized crime? All that shit about his people, and getting out of town or else. All those threats. And you were meeting with him. He was checking for a wire, when he put his hand on you. And I guess he found one.”
“You’re a smart kid.”
“Where’s your backup? There should be a van, with people listening in.”
“It’s a budget thing.”
“I don’t believe you. The city, maybe, but the feds are never broke.”
“Go see your brother. This isn’t your business.”
“Why wear a wire with no one listening?”
The woman put her hands behind her back, low down, and she fiddled and jiggled, as if she was working something loose from the waistband of her underwear. A black plastic box fell out below the hem of her dress. A small cassette recorder, swinging knee-high, suspended on a wire. She put one hand down the front of her dress, and she pulled on the wire behind her knees with her other hand, and she squirmed and she wriggled, and the recorder lowered itself to the sidewalk, followed by a thin black cable with a little bud microphone on the end.
She said, “The tape was listening.”
The little black box was dewed with perspiration, from the small of her back.
Reacher said, “Did I screw it up?”
“I don’t know how it would have gone.”
“He assaulted a federal agent. That’s a crime right there. I’m a witness.”
The woman said nothing. She picked up the cassette recorder and wound the cord around it. She slid her purse off her shoulder and put the recorder in it. The temperature felt hotter than ever, and steamy, like a hot wet towel over Reacher’s mouth and nose. There was more lightning in the north, winking slow, dulled by the thick air. No rain. No break.
Reacher said, “Are you going to let him get away with that?”
The woman said, “This really isn’t your business.”
“I’m happy to say what I saw.”
“It wouldn’t come to trial for a year. You’d have to come all the way back. You want to take four planes and two buses for a slap?”
“A year from now I’ll be somewhere else. Maybe nearer.”
“Or further away.”
“The sound might be on the tape.”
“I need more than a slap. Defense lawyers would laugh at me.”
Reacher shrugged. Too hot to argue. He said, “OK, have a pleasant evening, ma’am.”
She said, “Where are you going now?”
“Bleecker Street, I think.”
“You can’t. That’s in his territory.”