In the spring of 1989 Caroline Crawford was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. She bought a silver Porsche to celebrate. She had family money, people said, and plenty of it. A trust fund, maybe. Some eminent relative. Maybe an inventor. Her uniforms were tailored in D.C. by the same shop that made suits for the president. She was held to be the richest woman in the army. Not that the bar was high.
With the new rank came a new posting, so the silver Porsche’s first trip was south from War Plans in the Pentagon to Fort Smith in Georgia. All part of the War Plans method. There was no point making plans that couldn’t be executed. High-level on-the-ground liaison was crucial. With a little surreptitious behind-the-scenes observation mixed in. Every new light colonel’s first rotation. Crawford was happy to do it. Even though Fort Smith turned out to be a small damp place in the woods, full of desperate characters. Special forces, of various types. No tailored uniforms. Which was OK. Promising, even. Raw material, possibly, for the kind of new units she was going to need. Input at an early stage could be vital. They might even name the units after her. She would make full bird within a year and a half. She would be fast-tracked to her first star. And she was entitled to have some input. Wasn’t she? Liaison was a two-way street. She was entitled to suggest what they should do, as well as listen to what they couldn’t.
The first week went well, even though it rained a lot. The rumor mill had it straight within an hour: she was unmarried and available, but not cool to hit on, because War Plans was serious shit. So relationships were cordial, but with enough of a hint of a buzz to be interesting, too. The visiting officers’ quarters were adequate in every respect. Like a motel, but more earnest. The woods were always damp and stretched for miles all around, but there were roads through, some of them just forest tracks or firebreaks, others with lit-up signs on their muddy shoulders, eventually, an hour or so out, for barbecue sometimes, or bars with dancing. Life wasn’t bad.
At the end of the first week she left Fort Smith in her tailored Class A uniform, in her silver Porsche, and she turned off the county road at the first big fork, which eventually led to a hidden not-quite two-lane road-to-nowhere through the trees, mostly straight and sunlit, perfect with the windows down, with the wet smell of the rich mud on the shoulders, and the woody echo of the exhaust coming back off the bark, part throaty, part whine, part howl.
Then, a broken-down car up ahead. A sedan, stopped diagonally across the road, its front wheels turned all the way, its hood up, a guy peering in at the motor. A tall guy, obvious even from a hundred yards away. Not lightly built. Big feet.
She slowed, late and hard, just for the fun of it, changing down, the exhaust popping behind her like a firework show. The stalled sedan was a Detroit product painted army green. The guy under its hood straightened up and turned to look. He was tall indeed, maybe six-six, in standard battledress uniform, woodland pattern. He was all in proportion, and therefore far from delicate, but he held himself gracefully. He looked slender, except he wasn’t.
She stopped the car. She rested her elbow on the door and her chin on her elbow, just looking, part quizzical, part resigned, part ready to help, maybe after some teasing. All those things, and not suspicious at all. The raised hood triggered some kind of ancient early-motorist instinct. Helpful, and sympathetic.
That, and the familiar uniform.
The tall guy walked closer. Big clumsy feet, in battered tan boots, but otherwise an elegant long-legged lope. No hat. Cropped fair hair, receding. Blue eyes, an open gaze, somehow both naïve and knowing. An otherwise unremarkable face, with features just the right side of blunt.
He had a full colonel’s eagle on his collar. Above his right pocket his tape said: U.S. Army. Above his left pocket his tape said: Reacher.
He said, “Forgive me for interrupting your journey, but I can’t push it out the way. Can’t turn the wheel. I think the power steering broke.”
She said, “Colonel, I’m sorry.”
He said, “I’m guessing your car doesn’t have a trailer hitch.”
“I could help you push.”
“That’s kind of you, but it would take ten of us.”
She said, “Are you who I think you are?”
“You’re Joe Reacher. You just got a new counterintelligence command.”
“Correct on both counts,” Joe Reacher said. “I’m pleased to meet you.” He glanced down at her nameplate. Plastic, white on black, because of the tailored Class As. The nameplate is adjusted to individual figure differences, centered horizontally on the right side between one and two inches above the top button of the coat. He looked at her unit insignia and her badges of rank. He said, “You must be Caroline Crawford. Congratulations.”
“You’ve heard of me?”
“Part of my job. But it’s not part of yours to know who I am.”
“Not part of my job, but part of my interest. I like to track the key players.”
“I’m not a key player.”
“Sir, bullshit, with respect, sir.”
“Academic interest, or career interest?”
She half smiled, half shrugged, but didn’t answer.
He said, “Both, right?”
She said, “I don’t see why it can’t be.”
“How high do you plan to get?”
“Three stars,” she said. “In the Joint Chiefs’ office, maybe. Anything more would be in the lap of the gods.”
Joe Reacher said, “Well, good luck with all of that,” and he put his hand in his battledress pocket, and he came out with a standard army-issue Beretta M9 semi-automatic pistol, and he shot Caroline Crawford with it, twice in the chest and once in the head.
Also with a new posting the same week as Caroline Crawford was a military police major named David Noble. He was detaching from his current command and heading to Fort Benning, Georgia, from where he would oversee criminal investigations throughout the southeastern military districts. A brand-new reorganization. Someone’s baby. Unlikely to last, but temporarily important work. Noble never got to do it. He was in a car wreck on the way. In South Carolina. An adjacent state. Nearly there. Not fatal, but he ended up at Walter Reed. He had a collapsed lung. He couldn’t breathe right. So an emergency substitute was decided on and hunted down and pulled off his current maneuvers and hustled north to Benning. Just how it always was, for the army. Situation entirely normal. A big job, the second-best guy, a week late. On the bright side people said this new one was a fast study and a hard worker. He might catch up. If he got started right away.
So it was that the same moment Joe Reacher said, “I’m not a key player,” his younger brother, Jack Reacher, walked into a brand-new office more than a hundred miles away, and then out again, in search of coffee, almost ready to begin overseeing criminal investigations throughout the southeastern military districts.
The Porsche was found early the next morning, by four soldiers in a Humvee, who were trying to find a shortcut back to Smith after a night exercise had gone all kinds of wrong in terms of navigation. They recognized the car from a distance. It was already famous on the base. The new War Plans lady. Hot, smart, and rich. Nothing wrong with any of that. Nothing at all. Maybe she had a flat tire. Maybe she was in need of assistance.
As they pulled closer they thought the car was empty.
Then they saw it wasn’t.
They rolled by at walking speed and their high seating positions let them look down inside the Porsche, where they saw a woman in Class A uniform flopped over backward across the seats, shot twice in the chest and once in the head.
They parked nearby, and called it in on the radio. Then they sat tight. Crime scenes were not their problem. Within forty minutes an
MP crew got there. From Fort Smith. With two JAG lawyers. Also from Fort Smith. They all took a look, and then they all stepped back. There was a question of jurisdiction. The road belonged to the county. Hence the county police had been informed. No choice. They were on their way, for a discussion.
Fort Benning heard about it almost immediately. A brand-new reorganization. Too fresh to be screwed up yet. Reacher had spent until late in the evening studying the new unit manual, and reviewing open cases, and reading files, and talking to people. Then he had grabbed a few hours of sleep, and gotten up again with a plan in his head. He figured he had a lot of work to do. The place was drowning in paper. And the NCOs were badly chosen. In his experience units ran either well or not depending on the quality of their sergeants. He wanted expert bureaucrats, but he didn’t want them to be in love with bureaucracy. There was a difference. He wanted people who treated tasks like an enemy, to be dispatched fast and efficiently and ruthlessly. Or punitively, even. They won’t send me that form again. The new unit didn’t have such people. They were all too comfortable. A little soft. Like the guy who brought the torn-off telex first thing in the morning. A soft, comfortable guy. Hard to put in words, but he didn’t have the spirit Reacher wanted. He didn’t have the edge. He didn’t look dangerous.
The telex said One repeat one (1) active-duty personnel found shot to death ten miles north of Fort Smith. Circumstances unknown.
Reacher pictured a bar fight, a private or maybe a specialist, in some kind of an altercation with a local. Maybe a Harley fell over in the parking lot, or a glass of beer got spilled. Bars near bases were always full of local civilian hotheads with guns in their pockets and points to prove.
He said, “Bring me the details as and when they come in.”
The soft sergeant said he would, and left the room.
Reacher picked up the phone and called his new CO. Among other things he said, “I need a better sergeant here. I need you to send me Frances Neagley. Before the end of the day, preferably.”
The county sheriff who showed up in the woods knew the value of mud as an evidentiary medium. He parked way short and skirted the scene a yard off the road, pausing often to crouch and study the marks in the fine black tilth, which covered the blacktop more or less side to side, like a scrim, molecules thin in the center and inches thick on the edges. There were a lot of marks, some of them crisp, some of them oozing black water, some of them overwritten by the four soldiers rolling by in their Humvee.
The county guy made it all the way to the gaggle of Smith guys, and they all introduced themselves and shook hands and then stood around mute, maybe taking the legal temperature, maybe rehearsing their arguments. The county guy spoke first. He said, “Was she based at Fort Smith?”
A JAG lawyer said, “Yes.”
“Any indication this was blue on blue?” Meaning, was there a professional dispute I don’t need to know about? Is this all in the family?
The JAG lawyer said, “No.”
“Therefore she’s mainly mine. Until I know for sure the shooter wasn’t a civilian. I need to pay attention to a thing like this. I could have a crazy person running around in the woods. What was her name?”
“What did she do at Fort Smith?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.”
“She was ambushed,” the county guy said. “I can tell you that. The marks are clear. Someone faked a breakdown. She stopped to help. He had big feet.”
The ranking MP said, “What next?”
The county guy said, “It’s above my pay grade. Literally, in the township by-laws. I have to pass it on to State. No choice.”
“I already called. They’ll be here soon. Then they can decide to keep it or pass it on to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.”
“We can’t wait forever.”
“You won’t have to. Half a day, maybe.” And then the guy crabbed back around the mud, to his car, where he got in and sat by himself.
The next telex came in an hour later. The same soft sergeant tore it out of the machine and brought it to Reacher’s desk. It said Gunshot victim previously reported was LTC Caroline C. Crawford. DOA inside POV stationary on isolated forest road.
POV meant personally owned vehicle. DOA meant dead on arrival. LTC meant lieutenant colonel. All of which together added up to an issue. Very few senior officers of Reacher’s acquaintance fought to the death in bars. Especially not senior officers named Caroline. And even if they did, they didn’t wind up inside their own private cars on remote woodland tracks. How would they?
Not a bar fight.
He said, “Who was she?”
The sergeant said, “Sir, I don’t know.”
Which was a case in point. A decent NCO would have detoured to a book or a phone and brought with him at least a capsule biography and a copy of current orders. Frances Neagley would have had all of that five minutes ago. Plus a photograph. Plus a lock of baby hair, if you wanted one.
Reacher said, “Go find out who she was.”
The dispute over jurisdiction lasted longer than expected. The State cop who showed up let slip he wasn’t sure if the woods were federal property. Fort Smith’s acreage was, obviously. Maybe the undeveloped land all around was, too. The county guy said the road was maintained by the county. That was for sure. And the car was on the road, and the victim was in the car. The JAG lawyers said killing a federal employee was a federal crime, and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army was assuredly a federal employee. And so on and so forth. Dark clouds gathered in the sky. More rain was on the way. The marks in the mud were about to get washed out. So a compromise was offered. The State Police would be the lead agency, but the army would be fully accommodated. Access would be guaranteed. Acceptable, to the men in green. The autopsy would be performed by the state, in Atlanta. Also acceptable, because everyone already knew what the autopsy was going to say. Otherwise healthy, except shot twice in the chest and once in the head. The deal was agreed, whereupon immediately all three factions got into a flurry of crime-scene photography. Then a hard rain started to fall, and a tarpaulin was draped over the Porsche, and they all waited in their cars for the meat wagon and the tow truck.
Reacher looked up and saw his sergeant standing in front of him. A silent approach. The guy had a sheet of paper in his hand. But he didn’t pass it over. He spoke instead. He said, “Sir, permission to ask a question?”
Which was a bad thing to hear, from a unit NCO. It wasn’t what it sounded like. It was a whole different announcement. Like a girlfriend saying, “Honey, we need to talk.”
Reacher said, “Fire away.”
“I’ve heard you don’t like my work and you’re having me posted elsewhere.”
“Incorrect on both counts.”
“Likes and dislikes dwell in the realm of emotion. Are you accusing me of having feelings, sergeant?”
“I assess your work coldly and rationally against a custom metric of my own design. Which is, are you a guy I could call in the middle of the night with an emergency?”
“Am I, sir?”
“Not even close.”
“So I’m to be posted.”
“Sir, not to challenge your answer in any way, but I already know Sergeant Neagley has orders to proceed here without delay.”
Reacher smiled. “The NCO grapevine gets faster all the time.”
“She comes, I go. How else could it work?”
“It could work by you sticking around and learning something. That’s what’s going to happen. Neagley will report to me and you’ll report to Neagley. At times she’ll offer advice and encouragement about how to improve your performance.”
“We’re of equal rank.”
“Pretend she comes from a planet with do
uble the gravity. Her rank is worth more than yours.”
“How long will she be here?”
“As long as it takes. You people need to think ahead. This reorganization is going to come out exactly ass-backward. You’re not going to be up on a hill, peering down on all you survey. You’re going to be deep in a hole, getting buried in paper. Because this is going to be the cover-your-ass unit. Everyone in the army is going to report everything, so whatever turns bad in the end is automatically our fault, because we didn’t follow it up at the time. So you need to develop a very aggressive attitude toward paperwork. If you hesitate, it will bury you.”
“Therefore you also need to trust your intuition. You need to smell the ones that matter. No time for extensive study. Are you an aggressive person who trusts his intuition, sergeant?”
“Maybe not enough, sir.”
“What’s on the piece of paper you’re holding in your hand?”
“It’s a fax, sir. A history of Colonel Crawford’s postings.”
“Did you read it on the way in?”
“She’s in War Plans. Currently liaising with the special operations school at Fort Smith.”